Henry II and Ganelon

Henry II and Ganelon

By Paul R. Hyams

Syracuse Scholar, Vol.4:1 (1983)

King Henry II – British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A. XIII, f.4v

Introduction: Once upon a time, there was a king of Nantes, called Equitan, a good and courteous ruler, filled with a proper enthusiasm for princely things:

Equitan had a seneschal, a good knight, brave and loyal, who took care of his land for him, governed and administered it. Unless the king was making war, he would never, no matter what the emergency, neglect his hunting, his hawking or other amusements.

In time Equitan fell in love with his seneschal’s wife and seduced her, while the ”seneschal sat in court, trying pleas and accusations.”

Now these two illicit lovers came to a hot and sticky end. The wronged husband killed the couple by upending them in a tub of boiling water intended for himself. How this happened is, sadly, beside the present point. Readers interested in torrid love affairs must consult the original or one of the excellent translations available. A modern audience may indeed feel that the lovers received a deserved comeuppance.

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But the tale’s author, Marie de France, intended a good deal more than this. Contemporaries swiftly seized her thrust at the double standards demanded in public life . Castle society applauded chivalry at story time but in the real world valued stability at least as highly. People with much to lose required much of their kings, whom they expected both to cut a fine knightly figure and to manage daily business, however dull . Such genteel folk naturally tended to despise the boring task of justicing the lower orders in “pleas and accusations.” They accepted that the job must be done but did not easily see functionaries who did so as potential stars of a story like this one . Marie reflected this miscalculation by never deigning to name the seneschal; yet he, not the king, discharged the burden of government in knightly society.

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