William of Palerne Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

William of Palerne

Fourteenth-century English romance.

William of Palerne, an English translation of the late twelfth-century French romance, Le Roman de Guillaume de Palerne, was commissioned circa 1350 by Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford. Nothing is known about William, the poet who translated Guillaume de Palerne for de Bohun, and just as little is known of the author of the original French poem. The story contains common folklore motifs, including the transformation of a man into a werewolf. Critics have examined these motifs, as well as the plot, setting, and style of both versions of the poem; from such analyses some scholars have attempted to draw conclusions about the authors of both the French and English versions of the poems, as well as about the poets' methods of composition.

Textual History

The story is extant in three original forms: a French poem in octosyllabic couplets, an English alliterative poem, and a French prose romance dating from the sixteenth century. Little is known regarding the origins of the French verse Guillaume de Palerne. The poem is believed to have been completed around the end of the twelfth century. Many scholars concur that the French poet based the romance on several Italian legends or sources. From evidence within the poem, it has been concluded that the romance was written for the Countess Yolande, the eldest daughter of Baldwin IV, Count of Hainault and Alice of Namur. References within William of Palerne reveal that it was translated into English from the French verse circa 1350, at the behest of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, who died in 1361. The English author is noted for having been quite faithful to the French original.

Plot and Major Characters

The poem traces the adventures of two princes. One is Prince Alphouns, heir to the Spanish crown, who as a youth was transformed by his stepmother into a werewolf; the other is William, Prince of Apulia and Sicily. When William's evil uncle, in an effort to become heir to the crown, attempts to have young William murdered, the little boy is rescued by the werewolf (Alphouns). Throughout William's life, he is followed and guided by the werewolf. William is eventually taken under the wing of the Roman emperor, and falls in love with the emperor's daughter, Melior. The two run off together and are led by the werewolf back to Sicily. Finding his family under attack by the Spaniards, William goes to war and conquers his enemies. Meanwhile, Alphouns is restored by his stepmother to his human form. The story ends with the marriage of Alphouns to William's sister, Florence, and William to Melior. Additionally, William is elected to the emperor's throne following the death of his father-in-law.

Major Themes

William of Palerne is filled with common folklore motifs and themes, such as animal transformations, and various occult occurrences. The themes of love and marriage, as well as separation and restoration—elements commonly found in earlier romances and folktales—are examined in William of Palerne. The poet's treatment of love and marriage, which has been described as light-hearted and playful, plays a greater role in the poem than in earlier romances. Warfare is a major issue in the poem, and while elements of battle are depicted graphically, as in other medieval romances, the treatment of warfare is less gruesome than in other contemporary poems.

Critical Reception

Many scholars have analyzed William of Palerne strictly in terms of the limited facts regarding its textual history, while others have compared the French version to its later English counterpart. Still others study the adaptation of contemporary legends and folktales within the romance. Frederick Madden discusses the history of the extant French and English manuscripts, and presents the pertinent biographical backgrounds of the patrons for whom both the French and English poems were composed. Walter W. Skeat praises Madden's edition of the poem, commenting that Madden is one of the first editors to present a strict and literal interpretation of the text. Skeat also offers a brief synopsis of the plot of William of Palerne. Kate Watkins Tibbals, in her study of the romance, observes that while the author of the English poem remained faithful to the French original, the English poet increased the poetic merits of the romance through description, characterization, and humor. Furthermore, Tibbals suggests that the werewolf, rather than William, is the true hero of the story. Tibbals goes on to assess the significance of the magical elements within the poem, the most notable of which is the transformation of a man into a werewolf. Irene Pettit McKeehan, on the other hand, views William as the story's hero. McKeehan describes the plot similarities between Guillaume de Palerne and a number of other French and Celtic tales. McKeehan maintains that the story also bears resemblances to contemporary history, and that the compiler tailored the story to appeal to Countess Yolande (his patroness) and her court. Similarly, Charles W. Dunn agrees that the poet attempted to write a story designed to be of special interest to his patroness. In particular, Dunn argues, the story's Italian setting was especially suited to the Countess and her circle, because it was “both familiar and fantastic.” Dunn also discusses elements commonly found in contemporary legends—such as love, slaughter and warfare, and “wonder-elements,” including magic and prophecy—and discusses the poet's adaptation of these legends and his treatment of these elements in Guillaume de Palerne. Like Dunn, G. H. V. Bunt asserts that the poem's setting is of particular importance. Bunt states that the author's descriptions of the setting display an extensive knowledge of the geography of Southern Italy and Sicily. Along with McKeehan, Bunt takes notice of the historical aspects of the poem, which would have been recognized by the poem's original (French) audience. Bunt notes that such historical associations must have seemed extremely remote to the English audience of the fourteenth-century William of Palerne. Additionally, Bunt discusses the plot and structure of the poem and comments on other critics' similar analyses, registering disagreement with Tibbals' assessment that Alphouns the werewolf is the hero of the story.