Medieval Romance

The Story of William and the Werewolf

12th century, Old French, Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal Paris.

The wolf makes for the coast; the child’s cries are heard – the wolf stays ahead of its pursuers, comes to the water, leaps into it and makes for the other side.

There is no virtue in keeping hidden something of worth, since the knowledge may then be lost. And therefore, I shall not hide what I know and those who listen will learn; for hidden knowledge is like fine art sealed in a vault, bringing pleasure to nobody. Therefore I shall bring into the light an ancient story whose events took place in Apulia, in Italy.

The king there had a brother who, but for the king’s only child, would have been heir to the kingdom. And by bribery this brother contrived to instigate a plot of infanticide, involving poison and the complicity of the boy’s two guardians.

One day in an orchard, beneath the highest tower of the city, a walled orchard, housing the Royal Menagerie, the king came with all his knights and burghers to rest from a tiring feast day. The king sat beneath the shade of a tree with his wife, enjoying the comfort and little knowing what danger lurked unseen. For suddenly a huge wolf leapt out from behind some bushes, sending everyone fleeing for their lives. It took the young prince in its mouth and made off with him. A hue and cry was raised. The king’s son has been taken!

'Help, gentle Mary!' the queen exclaims. 'What is everyone doing standing about! I shall die if he is not rescued!' The king calls for his horses; the town is in uproar, a frantic pursuit begins, the king at its head. But the wolf is evasive – it makes for the coast; the child’s cries are heard – the wolf stays ahead of its pursuers, comes to the water, leaps into it and makes for the other side. And so the child crosses the water. He crosses the water. They have lost him.

Having swum across the Straits of Messina with the boy in its mouth, the wolf carries the child on a journey that takes them into the forest outside Rome. For eight days, amongst the wild animals, the wolf provides for the infant, makes a den in the earth, lines it with grass and dry leaves, making a comfortable refuge so that the child wants for nothing. At night the wolf sleeps with the young prince, embracing this king’s son with its four feet and the little infant becomes so used to the wolf that all seems quite normal to him and he is openly pleased at what the wolf brings and willingly obeys the animal.

Story fragment recounted from: Skeat, Walter W, 1867. The Romance of William of Palerne (The Romance of William and the Werewolf). Early English Text Society; reprinted 1996 for the EETS by Boydell and Brewer Limited, Woodbridge, Suffolk. Beginning of the tale recounted from an English line-by-line translation of the original Old French text, lines 1–186, pp 1–6.

See for yourself

Anglo-Norman literature – Wikipedia

Chivalric romance – Wikipedia

Guillaume de Palerme – Wikipedia

14th century Middle English alliterative translation of The Romance of William of Palerne, edited by Walter Skeat, 1867, reprinted 1996, available through the Early English Text Society (EETS)

…or direct from Oxford University Press

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