Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

William in Monastery: William forces his way into monastery and beats up monks

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About the scene and clip:
In this scene, William, the great—and comic—warrior-turned-monk, forces his way into his monastery and beats up the monks for having tried to have him killed. He then asks the prior for permission to leave for good. The strongly physical performer tells the story, acting out all the parts.

About the work:
The epic William in the Monastery tells the final part of the great career of William of Orange (Guillaume d’Orange), the hero of an entire cycle of French medieval epic songs. (He was an historical figure, a 9th-century contemporary of Charlemagne; many legends arose about him, and he was revered as a saint.) William is a strongly colorful, often comic, hero. Like most medieval French epics, William in the Monastery is composed in laisses (or stanzas) of variable length with ten-syllable lines in assonance (the final vowel is the same within each laisse). Such epics were originally sung by jongleurs, often with vielle accompaniment. This very funny epic dates from the late 12th century; it deals with William’s life after the death of his wife, Guibourc. William decides to become a monk and enters a monastery, but he does not fit in at all: he is huge and alarming, has a violent temper, and eats much more than the other monks. His fellow monks try to get rid of him by having him killed by robbers in a forest, but he defeats and kills all the brigands after having invited them to attack him. He then returns to the monastery; he forces his way in, beats up the monks, then asks the prior for pardon and permission to leave forever: granted! William becomes a saintly—but still warlike—hermit. (His hermitage was called “Saint-Guillaume-du Désert”; the place still exists in the south of France.) After this point, the two surviving manuscripts differ—and one is damaged—but in both versions William has a few final fights with Saracens; in one he must fight with the devil himself (need we say that William wins?).

About the genre:
The epic is an ancient genre and is found in almost every culture. It is a long heroic narrative which tells of war and great deeds. Epics are generally composed in verse, and sung from memory or improvised in performance by professional performers with instrumental accompaniment. These narratives are created from traditional elements, commonly without recourse to writing, by poets whose names are often unknown to us. Among the famous traditional epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer; the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; and the Old French Song of Roland. Many known poets adopt epic forms and themes for their literary verse (such as Virgil in his Aeneid).

This story also belongs to the genre of hagiography. Stories about the saintly wisdom, heroism, or miracles of remarkable men and women exist in many religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Such stories are termed “hagiography.” In medieval Europe, the saint’s life or legend was an extremely popular type of work. A great many stories (and plays) about male and female Christian saints exist in Latin and in all the vernacular languages. These works may focus on the saint’s dramatic death by martyrdom, or recount the remarkable miracles performed by the saint, or may relate the entire life of the holy man or woman. Among the most important collections of saints’ lives and legends is The Golden Legend by Jacobus of Voragine. Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales is a tale of martyrdom. Miracle and pious tales about the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, constitute a special, and highly important, category of saintly legends.

About the edition/translation:
Guillaume d’Orange: Four Twelfth-Century Epics, tr. Joan M. Ferrante, New York/London, Columbia University Press, 1974, laisses 28ff, pp. 301ff. Original text: Le Moniage Guillaume, ed. Wilhelm Cloetta, New York, Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1968, 2 vols. (Paris, 1901).

About the performer/ensemble:
Nick Robbins is a Drama student in the Meisner Studio at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2005).

About the production:
This performance was created for a group independent study with Prof. Timmie (E.B.) Vitz in fall 2005. It took place on December 15, 2005, as part of an event titled “Making It Real: Performing the Middle Ages,” at an Off-off-Broadway venue in New York City—The American Place Theatre, 266 West 37th St (22nd floor). The performance was also sponsored by “Storytelling in Performance,” a workshop funded by the Humanities Council of New York University and co-directed by Profs. Timmie Vitz, Nancy Regalado and Martha Hodes. Gina Guadagnino was the videographer.