Arguing against the Greeks: The Dominican Tractatus contra Graecos of 1252

Fragment of a floor mosaic (13th century) depicting the sack of Constantinople by the Latin crusaders in 1204; Ravenna, San Giovanni Evangelista

The Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438/39) is considered the last remarkable, though ultimately unsuccessful, attempt in the Middle Ages to restore church unity between the Latin West and the Greek East. Throughout history, certain events and their enduring consequences had nourished a growing scissure that ever deepened the alienation between the churches – just to mention a few of the most striking: the so-called Photian schism at the end of the 9th century, the mutual excommunications in 1054, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 followed by the Latin Empire of Constantinople until 1261, the Byzantine Emperor’s acceptance of an eventually short-lived church union on the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 (succeeded, though, by its refusal in 1282) etc. Following the history of reception of these events in the Middle Ages and beyond is like dealing with not only one, but several “points of no return”: While this might seem contradictory to itself, it nevertheless helps to understand (1) that dating the breakout of the schism depends on what kinds of sources we rely on, and (2) that, again throughout history, there have been many attempts and frequent parallel endeavours to heal this fracture between the churches.

© Viliam Štefan Dóci OP

One milestone of such an effort was the lifetime achievement of an anonymous Dominican from the year 1252, a learned theologian who dedicated himself to an in-depth study of the Greek language, theology, and church life. Based on this knowledge, he was capable and well-equipped to write a theological treatise “Against the Greeks” (Tractatus contra Graecos) in Constantinople, which eventually became a bestseller in controversial literature dealing with how to argue in Greek-Latin debates. Up to the 15th century, it greatly influenced theology and the Latin church and deeply affected how Latin authors perceived the Greek church. The anonymous Dominican was the first theologian who determined what later appeared on the agenda of the union councils in Lyon (1274) and Ferrara-Florence (1438/39): That a number of four issues of conflict – filioque, purgatory, azymes, and Roman primacy – had to be solved in order to proclaim the unity of the church, something which he didn’t see as lost, but as highly at risk. In a manner of fraternal correction, the Dominican author sought to convince the Greeks of their errors by quoting their own reliable sources, i.e. the Greek fathers and church councils, and by demonstrating that they all, in fact, supported the Latin positions. Additionally, he provided his (indented Latin) readers with a dossier of contemporary Greek writings in a Latin translation along with a commentary which was both meant to keep the readers informed about the situation on the spot and to support their argumentation in ongoing debates.

“Tractatus contra Graecos” (Inc.: Licet grecorum ecclesiam); Mantova, Bibliotecta Communale, Ms. Nr. 604 (D. I. 31), fol. 1ra-43rb, here: 1r

From today’s perspective, the actual value and impact of the Tractatus contra Graecos is impaired by the fact that today it is known only based on an early modern edition of 1616[1], which is deficient and at times almost incomprehensible. This is why an updated and reliable critical edition is a particularly urgent task: Based on 30 manuscripts that are known thus far and that are kept in libraries in Central and Southern or Southeast Europe, a critical edition will lead to a reconstruction of the text ranging from the time it was written in mid-13th-century Constantinople up to how it was used as a handout and source of information on the councils of the Late Middle Ages by leading Latin theologians. The surviving manuscripts give evidence that not only in the 15th century, but also already by the author himself, the treatise has been remodelled and shaped according to the needs of time and occasion. Both the critical edition of this Dominican key work and its history of reception contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between Rome and Byzantium in the Middle Ages and, thus, to a more detailed knowledge of the history of today’s Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Dr. Andrea Riedl
Senior research fellow at the Department of Theology/University of Vienna and currently visiting researcher at the Medieval Institute/University of Notre Dame.

[1] Ed. Petrus Stevartius Leodiensis (1549–1624), Tomus singularis insignium auctorum, tam graecorum, quam latinorum, Ingolstadt 1616, 487–574, and reprinted in Migne’s Patrologia graeca, PG 140, 487–574. This is the transcription of a manuscript of the Bavarian State Library in Munich, Clm 110 (fol. 1r-88).

Guy of Warwick the Anglo-Norman Guthlac?

Prior to the twentieth century, Guy of Warwick ranked among the most popular heroes of the Anglophone world, even being placed at one point among the Nine Worthies. And it is not hard to imagine why, as there is something for everyone in his story, for he is shown to be a great warrior and a dragon-slayer who later becomes a pilgrim and, eventually, a hermit.

Guy of Warwick as a Knight. Introductory illustration to a copy of Le Rommant de Guy de Warwik et de Herolt d’Ardenne (an abridged continental French prose version). London, British Library, MS Royal 15. E. VI, ff. 227r-272r (15th Century)
Guy of Warwick Slays the Dragon, Saving the Lion. The Taymouth Hours, London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 14r (c. 1331)

The narrative was first written in Anglo-Norman shortly before 1204 A.D. (Weiss, “Gui de Warewic” 7). Attesting to the lengthy story’s success, nine manuscripts and seven fragments survive in Anglo-Norman. The earliest complete copy that we have in Middle English can be found in the Auchinleck Manuscript, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.2.1, dated to c. 1330-1340. Two other, much later versions exist in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 107/176 (c. 1470s) and Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.2.38 (c. 1479-1484) (Wiggins, “The Manuscripts and Texts” 64). And there are an additional two sets of fragments in Middle English. One thing interesting about the layout of the text in the Auchinleck Manuscript is that it is separated into a sort of trilogy, consisting of what is known as the couplet Guy of Warwick, covering Guy’s early exploits (ff. 108r-146v), the stanzaic Guy of Warwick, recounting his later life events (ff. 146v-167r), and Reinbroun, which deals with the feats of Guy’s son (ff. 167r-175v). The Auchinleck Manuscript also includes a text called the Speculum Gy de Warewyke, a homiletic treatise that uses Guy’s narrative as a frame to discuss the sins and the importance of contrition and penance.

The entire Auchinleck Manuscript, as well as a treasure trove of information, is available online here:

Guy’s cultural importance extended beyond England and France and also into the early modern period. A now lost Middle English version likely served as the basis for the fifteenth-century Irish Beathadh Sir Gyi o Bharbhuic, copied in Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 1298B, pp. 300-347. What is most remarkable about this version is that it incorporates material from the Speculum. It is furthermore no secret, for example, that Edmund Spenser’s Guyon from Book II of The Faerie Queene is modeled on Guy of Warwick, and we can also see reflections of Guy in the Redcrosse Knight of Book I (Cooper, “Romance after 1400” 718-719 and The English Romance in Time 92-99). In fact, as Helen Cooper demonstrates, the popularity of the Guy narrative continued unabated up through the Victorian era (“Romance after 1400” 704-706).

For more on the later life of the Guy of Warwick legend, see Dr. Siân Echard’s page:

So what, you might be asking, is this blockbuster story all about? Well, the narrative tells of Guy, a steward’s son, who falls in love with Felice, the Earl of Warwick’s daughter, and is compelled to climb the social ladder through heroic acts in order to prove himself. Guy has many battles and adventures on the Continent, winning fame and admiration abroad. While in Constantinople, he rescues a lion from a dragon. He also makes a bosom companion in the person of Terri of Worms. On his way back to England, Guy slays the villainous Otun, Duke of Pavia, but he also gets caught up in a confrontation in which he rashly kills the son of Count Florentine. Before returning home to Warwick, Guy helps King Athelstan by slaying a dragon that is ravaging Northumberland. He then marries Felice and fathers a child, Reinbroun. The trajectory is not unlike other romans d’aventure. But once he has fulfilled all of his desires, Guy is suddenly overcome by deep inner turmoil while gazing at the stars one evening, realizing that, as yet, God has had no place in his life. With this, he vows to dedicate himself to holy pursuits and become a pilgrim, expiating by means of his body, as he says, those sins committed by his body, namely the lives of others destroyed and lost through his reckless longing for glory. Upon departing, he gives Felice his sword, and Felice, in turn, gives him a ring to remember her by. (They halve the ring in later versions.) Their parting is a tearful one. In his subsequent travels, Guy, always incognito, makes his way to the Holy Land, aiding and rescuing others, Christian and “Saracen” alike, in many martial exploits. He assists the Saracen King Triamour by vanquishing the giant Amoraunt and, in the process, helps the Christian Earl Jonas and his sons. He also eventually saves his friend Terri by defeating Berard, the likewise treacherous nephew of Otun. Though comparatively little space is given to Felice, she devotes herself to serving her community in Warwickshire through charitable deeds. When Guy makes his final return to England, he aids King Athelstan again, this time preventing a Danish invasion by defeating the giant Colbrond and thus becoming the savior of England. However, he retreats unnoticed to the woods outside of his estate in Warwick. Guy’s desire is to receive religious instruction from another hermit and to live out the rest of his days in contemplation. Guy eventually learns from the Archangel Michael that he has a week left to live (he will die on the eighth day), and so he sends word to Felice as well as his ring (or half-ring) for identification purposes. She comes to him on the point of death, and his soul is soon borne to Heaven by angels. A sweet fragrance issues forth from his body, which (in all versions of the text) is said to be so heavy that it cannot be removed from his hermitage. Felice herself dies soon afterwards. The two are buried together in the hermitage (at least at first) and are said to be reunited in Heaven. The narrative thus shifts from being something like a chanson de geste to something much more hagiographical.

The two halves of Guy’s life are clearly displayed in the Rous Roll, which depicts and gives a brief history of each significant family member (historically real or otherwise) of the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick.

Guy of Warwick in the Rous Roll. Pictured from left to right are Felice’s father, Felice and her son Reinbroun, Guy of Warwick as a knight with the lion, then Guy of Warwick as penitent pilgrim and vanquisher of Colbrond, then the adult Reinbroun. London, British Library, MS Additional 48976, f. 3ar (c. 1483)

Guy’s later life is also the likely subject of two misericords in English cathedrals.

Misericord Showing Guy Fighting Colbrond (S03) (c. 1350-1360), Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England
Misericord with Felice Giving Alms to the Hermit Guy (SH-16) (c. 1330s), Wells Cathedral, Wells, England

A number of literary antecedents to the figure of Guy have been posited. Many scholars, like Judith Weiss, point to the twelfth-century Le Moniage Guillaume (part of the William of Orange cycle) whose main character, Guillaume d’Orange (otherwise known as Guillaume au Court Nez), is a warrior who battles “Saracens” and later becomes a monk and then hermit, fearful for the state of his soul after having killed so many people (“The Exploitation” 44-46). As Angus Kennedy points out, it is also not uncommon in Arthurian romances, for example, for hermit-saints to have previously been members of the chivalric class (72). Both verse and prose French romances alike show a host of knights who choose to retreat from the world and end their days as hermits: the protagonist of Escanor; Perceval in Manessier’s Continuation and in the Queste del Saint Graal; at least thirteen knights in the Perlesvaus; Mordrain and Nascien, King Urien, Girflet, Bors and Hector, and even Lancelot in the Vulgate Cycle; Guiron and his ancestors in Palamède; and Pergamon in Perceforest (74-75). References to aristocratic hermits exist in many other texts, particularly Arthurian, but these hermits, as they are presented, are not entirely separated from the world. In fact, they very often still play a role in their societies (think of all of the other hermits in the Queste del Saint Graal) (77-78).

To my mind, however, there is an as yet unnoticed parallel with the late-eighth-century Old English lives of St. Guthlac in that invaluable repository of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the Exeter Book (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501). (For some images, go here. The lives are based, at least in part, on the Latin Vita sancti Guthlaci (between 730 and 749 A.D.) written by a man named Felix, likely a monk, about whom next to nothing is known. Guthlac, though, was born around 673 A.D. into a royal Mercian family and had a military career before becoming a monk at Repton Abbey and then two years later a hermit in the Lincolnshire fens at what is now Crowland (Croyland in the Middle Ages). He died there in 714, and a shrine was erected to commemorate him. Around this eventually grew Crowland Abbey and around this the town (Bradley 248-249).

Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire
Quatrefoil Portraying Scenes from St. Guthlac’s Life, Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire

In the Exeter Book’s Guthlac A (ff. 32v-44v), the saint is said to be attacked by demons who try to tempt him into abandoning his hermitage by making him feel guilty for leaving his family. They also seek to make him feel lonely, to crave human company. Guthlac ultimately resists, but we have here the same tensions that we see exhibited in later works like the legend of St. Alexis and Guy’s narrative. The events that are most reminiscent of Guy’s story, however, are those found in Guthlac B (ff. 44v-52v). Guthlac has a servant who attends to him, much as Guy the hermit does as well, and it is to this person that Guthlac makes a prediction, told to him by an angel, that he has eight days left to live (ll. 1034b-1038a). Shortly before his death, Guthlac has the servant boy prepare to seek out his most cherished virgin sister, “wuldres wynmaeg,” to tell her that he has kept apart from her for so long so that he could attain an eternal life, free from imperfections, with her in Heaven (l. 1345a; ll. 1175a-1196a). Guthlac dies before his sister, who is to bury him in his hermitage, comes; sweet odor issues forth (ll. 1271b-1273a); and his soul is borne to Heaven by angels (ll. 1305a-1306a). We see the same knowledge of impending death delivered by an angelic presence in Gui de Warewic and later versions, many of the very same details regarding Guy’s death, and the sister’s role is easily replaced by the wife’s—which also acts to make familial tensions that much greater. So then, is Guy meant to be a saint? That, dear reader, is a question for another post…or a book.

Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Bibliography (Cited and/or Suggested):

N.B. This list is not exhaustive.

Primary Sources (with introductions, notes, and commentary) 

Boeve de Haumtone and Gui de Warewic: Two Anglo-Norman Romances. Trans. Judith Weiss. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2008. 97-243.

Cambridge University Library MS Ff.2.38. Ed. Frances McSparran and P. R. Robinson. London: Scolar Press, 1979.

Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac. Ed. and Trans. Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

Gui de Warewic: Roman du XIIIe Siècle. Ed. Alfred Ewert. 2 vols. Paris: Champion, 1932-1933.

“Guthlac A.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Everyman, 1982. 248-268.

“Guthlac A.” The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. vol 3. Ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936. 49-72.

“Guthlac B.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Everyman, 1982. 269-283.

“Guthlac B.” The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. vol 3. Ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936. 72-88. 

Speculum Gy de Warewyke. Ed. Georgiana Lea Morrill. Early English Text Society. e.s. vol. 75. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1898.

Stanzaic Guy of Warwick. Ed. Alison Wiggins. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004. 

The Auchinleck Manuscript: National Library of Scotland Advocates’ MS. 19.2.1. Ed. Derek Pearsall and I. C. Cunningham. London: Scolar Press, 1977. 

The Guthlac Poems of the Exeter Book. Ed. Jane Roberts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

“The Irish Lives of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton.” Ed. and Trans. F. N. Robinson. Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 6 (1908): 9-338.

The Romance of Guy of Warwick. Edited from the Auchinleck MS. in the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh, and from MS. 107 in Caius College, Cambridge. Ed. Julius Zupitza. Early English Text Society. e.s. vols. 42, 49, 59. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1883, 1887, 1891.

The Romance of Guy of Warwick. The Second or 15th-Century Version. Edited from the Paper MS. Ff.2.38 in the University Library, Cambridge. Ed. Julius Zupitza. Early English Text Society. e.s. vols. 25-26. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1875-1876.

Secondary Sources

Ailes, Marianne. “Gui de Warewic in Its Manuscript Context.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 12-26.

Byrne, Aisling. “The Circulation of Romances from England in Late-Medieval Ireland.” Medieval Romance and Material Culture. Ed. Nicholas Perkins. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2015. 183-198.

Cannon, Christopher. “Chaucer and the Auchinleck Manuscript Revisited.” The Chaucer Review 46 (2011): 131-146.

Cooper, Helen. “Guy as Early Modern English Hero.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 185-200.

Cooper, Helen. “Romance after 1400.” The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature.  Ed. David Wallace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 690-719.

Cooper, Helen. The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Crane, Ronald S. “The Vogue of Guy of Warwick from the Close of the Middle Ages to the Romantic Revival.” PMLA 30 (1915): 125-194.

Crane, Susan. “Anglo-Norman Romances of English Heroes: ‘Ancestral Romance’?” Romance Philology 35 (1981-1982): 601-608.

Crane, Susan. “Guy of Warwick and the Question of Exemplary Romance.” Genre 17 (1984): 351-374.

Crane, Susan. Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Djordjević, Ivana. “Guy of Warwick as a Translation.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 27-43.

Djordjević, Ivana. “Nation and Translation: Guy of Warwick between Languages.” Nottingham Medieval Studies 57 (2013): 111-144.

Dyas, Dee. Pilgrimage in Medieval English Literature, 700-1500. Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001.

Echard, Siân. “Of Dragons and Saracens: Guy and Bevis in Early Print Illustration.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 154-168.

Edwards, A. S. G. “The Speculum Guy de Warwick and Lydgate’s Guy of Warwick: The Non-Romance Middle English Tradition.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 81-93.

Fellows, Jennifer. “Printed Romance in the Sixteenth Century.” A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance. Ed. Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009. 67-78.

Field, Rosalind. “From Gui to Guy: The Fashioning of a Popular Romance.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 44-60.

Frankis, John. “Taste and Patronage in Late Medieval England as Reflected in Versions of Guy of Warwick.” Medium Aevum 66 (1997): 80-93.

Gordon, Sarah. “Translation and Cultural Transformation of a Hero: The Anglo-Norman and Middle English Romances of Guy of Warwick.” The Medieval Translator. Traduire au Moyen Âge. Ed. Jacqueline Jenkins and Olivier Bertrand. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. 319-331.

Gos, Giselle. “New Perspectives on the Reception and Revision of Guy of Warwick in the Fifteenth Century.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 113 (2014): 156-183.

Griffith, David. “The Visual History of Guy of Warwick.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 110-132.

Hanna, Ralph, III. “Reconsidering the Auchinleck Manuscript.” New Directions in Later Medieval Manuscript Studies: Essays from the 1998 Harvard Conference. Ed. Derek Pearsall. York: York Medieval Press, 2000. 91-102.

Hopkins, Andrea. The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Kennedy, Angus J. “The Portrayal of the Hermit-Saint in French Arthurian Romance: The Remoulding of a Stock-Character.” An Arthurian Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Lewis Thorpe. Ed. Kenneth Varty. Glasgow: French Department of the University of Glasgow, 1981. 69-82.

King, Andrew. “Guy of Warwick and The Faerie Queene, Book II: Chivalry through the Ages.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 169-184.

Klausner, David N. “Didacticism and Drama in Guy of Warwick.” Medievalia et Humanistica 6 (1975): 103-119.

Legge, Mary Dominica. Anglo-Norman Literature and Its Background. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Matthews, David. “Whatever Happened to Your Heroes? Guy and Bevis after the Middle Ages.” The Making of the Middle Ages. Ed. Marios Costambeys. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007. 54-70.

Merisalo, Outi. “La fortune de Gui de Warewic à la fin du Moyen Âge (XVe siècle).” Le Moyen Âge par le Moyen Âge, même: réception, relectures et réécritures des textes médiévaux dans la littérature française des XIVe et XVe siècles. Ed. Laurent Brun and Silvère Menegaldo et al. Paris: Champion, 2012. 239-253.

Mills, Maldwyn. “Structure and Meaning in Guy of Warwick.” From Medieval to Medievalism. Ed. John Simons. London: Macmillan, 1992. 54-68.

Mills, Maldwyn. “Techniques of Translation in the Middle English Versions of Guy of Warwick.” The Medieval Translator II. Ed. Roger Ellis. London: Centre for Medieval Studies, University of London, 1991. 209-229.

Poppe, Erich. “Narrative Structure of Medieval Irish Adaptations: The Case of Guy and Beves.” Medieval Celtic Literature and Society. Ed. Helen Fulton. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005. 205-229.

Price, Paul. “Confessions of a Godless Killer: Guy of Warwick and Comprehensive Entertainment.” Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation. Ed. Judith Weiss, Jennifer Fellows, and Morgan Dickson. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000. 93-110.

Richmond, Velma Bourgeois. The Legend of Guy of Warwick. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996.

Rouse, Robert Allen. “An Exemplary Life: Guy of Warwick as Medieval Culture-Hero.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 94-109.

Shonk, Timothy A. “A Study of the Auchinleck Manuscript: Bookmen and Bookmaking in the Early Fourteenth Century.” Speculum 60 (1985): 71-91.

Shonk, Timothy A. “The Scribe as Editor: The Primary Scribe of the Auchinleck Manuscript.” Manuscripta 27 (1983): 19-20.

Spahn, Renata. Narrative Strukturen im Guy of Warwick: Zur Frage der Überlieferung einer mittelenglischen Romanze. Tübingen: G. Narr, 1991.

Quin, Gordon. Introduction. Stair Ercuil ocus a Bás. The Life and Death of Hercules. Ed. and Trans. Gordon Quin. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1939. xiii-xl.

Weiss, Judith. “Gui de Warewic at Home and Abroad: A Hero for Europe.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 1-11.

Weiss, Judith. “The Exploitation of Ideas of Pilgrimage and Sainthood in Gui de Warewic.” The Exploitations of Medieval Romance. Ed. Laura Ashe, Ivana Djordjević, and Judith Weiss. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2010. 43-56.

Wiggins, Alison. “A Makeover Story: The Caius Manuscript Copy of Guy of Warwick.” Studies in Philology 104 (2007): 471-500.

Wiggins, Alison. “Are Auchinleck Manuscript Scribes 1 and 6 the Same Scribe? The Advantages of Whole-Data Analysis and Electronic Texts.” Medium Aevum 73 (2004): 10-26.

Wiggins, Alison. “Guy of Warwick in Warwick?: Reconsidering the Dialect Evidence.” English Studies 84 (2003): 219-230.

Wiggins, Alison. “Imagining the Compiler: Guy of Warwick and the Compilation of the Auchinleck Manuscript.” Imagining the Book. Ed. Stephen Kelly and John J. Thompson. Turnhout: Brepols, 2005.

Wiggins, Alison. “The Manuscripts and Texts of the Middle English Guy of Warwick.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 61-80.

Zupitza, Julius. “Zur Literaturgeschichte des Guy von Warwick.” Sitzungesberichte der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Classe. vol. 74. no. 1. Vienna: Karl Gerold’s Sohn, 1873. 623-668.

Zombies of the Frozen North: White Walkers and Old Norse Revenants

Like many fans across the worldthis wintereach snowfall increased my anticipation for the return and final season of HBO’s fantasy television series, Game of Thrones, the popular film adaption of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. As a medievalist who enjoys medievalism, I am especially intrigued by successful modern adaptions of medieval themes and concepts, particularly when it comes to representations of the monstrous.

In Game of Thrones, one of the most terrifying of the fantastic creatures on Westeros are the frost-bearing White Walkers (also called Others), who come with winter and bring with them an undead horde of icy zombies (called wights). The show’s opening scene masterfully features these horrifying monsters, and introduces the audience to the shadowy specters who haunt the frigid North, growing stronger every season. Martin describes his wintry revenants in the prologue, when two men of the Night’s Watch come upon a group of White Walkers:

White Walkers from season 3 of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2013).

“A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took” (Martin 7).

The White Walkers are characterized in A Game of Thrones (Martin’s first novel in the series, which HBO’s corresponding show adopted as its title) by their haunting eyes and the freezing cold that accompanies their approach:

“The Other halted. Will saw its eyes; blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice. They fixed on the longsword trembling on high, watched the moonlight running cold along the metal. For a heartbeat he dared to hope. They emerged silently from the shadows, twins at first. Three of them…four…five…Ser Waymar [Royce] may have felt the cold that came with them, but never saw them, never heard them” (Martin 7-8).

Night King, leader of the White Walkers, from season 7 of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2017).

After the White Walkers kill Ser Waymar Royce, his companion—Will—comes to investigate his corpse, and discovers yet another horror in his own captain:

“Royce’s body lay facedown in the snow, one arm outflung. The thick sable cloak had been slashed in a dozen places. Lying dead like that, you saw how young he was. A boy. He found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning. Will knelt, looked around warily, and snatched it up. The broken sword would be his proof….

Will rose. Ser Waymar Royce stood over him. His fine cloths were a tatter, his face a ruin. A shard from his sword transfixed the blind white pupil of his left eye. The right eye was open. The pupil burned blue. It saw” (Martin 8).

Undead wights from season 6 of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2016).

These monsters (and their zombie horde) envelop the series, and the build up to the final battle for the soul of Westeros, between the living and dead, looms ever-present throughout the series and has all but come to fruition.

Like many aspects of Martin’s fantasy world, his modern monstrosities resemble medieval ones. Although also reminiscent of the monstrous
Wendigo, his White Walkers share distinct characteristics with Old Norse-Icelandic depictions of revenants, generally from the fornaldarsǫgur, “sagas of olden times,” which depict a posthumous pre-Christian medieval culture that is undoubtedly the basis for Martin’s wildlings (also called free folk) and various peoples north of the Wall. Some terms for revenants in Old Norse Icelandic include haugbúi (“mound-dweller”), draugr (“revenant”) and aptrgangr (“again-walker”). The latter term explicitly describes revenants as “walkers” (gangr), corresponding directly to the second element in Martin’s own White Walkers.

‘Draugr’ by Josh Burns (2016).

Grettis saga is the saga, which most famously contains Old Norse revenants. Grettis saga is the story of a mighty warrior named Grettir, who slays a variety of monsters throughout the saga, until he becomes something of a monster himself, exiled to a cave and the object of heroic slaughter. In this saga, Grettir meets two revenants; the first is Kárr “the Old”—a haugbúi “mound-dweller” that haunts his own grave and the surrounding island (similar to the zombified Angantyr from Hervarar saga Heiðreks and Þráinn from Hrómundar saga Gripssonar). Grettir’s friend Auðunn tells him about the revenant, Kárr:

“‘Out on the headland stands a grave-mound,’ said Auðunn. ‘In it was laid Kárr the Old, Þorfinn’s father. At first, father and son owned a single farm on the island, but after Kárr died her returned from the dead and started walking, so much so that in end he drove away all those farmers who owned lands here’” (Byock 51).

When Grettir enters the Kárr’s barrow he discovers both a foul reek and a terrifying image. After disturbing the treasure hoard in the barrow, the revenant rises up and attacks Grettir, only to be put to rest by decapitation:

‘Kárr the Old seizes Grettir’ by Henry Justice Ford (1901).

“Grettir then descended into the mound. It was dark inside, and not altogether sweet-smelling. He had to feel around to get an idea of what was inside. He found some horse bones, and next bumped into the back-posts of a seat. He realized that a man was sitting there in the chair. There was a pile of gold and silver all mixed together. There was also a chest full of silver under the man’s feet. Grettir took all the treasure and carried it to the rope, but as he was making his way out of the mound something strong grabbed hold of him. He let go of the treasure and turned to resist. A fierce fight began, and everything in their path was broken as the mound-dweller attacked with fury. For a long time Grettir tried to give way. Finally he realized there would be no chance of winning if he continued just to shield himself. Now neither spared himself, and they shoved each other until they came to where the horse bones were. There they struggled for a long time, with each at times falling to his knee. But in the end the mound-dweller fell backwards with a great crash, and with that noise Auðunn dropped the ropes and ran away, assuming that Grettir had been killed. Grettir now drew the sword Jǫkull’s-gift and struck at the mound-dweller’s neck. He cut off the head and placed the head against Kárr’s buttocks” (Byock 52).

Kárr “the Old” is identified as a haugbúi “mound-dweller” in Grettis saga, and has a more direct influence on another fantasy author’s work, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. On Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, barrow-wights haunt certain old graves, and the hobbits stumble upon a haunted barrow in the chapter eight of The Fellowship of the Ring, “Fog on the Barrow-Downs.” Description of the barrow-wight (which has since become a common translation for haugbúi in English), reflects a close affinity to Old Norse-Icelandic mound-dwellers, such as Kárr. When the hobbits are in the barrow-wight’s burial mound, they are put under a spell and “round the corner a long arm was groping” (Tolkien 169), which causes Frodo at first to consider only his own escape and survival. However, eventually he decides to help his companions, put to sleep by the barrow-wight’s incantation:

‘Under the Spell of the Barrow-wight’ by Ted Nasmith (1987).

“the courage that had been awoken in him was now too strong: he could not leave his friends so easily. He wavered, groping in his pocket, and then fought with himself again; and as he did so the arm crept nearer. Suddenly resolve hardened in him, and he seized a short sword that lay beside him, and kneeling he stooped low over the bodies of his companions. With what strength he had he hewed the crawling arm near the wrist, and the hand broke off; but at the same moment the sword splintered up to the hilt. There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark, there was a snarling noise” (Tolkien 160-161).

Kárr “the Old” is not the only revenant in Grettis saga. The second specter, Glámr, is the protagonist’s most fearsome monstrous opponent. Glámr is described as explicitly anti-Christian, and when he dies in a snowstorm, his body seems to move about, preventing him from being buried at a church and receiving last rites from the local priest. Soon Glámr starts haunting, especially in the heart of winter—at Yuletide—the winter solstice celebration often associated with Christmas:

“A little later people became aware that Glámr was not lying there quietly. He became a scourge to the local people. Many lost their senses when they saw him, some of them never recovering. Immediately after Yule, some people thought they saw Glámr inside the farmhouse. They were terribly frightened, and many of them fled the farm. Then Glámr took to riding the house in the evenings, so that the roof was nearly broken. Then he started walking about, both day and night. Men scarcely dared to go up the valley, even when they had reason to dos o. For the people in the district it seemed as if a terrible misfortune had descended upon them” (Byock 95).

Glámr is identified as a draugr “revenant” (popularized by their appropriation in the video game Skyrim), and continuities between Glámr and Grendel have long been observed by scholars. This has encouraged some critics to consider Beowulf and Grettis saga to be analogues, especially the reference to the leoht unfæger “ugly light” (Beowulf 727) in Grendel’s eyes—comparable to Glámr’s—and similar action sequences in each respective fight between the heroic protagonists and their monstrous antagonists.

Draugr from the video game ‘Skyrim’ (2011).

In Grettis saga, when Grettir first encounters Glámr, he glimpses only the revenant’s head peeking through the door, “when the door opened, Grettir saw the creature stick its head in. It seemed to Grettir to be large and horribly deformed, with strangely oversized features” (Byock 100). Their subsequent battle is detailed in the saga:

“Glámr now wanted to get out of the house, but Grettir held onto him. Grettir braced his feet wherever he could find a footing, but still Glámr was able to drag him across the hall. They struggled violently, because the slave intended to drag Grettir from the hall. As difficult as it was to fight Glámr inside, Grettir saw that it would be worse dealing with him outside the house. For this reason he put all his strength into preventing Glámr from getting out” (Byock 101).

After an unsuspecting misdirection by Grettir, Glámr is finally able to pull Grettir out of the hall and into the night, where the fight continues:

“Outside it was bright in the moonlight, with gaps here and there in the cloud cover. On and off, the moon shone through. Just as Glámr fell, the clouds moved, revealing the moon. Glámr stared up at the light, and Grettir later said that this sight was the only one that had ever scared him. Exhaustion and the sight of Glamr’s threatening eyes now took their toll, and Grettir’s strength left him. Unable to draw his sword, he lay between life and death. Because Glámr had more evil power in himself that most of the other walking dead, he said: ‘You have shown much determination, Grettir, in finding me. And it would be expected that you would receive only ill fortune from me’” (Byock 101-102).

‘Grettir and Glámr’ by Didrik Jon Kristofersson (1998).

Glámr then places a curse up Grettir that he will become diminished and fall into outlawry and exile, saying:

“‘Most of what you do will now turn against you, bringing bad luck and no joy. You will be made an outlaw, forced to live in the wilds and to live alone. And further, I lay this curse on you: these eyes will always be within your sight, and you will find it difficult to be alone. This will drag you to your death’” (Byock 102).

As with Kárr, Grettir ends Glámr’s haunting by beheading the monster, for after his curse “the powerlessness that had gripped Grettir slid away. He drew his sword and cut off Glámr’s head, placing it against his buttocks” (Byock 102). However, Grettir’s encounter with Glámr causes him to fear the dark ever after—and a number of elements of Glámr’s characterization are reflected in the White Walkers, especially his moving corpse, terrifying eyes and preference for haunting during the dead of winter.

Although Glámr resembles Martin’s White Walkers, perhaps the closest parallel from Old Norse-Icelandic saga literature can be observed in the final battle in Hrólfs saga kraka, which serves also as the source for the “Battle of Five Armies” in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In Hrólfs saga kraka, King Hrólfr and his warriors are pitted against Skuld’s monstrous horde, composed of “elves, norns and countless other vile creatures” (Byock 71). During the battle, which also occurs during Yule, the slain rise again as revenants that resemble the armies of Martin’s White Walkers and their zombie wights.

‘Hrólfr’s Last Stand’ by Louis Moe (1898).

“Men fell dead across each other in front of him [Bǫðvar Bjarki], until both his shoulders were covered with blood. Corpses were heaped high all around him, and he behaved as though overcome with madness. However many of Hjǫvard’s and Skuld’s men he and Hrólfr’s champions killed, their enemies ranks, remarkably, never diminished. It was as though Hrólfr’s men were having no effect, and they thought they had never come upon so strange an occurrence. Bǫðvar said, ‘Deep are the ranks of Skuld’s army. I suspect that the dead are wandering about. They rise up again to fight against us and it becomes difficult to fight with ghosts [draugar]. As many limbs as we cleave, shield we split, helmets and mail coats as we hew apart, and war leaders we cut down, the encounters with the dead are the grimmest” (Byock 76).

The image of a zombie horde is featured somewhat regularly in modern zombie-apocalypse literature, such as George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002), and AMC’s Walking Dead (2010). Nevertheless, both their terrible gaze and association with winter sets Martin’s White Walkers apart from the rest of the herd, and draws on medieval lore and legend in order to create a monster that speaks both to the past and the present.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Texts and Translations:

Byock, Jesse. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1998.

—. Grettir’s Saga. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Chadwick, Nora K. Stories and Ballads of the Far Past. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1921.

Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 2011.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Rings. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1954.

Further Reading:

Chadwick, Nora K. “Norse Ghosts: A Study in the draugr and the haugbui.Folklore 57.2 (1946): 50-65.

—. “Norse Ghosts II: A Study in the draugr and the haugbui.Folklore 57.3 (1946): 106-127.

Fjalldal, Magnús. The Long Arm of Coincidence: The Frustrated Connection between Beowulf and Grettis saga. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Jakobsson, Ármann. “The Fearless Vampire Killers: A Note about the Icelandic Draugr and Demonic Contamination in Grettis saga.” Folkore 120.3 (2009): 307-316.

—.  “Vampires and Watchmen: Categorizing the Mediaeval Icelandic Undead.” JEGP 110.3 (2011): 281-300

Keyworth, David. “The Aetiology of Vampires and Revenants: Theological Debate and Popular Belief.” Journal of Religious History 34.2 (2010), 158-173.

—. Troublesome Corpses: Vampires & Revenants—from Antiquity to the PresentDesert Island eBooks, 2013.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Stern, Elizabeth. Legends of the Dead in Medieval and Modern Iceland (Supernatural). University of California, Los Angeles: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1987.