Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature$

Dorothy Yamamoto

Print publication date: 2000

Print ISBN-13: 9780198186748

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198186748.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use.  Subscriber: null; date: 20 January 2020

The Wild Man 2: The Uncourtly Other

The Wild Man 2: The Uncourtly Other

(p.169) chapter eight The Wild Man 2: The Uncourtly Other
The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature


Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores two apparent opposites, wild man and knight. Neither term is stable, as each draws upon the other to confirm its own identity. As the two sides skirmish, the boundary between them is re-invented as a site of play. First, the ‘bodies’ of wild men and knight are examined, with reference to Bakhtin's analysis of the grotesque, ‘open’ body in contrast to the opaque, ‘closed’ body of courtly convention. The chief text examined is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The next section discusses those knights who, temporarily, become wild men — Partonope, Sir Orfeo, Chrétien's Yvain, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Merlin, Orson in Valentine and Orson. The last section focuses specifically upon the late romance of Valentine and Orson, and the ways in which themes of wildness and courtliness are figured within it.

Keywords:   wild man, knight, Mikhail Bakhtin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Partonope of Blois, Sir Orfeo, Yvain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, Valentine and Orson

WILD MEN DERIVE their identity from what they are not. The lustful wild man in the prose life of Alexander fails his test because his behaviour towards the woman breaches cultural norms (not, as the knights think, because it shows he lacks reason and restraint—he could, after all, have come from a society in which women were objects of barter and rape was not accounted a crime). The wild man is composed of oppositional features—but what exactly is he opposed to? The figure most often invoked is that of the knight. Larry D. Benson argues that the wild man, in whatever role he appears, ‘always represents a mode of life completely opposed to that represented by the knight’, and that, when the two are shown fighting each other, ‘The wild man is interpreted as a symbol of unruly passions while the knight is consciously treated as a protagonist of an opposite way of life’.1 So the ‘wodwos’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight who rush down from the hills to attack Gawain are fulfilling their expected role—as creatures of wild nature, they batter against the civilized values of Arthur’s court.

Wild men and knights are the theme of this chapter, but in it I would like to complicate the relationship of straightforward opposition that Benson proposes. Neither ‘wild man’, nor ‘knight’ are stable terms, for each draws upon the other for confirmation of its identity. And, as the two sides skirmish, the boundary between them becomes fluid, and is re-invented as a site of play. In the first section below, I sketch the different kinds of bodies inhabited by wild men and by knights. The next section considers the case of the wild-men/knights—the romance characters who venture out into the (p.170) wilderness and, for a time, live like wild men themselves; lastly, I discuss the late romance of Valentine and Orson, in which knightly bodies and wild ones come together in an especially interesting way.

Wild Men And Knights

Mikhail Bakhtm’s analysis of the ‘grotesque’ body is well known and widely quoted, and has obvious application to the figure of the wild man. Against this body, Bakhtm sets another one:

an entirely finished, completed, strictly limited body…. All orifices of the body are closed…. The opaque surface and the body’s ‘valleys’ acquire an essential meaning as the border of a closed individuality that does not merge with other bodies and with the world.2

Such ‘opacity’ is entirely characteristic of the figure of the knight, who is most often shown encased in armour, literally sealed against the world’s incursions. Behind the armour, individual emotions-even identity, as in the favourite ploy of the disguised knight at the tournament—are kept hidden from the common gaze. We do not see either the face or the body of Chaucer’s Knight—although we are told about the many battles he has participated in, the only sign of wear and tear, of attntive action upon him, is his tunic, stained with rust from his coat of mail. Nor do we know what Gawain looks like, although we know a great deal about the physical singularity of his opponent, the Green Knight. The contrast between two different sorts of bodies appears vividly in an illustration to a French manuscript of the Alexander romance, Le Livre et la vraye histoire du bon roy Alexandre, which shows the king and his army warring against a host of wild men and women and giant wild boars. The knights, fully armoured, have blank expressions, while their wild enemies grimace and yell. The same manuscript shows the solitary giant seizing the damsel: his eyes are wide open and his mouth stretched; by contrast, the knights who watch him show no flicker of a reaction.3

(p.171) As Bakhtm suggests, different sorts of bodies presuppose different sorts of demeanour vis-à-vis the world. The hallmark of kmghtlmess is mesure, ‘that inward restraint, imposed by individual reason, which leads to a virtuous life’.4 Its opposite—lack of self-control, rudeness, ‘churlishness’—may be displayed by any one of a number of other characters, against whom, in one sense or another, chivalnc courtliness is pitched. If the wild man is at one end of the continuum, his affmes include the giant, the heathen enemy, the low-born vilain, and even—in so far as vilainie may be defined as a cast of personality rather than an accident of birth—an ill-mannered person within the knightly fold itself, such as Sir Kay. These individuals may exhibit a number of ‘wild man’ attributes: for example, the heathen giant Alagolofur in the romance of The Sowdone of Babylone shares the wild man’s fertility of gesture, as well as his tough, discoloured skin—the latter quality itself correlating with the crassness and lack of sensitivity which was thought to typify the vilain:

Alagolofur rolled his yen

And smote with his axe on the stone …

… …

This geaunte hade a body longe

And hede, like a libarde,

Ther-to he was devely stronge,

His skynne was blake and harde.5

There is no point in pulling apart such descriptions in order to discover whether they are of true ‘wild men’ or of something else—a giant, for instance.6 The ‘wild man’ in this context simply summarizes a whole repertoire of fallings away from that state of perfected courtliness which the truly gentil knight represents.

In principle, though, it should always be easy to tell the difference between a knight and a wild man, since they stand at opposite ends of the spectrum. But is it? In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the physical attributes of the two types are subtly played off against one (p.172) another. When he first bursts upon the scene, the Green Knight displays all of the wild man’s expansive gesturing:

And runischly his rede y3en he reled aboute,

Bende his bresed bro3ez blycande grene,

Wayued his berde for to wayte quo-so wolde ryse. (304–6)

Bertilak, too, is vividly active and demonstrative:

Þe lorde luflych aloft lepez ful ofte,

Mynned merthe to be made vpon mony syþez,

Hent he3ly of his hode, and on a spere henged,

And wayned horn to wynne þe worchip þerof

Þat most myrpe my3t meue þat Crystenmas whyle … (981–5)

Although what Bertilak conveys is not threat but seasonal celebration and hospitality, his manner still evokes a contrast to Gawain’s behaviour. Gawain (as Larry D. Benson observes) only raises his voice once (to summon the Green Knight at the Green Chapel), and his movements from place to place are described with plain, neutral verbs—goto, bo3ez, walkez, romez. It is in keeping with this picture that, while Bertilak is out actively hunting the deer, Gawain should be within the closed space of his curtained bed, reacting with only the tiniest of movements to what he hears outside:

And as in slomeryng he slode, sle3ly he herde

A littel dyn at his dor, and dernly vpon;

And he heuez vp his hed out of þe cloþes,

A corner of þe cortyn he ca3t vp a lyttel,

And waytez warly þiderwarde quat hit be my3t. (1182–6)

This mode of smooth, unfurrowed demeanour correlates with the poem’s code of chivalry. As Ad Putter has pointed out, Gawain’s challenge in the bedroom scenes is not simply to resist the sexual temptations of the Lady but to decline her invitations in such a way that neither his courtesy nor her dignity are compromised.7 Knights do not merely have to act: they have to attune their actions to a specific social code. And the key to that code is restraint. Gawain, for instance, is required to perform a particular action (seeking out the Green Chapel) on a particular day in the year. The narrowness of his purpose is pointed up by the festive merriment in Bertilak’s castle, which he could continue to be part of if only he would forget (p.173) about his quest. Later, the Green Knight offers to reawaken this jollity if Gawain will come back to the castle with him—but the knight, honour-bound, refuses. As Bakhtm’s ‘finished, completed man, cleansed as it were, of all the scoriae of birth and development’,8 he cannot allow himself to descend once more into the carmvalesque time of Bertilak’s domain.

However, the strategies of gesture that keep knight and wild man—Gawain and the Green Kmght/Bertilak—apart also occasion play across the boundary. Bertilak’s expansive conviviality, as well as certain aspects of his appearance—his huge size, and his face, ‘Felle … as þe fyre’ (lines 844, 847)—might lead us to recognize him at once as a wild man, the Green Knight’s alter ego, but other details work against this: for example, after the physical description quoted above, we are given Gawain’s assessment of his host:

And wel hym semed, for soþe, as þe segge þu3t,

To lede a lortschyp in lee of leudez ful gode. (849–50)

In Gawain’s eyes, Bertilak happily ‘fits’ his role high in the feudal order, so our response is once again complicated. The Green Knight himself, when he first appears, is also presented in a teasingly ambiguous way. While certain of his features suggest the unseemly bulk and proliferating vegetable growth of the archetypal wild man, others imply minutely disciplined human artifice. On the one hand, he is ‘Fro þe swyre to be swange so sware and so þik’ (line 138) and has a ‘much berd as a busk’ (line 182) spreading over his breast; on the other, the trappings of his horse shine like polished jewels and he himself is arrayed in delicate embroidery:

Þat were to tor for to telle of tryfles be halue

Þat were enbrauded abof wyth bryddes and fly3es,

With gay gaudi of grene, þe golde ay inmyddes. (165–7)

As Benson has shown, the mixing of details actually produces incompatibility, for the hood the Green Knight wears ‘layde on his schulderes’ (line 156) cannot be reconciled with the great ‘cape’ of his hair shorn at the level of his elbows, which would hide such a hood completely.9 Significantly, it is with hair, the wild man’s prime signifying feature, that the two sides of the portrait—wild and human, unkempt and tamed—are quite literally woven into each (p.174) other. In the tail and mane of the Knight’s horse, natural hair and golden thread are laced together, and then bound with a jewelled band set with ringing bells:

Þe mane of þat mayn hors much to hit lyke,

Wel cresped and cemmed, wyth knottes ful mony

Folden in wyth fildore aboute pe fayre grene,

Ay a herle of þe here, an oþer of golde;

Þe tayl and his toppyng twynnen of a sute,

And bounden boþe wyth a bande of a bry3t grene,

Dubbed wyth ful dere stonez, as þe dok lasted,

Syþen þrawen wyth a þwong a þwarle knot alofte,

Þer mony bellez ful bry3t of brende golde rungen. (187–95)

The body of the Green Knight is framed to tease us about his identity: like Arthur and his court, we are meant to be genuinely puzzled about who, or what, he is—and so it is wonderfully appropriate that the gomen he contributes to the feast should be such an outrageously ‘bodily’ one.

Other romance characters show this mixing of elements, albeit without the Gawain-poet’s wit and subtlety. King Claudas (‘Claudas de la terre desert’), Arthur’s foe in the Vulgate prose Lancelot, sports a medley of oppositional features similar to those of Chretien’s Giant Herdsman: a black complexion, bushy eyebrows, black, wide-set eyes, a short, ugly nose, red beard, large neck, large mouth, and sharp teeth. But the rest of his body, far from being deformed, is handsome and well proportioned.10 The carl in The Carl of Carlisle (a partial analogue of the Gawain story) is the lord of a fine castle, but still has several wild-man characteristics: he has power over wild animals (his pets are a bull, a lion, a bear, and a wild boar), and a mane of hair spreads over his breast ‘As brod as anny fanne’.11

Wild men in art are also involved in this dialectic. Sometimes, of course, they are simply presented as foils to knightly valour, as in the series of marginal scenes in the Smithfield Decretals and the Tay-mouth Hours, in which a hairy wild man seizes a lady in the woods, prompting her rescue by a knight.12 Elsewhere, however, they step (p.175) into the knights’ own role, storming the castle of love,13 or usurping courtly privilege as the successful wooers of ladies. In a series of scenes carved on a German Minnekästchen of the later fourteenth century, the wild man first appears sitting pensively on a tree stump; next, he rides off on a horse and seizes a maiden, to whom a knight, on the other side of the picture, is offering a ring. The knight and a companion ride in pursuit, but the final scene shows wild man and maiden playing chess together—the wild man elegantly posed with crossed legs and a falcon upon his wrist.14 A French Book of Hours, c.i500, is illuminated with a whole series of marginal scenes, described by Timothy Husband as follows:

With few exceptions, only knights and damsels are portrayed. In many cases the activity of a knight is countered directly by that of a wild man. The wild man who shoots a heron (fol. 61v) is faced on the opposite folio by a knight who kills a stag (fol. 68r). Two wild men spirit away a captive knight, while his elaborately caparisoned, mountless horse, led by a third wild man, ends the procession (fol. 17v…). Opposite this scene a wild man heralds a procession of a wild man ‘lord’ who proudly rides an unadorned goat (fol. 18 …). In other scenes, wild men enthusiastically portray the spirit and activities of medieval knights.15

A real-life example illustrates this sort of play in action. To celebrate a marriage in 1392, the French king, Charles VI, together with four lords and a squire (whose idea the entertainment was), dressed themselves in ‘cotes made oflynen clothe, covered with pytche, and theron flaxe lyke heare’,16 and entered the hall so disguised. The duke of Orleans, curious to see who the ‘wild men’ really were, held a torch too near the costume of one of them; the flax and pitch ignited, and all, except the king, who was shielded by the duchess of Berry, and one lord who managed to plunge into a water-butt, were burnt to death. Richard Bernheimer sees the king’s participation in such a masquerade (this was the second in which he is known to (p.176) have taken part) as an escape from the stifling demands of courtly etiquette: ‘it is a gauge of the pressure of formalized living upon those who were supposed to be its foremost paragons, that it seems to have been necessary at times to open the valves and to let the agonized fury of “natural man” take its unhampered course’.17 However, the situation at the Bal des Ardents was not quite so simple. Far from ‘natural man’ being allowed an entirely free rem (which would have entailed the setting aside of all marks of status and degree), the king entered the hall ahead of the others and, unlike them, was not bound by a chain. As Froissart describes it, ‘Fyve of them were fastened one to another; the kyng was lose, and went before and led the devyse.’18 Charles and his companions preserved their places within the social hierarchy even within their masking uniforms of linen and flaxen ‘hair’. Indeed, we could even say that the king owed his survival precisely to the maintenance of these distinctions.

Knights In The Wilderness

Several romances feature knights who live as wild men for a time: Orfeo, Partonope of Blois, Orson, Merlin, Lancelot, and Yvain.19 We may see these episodes as a further dialectical enterprise: through becoming ‘wild’, these heroes will discover what it is that constitutes truly human living. Explorers at the edge, they will bring back reports of how ‘wildness’ may properly be imagined, and in doing so they will clarify the assumptions and values of their own environing society.

In each of the cases I have listed above (with the exception of Orson, who is savage from childhood because he has been brought up by a bear), the romance hero’s flight from civilization is triggered by the breaking of a particular relationship. Orfeo loses his beloved wife Heurodis to the Fairy King, while Yvam is stricken with (p.177) madness when he is suddenly reminded that he has broken faith with Laudme. From that lost relationship, and implicitly too from all the attachments and obligations of a courtly way of life, the knight flees into the wilderness.

The movement outwards, into a state radically different from the previous one, is deliberately modulated, to show the experiential, if not the actual, length of the journey. Orfeo’s departure is one of the simplest, yet it is still presented in successive stages: he first passes through the ‘gate’, and so out of town, then across the bordering territory of wood and heath, and finally arrives in the wilderness:

he that hadde ben king with croune

Went so poverlich out of toun!

Thurch wode and over heth

Into the wilderness he geth.20

Partonope seems to begin his movement away from a wholly civilized life while he is still physically within the bounds of the court. Disappointed in love, he enters a liminal state in which he takes upon himself the privations he will soon have to suffer:

Lytill he etith and lasse drynkeþ he.

Thries in be weke he doþe ete;

His fode is not deynte mete:

Brede made of barly or elles of oote,

This is his mete, and watir sode

His his drynke two dayes or þre,

That in þe weke now taketh he.

That is his sustenaunce and levyng;

In oþer rule may no man hym bryng.

… …

His nayles growne and all forfare,

He martreth his body with sorowe and care,

He is for-growen with his heere.21

Even before he leaves the court, Partonope’s body is shading into that of the wild man—in this case an image of debilitation produced by complete indifference to his own welfare. Once in (p.178) the wilderness, he will lapse into such extreme weakness that Urake will find him barely able to crawl along on knees and elbows (line 7500). Yet, importantly, the description also imposes a reading on Partonope’s state: like the dishevelled Cnseyde, he is love’s ‘martyr’, and so, it is suggested, his behaviour will continue to be ruled by human motives even when he appears most animal-like.

Partonope’s actual departure from the court is explicitly away from his ‘frendes’, who represent his discarded way of life:

Forthe now rideþ Partonope

Into þe forest þat neuer he

Spareth to ryde, day ne nyght,

Till he passe knowleche and sight

Of all his frendes, more and lasse. (7073–7)

Chrétien’s Yvain, too, first removes himself from his peers, the ‘barons’. Jacques Le Goff has traced and analysed the various ensuing stages in his journey to the wilderness:22

D’antre les barons se remue;


Et il va tant, que il fu loing

Des tantes et des paveillons.

Lors li monta uns torbeillons

El chief si granz, que il forsane,

Lors se descrire et se depane

Et fuit par chans et par arees

Et leisse ses janz esgarees,

Qui se mervoillent, ou puet estre.

Querant le vont par trestot l’estre,

Par les ostes as chevaliers

Et par haies et par vergiers,

Sel quierent la, ou il n’est pas.23

He leaves the company of the barons… He went away, until he was far from the tents and pavilions. Then so violent a whirlwind assails his head that he goes mad. He rips his clothes and flees across fields and ploughland, leaving his men bewildered, and wondering where he can be. They search (p.179) for him through the whole neighbourhood, in the knights’ lodgings, and in hedgerows and orchards, looking for him where he is not to be found.

Le Goff points out that Yvam’s flight takes him past the various Outposts’ of civilization. He first leaves behind him the members of the court, and then all the signs of human settlement or cultivation—fields and furrows, tents, orchards, hedgerows. In a ‘parc’, an area enclosed for grazing animals, he finds a boy and takes his bow and arrows from him. He is now equipped for his life in the wild, and it is as a hunter, not as a knight, that he enters the forest.

To become a ‘wild man’, therefore, a knight has to take those steps that lead him outside the boundaries of his own society. He has to move away, successively discarding things as he goes. The privileged identity that once encased him like his armour has cracked, and he has to find new clothing, both metaphorically and literally. Orfeo, for instance, exchanges his kingly robes for a simple pilgrim’s ‘sclavm’. In the version of the Gelert story in The Seven Sages of Rome, mentioned above in Chapter 5, the repentant lord takes off his shoes before disappearing into the forest.24 Yet, while one kind of identity is being set aside, there is often a concomitant emphasis on continuing human purpose and integrity. Orfeo’s ‘sclavin’, his bare feet, and the fact that he takes not even a shirt for his back, are suggestive of penance, as well as of Christ’s prescription of poverty for the twelve apostles.25 And Yvain is not so lost in wit that he cannot equip himself with the bow and arrows he needs to survive in the wilderness (and which he wields with great efficiency, as it turns out).

Having entered the wilderness, the wild-man/knight must begin his new life there. As I suggested earlier, this ‘wilderness’ is not an unpeopled wasteland: although the lovelorn knight may originally have craved solitude, solitude is precisely what he does not get. Partonope’s massive forest of the Ardennes is still a place where the courtly activity of hunting goes on—indeed, Partonope himself, at the beginning of the story, was seen participating in just such a hunt (lines 524 ffi). Orson’s forest is similarly an area of human thoroughfare, so that even though his dwelling is said to be a ‘pitte obscure & (p.180) tenebrous’ he is frequently brought into conflict with both men and animals: ‘He became so great and strong, that none durste passe through the forest for hym, for bothe men and beastes he put vnto death, and eate their flesh al raw as the other beastes did… ‘26 Even Orfeo’s wilderness, which is perhaps the most compellmgly remote from civilization, since Orfeo does not speak to another human being there, is haunted by simulacra of his former way of life—horns blowing, dogs barking, the fairy court dancing together or riding hunting.

While the terrain of the wild-men/kmghts is modelled to provoke human encounters, it is also a place where they will meet animals of various kinds. Interaction with animals is carefully structured within the texts, with some potential readings being screened out. Why? The reason, I suggest, is that one strand of wild-man mythology has him closely allied with the beasts, exercising a quasi-magical power over them. The Giant Herdsman in Yvain is such a character; Maruk, the wise old sailor on board the ship that brings Urake to the rescue of Partonope, although he is not a wild man as such, is a close literary relative:

‘I shall you shew

Merva[y]lles many, and not few,

Of lyons, apes, and eke berys,

Dragons, olifauntez, and gwy[v]ers,

Beres, wolfes, and eke Serpentes,

And shall I wyth myn experymentz

Make hem be-fore yow for fere quake

And whan me lust I [shall] hem make

Ryse and walke where-euer hem lust,

Thorw the forest were hem lyketh best.’

… …

Maruk shewed hir grete lyons,

Beres, apes, and also gryffouns,

Dragons, Wyuers, and eke serpentes,

That be crafte of his experimentes

Oute of hir place durst not stirre.

(7212–21 (University College MS); 7252–6)

(p.181) A magical relationship with animals may hint at some sharing in their nature, and thus some blurring of the boundary line between animal and human. This, in the case of the wild-men/kmghts, the texts cannot allow. Of course, it is acceptable for animals to befriend, amuse, or assist the new entrant into their wilderness. Partonope wishes that a fierce beast would kill him, since he cannot bear to live without Melior, yet, although the forest of the Ardennes is full of savage animals (such as the lion that later attacks his horse), none of them does him any harm. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin marvels at the wild creatures grazing in the glades and chases after them in play; at other times he sits by a fountain and watches them frolicking around him. In the lament that is overheard by a traveller he speaks of a wolf-companion who shares his wintertime privations, suffering even more acutely than he does himself. Later, Merlin leads a herd of stags, deer, and goats to his former wife’s wedding, and makes them accomplices in his revenge since he kills the new bridegroom with a well-thrown antler. But there must be clear boundaries to each encounter. When Orfeo plays his harp to the wild animals, and they gather round joyfully to listen to him, there is perhaps the hint of a relationship too ambiguous for comfort, a suggestion that player and audience have begun to partake of the same nature. And so we are told that the spell—if spell it is—only lasts while Orfeo is actually playing: as soon as he stops the creatures vanish:

And when he his harping lete wold,

No best bi him abide nold. (265–6)

Orson, the most beast-like of all the wild-men/kmghts, still has to be seen as an empress’s son and a future champion of the French court. Despite the accidentals of a shaggy pelt, and the ferocity he has sucked in with his foster-mother’s milk, he cannot be seen to be a bear and to have a bear’s complicity with other animals. The solution is to have him dominate the other forest creatures through sheer brute strength, literally forcing a space between them and him: ‘[He] began for to smyte the other beastes of the forest, in suche wyse that they all douted hym, and fledded before him’ (p. 38). Thus, in their relationships with animals, the wild-men/kmghts, although they stand upon the boundary, are seen never to lose their footing in the human world that is their real home.

(p.182) To survive in the wilderness, the wild-men/knights need to be able to feed themselves. The theme of diet is an important one, for food not only ensures physical survival but validates a particular identity.27 Partonope’s near-starvation diet not only induces bodily weakness but also acts to create in him the image of the wild man he will later become. And, towards the end of the romance of Valentine and Orson, the knight Valentine, who has accidentally killed his own father in battle, prepares to undergo a seven-year penance as a beggar underneath the palace stairs: ‘Valentine entred in to a wode after that he hade shorne his hear, and was there eating rotes so longe that none coude knowe him’ (p. 313). Since diet sustains identity, when diet changes identity changes too. Consequently, in the romances of the wild-men/kmghts, the methods by which the protagonists obtain their food are typically related to the wider concerns and patterns of the narrative. For example, both Orfeo and Partonope subsist on wild vegetation, but there is an important difference between them. Partonope, wishing to die, makes no effort to seek out his own food, taking only what he sees in front of him. He tells Urake:

I am ouercome with ffeblenesse;

For be þe Rotes of þe grasse,

Sith I come bidder, haue ben my levyng. (7498–500)

Later, Urake comments, ‘Of mete ne drynke taketh he none hede.’ Orfeo, on the other hand, is tirelessly active in his search for sustenance:

Now may he alday digge and wrote

Er he finde his fille of rote. (241–2)

His body begins to be marked by his habitual digging and rooting, blackened, abraded, and scarred by thorns. What he finds is (p.183) enough to keep him alive and functioning, but it does not nourish him fully—its components are ‘bot good lite’. Orfeo’s dedicated, self-lacerating activity as he seeks to sustain himself mirrors his later resolution and courage when he sets out in pursuit of the fairy riders, and eventually rescues Heurodis from the fairy court. Conversely, Partonope’s feeble refusal of effort correlates with his role as the heartbroken lover, thrown into desolation by the loss of Melior.

To kill animals for food is an obvious alternative to the rigours of a vegetarian diet, and one—we might imagine—that any committed survivalist would quickly adopt. The savage Orson eats the flesh of both beasts and men. Yvam, too, kills deer, shooting them with the bow and arrows he had providentially taken from the boy he passed on his flight into the forest. He eats the venison raw, and in the English version, Ywain ana Gawain, drinks the deer’s blood too. Penelope Doob suggests that this interposed detail both emphasizes Yvam’s bestiality and alludes to a popular cure for melancholy madness (which fails to work on Yvam because his malady is spiritual rather than bodily).28 However, in its context the drinking of blood is not imbued with ‘the horror of savagery’—on the contrary, its nourishing properties are stressed:

He drank of be warm blode,

And þat did him mekil gode.29

Yvain, his madness notwithstanding, is a practical opportunist, taking from the forest whatever he needs to survive, and using animals in exactly the way they were meant to be used, as supports for human life. He has retained all his hunting skills intact—we are told that during his time in the woods he does not lose a single arrow, recovering each one after it has been shot.

Jacques Le Goff has explored in detail how Yvain’s re-ascent to full humanity is imaged in his changing diet.30 He begins, as we have seen, by killing the deer and eating the meat raw and bloody (‘La veneison trestote crue’, line 2826). He then comes upon a hermit, a (p.184) man, in Le Goff's description, living at a primitive level of technology (he has a hut, and a small patch of cleared ground where he digs for roots). The hermit leaves bread out for the wild man—bread of such debased quality that it serves to emphasize the hermit’s status on the very margins of the economy. It is the bread of the desperately poor, and Chrétien’s audience are invited to savour it with a sort of fascinated repulsion:

Ne cuit, que onques de si fort

Ne de si aspre eüst gosté.

N’avoit mie cine souz costé

Li sestiers, don fu fez li pains,

Qui plus iere egres que levains,

D’orge pestriz atot la paille,

Et avuec ce iere il sanz faille

Moisiz et ses come un escorce. (2844–51)

I do not believe he had ever tasted bread so rough or so coarse. The measure of grain from which the bread was made had not cost five sous: made of barley kneaded with straw, it was even sourer than yeast and was actually mouldy and as dry as bark.

Yvam begins to leave the deer carcasses for the hermit to prepare, and in exchange the hermit supplies him with bread and water, and with cooked meat:

S’avoit a mangier et a boivre

Veneison sanz sel et sanz poivre

Et eve froide de fontainne. (2879–81)

To eat and drink he had venison without salt and without pepper, and cold water from the spring.

Here, Le Goff suggests, ‘Communication between the world of the hunt and the world of agriculture, the raw and the cooked… takes place at the lowest possible level’.31 The hermit sells the hides of the deer, and with the money is able to buy bread of better quality, ‘D’orge ou d’avainne ou d’autre grain’ (‘of barley or oats or other grain’, line 2884). Yvain’s improving diet mirrors his gradual return to the higher life from which he had fallen. As his madness began with the shattering of all attachments, so his recovery of health begins with the establishment of the simplest of all relationships— (p.185) one of basic trading—with another human being. Yet he still has a long way to go. The cooked venison may nourish him, but in social terms it is still a deficient diet since it lacks the seasonings (sel et … poivre) with which it would be enhanced at court. Later, restored to sanity and with a faithful lion as his companion, Yvam himself roasts the meat the lion catches for him, but, again, he does not really enjoy his meal since he has to eat it without the proper accompaniments:

Mes del mangier fu nus deduiz;

Qu’il n’i ot pain ne vin ne sel,

Ne nape ne coutel ne el. (3468–70)

But he took no pleasure in his meal, for he had no bread, wine, or salt, no tablecloth, no knife, nor anything else.

Yvam’s changing diet therefore images his will to return from his wild-man condition to his former knightly status—a will that is operative even when he appears most deranged and alienated. As Le Goff points out, the very moment when he runs wild is also the moment which marks the start of his long journey back to sanity. It is not enough for him simply to ‘survive’ in the wilderness, as Orfeo does—every one of his actions predicates his eventual repossession of his true identity.

All of the wild-men/kmghts, like Yvam, regain their previous status, and are granted full healing of the broken relationship that prompted their flight. Orfeo returns triumphantly from the fairy court with his wife Heurodis, Partonope and Melior are reunited, andso are Yvam andLaudme. The movement back is often instigated, or assisted, by female characters. Yvam is restored to sanity when a damsel anoints him with some magical ointment prepared by her mistress. Partonope is brought back to civilized society by two women, Urake and Persevis. He surrenders himself entirely to their care:

Partonope hath now clene forsake

The wodwose life, and hape hym take

To be governaunce all fully

Of fayre Wrak and of Persewy. (7690–3)

Urake in turn mediates between Partonope and Melior, interpreting his strange behaviour to her and supplying it with a meaning:

So moche sorowe for you hath he take,

Horne-wode he renneth for your sake.

… …


And ye will hym hele or elks fynde,

Go seke hym vnder be wode lynde.

Ther he renneth wode as any hare. (7844–5, 7932–4)

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin is first soothed by music and then becomes sane again when he thinks of his sister and his wife. Women as Others’—standing aside, in some sense, from the dominant culture (a theme that is explored in more detail in the next chapter)—appear to be particularly suited to mediate in this way. With their aid, the hero is drawn back into the sustaining network of relationships he had previously abandoned.

As the wild-man/knight moves back within the bounds of civilization, his former life becomes more strongly imaged in terms of deficiency. King Rodarch, having brought Merlin back to the court once more, pleads with him not to leave, pointing out that life beneath the trees as a wild beast bears no comparison with the personal power he might exert, ruling with royal sceptre over his warlike subjects.32 In Valentine and Orson, Valentine, having battled with his ferocious brother in the forest, describes for him all the benefits of a civilized, Christian life, which can be his if he will only submit and allow himself to be taken back to court:

Alas wylde man, wherfore doest thou not yelde the vnto me thou lyuest here in this wodde lyke a beaste, and hathe no knowledge of God, nor of his blyssed mother saynt Mary, nor of his holy fayth, for the whiche thy souk is in great daunger. Come on thy way with me & then shalt thou do wysely. I shall make the be baptized, and shall teache the, the holy fayth. And shall geue the flesh and fysshe, bread and wyne ynough for to eate, and clothes and all maner of thinges that appertayneth vnto a mannes body, and shalt vse thy lyfe honestly as euery naturall body should doo. (pp. 69–70)

Valentine has answered for himself the crucial question, ‘Is he a man?’, and from his acknowledgement that Orson, shaggy and bestial, is in fact a man, all the rest inevitably follows. If a man, (p.187) then a soul in crying need of salvation. In realistic terms it is not clear how Orson understands what Valentine is saying to him (unless the knight’s courtly fluency of speech is matched by a prodigious talent for sign-language). However, the text requires that the dominant code should be seen to penetrate even Orson’s beastlike mind. ‘[A]fter the course of nature that can not lye’, Orson comprehends all this talk of God and the Blessed Virgin, as well as the workings of the feudal society he is about to enter, and, falling to his knees (a nicely proleptic gesture), declares himself to be wholly Valentine’s ‘man’:

Orson fell downe vpon both his knees, & stretcheth forth his handes towarde his brother Valentyne, in makyng hym signe that he woulde forgeue hym, and that he would obeye vnto hym in al maner of thynges for the tyme to come. And he shewed vnto him by sygnes that neuer the dayes of his life he should fayle him, neyther with body nor goodes, (p. 70)

How Orson manages to pledge the ‘goods’ he has never known possession of is, again, something of a mystery. However, the message is clear. The wild-men/kmghts return from their provmg-ground, the wilderness, and, to a man, re-embrace, and so reaffirm, the values of their native society.

Valentine And Orson

Knight and wild man are inextricably linked, each drawing his identity from his shadow ‘other’. In real life, we can see that a knight of perfect politesse—like Gawain, perhaps—would never actually do any fighting and would thus forfeit his raison d’être. Knights need an infusion of wild-man blood to launch them into battle. It is in this light that I now turn to the late romance of Valentine and Orson, which provides a fascinating commentary on several of the themes explored in this chapter.

The surviving English version of the story of the knight Valentine and his savage brother Orson dates from about 1510, and is a close translation of the French prose Valentin et Orson first printed in 1489. No earlier version in French or English survives, but there are earlier German, Swedish, and (fragmentary) Dutch texts of a closely related story, Valentin und Namelos, and a common ancestor for this and (p.188) Valentine and Orson has been posited—a lost French original, dating from the first half of the fourteenth century.33 The tale was popular in England, and the twin heroes appeared in pageants, such as the one which greeted the new king Edward VI as he rode through London in 1547. Here Orson, who was ‘clothed with mosse and in leves, having in his hand a great clobb of yew-tree for his wepone’, played the role of Edward’s champion:

For I wylde Urson dothe here syngnefye

an emperour’s son of excellent majestye,

notwithstanding in a forest noryshed by a bere,

where many knightes I dyd there conquere.34

There is no literary evidence that the story was known in England before the early sixteenth century, but the scenes on two misericords suggest that this was at least a possibility. In the first (Gloucester cathedral; fourteenth century) a knight on foot fights with a bearded giant and wounds him in the neck (a tree near the giant may suggest a forest setting), while the second (St Mary’s, Beverley; early fifteenth century) shows a meeting between a knight and a wild man.35 These scenes are similar to—and may actually depict—the first meeting of the brothers, and the fight between them.

Valentine and Orson are twins, the sons of the empress Bellissant, who gives birth to them within the forest of Orleans, through which she is travelling after having been unjustly banished from the court of her husband, the emperor of Greece. One son is stolen by a bear, and while his mother is vainly trying to save him the other is taken up by king Pepm of France, who is Bellissant’s brother and to whom she had been making her way. Pepm adopts Valentine, and brings him up within the court, although he does not know he is his own nephew. Orson, however, is raised by the bear with its own cubs, and grows up hairy, ferocious, and unable to speak. He lives a totally bestial life, eating raw flesh and attacking any creature that ventures (p.189) into his domain. The people at Pepm’s court are aware of his nature and his activities, and give him the name Orson’, itself a sort of proprietorial outreach since it implies understanding of his history. The contrast between the brothers’ lives is strongly emphasized:

Valentyne bare hym so meke and so gentyll in kinge Pepyns courte that he was beloued of lordes, ladyes, knyghtes, and squyers, and euery body sayd good & honour by hym. And hys brother Orson is within the forest, roughe & couered with heer as a bere, ledynge a wylde bestes life. (p. 54)

During this period of his bestiality, Orson, despite having a name, is treated as a wild animal—a dangerous and unusual quarry, like the cornered wild man in Queen Mary’s Psalter. King Pepm, eager to see him, gathers his company together to go in search of him. ‘The chace was ordeyned & they entred in to the wodde. They toke dyuers wylde beestes, but to finde Orson euery body was a ferd’ (p. 55). The expedition is a hunting foray, and Orson’s eventual discovery, in a ‘pitte obscure & tenebrous’, resembles the rousing of the great boar in the second of the hunts in Gawain. Cornered, Orson fights like a wild beast, attacking first the king and then the knight who comes to his aid: ‘whan Orson sawe the naked swerd flambing, he left the kynge and ranne to the knyghte and tooke hym in hys armes and held hym so hard that he threw doune both hors and man…. And Orson held the knight the which with his sharp nailes strangled hym, and pyteouslye pulled him in pyeces’ (p. 56).

At this point, Orson is the antitype to the values represented by the court—the alien challenger whose function is to test the knights’ valour. ‘You knowe well ynoughe’, Pepm tells Valentine, ‘that by hym is deed many valyaunt men, and that some noble champyons hathe lefte this enterpryse’ (p. 66). Nothing daunted, however, Valentine sets out to conquer him. In the encounter between the two, we see Orson irresistibly drawn to all the gear and trappings of chivalry. He is first attracted to Valentine’s horse: ‘And whan he sawe hym so fayre and so plesaunt, he combed hym a paas weth his roughe handes, in makynge him chere. For he had neuer sene so fayre a beest’ (p. 56). Later, he is distracted by the brightly coloured shield his opponent wears around his neck:

And when that he had taken it from hym, he behelde it ryght strongly, because of the beautie of the colours that he was not accustomed for to se, (p.190) and then he cast it strongly against the earth, and incontinent retourned vnto valentyne. (p. 69)

Which will prove better, a wild body, or weapons? In the battle that ensues, Orson fights with all his tremendous strength, clawing and tearing at his enemy with his nails and wielding a torn-up tree as a club. However, Valentine prevails by means of his knightly armoury—his shield, his sword, which daunts Orson, and the sharp knife with which he eventually manages to wound him:

When valentyne sawe that by strengthe of bodye he myght not wynne hym, he drewe out a sharpe poynted knyfe and smote Orson in to the ryght syde, in suche wyse that the bloude yssued out by great haboundaunce. Then Orson ster[te] vp when he felte himselfe wounded And for the dolour that he felte, as all in a rage he gaue suche a crye that all the wodde sowned therof (p. 68)

It is not weaponry that finally overcomes Orson, however, but Valentine’s discourse on the benefits of a Christian life, which I quoted above. His submission to the dominant code was prefigured by his attraction to its talismans—sword, shield, warhorse—now, as he enters into the milieu of the court, he will conduct his own dialogue with the new way of life offered to him. The court, in turn, views him dialectically, seeing both the present wild man and the ‘fair knight’ he will later become. King Pepm remarks: ‘Lordes by god almighty it is a meruayllous thmge to se this wylde man, he is right well made and of a fayre stature. And how wel that he is roughe, yf he were clothed as we be, he wolde seme a right fayre knyght’ (pp. 73–4). Meanwhile, the wild man must be baptized: ‘And other name they gaue him not saue that whiche he had taken in the forest’ (p. 74).

The new life Orson is entering upon is one that is governed by various conventions of social behaviour. But have these conventions expunged the basic bodily appetites that Orson gave rem to so unmhibitedly in his wild state? Several of his escapades seem designed to provide an answer. For example, when the two, on their way to court, are refused shelter by terrified villagers, Orson breaks down the gate of an inn with a massive piece of wood so that they can enter and spend the night there. At court, he grabs hold of a peacock being carried on a dish to the king’s table, and devours it greedily. Such actions obviously transgress the rules of polite behaviour (p.191) (after Orson’s food-stealing, Valentine ‘shewed hym by sygnes that he gouerned hym not wyll’, p. 74), yet it is clear that the needs that prompt them—for food, for shelter—are shared by all creatures, knights and wild men alike. Later, Valentine takes Orson into the chamber of Eglantyne, Pepm’s daughter and his own love:

in the whiche was dyuers ladyes that gladly behelde Orson. And Orson in laughynge lepte vpon the bedde, & sate there makynge dyuers sygnes that was ryghe pleasaunt vnto the ladyes. But the whiche he dyd they vnder-stode not, of the whiche they were much displeasaunt. So they called Valentyn and demaunded hym what it was that the wylde man shewed them by sygnes. And Valentyne sayd to them. My ladyes knowe for a trouthe that the wylde man sheweth you by his sygnes that he wolde gladly kysse and colle the damoyselles that be here, wherat they began for to laughe & to beholde eche other, (p. 75)

In so far as Valentine and Orson are both male (beyond being knights, or wild men), they share a knowledge, and a secret, ‘signed’ code. Therefore Valentine understands exactly what Orson’s gestures mean, and can interpret them—with the proper gloss of courtly euphemism—to the ladies of the chamber. The complicity of the worlds of the two men could be shown in a diagram.36

                   The Wild Man 2: The Uncourtly Other

(p.192) However, perhaps things are not quite so simple. The ladies declare themselves innocent of Orson’s meaning, yet they look at him with evident pleasure, and when Valentine has translated for them laugh and exchange glances among themselves. Those glances constitute another code, which may be much more cognizant of the first sign-system than its (male) users would like to admit. So, female sexual desire finds its expression in the evanescent, voiceless language that Orson, the wild newcomer to the court, inaugurates. He can be said to speak for Valentine in a more particular sense too, since his message of direct, physical passion is heard against his brother’s frustrated love for Eglantyne, whom he is forbidden by social convention to approach. Although he is dumb, Orson manages to speak effectively about what lies underneath the civilized facade.

In the episode in which Valentine is attacked and captured by the traitor Grygar, Orson’s animal nature becomes dominant as he tries to protect his brother:

[He] sterte forthe as halfe afrayde with his rough handes, and tore and rent all them that he founde in his waye, soo that with his sharpe nayles he pulle[d] them in peces, & bote and strangled them with his teeth. He threw them to the ground one vpon another, and after passed ouer them in smiting them with his fete muche vylaynosly. (pp. 86–7)

This is the same bearlike Orson who dismembered the knight in the woods. As in his battle with Valentine, he is defeated not by strength but by weapons, to which he remains vulnerable—Grygar and his men keep him at bay with their spears while they carry Valentine off. Back m Pepm’s court, Orson manages to convey what has happened through gestures. He attacks Grygar violently, and then, brought before the king,

made him signe that he had slayne & murdred Valentyne in the forest. And after he went shewyng meruaylous sygnes that he wolde fyght wyth Grigar for that thynge by the lawe of champion, & make him confesse his cursed enterpryse and dampnable treason, (p. 90)

Orson succeeds in communicating not merely mtentionality (he wants to fight Grygar) but obedience to the court’s particular ritual for combat (‘by the lawe of champion’). In a telling gesture (especially since he is still supposed to be naked), he takes his ‘hode’ and (p.193) flings it ‘by great fyer[s]nes vnto Gngar in maner of wage & dyf-fyaunce’ (p. 90).

In the battle with Grygar, Orson displays his full animal ferocity, but now he also begins to make use of the resources of chivalry. When he first confronts his enemy, he appears more like a bear than a man: ‘he … stratched forth his armes, and shewed his nayles and his teeth, grennyng full hugely’ (p. 92). When Grygar fails to strike him with his spear, Orson grabs the spear himself, and ‘gaue hym so great a stroke that he loste witte and vnderstandmg in such wyse that he wiste not where he was’ (p. 93). Once Grygar has mounted on his horse, Orson pursues him round the field, ‘makyng a grymly coun-tenaunce, and shewyng the kyng that he woulde yelde hym matte anone’ (p. 93). Orson succeeds in catching the horse, and spins it about so that Grygar is thrown, losing his shield in the process. Orson then mounts the horse himself and, armed with Grygar’s shield, ‘in makyng marueylous sygnes he roode after Grygar that fled about in the fielde’ (p. 93). He finally defeats his opponent by inflicting mortal wounds upon him with his own sword and dagger. The fight with Grygar has been a sort of’jousting by numbers’, with Orson signing his commentary on every step of the action. He presents the world of chivalry with its own image, writ large. And, as he begins to bring together in his body the virtues of the wild and the virtues of knighthood, he is shaping himself into the one champion who can meet the ultimate challenge the knights have to face.

This challenge presents itself in the form of the Green Knight, a merciless foe who has killed ‘dyuers valyaunte knyghtes’ and caused their bodies to be hung shamefully from a tree. It is his destiny never to be vanquished ‘but of a kynges sonne that neuer had souked womans breastes’ (p. 95). It is obvious to us that such a role is tailor-made for Orson, although it is not obvious to the other characters in the story, who are still ignorant of his parentage. Orson expresses extreme eagerness, both to fight with the Green Knight and to ‘loue the fayre Fezonne’, the beautiful maiden whom he guards. Orson’s signing of his desire to love Fezonne is presumably the same as his signing to the ladies in Eglantyne’s chamber—at least, it is hard to imagine how it could be different. But it is now read as part of the courtly code: to battle enemies and to love ladies is exactly what knights are supposed to do, and Valentine duly responds with ‘great (p.194) ioye’ to his brother’s enthusiasm. When he introduces Orson to Fezonne, it is as ‘the moste valyaunte and hardy man that is vpon the earthe…. If he coulde speake well in all the worlde might not be founde his make’ (p. 101). Orson’s tough, impervious skin, originally a mark of his wildness, is now read as a sign of his heroic endurance in adversity: ‘his flesshe is so harde that he feareth nother wynde nor colde’ (p. 101). Fezonne is impressed:

For he is marueylusly well made of his membres, and well formed, streight and hardy of countenaunce, & I beleue that & he were bayned in a hoote house, his flesshe woulde be whyte and softe…. Alwayes in speakynge these wordes the excellent Fezonne behelde stron[g]ly Orson & so as it was goddes pleasure, she was enamoured on Orson, and stryken at the harte more ardauntly than euer she was before of any other, howe well that he was not pycked nor gorgyously clothed as dyuers other were for all that it is sayde commonly that there is no foule loues whan the hartes geueth them therto. (p. 101)

To Fezonne, Orson’s hard skin is something else again: touchable, strokable, apt to be softened by women’s hands. The wild man’s body, expressive and unadorned, once more enables the speaking of female sexual desire.

In his confrontation with the Green Knight, wildness and courtliness continue their debate in Orson’s person and in his actions. From being dumb, he has now moved to the borderline of human speech: threatened by the Green Knight, he ‘began for to momble a peace and makyng sygnes that vpon the morowe he woulde fyghte with hym, and in token of wager he cast the grene knight his hod’ (p. 104). Yet he is still engagingly spontaneous, and when he hears the noise of the crowds eager to catch sight of him he leaps up to a window ‘for to beholde the people that were without’ (p. 104). He spends the night before the battle not in a bed but lying ‘platte to the earth as he was accustomed to do in the forest’ (p. 105). After Valentine and the Green Knight have fought bloodily but inconclusively, and Orson has been given leave to take up the challenge himself, he is ‘ryght Ioyous and lepte and daunced aboute the halle for gladnes’ (p. 112). He is persuaded, against his will, to wear armour, and, once armed, ‘he was moche loked on of the lordes and barons that was there presente, for he semed ryght well to be a man of grete prowesse and hardynesse, replete with all beauté hye (p.195) and well formed in all his membres by ryght mesure compassed’ (p. 113). Orson’s body has shed its wild-man deformities and is now perfectly attuned to the courtly ideal of beauty. In the same way his manners and bearing are being assimilated to the courtly code. However, the revision is incomplete: he still makes people laugh by his menacing gestures (‘he made synes with his handes that he wolde strangle the grene knyght or that myd daye were paste before all the courte’, p. 113) and by the way he dashes back, at the very last moment, to kiss Fezonne. Fezonne accepts his impulsive kiss and assigns it a meaning within chivalnc discourse: as the knight’s classic pledge to his lady before he goes out to do battle for her sake:

And Fezonne that was replete wyth al graciousnes in smiling made hym sygne that he sholde beare hym valyauntlye, and than whan he retorned from the batayll she woulde gyue hym her loue. (p. 113)

(Orson, of course, does not look on the battle as a prelude to winning Fezonne. For him it is the mam event.)

In the fight itself, Orson first bases his technique upon what he has learnt from knights, riding against his adversary with a spear and then attacking him on foot with his sword. Yet once he is wounded his animal nature flashes out decisively:

Whan Orson sawe his bloode renne down alonge hys harme he was more fyerser than a Leoparde, and more courageous than a lyon. He rolled his eyen and shaked his head, and with his bright swearde he gaue the Gyaunte so grete a stroke vpon his head that he touched his naked flesh and bare away a grete quantyte of the flesh & heer withall, and the stroke slyded downe and hyt hym on the arme so that the bloud ranne down habound-auntly. (p. 114)

In his fury, Orson resorts to the extravagant bodily gestures of the wild man, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. However, the animals he is now compared to, the lion and the leopard, are no longer the savage creatures of the wild but those of the heraldic pantheon. And, to inflict final defeat, he needs to ally his native ferocity with the human qualities of reason and intelligence instilled in him during his stay at the court. As he is ‘subtyl and well auysed’, he realizes he must stop the Green Knight treating himself with his magic balm. Therefore he brings his tremendous strength into play, lifting his enemy in his powerful arms and hurling him to the ground so that he cannot reach for his healing ointment.

(p.196) The defeat of the Green Knight is Orson’s crowning achievement. After it, the last vestiges of his ‘wildness’ either fill away from him, or are re-interpreted in a different light. His dumbness, for instance, is no longer seen as an animal trait but becomes a mere plot device, on a par with the Sleeping Beauty’s coma. Orson is betrothed to Fezonne, the narrator tells us, yet ‘shall he not wedde her, nor neuer lye by her sydes tyll that by the wyll of god he shall speke good language’ (p. 119). What prevents Orson from speaking has nothing to do now with his upbringing—it is ‘a thread that is under his tongue’ which Valentine, counselled by a head of brass, finally severs. Once he has done this, Orson is able to speak ‘also playnly as onybody’(p. 141).

When Orson at last returns to Fezonne to claim her hand in marriage, she does not at first recognize him—he has lost his ‘wild’ exterior, with all its ramifying expressiveness, and put on knightly anonymity. When he fights now, he will fight as an ordinary, typical—although, of course, still a valiant—knight. He will become Constable of France, outstanding in piety and in martial Christian allegiance: when the enchanter Pacolet reveals his plan to massacre the Saracens who are being besieged by king Pepm and his army, he responds with unqualified approval: ‘By God sayde Orson you speake ryght well and subtylly, and shewe well that you haue a good wil and deuocion for to susteyne and defende oure lawe’ (p. 255). The transformed wild man now operates the moral turnstile. It is Pacolet who is the new focus of ambiguity—his schemes are indispensable to the knights, and yet he is involved with necromancy, on one occasion summoning up a devil to tell him the future. Orson himself ends his days as a hermit, back in the forest he had roamed in the years of his wildness. His story has been an interrogation, by a courtly society, of the world beyond its boundaries. If we feel—as we surely do—by the close of the romance that Orson the pious hermit is a much less interesting figure than Orson the wild man or Orson the apprentice knight, it is because the dominant code has triumphed too conclusively: there is no longer that sense of dialectical tension, of the immediacy of questions being presented through the bodily imaging of the central actor. It is this tension that the best of the wild men, in literature and in art, succeed in conveying to us.


(1) Larry D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), 80, 81.

(2) Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington, Ind., 1984), 20.

(3) See Timothy Husband, The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism (New York, 1980), no. 5 (colorplate III) and fig. 24.

(4) David Burnley, Courtliness and Literature in Medieval England (London, 1998), 69.

(5) The Sowdone of Babylone, ed. Emil Hausknecht, EETS ES 38 (1881), lines 2175–6, 2191–7. On hardness of skin as a marker of vilainie, see Burnley, Courtliness, 84–8.

(6) For an example of overlap between ‘giant’ and wild man, see John Pinlayson, ‘Arthur and the Giant of St Michael’s Mount’, 33 (1964), 112–20.

(7) Ad Putter, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and French Arthurian Romance (Oxford, 1995), esp. ch. 3.

(8) Bakhtin, Rabelais, 25.

(9) Benson, Art and Tradition, 59–62.

(10) Lancelot, in The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances, ed. H. O. Sommer (Washington, 1908–16), 26–7, quoted with a translation in Benson, Art and Tradition, 82–3.

(11) Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle in Two Versions, ed. Auvo Kurvinen, Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae, Series B, 71 (Helsinki, 1951), line 255.

(12) See n. 75 to Ch. 5, above.

(13) See e.g. Husband, Wild Man, nos. 12 (fig. 37), 13 (fig. 40); Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment and Demonology (Cambridge, Mass., 1952), fig. 34.

(14) See Husband, Wild Man, no. 16 (fig. 49) and p. 88.

(15) Ibid. 145. Scenes from this MS are reproduced in colorplate XI, a-d. See also figs. 87 (engraving by Israhel von Meckenem, Lower Rhineland, c.1480) and 88 (tapestry, Alsace, 1390–1410), in both of which wild men take part in parodie jousting scenes.

(16) The Chronicle of Froissart, trans. Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners, introd. W. P. Ker, 6 vols. (London, 1901–3), vi. 96.

(17) Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages, 67.

(18) Chronicle of Froissart, vi. 97.

(19) The list is not exhaustive, and there are other occurrences in romance literature of the same theme. The lord in the Gelert story mentioned above (see n. 76 to Ch. 5) is one example; another is Owein in the story of’The Lady of the Fountain’ in The Mabinogion (trans. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman’s Library, rev. edn. (London, 1989), 155–82).

(20) Sir Orfeo, in Middle English Romances, ed. A. C. Gibbs, York Medieval Texts (London, 1966), lines 221–4. Subsequent references are included in the text.

(21) Partonope of Blois, ed. A. Trampe Bödtker, EETS ES 109 (1912), lines 6644–52, 6655–7. Subsequent references are included in the text.

(22) Jacques Le Goff, ‘Lévi-Strauss in Broceliande: A Brief Analysis of a Courtly Romance’, in The Medieval Imagination (Chicago and London, 1988; trans, of L’Imaginaire medieval: Essais, Paris, 1985), 107–31.

(23) Yvain: Le Chevalier au lion, text W. Poerster, introd. L. B. W. Reid (Manchester, 1942), lines 2796, 2802–12. Subsequent references are included in the text.

(24) The Seven Sages of Rome, ed. Karl Brunner, EETS OS 191 (1933), 27–32.

(25) ‘Nyl 3e welden gold, nether syluer, ne money in 3oure girdlis, Not a scripe in the weye, nether two cootis, nether shoon, nether 3eerd; for a workman is worthi his mete’ (Matt. 10: 9–10; trans. Wyclif).

(26) Valentine and Orson, trans. Henry Watson, ed. Arthur Dickson, EETS OS 204 (1937), 38. Subsequent references are included in the text.

(27) For interesting reappearances of this theme in very different contexts, see Piero Camporesi, Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe, trans. David Gentilcore (Cambridge, 1989), 169: ‘The university culture of [16th-cent.] Bologna… had formulated an ideology of class directed at sanctioning the biological inferiority of the humble poor in order to crush them politically. It was an ideology that postulated two distinct diets, depending on membership of a group in power or a class of the destitute’; and Harriet Ritvo, The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 200: ‘Even in its unsegmented state, meat reflected essential social divisions, some elevated kinds “fit for fine Complexions, idle Citizens,” others, like bacon, “gross, tough and hard, agreeing chiefly to Country Persons and Hard Labourers”.’

(28) Penelope Doob, Nebuchadnezzar’s Children: Conventions of Madness in Middle English Literature (New Haven, 1974), 147.

(29) Ywain and Gawain, ed. Albert B. Friedman and Norman T. Harris, EETS OS 254 (1964), lines 1669–70.

(30) Le Goff, ‘Lévi-Strauss in Broceliande’, 113–14.

(31) Le Goff, ‘Lévi-Strauss in Broceliande’, 114.

(32) Life of Merlin, ed. and trans. Basil Clarke (Cardiff, 1973), lines 227–31: ‘astabatque dolens verbisque precantibus ilium | orabat ratione frui secumque manere | nec captare nemus nec vivere more ferino. | velle sub arboribus dum regia sceptra tenere | posset et inpopulosjus exercere feroces.’

(33) For a full discussion of sources and analogues, see Arthur Dickson, Valentine and Orson: A Study in Late Medieval Romance (New York, 1929).

(34) Sydney Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy, Oxford-Warburg Studies (Oxford, 1969), 285, 286.

(35) Gloucester: see G. C. Druce, ‘Some Abnormal and Composite Forms in English Church Architecture’, Archaeological Journal, 72 (1915), 140 n. 1; Beverley: see G. L. Remnant, A Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain, with an Essay on their Iconography by M. D. Anderson (Oxford, 1969), p. xl.

(36) My diagram has obvious affinities with the Ardeners’ model of the relationship between dominant (male) and muted (female) groups, in which a shadow crescent, the only part of the circle that is not eclipsed, signifies the ‘wild zone’ of women’s culture. See Edwin Ardener, ‘The “Problem” Revisited’, in Shirley Ardener (ed.), Perceiving Women (London, 1975), 23. In my version there are, from Valentine’s point of view, two ‘wilds’ (the ladies’, and Orson’s) which he cannot access. Some of the questions this raises about the role of gender in the construction of’the wild’ are considered in the next chapter.