Sunday, 30 October 2011

Heroes in Literature, Part One: William of Orange

William of Orange (or Guillaume d'Orange in Old French) is the central hero in a number of chansons de geste, including: Chanson de Guillaume, Enfances Guillaume, Couronnement de Louis, and Aliscans, amongst others. These poems along with others about William's family make up the 'cycle' of chansons known as the Cycle of William of Orange (the other two cycles are known as: The Cycle of the King, and The Cycle of Barons in Revolt).

Perhaps the most well known epic that has William as the hero is the Chanson de Guillaume (The Song of William). It is one of the oldest chansons and was the founding poem of the entire William of Orange cycle. It is likely that it was the popularity of the central hero William that inspired further song-tales of him and his family.

Figure 1. Abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert
 The fictional character William of Orange has been identified with the historical Count William of Toulouse, a cousin of Charlemagne who was known for his defence of Christian land against Spanish pagans. After the death of his wife William befriended a monk, and later became one himself in Aniane. He founded an abbey in Gellone, which eventually became known as Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert after him. William of Toulouse died on 28 May 812, and was canonised in 1066.

Figure 2. William of Orange?
This image is within the Abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert (currently housed at The Metrapolitan Museum in new York). It was once believed to depict Daniel in the lions' den, however it has been suggested that it could instead be William of Orange with the lion from his coat of arms (described in various works, including Couronnement de Louis).

I'll end this post with a small extract from the Chanson de Guillaume, which in my opinion is one of the finest of the Old French epics. This extract has Count William bravely arriving to the battlefield with back-up; persevering with the fight against the odds (a key theme throughout the poem): 

     The Count set off with Sir Girart and leading
     Knights fully armed and thirty thousand liegemen
     To Archamp field and Desramed the Heathen;
     They journeyed through the cold night air, unspeaking
     Till break of dawn and light of day appearing;
     When they arrived at Archamp on the seaboard,
     The Moor had won; the French were fled or beaten;
     (. . .)
     A league or more they'd ridden from the beaches,
     When William the Count rode up to meet them
     With well-armed knights and thirty thousand liegemen,
     One half of whom were very keen to greet them
     With blows of iron to show their strength of feeling!
     They cried: "Mountjoy!" and moved to strike them fiercely;
     Those Pagan lords were helpless to receive them:
     They had no arms to counter blows or deal them;
     They turned in flight towards the shore, retreating
     Inside their ships and sundry other sea-craft;
     They seized their arms and roused themselves to wield them.

Sources Used
  • Figure 2 is from William P. Gerritsen and Anthony G. van Melle (eds.), trans. by Tanis Guest, A Dictionary of Medieval Heroes: Characters in medieval Narrative Traditions and Their Afterlife in Literature, Theatre and the Visual Arts (The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2008), p. 134; see also pp. 132-6.
  • The extract of Chanson de Guillaume is from Michael Newth (trans.), Heroes of the French Epic:Translations from the Chansons de Geste (The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2005), p. 77; see also pp. 31-142.
  • ‘The Coronation of Louis’, in Joan M. Ferrante (trans.), Guillaume d’Orange: Four Twelfth-Century Epics (Columbia University Press: Chichester, 2001), pp. 63-139.
  • ‘The Song of William’, trans. by Muir, Lynette, in Glanville Price (ed.), William, Count of Orange: Four Old French Epics (J.M.Dent & Sons Ltd.: 1975), pp. 131-203.