William of Palerne

About William of Palerne, also known as the romance of william and the werewolf

Image of Text from the only surviving English manuscript of William of Palerne from King's College, Cambridge.

William and Werewolf or William of Palerne is one of the earliest survivals of what is now known as the alliterative revival of the fourteenth century. Written around 1350 and dedicated to Humphrey de Bohun, it is a long-line alliterative romance which tells the story of two princes, each of whom are betrayed by the greed of family members and eventually emerge victorious to establish their realms based on good government and social justice.

Cambridge, King’s College, MS 13 – a unique survival

William of Palerne – described as The Romance of William and the Werewolf by Sir Frederic Madden in the nineteenth century – is an English retelling of a French romance, Guillaume de Palerne, dating from the 1190s.

However, this is not a straightforward translation of a French exemplar but one undertaken in the alliterative style; it is shorter than the French and its poetic form is fundamentally altered. As such it is an innovative reworking of an established work for an entirely new audience and one with different tastes.

The manuscript misses its opening, and one further section of the text but, thanks to the original French poem, the plot can be deduced simply. Of particular interest is the dedication – to Humphrey de Bohun (VIII), Sixth Earl of Hereford – and that it has been transcribed for “those who know no French”.

Image of text from original manuscript of William of Palerne in Cambridge

It is thought that Humphrey, an invalid living at Pleshey in Essex, commissioned the work to be read to distant estate holders in his lands in Gloucestershire; the county is mentioned as part of the dedication made by the scribe. Its willingness to describe the lives of humble folk (farmers, woodsmen, quarrymen, charcoal burners) all suggest a patron who was interested in all his estateworkers, possibly as a consequence of the Black Death.

The manuscript containing the text, Cambridge, King’s College, MS 13, is a most fortunate survival. No other example of this romance exists; despite the damage to the work the vast majority of the plot and content survives, allowing the modern reader a tantalising insight into the world of powerful nobles in the mid fourteenth century.

The manuscript and the text
Image of some of the original text of William of Palerne in Cambridge University

Cambridge, King’s College MS 13 contains two separate manuscripts which at some stage were bound together. Although missing its first four missing leaves, and a further folio later on, what remains of William and the Werewolf is in remarkably good condition.

The poem is written in an exceptionally clear single hand, thought to date from the later fourteenth century (somewhere between 1350 and 1375). GHV Bunt describes the romance as being “written in a single hand of professional appearance. The script is a bold textura of the later fourteenth century”.

The text is laid out in a single column format; when new sections of the poem begin, a two-line initial (see photograph) has been inserted in either blue or green ink with ornamentation in green. The initials were inserted after the main manuscript has been written down, a common practice; the initials most likely were to aid textual navigation when the poem was being read.

Unlike Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, William and the Werewolf was not illuminated or, if illuminations were bound in at the beginning and end, as in Cotton Nero A.x, none of these survives.

The influence of William and the Werewolf

It is difficult to ascribe a particular influence to William and the Werewolf yet what is clear is that it had a patron – unusually, for the alliterative revival, one who is both named and powerful.

It is known that Humphrey de Bohun established a substantial book production operation at Pleshey from which some of the finest illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period emerged. Although it is unlikely that William and the Werewolf was produced as part of this operation, it could well have been written by one of his scribes; the quality of the script does not suggest an amateur.

It is quite possible that Humphrey’s involvement with the text could have promoted the reading and distribution of texts within the alliterative revival. This may have encouraged the translation and production of other works and romances in the genre and potentially have increased the broader acceptance of English texts within the upper echelons of society.

A modern, illuminated edition of William and the Werewolf

Michael Smith is currently crowdfunding an illustrated translation of William and the Werewolf through his publisher, Unbound. Every supporter has their name published in the back as a patron; if you would like to support the book, please click the link below. There are a wide range of pledge options to choose from too, including signed copies, orginal illustrations and much more.

Image of forthcoming translation of William of Palerne (William and the Werewolf) by Michael Smith

The book contains a line by line translation of the poem as well as an historical introduction and a summary of the survival of the manuscript.

The text also contains a glossary and detailed notes, as well as an analysis of the text’s patronage and its potential authorship.

As with the original, the text itself contains a series of illuminated letters which break up the text for ease of reading.

The illustrations within the text are all created by Michael and printed using the linocut process. Some of these illustrations are available as pledge options for patrons supporting the book