What was a medieval woman?

This text copyright ©1999 Dr Helen Nicholson

Menu for Texts about Medieval Women

All translations are by Helen Nicholson.

 

How do women behave?

 

Women as a 'mirror' for knights and clerics: women as an example of how men should behave

Extract A: From Book 2, chapter 124 of Perceforest

Perceforest is a romance written in French in the Low Countries between 1330 and 1344. It was well known in England; Perceforest's 'Franc Palais' seems to have been the basis for King Edward III's Round Table. It was also known in France. It was translated into Spanish and Italian, and printed in the sixteenth century.

 

Perceforest, king of England, has just set up his 'Franc Palais', the noble, free hall, which forms the base for his order of the best knights in Britain. He addresses all those present at the inauguration ceremony.

 

'Lords, you should know for certain that the knight who is straightforward and courteous, gentle and easy-going where he should be, wise and discreet and adorned with the virtues, will at the very least become such an excellent knight that he will be admitted to the Franc Palais and sit at table there. It is not necessary for every knight to be as doughty as Hector of Troy or King Alexander, but he must be a doughty man. I remember something which a holy man said to me once: he told me that knights and clerics should be like maidens, for the maiden should be straightforward and coy and say little, courteous, chaste and honourable in word and deed, gentle, easy-going and sympathetic towards all good people, fierce, righteous and harsh towards all those who ask them to do what is wrong. And she must also have sufficient beauty and worldly goods, and desire to acquire virtue and to do works which please the Sovereign God. My lords, the knight and the cleric must be like the young girl in all these things, if they wish to come to perfection in whatever they have committed themselves.

'For the cleric who pursues vices and the good virtues is not a good cleric, and even if he has acquired so much knowledge that he is given the titles 'cleric' and 'master', the vices which are in him deprive him of the title of 'cleric', and are so contrary to the condition of the cleric that he is not worthy to be called 'cleric'; for a single drop of blood does more damage to a fine white cloth than a whole dung heap can do to a rough brown rag. For this reason, it is said that it is very shameful when a master criticises others for sins of which he is guilty himself. The one who corrects other people's behaviour must be such that he may correct without being corrected, so that the person being corrected may be more ashamed of their misdeeds and be more cautious about repeating them, for people are more willing to do things which they see their masters do.

'My lords knights, it is the same with you: for if the noble man who has received the order of knighthood does not ressemble the maiden in graces and virtues, he does not have the right to be named 'knight', no matter how doughty he is. For, if one person says, 'He is doughty and bold and a good knight', and another responds, 'He is proud and arrogant and despises those who are poor and less important than he is, false and flattering in word and deed, lustful and full of vices, which are ugly stains in a noble man', that man is not worthy of the name of knight. Even if he is doughty and bold, he ought not to be named among the doughty and bold, for it is simply misfortune and against nature that there is any prowess within him, and he ought not to receive praise or esteem.'

Quoted by L.-F. Flutre, 'Études sur le Roman de Perceforest', Romania, 88 (1967)

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Women as a danger to men; women soothe the savage beast

Extract B: from Guiron le Courtois, written in France between 1235 and 1239.

This romance formed the basis of Rusticien de Pise's 'Compilation' which was written in the 1270s from a manuscript - Rusticien says - which was given to him by King Edward I of England. Therefore this text was known to the English nobility, and known and liked by that great crusading king. Guiron le Courtois is noted for its strong characterisation and its interesting and lively plot. It is also full of humour.... There is no modern edition, and scholars wishing to cite it must either go back to the manuscripts or refer to the printed editions of the sixteenth century. The work was published in two parts: Meliadus de Leonnoys is the title given by the publisher of the sixteenth century edition to the first part of Guiron, while the second part was entitled Gyron le Courtoys.

 

Guiron the Courteous is looking for his best friend Danain le Roux (Rufus) who has kidnapped Guiron's girlfriend Blondie. He encounters a knight who has tied up another knight, named Sers, because Sers tried to rescue a young lady whom he was beating. Guiron forces the knight to release Sers and the young lady and to explain his behaviour. The knight explains that he has known this young lady a long time; she used to be the girlfriend of his best friend, but transferred her affections to him and contrived his best friend's murder. She then transferred her affections to another, and tried to have her second boyfriend murdered. Her attempt having been thwarted, her second boyfriend now wants to kill her.

 

[fol. 226b] When Gyron had heard the story of all the young lady's deeds and her career, he replied to the knight: 'Sir knight, God help me, it is a long time since I saw such a mad young lady as this, or one so lustful. You should know that you have told me so much that if I had known so much about her deeds when I met her as I do now, I promise and swear to you that she would never have been rescued by me - rather, I would have agreed heartily to what you yourself would have done to her. For certainly you would have done the best and the most appropriate thing in taking her to King Arthur's court. But as it has happened that we have freed her, she should be freed by us. So, from now on she may go wherever she wishes, since she is so accustomed to doing evil. In any case, she will surely find some man who will give her her just deserts for all the evil she has done. For surely she will do some mischief or damage to someone who will punish her for all this.'

Then Gyron turned towards the young lady and said, 'Young lady, now you may go where you like and this time you are freed from the prison which you were in.[fol. 226c] And if you are not more courteous henceforth than you have been until now, may God grant that you fall into the hands of Brehus the Pitiless who knows how to give their dues to criminal ladies and young women.'

When the young lady heard what Gyron said, she stood up and said, 'Sir, many thanks for the courtesy which you have just done me. You may be certain that if I have the means and opportunity I will reward you for it.'

'Young lady,' Gyron said, 'God protect me from your reward! I fear and dread that you will do worse things to me than you have done to this knight that you loved so much.'

The young lady did not say a word; she remained silent. Gyron, seeing her thinking, said: 'Young lady, as God save me, my heart tells me that I have done evil and sin in freeing you. I fear that you will do worse things than you have already done.' The young lady did not say a word, but set off on foot, just as she was, and said to herself that in return for the dishonour that the knight had done her she would always do all the evil that she could to wandering knights. Now let all wandering knights watch out! For I will never wish them well! - so she said to herself in her heart.

 

[Here enters Brehus or Bruns the Pitiless, a well-known character in the prose Arthurian romances of the thirteenth century. Brehus is the antithesis of the courteous knight; he is doughty, but treacherous and hates all women. He is the 'loose cannon' in Arthur's kingdom of perfect chivalry, the rebel who can never be tamed. Arthur's knights are completely unable to cope with his behaviour, and none of them - not even the best of them - have ever been able to defeat him. But now Brehus will finally meet his match...]

[fol. 227c].

How Brehus the Pitiless found the young lady whom Gyron and Sers had freed, and took her along with him. And how he made another young lady dismount to give our young lady her palfrey. And how she contrived dishonour for Brehus.

 

The tale says that when the young lady left Gyron and the other knight and Sers in the way that I have told you, she went on foot very happy and full of joy at the fact that she had escaped from such danger. When she had gone so far on foot that she was hot and exhausted, she sat down under a tree to rest, for she could go no further. While she was resting under the tree as I have described to you, there came towards her Brehus the Pitiless on a good warhorse, fully armed, and with no one in his company except one single squire. When he approached the young lady, she - seeing him coming and being afraid that he would do her some harm as the other knight had done - tried to hide behind the tree. But Brehus spotted her and cried out: 'Don't run away, young lady, don't run away, you needn't worry, don't be afraid.'

When the young lady saw that the knight had spotted her she stopped [fol. 227d], because she realised that it was useless trying to run away. Brehus came galloping up towards the young lady and said to her: 'Young lady, don't be afraid'.

'Oh, sir knight, mercy, for God's sake,' she said. 'For God's sake and for love of courtesy, don't do anything to upset me.'

'Young lady,' said Brehus, 'I say to you again, don't be afraid.'

The young lady was much comforted and reassured, and approached Brehus confidently. When Brehus saw that she was barefoot and only wearing her petticoat he was amazed at what could have happened to her, for he was not accustomed to meeting young ladies so poorly dressed as this one was. So he said to her: 'Young lady, why are you going about so poorly dressed as this?'

'Sir,' the young lady said, 'my sin and my misfortune did this. You should know, sir, that if I was travelling as I should and in accordance with my proper rank, I would be travelling in a much more honourable state than I am. But thus goes Fortune: she makes some in this world weep and others laugh. She does her will with the whole world. She makes me weep now, whoever she is making laugh!' When she had spoken these words, she bowed her head towards the ground and pretended to be weeping very bitterly.

When Brehus saw the young lady's pretence, he believed that she was speaking the truth. And because she really did appear to be a woman of very noble birth and she was very beautiful, something entered his heart which had never been there before, or hardly at all: that is, pity and courtesy. Never before, no matter what happened to him, had he ever been courteous except a very little indeed, and pity had never entered into his heart - as everyone could certainly bear witness! [fol. 228a] But know I don't know what had come over him! He looked at the young lady, who was very lovely, and because he believed that she was weeping, he wept for pity himself. He had pity for the same woman who is now making a mockery of him although she had never set eyes on him before - yet she is making a mockery of him just the same. For she pretended to weep and yet she had no desire to weep; whatever pretence her eyes make of weeping and being sad, her heart within her is laughing. She knows that she can trick and deceive Brehus like this. In order to deceive him more, she wipes her hands across her eyes as if she has been crying.

So, I tell you, now Brehus has found his master. Now we will see how he performs in the battle to come! He puts all his efforts and thoughts into evil. He never thinks of anything but evil; if he thinks evil, now it may be some use to him here. For this young lady that he has found here knows as much about it as he does; and if he can guard himself from her so that she does not put him in her bag, he will certainly be able to call himself a wise man! What can I say? Trickery and malice are now set one against the other. Now we'll see what will come of them; and who will come out on top. Brehus knew a great deal about evil and he had certainly done enough of it! But if this young lady didn't know more than him, she would never again consider herself to be a woman!

When Brehus saw the young lady making great pretence of being sad, because he believed that what her mouth spoke really was in her heart, he was moved to pity. I don't know how this could have happened; for pity was not accustomed to coming into his heart and now it has entered there. This is certainly contrary to its custom.

'Young lady,' Brehus said, 'God save me, you should know that I am very sorry for you. For this reason I beg you to tell me who you are and how [fol. 228b] it has happened that you are travelling in such an impoverished state. Tell me about your misfortune and I swear to you and promise faithfully that I will help you if I may.'

'Sir,' said the young lady, 'what may I tell you? So go the things of this world, for where good fortune goes, good must come, and where misfortune goes, evil must occur. If fortune took any account of nobility in the world I would have good fortune, for I don't lack nobility. I am of good enough family, but what of what use is it to me to remember my family? Fortune is contrary to me in everything and every day she sends me troubles and grief. And Fortune, who wishes me ill, and who wishes to put me to shame and dishonour caused me to love a knight who was not of noble family, nor as noble as I am. And because I knew that my father would not allow me to take him as my husband because the honour of my family would be too much abased, I left my father's household without my parents' knowledge and went with the knight. And thus fortune made me tumble down and break my neck, so to speak, and leave the honour in which I was living to go to shame and dishonour.

'I went with the knight and departed from my country and so I left my father, for the knight gave me to understand that he was dying for love of me. But he was lying. He did not love me - only a little - he loved a young lady who lives in this country and had been his love for more than four years.

'Sir, the knight deceived me in the way that I have recounted to you, for he led me out of my country and brought me here. This morning it happened to me that when the knight was leading me in his company as nobly as he ought to lead me, we encountered a young lady before us, and this was the young lady whom he had loved for so long. [fol. 228c] And she came up to the knight because she had heard tell that he was coming this way. When he saw the young lady he dismounted to greet her, but she did not wish to dismount to greet him; she told him violently that she would never talk to him again if he did not do what she commanded with me. The knight, who was not master of himself but controlled by the young lady - for he loved her more than himself - said at once, 'My dear young lady, command, for I am ready to do your will completely.' The young lady commanded at once that I should be stripped, beaten and tied to a tree. And it was done immediately, just as she commanded.

'When they had beaten me as was commanded, as much as it pleased the young lady, so that I would not remain there as naked as I was, this poor petticoat was given to me, which you see me wearing now. And I remained like that, in the same poor condition as still appears. The knight then went on his way and his young lady then departed where she wished and he did not dare look at her, and he left me in this forest as alone and poor as you see.

'Sir, now I have told you without fail what my situation is.You may be sure that I have not lied to you in anything, truly. And when I have told you my business, sir knight, I beg you for God's sake and for the sake of nobility that you have pity on me, and help me as wandering knights are accustomed to help young ladies who are in need of help and who have been badly treated.'

When the young lady had said this, she bent down towards the ground and pretended to weep. Brehus, who had never had pity, was amazingly sorry for her, and said: 'Young lady, what do you want me to say?' [fol. 228d] 'You may be sure that I am so sorry for you that, as God give me good fortune, if the knight who did you this dishonour was present here I would fight with him myself, him against me, and force him to do all you wish. Whatever courtesy I may do you, I will do it. Do you know what I will do? I will take you with me to a dwelling of mine which is quite near to here. And when you are there if it pleases you to stay there I can stay there with you, all at your wish. And do you know in what way? You should know in truth that as long as you remain with me I will show you all the honour and all the courtesy that I may. And if you do not wish to stay, you may go wherever you wish and I will escort you one day's journey and more if you wish.'

'Sir,' said the young lady, 'I thank you very much for this courtesy which you offer me. And because I do not know where I may go, for I am such a stranger in this country that I do not know a single man or woman, for this reason I am prepared to go with you. God grant that you are as good to me as my nobility requires, and as wandering knights should be towards young ladies.'

Then Brehus commanded his squire to dismount. He dismounted immediately, and Brehus made the young lady mount the squire's horse. When she was mounted, he said: 'Young lady, don't be ashamed that I have made you mount my squire's horse. As God gives me good fortune and life, I will give you a more noble mount than you have at present'. 'Sir,' said the young lady, 'I consider myself very well paid until you give me a better.' [fol. 229a]

 

[So they set off, and Brehus fights another knight whom they encounter on the road with his girlfriend in order to force him to give Brehus' young lady the palfrey which his girlfriend was riding. The author and readers will be astonished to see such courtesy in Brehus, who has never been courteous before. Brehus and his party set out again...]

 

[fol. 232a] When Brehus saw that the evening had passed he set out on the road [with the young lady and his squire] and rode until he came to a dwelling of his which was in a valley perched on the top of a rock in a place well off the beaten track where no man or woman ever came who was not of his household. He had built a quite beautiful and restful building on the rock to which he would come when he was in the country. When he had arrived at his dwelling he had the young lady helped down from her mount. He reckoned that he was better paid by her than he had been in any adventure that he had encountered for a long time. He loved her so much that he was quite mad for her, and he certainly would think himself mad if he knew how the young lady had already set her heart to hate him because she was always afraid and fearful that he would kill her eventually. She said to herself that if she could find the device [fol. 232b] and means she must make Brehus die. She had little regard for the great honour that he had done her. He was out of and far from his mind, for he believed truly - because she pretended to like him - that she loved him with all her heart.

So the young lady went on tricking Brehus in every way by her pretence towards him. He loved her so much that he was mad with love. As soon as he arrived in his dwelling he had her dressed and equipped as nobly as a queen. He amused himself and relaxed with her, for she pleased him so much that he truly believed that he had never in his life seen a young lady so beautiful that this one was not much more beautiful. He regarded her as a god because of the beauty she had. He regarded himself as a king because he had such a beautiful young lady in his company. He had never had a young lady in his service whom he loved in all things like he loved this one; for the young lady knew it and attracted him to her in every way that a young lady may attract a knight to her, so that if he wanted to withdraw his heart from loving her, he could not. Thus it happened to Brehus at this time that he set his heart on loving one of the young ladies who knew more evil than any other. She herself said in her heart that if she did not avenge the world on Brehus she did not wish to live.

And so the young lady remained a good month in the company of Brehus. And he loved her so much that he had never known what love was until now; but now he certainly knew what sort of life those knights lead who love from the heart, 'paramour'. When they had stayed so long together in the way that I have described to you, Brehus delighted so much in the young lady that he never rode anywhere without her [fol. 232c] always accompanying him, for he delighted so extremely in seeing her.

One day it happened that they had left their dwelling and gone three days' journey, when they came by chance to a spring which was in a forest; and this spring was at the foot of a mountain.

 

How the young lady whom Brehus the Pitiless loved sought for a means of making him die. And how through her wickedness she got Brehus to climb down into a cave where he thought he was going to break his neck, believing that he would never get out again.

When they arrived at the spring, they both dismounted and while the young lady was beside the spring at the foot of the mountain they heard a very great cry, very close by. When Brehus heard the cry he said at once to the young lady, 'That's a man's voice.' Then he got up at once from beside the young lady and said, 'I wish to go to see what that cry was about.' Then he went to his horse and mounted and took his shield and his lance. And when he was ready to go he said to the young lady, 'Wait for me here, young lady; because I'll be back immediately.' 'Sir,' she said, 'go and return quickly'. Brehus left the young lady when he had spoken and went as straight as he could in the direction where he had heard the cry.

As soon as he had departed from the spring, the young lady, who was always thinking of malice, got up from the place where she was sitting and went over the rock and began to look all around and began to go up and down and to right and to left. She had not gone very far when she found on the [fol. 232d] rock the entry to a very large cave. The entry was very small and quite narrow, but the cave was inside, great and deep and it had been cut and shaped by iron tools such as stone masons now use. It was quite light inside the cave, because there was a hole above in the roof through which the daylight could enter. When the young lady got to the entrance to the cave she put her head into the entrance and began to look inside and saw that the cave was quite deep, but it was so extremely beautiful that it was a delight to see it. And within the cave were several doors which were all cut out of the rock so that it really seemed, to tell the truth, as if there were several rooms in there. When the young lady saw this she did not know what she ought to say and thought a great deal, as one does who is always wondering in what way and manner she could kill Brehus. When she had looked enough into the cave she began to go around the rock to find out whether she could find any other entrance into the cave. When she had gone round the cave several times, she realised that there was no other entrance except for the one up above. When she had looked at it for a long time and several times, she returned to the spring, and began to think very hard. While she was thinking like this, Brehus came towards her, armed as he had been when he left her. She would have been very happy if he had never come back from the place where he had gone, but had been fatally wounded.

 

Brehus dismounts, puts down his weapons, makes his horse comfortable and sits down beside the young lady. She asks him what happened and he explains that he made peace between two knights. She then takes him to see the cave and tells him that she saw a very beautiful young woman down in it, dressed in red samite, who disappeared into one of the rooms the moment she saw the young lady looking in. Brehus asks her whether she is telling the truth, and she swears that she is. [fol. 233c] He then decides to climb down into the cave.

 

Then Brehus went to a great tree and cut off a branch and then stuck one end into the rock. Then he took off his mailshirt and chainmail leggings in order to move more freely. Then he held on to the branch and entered the cave [lowering himself downwards while holding on to the free end of the branch]. The young lady, who was very eager that he should break his neck in the fall, let the branch of the tree go after him; and he fell straight down immediately.

As he fell from such a height and fell on to stones, he was so stunned by the fall that he lay there as if he were dead. When the young lady saw this she was greatly comforted, because she believed that he really had burst his heart in his chest in the fall. In any case, to see the truth and to know whether or not he was dead, she waited there.

At last Brehus got up, and the young lady, who could see that she was free of him, because he could not get back up out of there by any means in the world unless he had someone else's help, said very boldly, 'Sir Brehus, how are you?'

'Young lady, God help me, I was a bit stunned from the fall I had, but I am completely recovered.'

'Sir Brehus', said the young lady, 'you have little regard for me and you have little love for me when you go down there to find another young lady than me. Sir [fol. 233d] Brehus, if you please, now stay down there with the young lady whom you went seeking and I who have remained up here will look after myself; for I will soon be able to find another knight. I commend you to God; for you should know that you can't possibly get back up here. You will have to stay down here and I will go elsewhere where God will advise me. Now the ladies and young women can say that they are safe from you in future; you will never wage war on them any more; and since I wish it, you will remain there; for you will never find any man to get you out.'

When she had spoken these words, she made no further delay, but went straight to her palfrey and mounted it and left Brehus down below. She was so happy and joyful at this adventure that she would not have been so happy if she had won a good castle. She certainly believed that no one would ever come this way to get him out. And it was her opinion that because the place was out of the way and off the beaten track he would have to end his days there, because he had nothing to drink or eat by which he could live even eight days; at which she was extremely joyful.

 

Brehus, realising that he has been tricked, is very upset, but sets out to explore the cave and discovers the preserved bodies of his ancestors, guarded by a group of hermits who are his elderly relatives. He listens to the tales of his noble and doughty forebears, and finally is shown out of the cave by a different route. He recovers his armour and horse and rides off vowing that if he ever encounters another young lady he will do her dishonour. However, as Brehus always did dishonour to ladies, this is nothing new.

Taken from Gyron le Courtoys, c. 1501, with an introductory note by C. E. Pickford (Scolar Press, London 1977)

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How do you know that it is a woman?

 

Cross-dressing in Guiron le Courtois: man into woman

The next two extracts come from the first part of Guiron, published as Meliadus de Leonnoys.

 

Extract C: The Morholt as a woman.

 

King Arthur has been visited by a damsel who asks for his help for her lady, the Lady of the Black Thorn, whose lands are under attack from the King of North Wales. She reproaches him for not having sent help before. As she rides away from the court, she meets the Morholt, a great Irish hero, one of the best knights in the world. He asks her where she has come from and she explains her problem. King Arthur is telling the story.

 

'The Morholt replied to the damsel. 'I know your lady well, and so I ought; for she once did me a very great favour. And now that I know that your lady needs the help of a knight, I wish to take on this task myself.'

'Sir,' the damsel said, 'who are you?'

'I am the Morholt of Ireland,' he said.

'In God's name,' she said, 'you are the best knight in the world, as all wandering knights bear witness! As my lady has been so fortunate that you want to take on her battle for her, I thank you with all my heart on her behalf. Now I will go back to King Arthur immediately and tell him that he shouldn't get involved in this dispute this time, because my lady, thank God, has found good help and good advice.'

'Young lady,' said the Morholt, 'you needn't go; I will go, because I have something to do there, and I wish to go so secretly that they cannot recognise me.'

Then he immediately took off his armour and took the young lady's dress and put it on, and dressed himself as if he were her. He left the young lady his horse and his armour and weapons. When he had fixed himself up so that anyone who saw him would have thought that he really was a young lady, he mounted her mule and took her wimple and covered his face with it, and set off like that for King Arthur's house. He arrived there looking just like the young lady had when she left it.

When the people who were in King Arthur's house saw him coming in they said to King Arthur: 'Sire, your young lady's coming back.'

'You're right,' the king said. 'You'll hear some other news she has to tell.'

The Morholt came before me and said: 'King Arthur, don't worry about the problem I told you about just now. We have found, thanks be to God, a knight who has taken on this business, and we have so much confidence in him and his abilities as a knight that we don't want anyone else to be involved.' (And he was so wrapped up that you couldn't even see his nose or mouth.)

When he had said this, I replied at once: 'Young lady, since you don't wish me to be involved in your affair, I won't get involved. I would very willingly help your lady, but I am delighted that you have found help elsewhere.'

Then the Morholt spoke again. 'King Arthur,' he said, 'I think you should be very happy and rejoice; for one of the best friends you have in the world is coming to see you as he promised: the Morholt of Ireland.'

When I heard this, I shook with my delight and excitement and said, 'Where is he, young lady?'

'Truly', she said, 'he entered this castle right now with me and I don't think he has yet dismounted from his horse.'

Immediately we all leapt up and ran to the windows of the palace to see if we could see him coming, and we waited to receive him among us with honour. And I myself instructed all my knights through the whole castle that he should not dismount in any other place to lodge, but should come to the palace. So we all waited for the Morholt, and he left us, so disguised that we could not recognise him; because we all thought that he was the young lady who had come before. This is how the Morholt of Ireland deceived us. He went off with the young lady and won the battle. Now I have finished my story!'

From: Meliadus de Leonnoys: 1532, with an introduction by C. E. Pickford (Scolar, London 1980)

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Extract D: King Ban of Benoic as a woman.

 

In the great prose romances of the thirteenth century, King Ban of Benoic (in France) was Lancelot's father. In this story, told by the Morholt, he deceived his enemy King Pharamond of France. The Morholt is telling the story to Pharamond, but neither knows who the other is; and so although the story is about the Morholt, he tells it in the third person.

 

'It happened that he [Morholt] came to a great feast which was being held by King Pharamond. But before he arrived at court the first day of the feast had already passed. It happened that he met in a forest a knight riding in the company of two young ladies, but at first he did not realise that he was a knight, because he was dressed up as if he were a young lady, accompanied by two other young ladies. He was a small man, but great in courage. And he was so skilled at imitating the voice and the speech of a woman that when someone spoke to him they really thought that he was a woman, but it was King Ban of Benoic, who was going to the feast of King Pharamond. For King Pharamond had come to a feast of King Ban's at Benoic, and Pharamond had sent a message to King Ban to the effect that he would not regard him as a true knight if King Ban did not come to see a feast of his just as he, Pharamond, had come to Benoic.

When King Ban, who was dressed up as a woman, saw the Morholt, he did not recognise him because he had changed his weapons. The Morholt did not recognise him, either, because he was so heavily disguised - he believed that this was a lady or a damsel, and he joined their party and asked them where they were going. The king, imitating a woman's voice, replied 'We are going to see King Pharamond's feast. And because we are damsels without a man's company or protection and you are a knight without a woman's company, we ask you to keep company with us and protect us if any knight wishes to do us any harm at this great feast.'

The Morholt replied: 'Certainly I will willingly keep you company, for if I refuse no one ought to regard me as a good knight.'

So they began to ride to the place where King Pharamond was staying, and when the people of King Pharamond's household saw the Morholt coming, they began to say that he was certainly greater than all other knights, for he was bringing three damsels with him. When the Morholt came before King Pharamond he began to speak. 'I am a foreign knight,' he said, 'who has come to your feast to serve and honour you myself and with my abilities as a knight as long as I remain in your household, for your renown has drawn me here from a faroff land. And these damsels who have come to your court out of respect for your prowess and nobility beg you to grant something which you can certainly and reasonably grant.'

'What are they asking me?' King Pharamond said.

'Sire, they ask you to allow them to serve you at your table in the way and manner in which they serve in their own country, that is to say, with their faces covered; for they do not wish any knight who is in your household to be able to see them in any other way than as you see them now.'

'Certainly', said King Pharamond, 'I grant them that willingly, since they ask me; and you yourself I wish to keep as my knight and my friend, since you have come from such a faroff land to my household.'

In this manner, the Morholt remained in King Pharamond's household, and he went to find lodging in the town with the damsels. That evening he was able to see the damsels with their faces uncovered. The following day King Ban went to serve before King Pharamond at dinner, disguised as a damsel, and the damsels went with him and they served in such a way that no one served at table except King Ban and the two damsels - as King Pharamond had granted.

In the house where he was eating there was a shield hanging from a pillar in the hall, which King Pharamond had brought from Benoyc the day he knocked King Ban off his horse, as Blioberis had described to King Arthur [in an earlier anecdote]. King Pharamond kept this shield very carefully in memory of the great boldness he had shown in King Ban's house, and he had it hung in the middle of the great hall so that everyone could see it, just as King Ban told the Morholt later. As soon as King Ban saw it, he recognised it. So, as soon as King Pharamond had eaten, King Ban ordered one of the damsels to take the shield. At once the damsel said to King Pharamond: 'Sire, I'll take the shield, for a knight wants to carry it today for performing feats of arms before you.' King Pharamond did not dare contradict her, so he allowed her to take it, and forbade any knight to take it from the damsel, who had hung the shield around her neck. King Pharamond thought that she was taking it for one of the knights who was there present.'

 

King Ban then goes out, puts on his armour and comes back in the afternoon to take part in the jousts, bearing the shield. He unhorses King Pharamond, performs marvellous feats of arms, and departs from the court, taking the shield with him.

Taken from Meliadus.

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Extract E: The Good and Fearless Knight as a woman

 

Le bon chevalier sans paour, a knight of humble birth whose great courage and prowess has led to King Arthur making him king of Estrangore, has come into the valley of Nabor the Black, where many of Arthur's subjects are held prisoner. In order to free them, he must kill Nabor. A young lady has promised to help him; but, unknown to him, she is actually one of Nabor's servants, sent to trap him. The Good Knight asks the young lady how he can get into Nabor's castle:

 

'It is true,' she said, 'that you cannot get into the castle dressed as a wandering knight; for no one can enter the castle without being recognised.'

'How, then,' said the Good Fearless Knight, 'may I enter? For it is my opinion that I cannot do anything which will win me honour without my weapons.'

'In God's name,' said the damsel, 'you can certainly get in armed with a mailshirt and sword, but it is necessary for you to wear a damsel's dress over the top, and go in when it is dark. The porter who sees you enter will think that you really are one of the damsels of the castle who goes about in my company. He will not ask you anything, you can be sure, and you will be able to pass by boldly. We will go in together and I will put you in a room where I often sleep and when we get to the room you will take off the damsel's dress and hide yourself where I will tell you and remain in your mailshirt and have your sword....'

 

The Knight, not realising that she intends to betray him, agrees to this method of entering the castle. That evening, when it is dark, they set out together for Nabor the Black's castle.

 

They rode until they reached an ancient tumbledown house which was next to a small rock. The damsel went in and brought out a damsel's dress and all the accessories which a damsel would wear. When the damsel had dressed the Good Knight in it as best as she could, she wrapped a damsel's cloak around him in such a way that his sword was under the cloak, and then she set off on the way.

'Sir knight,' she said to him, 'we will certainly be able to get into the castle now, because it's late.'

'Damsel,' the Good and Fearless Knight said, 'it is up to you whether we go now or wait longer.'

When they had set out as I have described, they went on foot until they came to the castle gate. When the porter who guarded the gate saw the Good and Fearless Knight coming disguised as a damsel he did not realise what he was; he really thought that he was a lady, because he was walking with the damsel, whom he recognised very well. For this reason, he did not speak to them at all, but let them pass through. When they had gone through the gate they went through the castle down the main road and did not find anyone who recognised them, because it was late. They rode on until they came to the fortress and went in; and the hall was pretty dark....

 

The damsel leads the Good Knight to a room and locks him in; and then goes to tell Nabor that she has taken the Good Knight prisoner. He remains a prisoner in the valley for ten years, until Meliadus' son Tristan comes and sets all the prisoners free.

Taken from Gyron le Courtoys, c. 1501, with an introductory note by C. E. Pickford (Scolar Press, London 1977).

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Cross dressing in Perceforest: woman into man

 

Extract F: the bad maiden dressed as a man

 

Bethidés, son and heir of King Perceforest, is looking for the Golden Knight, with whom he long ago arranged a battle which he failed to attend (because he had been carried away by demons to an island in the middle of the sea...) On his way home to England, he stops in the Low Countries and enrols with the Roman commander Lucius, who is besieging the city of Ostille (Tournai). Not wishing to be recognised, he calls himself Nabel.

 

One day it happened that the doughty Nabel went out to amuse himself in the fields, armed and mounted, lance in hand and shield at his neck, near to a large hill which was near to Lucius' tent. At this point there was a knight on the hill who was riding about there, but he was still so young that Lucius would not allow him to go into battle from fear that he should be killed. This young man used to go out to amuse himself on this mountain, and sometimes, when he encountered some armed knight, he would challenge them to a joust, and so he tested himself against those of the army to introduce himself to arms. When this young man saw Nabel, about whom there was already great talk in the army, he had a great desire to try a lance against him. So he said to a servant of his who was with him, 'You come slowly along behind me, because I am going to challenge Nabel to a joust, because he has so much renown.' At that he spurred his horse and went down the mountain to approach Nabel, and followed him by eye until he caught up with him in a lovely place, where he cried out to him, 'Sir knight, you see that there is a lovely place here and the morning is fresh and sweet. I am a young knight and I request you that, by your grace, you teach me something about the joust so that I will be worth more all my life.'

'Sir knight,' Nabel said, 'I will willingly do so, if I know more than you. Now guard yourself from me, we will see on this charge.'

At that the two knights prepared for the joust, then they spurred the good horses and went one against the other at great speed. The young knight struck first and caught Nabel on the visor of his helmet so hard that he made the helmet fly to the ground. And Nabel, bareheaded, hit the young knight lower down, so that he carried him off the croup of his horse into the middle of the field, so that the point of his lance went into the ground in such a way that the young man was left uncovered by his mailshirt and his doublet as far as his bottom. And even his breeches split by the great bump he made when he fell, so that when he got up they fell down to his knees.

When the doughty knight had completed his charge, he set off back up the field and saw that the young knight was so stunned by his fall that he had not yet got up. And as he approached, he saw that he was uncovered as far as his belt and that his skin was whiter than the lily flower, when the sun throws its rays on it. He said to himself that he had never seen a knight with whiter skin. And then, as Nabel looked at the knight's whiteness, he noticed that Nature had not failed in making the form and parts of the body which enable one to tell the difference between a man and a woman. But Nabel was embarassed to see the knight uncovered like that, and he dismounted and took the knight's shirt, which was fair and white, and covered him up - principally because it was a woman.

When she came to herself, she realised that she was uncovered, and was extremely embarassed. But because she could not do anything about it, she got up on her feet and said, 'Alas! sir knight, it is so that you have recognised what I am?' 'By my faith, fair young lady,' Nabel said, 'I certainly know what I've seen, but you know that I was not the cause of it.'

'I require you, by your word as a knight', said the young lady, 'not to reveal the facts about me to any person alive, that is to say what you have seen.'

'Truly, lovely one,' the knight replied, 'I will not, but remember me!'

 

From Perceforest, Troisième Partie, vol. 2, ed. Gilles Roussineau (Geneva, 1991).

 

The young woman, whose name is Malaquin, rides off very angry, but remembers that Nabel asked her to remember him, and decides that she could hardly have better company than his, as he is so doughty. They become friends, and then fall in love. Malaquin tells Nabel that she came in disguise from Rome with Lucius, who is her boyfriend, although they do not sleep together. Nabel/Bethides begs her to come away with him to Britain, and she consents - so they run away together.

Malaquin's real name is Circe. Bethides begs his parents to allow them to marry, but they are reluctant to allow him to marry a Roman, as the Romans are the great enemies of Britain. Finally they are allowed to marry, but Lucius comes back into Circe's life and persuades her to love him again. Circe becomes the means by which the Romans are able to invade and destroy Britain. The moral? Women in disguise as men are unnatural and dangerous?

Circe/Malaquin's fault is perhaps not so much that she dressed as a man as that she betrayed her parents in running away from Rome to be with Lucius, then Lucius in running away with Bethides. What of the woman dressed as a man who acts honourably and does not betray anyone?

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Extract G: the good maiden dressed as a man

 

The Golden Knight whom Bethides spends so long seeking is actually Bethides' cousin Nestor, younger son of the king and queen of Scotland. Nestor is in love with a young lady named Neronés, whose father wants her to marry the king of Norway. First, however, the king of Norway must perform 'a task' - but the king of Norway kidnaps Neronés and carries her off before performing the necessary task.

Neronés, who still hopes that her Golden Knight will return, feigns death and is buried. At dead of night she escapes from the tomb and sets off to seek her love. She finds refuge with an old woman who helps her to disguise herself as a man, and gives her the nickname Steelheart in honour of her having overcome great trials with courage.

Meanwhile Nestor tracks down and kills the king of Norway. But where is Neronés? Wandering the countryside looking for her, he stays at an old woman's house and takes her servant boy with him as squire - a youth named Steelheart. Together they travel the country, and Steelheart is a faithful servant and friend to Nestor. Steelheart tries to hint to Nestor as to his (Steelheart's) real identity, by recounting some supposed dreams that he has had, but Nestor fails to take the hint. At last they return to Nestor's home, the court of the king and queen of Scotland. While Nestor greets his parents, Steelheart stays at the other end of the room, strumming on a harp...

When the king and queen had rejoiced over their son, the queen said, 'Nestor, good son, is this your squire who is amusing himself with the harp?'

'Yes, dear mother,' said Nestor.

'Does he know how to play it?' the lady asked.

'I don't know,' Nestor said, 'for I've never heard him play.'

At that the queen raised her head and said, 'My friend, come forward and play us something new.'

'In truth, my lady,' said Steelheart, 'I will do so willingly.' At that he came before the king and the queen.

'My friend, said the lady, 'what name should I give you?'

'My lady,' he said, 'I'm called Steelheart.'

'That is certainly a noble-sounding name,' said the lady. 'Come, then, Steelheart, good sir.'

Steelheart tuned his harp, and then began to play. But while he was playing, the queen was looking at his face and his body. And she looked for so long that she realised that his face was stained and painted and the whole body also, which was more like a woman's than a man's. When the queen had come to this decision, she thought to herself that her son had had a fine servant, but, if God gave her health until the morning, she would find out how he had served him.

At that she said, 'Good sir, do you know anything else new?'

'Certainly, my lady,' said the squire, 'I don't, except for a lay which has never been played before.'

'By my faith,' said the lady, 'then it is very new. If you please, by the good which you wish this company, sing it to us to pass the time until supper, and stand up so that it will be more pleasing to hear.'

As soon as Steelheart heard these words, she was afraid that the queen had some suspicion about her, although she could do nothing about it. So she rose to her feet and took off a jacket of sheepskin which she always wore over her overshirt which was not of great value, and she was well equipped in all her parts so that no maiden in the world would surpass her. And when she was in her overshirt, it was possible to see the shape of her bust, which raised her clothes much more clearly than before. When the queen saw her with such a fine body and so well formed, she said very loudly, 'Certainly, good son, you have fed your squire very well, for he is well shaped, especially his chest.'

'In good faith, my dear lady,' said Nestor, who did not notice anything, 'he will soon have a young woman's chest!'

'Good son, good son, he already has!' said the queen.

Steelheart heard the lady clearly, but did not make any reply. Instead he said, 'My lady, would it please you to listen to the lay which it pleases you to see played, which is called the Pitiful Lay?' At that the queen and those who were there were silent. And Steelheart took the harp, and began his lay in the manner which follows:

Steelheart sings the song of the adventures of Neronés, and how she took the name of Steelheart. Everyone in the hall is deeply moved, but still Nestor does not realise that she is singing about herself, and that his squire is really the young lady he has been searching for all this time.

But when the queen had heard the lay and considered the wonderful adventure which was set out in it, she began to speak, and said, 'Certainly, Steelheart, you have played this lay very well, and it is extremely exciting, and still it seems to me that the end is not included. I beg you, good sir, that by your courtesy you go and play it to the two maidens who are in my chamber and who will be very eager to hear it, while the king talks to his son, whom he has not seen for a long time.'

'By my faith, my lady,' said Steelheart, 'I will do willingly whatever it pleases you to command me.'

At that the queen rose and set off towards her chamber, and Steelheart followed her, weeping with fear and dread and praying to the Sovereign God that he allow her to become acquainted with this lady to her honour. When the queen was in her chamber with Steelheart, she had the door closed, and then said: 'Steelheart, good sir, put down that harp and tell me how you have served my son, for I fear that you have been a horse with two saddles.'

When Steelheart heard the lady, he put the harp down and threw himself at her feet, weeping bitterly. Seeing this, the queen took pity and for this reason she did not regard her guilty of any misbehaviour, taking into account the lay that she had sung. So she raised her up, and said to her, 'The person who considers themselves innocent should not fear anything, provided that they are not before an unjust judge. So dry your eyes and tell me what you have been doing, without lying.' Then the maiden, who could not speak because of the great pain she felt in her heart, got up, but the tears flowed in great abundance down her face.

Steelheart/Neronés tells the queen of Scotland the whole story. The queen forgives her, welcomes her, gets her to undress and puts her in a hot bath. This is a large bathtub, and the queen's daughter Blanche and daughter-in-law to be Flamine share the bath. So the queen leaves three young ladies laughing and splashing in the bath, and goes back into the hall, where she finds her husband the king and Nestor...

'Dear son,' the queen said, 'I will tell you a terrible necessity. Steelheart your squire is having a bath with Blanchette my daughter, and I have come to complain to you. I have come to find you without his knowledge, so that you can catch him in the very act.'

When the king and Nestor heard this, they were absolutely amazed, and Nestor leapt up with his sword in his hand, saying, 'My lady, lead me to the outrageous ribald to take revenge at your pleasure.'

'Truly, good son,' said the lady, 'I will lead you to him, but I forbid you to hit anyone but Steelheart your squire, because I will deal with my daughter.'

'My lady,' said Nestor, 'I don't wish to interfere with your daughter, but in regard to the evil enchanter who has deceived me by his dreams, I will take vengeance.'

'That pleases me well,' said the lady. 'Now come with me.'

At that the queen entered into the chamber where the three maidens were bathing, and Nestor her son after her, so upset that no one could be more. But the queen, who had gone on a little ahead to warn them what was happening so that they would not be frightened, returned to Nestor and said, 'You can avenge us very well for the outrageous behaviour of your squire. Take him naked and in the act, but don't touch the others!'

Nestor, who was very troubled and wanted to avenge his grief, entered the chamber and lifted the cover on the bathtub, which he threw into the middle of the room, then looked and saw three very pretty maidens, each one with a chaplet of roses on her head. But when Nestor saw them in the bath, he became very confused and did not know what had happened to him, not that he had recognised the maiden Neronés, but because he had run on them with a naked sword in his hand. Because he found himself so embarrassed, he did not know how to excuse himself. Instead, he said to his mother the queen: 'My lady, you made me run into the greatest villainy that ever happened to a knight, and you told me that Steelheart was in this bath.'

'What!' said the queen, 'don't you see Steelheart naked among the maidens?'

'Certainly, my lady,' Nestor said, 'I am not such a fool as you think me, thinking that I would mistake a man for a maiden.'

Then the queen and the three maidens began to laugh, and Nestor was so embarrassed that he wanted to leave the room without saying another word. But the queen said to him, 'Certainly, master, you won't escape me until you have avenged me on your squire.'

'My lady,' Nestor said, 'you say what you like, but I am not a child any more. And you have said so much to me that if I was in the field armed and mounted on a horse, you would never see me again this year!'

When the queen saw that Nestor was getting angry, she said to him, 'Good son, don't get upset, but return to the maiden, and I will appease you insofar as you believe that you have been deceived.'

'Certainly, my lady,' Nestor said, 'if you were not my mother, I would not do another thing for you nor for her, but to compensate the maidens for my outrageous behaviour I will return willingly.'

At that the queen took the knight by the hand and said to him, while approaching the maidens, 'Steelheart, I am in my son's bad books for love of you.'

'My lady,' said the maiden, 'that troubles me, for I do not believe that I have wronged the knight so much that he should be angry with you because of me. And you should know that if he felt the anguish that I have had for love of him, he ought not to feel any ill-will towards you.'

When Nestor heard the maiden, he looked at her more carefully than he had before and recognised the fair Neronés, at which he was stunned, and quite lost his poise and countenance at the amazing adventure and because of the happiness he felt in his heart at finding his lady again. When the queen saw her son so stunned at recognising the maiden, she began to speak. 'Nestor, good son,' she said, 'You believe that I did not know what I was saying when I said that Steelheart was bathing with my daughter; now look and see whether I lied to you. You are like the man who goes to seek in far-off lands the thing which he holds in his hand, for you have sought the fair Neronés in many places, but she was always with you.' Then she told him how it was Steelheart who had served him so well and how she had had her washed, at which Nestor was amazed and had such joy in his heart that he could hardly speak.

From Perceforest, Troisième Partie, vol. 2, ed. Gilles Roussineau (Geneva, 1991).

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Further examples of cross-dressing in medieval literature

Women dressed as men

Women dress as men to correct a wrong or to reverse some dishonour which has been done to them; they generally return to their woman's dress when the wrong has been corrected.

Nicolette, daughter of the king of Carthage, dyes her skin brown and dresses as a ministrel in order to seek her beloved Aucassin: Aucassin et Nicolette, ed. Jean Dufornet (Paris, 1984) (in Cardiff University Library in French. Written in the late twelfth century).

Josiane, wife of Bueve of Hampton, disguises herself as a male ministrel in order to seek Bueve: Der Anglonomannische Boeve de Hauntone, ed. Albert Stimming (Halle, 1899) (Not in Cardiff University Library. Written in the 1220s).

The heroine of 'Le dis dou chevalier à la mance', dresses as a man to seek her rejected beloved, who has gone to the Holy Land: in Dits et contes de Baudouin de Condé et de son fils Jean de Condé, publiés d'après les manuscrits de Bruxelles, Turin, Rome, Paris et Vienne et accompagnés de variantes et de notes explicatives, ed. Auguste Scheler, 3 vols: vol. 2, Jean de Condé, première partie (Brussels, 1866).

In the second day, ninth story of Boccaccio's Decameron, Zinevra dresses as a man to avenge her own honour after she has been betrayed by one of her husband's colleagues. When she is finally able to prove her innocence, she becomes a woman again.

In 'The romance of the count and countess of Artois' the countess of Artois dresses as a man after her husband has abandoned her. She becomes her husband's squire, wins his trust and finally wins him back: Le Roman du Comte d'Artois (XVe siècle), ed. Jean-Charles Seigneuret, TLF 142 (Geneva, 1966). (Written in the mid fifteenth century; in Cardiff University Library in French). The plot of this story is based on the story of Gillette of Narbonne in Boccaccio's Decameron.

Maligne dresses as a knight to avenge herself on Lord Kay: Le Roman de Laurin, fils de Marques le senéchal, ed. Lewis Thorpe (Cambridge, 1995) (in Cardiff University Library in French).

Helcana dresses as a male hermit in order to hide from the treacherous princes of Constantinople: Le Roman de Cassiodorus, ed. Joseph Palermo, 2 vols, SATF (Paris, 1963-4) (late thirteenth century) (Not in Cardiff University Library). While in this disguise, she is falsely accused of raping a young woman. A similar situation occurs in the 'Miracle de Théodore', in Miracles de Notre Dame par Personnages, ed. Gaston Paris and Ulysse Roberts, 8 vols (Paris, 1876-93 ), 3 pp. 68-129. These are a variation on the story of St Marina/Marinus.

In contrast, Euphrosine dresses as a man in order to become a monk and to escape the attentions of men - unfortunately for her, the monks fall in love with her as a man: 'La vie de Sainte Euphrosine', ed. Raymond T. Hill in Romanic Review, 10 (1919), 191-232.

Silence dresses as a man to ensure the inheritance rights of her family: Le Roman de Silence, ed. Lewis Thorpe (Cambridge, 1972) (in Cardiff University Library in French, serialised in Nottingham Medieval Studies in 1960s); also in Heldris de Cornüalle, Silence: a thirteenth-century French romance, ed. and translated Sarah Roche-Mahdi (Michigan, 1992). Note that although Heldris is called 'Maistres' (i.e., Master) 'Heldris' can also be a woman's name.

The vulgate sequel to the Merlin, in Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances, ed. O. Sommer, vol. 2, has a story very like the story of Silence, but here the young lady is 'Grisandolus', and see also the Middle English translation, Merlin: the Early History of King Arthur: a prose romance about 1450-1460 AD, edited from the unique manuscript in the University Library Cambridge, ed. Henry B. Wheatley, 2 vols, Early Engish Text Society (London, 1899) (French written 1210-1230; English as given above. Both in Cardiff University Library the first in French, the second in Middle English).

See also the lady who dresses as a knight to avenge the honour of her knightly family on her 'peasant' husband in the fable of Berengier au lonc cul, in Nouveau Recueil Complet des Fabliaux, ed. W. Noomen and N. von den Boorgaard, 9 vols. (Assen and Maastricht, 1983-96), 4 (in Cardiff University Library in French) - and translated elsewhere on this site.

The lady dressed as a knight to fight for Christ, in Les Prophecies de Merlin, ed. Lucy Allen Paton (London and New York, 1926) (in Cardiff University Library in French), and in the edition published by Anne Berthelot, Les Prophesies de Merlin.

The Muslim princess Maugalis dresses as a knight or trouvère in order to escape with her Christian lover Floovant: La Chanson de Floovant: Étude critique et Édition, ed. F. H. Bateson (Loughborough, 1938) (in Cardiff University Library in French). Likewise, Marsebille dresses as a man in order to escape to join her beloved Florent in Florent et Octavien, ed. Noëlle Laborderie (Paris, 1991). Aye of Avignon dresses as a knight to search for the missing members of her family in Tristan de Nanteuil.

Some women change into men permanently, as Blancadine becomes Blancadin in Tristan de Nanteuil: chanson de geste inédite, ed. K. V. Sinclair (Assen, 1971) (in Cardiff University Library in French), while Yde becomes Ydé in Yde et Olive: Esclarmonde, Clarisse et Florent, Yde et Olive, drei Fortsetzungen der chanson von Hugh de Bordeaux, ed. M. Schweigel, Ausgaben und Abhandlungen aus dem Gebiete der romanischen Philologie, 83 (Marburg, 1889) (not in Cardiff University Library); see also the Middle English prose version, The English Charlemagne Romances, part IX: The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux, done into English by Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners, and printed by Wynkyn de Worde in about 1534 AD, ed. S. L. Lee, Part III, Early English Text Society Extra Series 43 (London, 1884) - in Cardiff University Library.

Yde dressed as a man to escape the incestuous intentions of her father. A similar story appears in 'Miracle de la fille d'un Roi', in Miracles de Notre Dame par personnages, 7 pp. 2-117.

A story very similar to that of Yde appears in the story of Camaralzaman and Badoura in the Arabian Nights: Arabian Nights Entertainments, ed. Robert L. Mack (Oxford, 1995). In the 'Story of Two Sisters who Envied their Younger Sister', the Princess Parizade dresses as a man to accomplish the quest in which her brothers had failed. Likewise, in the medieval Persian Alexander romance there is a faithful wife who dresses as a man to save her husband's land, and a young woman who customarily dresses as a warrior and is a better knight than any man; Shah Malik's daughter dresses as a horseman and defeats Turan Malik and her cousin, both outstanding Turkish warriors, on behalf of her husband King Alexander; Queen Araqit of the fairies, Alexander's wife, fights in disguise as a man against Alexander, and the evil wife of the cupbearer disguises herself as a horseman: Iskandarnamah, a Persian medieval Alexander Romance, trans. Minoo S. Southgate (New York, 1978) (both of these Muslim sources are in Cardiff University Library)

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Men dressed as women

Hugdietrich, king of Constantinople, dressing as a woman, 'Hildegunt', supposed sister of Hugdietrich, in order to gain access to the lady Hiltburc, daughter of King Walgunt: Wolfdietrich B in Deutsches Heldenbuch, vol. 3: Ornit und die Wolfdietrich. Here the theme is reminiscent of fable and farce, as in (for instance) the 45th nouvelle in Les Cent Nouvelle Nouvelles, ed. Franklin P. Sweetser (Geneva, 1966) (written in mid fifteenth century: in Cardiff University Library).

The same situation appears in Le Roman de Silence, where the queen's lover dresses as a nun in order to avoid detection; and in the sequel to the vulgate Merlin, where Julius Caesar's wife has twelve young men disguised as women in attendance on her; and see the English translation, ed. Wheatley; this story is very similar to the story of the sultan's unfaithful wife in the introductory part of the Arabian Nights. See another similar scene in Cassiodorus.

Alternatively, the knight Licorus becomes a woman when a woman's robe is put on him: Cassiodorus; the Arthurian knight Calogrenant is turned into a woman by magic, and as a woman is far more successful than as a knight: Claris et Laris, translated elsewhere on this site. Lancelot, and subsequently Dinadan, dress up as women as a joke: Prophecies of Merlin; this episode also appears in Thomas Malory, Morte d'Arthur, 2 vols (Harmondsworth, 1969), and in a version of the prose Tristan. In medieval Persian literature, King Alexander dons a woman's veil to escape from King Porus: Iskandarnamaha: the Persian medieval Alexander Romance, trans. Minoo S. Southgate; in The Arabian Nights, Marzaran dresses as a woman to gain access to his foster-sister Princess Badoura in order to diagnose her sickness.


This text copyright ©1999 Dr Helen Nicholson

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