Wednesday, July 27, 2022

William and the Werewolf

Medieval Europe (and beyond) had a fascination with werewolves, but they were different from the modern horror-story representations. hey rarely had anything to do with phases of the moon, and they were not simply murderous beasts.

Such was the case of the story of Guillaume de Palerme, or "William of Palerme" which was later re-titled in English "William and the Werewolf." This story gives us in early English the first instance of the pronoun "they" being used to refer to  singular subject in the sole English manuscript dated to 1375, but the original French version was probably composed about 1200. The story was commissioned by Yolande, daughter of the Count of Hainaut, Baldwin IV (once mentioned here). The French version also exists in a single surviving manuscript from the 1200s.

The main character, William, is the son and heir to the King and Queen of Palermo, and his birth is welcomed by everyone except his uncle, who stood to inherit if the King had no heirs. The uncle plots to poison the child. Shortly before he can do so, a wold leaps the wall of the royal gardens, snatches the babe in its mouth, and flees. His parents mourn the loss, after a search fails to find the wolf.

Flashback! The author then tells us whence came the wolf. An evil queen in Spain, desiring to have her children by the king inherit rather than the king's eldest son by his first wife, transforms Prince Alfonse into a wolf. Alfonse, however retains his human understanding, In his wandering, the wolf Alfonse overhears the plot to poison the prince and decides to save the child. He teals him away and deposits him with a cowherd, who raises him.

Years later, the Emperor of Rome goes hunting in the wood and comes upon a young man with such regal bearing and handsome features that he insists on taking him away to raise him "properly." There, William and the emperor's daughter, Melior, fall (inappropriately) for each other. Their secret love is aided and abetted by Melior's friend Alexandra.

The emperor of Greece wants to marry his son to Melior, and her father agrees. The young lovers decide to flee, and Alexandra helps them by procuring two white bear skins, sewing the two into the skins (except the hands, so they can eat), and they flee. They are not really suited to surviving in the wild, but Alfonse the wolf reappears, bringing them fancy food and killing two deer so the pair can have nicer skins to live in and hide out as deer instead of white bears.

There's more, much more. You can read a modern English translation here if you like. Tomorrow? More about werewolves, the cool medieval kind, not the modern hour kind.

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