William of Palermo

The French verse romance Guillaume de Palerme was composed circa 1200, commissioned by Countess Yolande (who is generally identified to be Yolande, daughter of Baldwin IV, Count of Flanders). The prose version of the French romance, printed by N Bonfons, passed through several editions.

The English poem in alliterative verse, commissioned by Humphrey de Bohun, 6th Earl of Hereford, was written circa 1350 by a poet named William. A single surviving manuscript of the English version is held at Kings College, Cambridge.

In this story, the werewolf appears as a benevolent creature, a sort of guardian angel

“The brother of the King Apulia, envious of the heir-apparent, bribes two women to murder the king’s son. While the boy William is at play a wer-wolf runs off with him, swims across the Straits of Messina, and carries him into a forest near Rome, where it takes care of him and provides him with food. The wer-wolf in reality is Alphonso, heir to the Spanish throne, who has been transformed by his stepmother Queen Braunde, who desires her own son Braundinis to wear the crown of Spain.

The wer-wolf embraces the king’s son

With his fore-feet,

And so familiar with him

Is the king’s son, that all pleases him,

Whatever the beast does for him.

While the wer-wolf seeks provender, a cowherd finds WilHam and takes him to his hut, where the Emperor meets him when out hunting. Placing him behind him on his horse he takes him to Rome and gives him in charge of his daughter Melior, to be her page.

William and Melior fall in love with one another, and to avoid the Emperor’s wrath devise an escape, disguised in the skins of white bears, helped by Melior’s friend Alexandrine. When Melior asks whether she makes a bold bear, Alexandrine answers, ” Yes, Madame, you are a grisly ghost enough, and look ferocious.” Together the lovers wander out of the garden on all fours and making their way to the forest hide in a den. Meanwhile the wer-wolf has followed William’s fortunes, and finding the wanderers in need, he sets on a harmless passer-by who carries provisions, and seizing bread and boiled beef out of his bag, lays it before the lovers, then runs off and, attacking another traveller, secures two flagons of wine.

Being pursued, the lovers escape to Palermo, led always by the wer-wolf, Alphonso, half-brother to Braundinis, who was destined by Melior’s father to become his son-in-law. William does battle with the proposed suitor and, still helped by the wer-wolf, whose symbol is painted on his shield, overcomes his rival, takes the King and Queen of Spain prisoner and refuses to let them go until Queen Braunde promises to transform the rightful heir from a wolf back into a human being.
” Unless she disenchants you, she shall be burnt,” he says forcibly. Braunde takes her stepson, the wolf, into a private chamber, draws forth a magic ring with a stone in it that is proof against all witchcraft and binds it with a red silk thread round the wolf’s neck.

Then she takes a book out of a casket and reads in it a long time till he turns into a man. The wer-wolf is delighted, but apologises to his stepmother for having no clothes on, and she commands him to choose who shall fetch his clothes. He answers that he will take his attire and the order of knighthood from the worthiest man alive, William of Palermo. William, being called, enters the chamber, where he sees a man who is an utter stranger and is only satisfied when he hears Alphonso’s explanation, ” I am the wer-wolf who saved you from many perils.” William and Melior are married, all ends happily and William becomes Emperor of Rome. “

It ought to be remarked that the curious fancies about the enchantment of Alphouns into a werwolf, and the dressing up of William and Melior, firstly in the skins of two white bears and afterwards in the skins of a hart and a hind, as also the wearing of a hind’s skin by the Queen of Palermo, form the true groundwork of the story, and no doubt, at the time, attracted most attention. To a modern reader this part of the narrative becomes tedious, and one wonders why the disguises were kept on so long. But as a whole, the story is well told, and the translator must have been a man of much poetic power, as he has considerably improved upon his original.

Thorpe, B., ” Northern Mythology,” 185 1, Vol. II, pp. 168-9.