Medievalists and medieval enthusiasts have no doubt encountered stories of lovers who reach an impasse between their affections for each other and deeper, more personal obligations that they may hold, whether an obligation to another, to an institution, or to God. We might think, for example, of the end of Marie de France’s Eliduc in which Guildeluec and eventually Guilliadun take the veil and Eliduc joins a monastery. The very end of the Arthurian cycle also comes to mind in which both Guinevere and Lancelot commit themselves to the religious life (though this is after much grave harm has been done). One may even be reminded of the real-world historical figures of Abelard and Heloise, albeit unfortunate circumstances abetted certain choices in their life stories. All of these narratives deal with themes that can be found in a much older tale, though this is not in any way to suggest lines of influence.
While lacking the supernatural, adventurous, and tragic elements of other Old Irish love narratives—Cú Chulainn for Fand, Deirdre for Naoise, Gráinne for Diarmuid—the Comrac Líadaine ocus Cuirithir tells a tale—for all intents and purposes based on historical persons—that at once demonstrates its inheritance to traditional Irish love stories as well as concerns that we see reflected in a host of medieval European literatures.
As with most Old Irish literature, the manuscripts that preserve the account of Líadain and Cuirithir date much later. Only two contain the story: Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 1337, p. 759 (olim H. 3. 18) (15th-16th centuries) and London, British Library, MS Harley 5280, f. 26 (16th century).
There is evidence, however, that the couple and text were widely known among Irish literati. As the work’s early editor, Kuno Meyer, notes, there is a reference to Líadain as a renowned poet in the introduction to “The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare,” and a tenth-century metrical treatise offers one of her stanzas in our text as an example of treochair metre (8-9).
Given that the preservation of much of Old Irish literature can be attributed to Christian churchmen (the same is also true for other pagan literatures), some of the Christian themes in the story have been thought overlays. For example, in the forward to her translation of the text, Moireen Fox refers to “acts of pious vandalism” enacted against ancient works, the forcing of “old legends into the boundaries of the new faith” (7). Be that as it may, thinking of an earlier, “pure” literature as somehow sullied by Christian influences short-changes the vibrant, syncretic culture that preserved it—a culture that one sees refracted through Líadain and Cuirithir’s lives.
What we have in the Comrac Líadaine ocus Cuirithir is a narrative that relates the following. Recounted in prosimetrum form, we learn that Líadain, a celebrated poet from Corkaguiney, a barony in County Kerry that comprises most of the Dingle Peninsula, is on tour in Connacht.
While there, she meets Cuirithir, also a poet—both likely lived in the seventh century—with whom she falls in love. Cuirithir urges that they unite, saying that if they had a son, he would surely be famous, but Líadain resists. She does not want her agreed-upon schedule of travels and literary engagements jeopardized. Instead, she tells Cuirithir that once she has finished, he can leave Connacht to come visit her at her home.
When Cuirithir finally heads south to meet Líadain, he accompanies her to the religious man Cummaíne Fota, and they place themselves under anmchairde, ‘soul-friendship’ (cf. Lat. amicitia). Though the text is sparse in the details, one can infer that this is Líadain’s idea. This notion of soul-friendship is something treated often in later theological treatises, and we can think especially of St. Aelred of Rievaulx (c. 1110-1167). Spiritual marriage, as a concept, becomes a repeated theme in hagiography and in the lives of religious women, especially during the High and Late Middle Ages. What is so intriguing about the story of Líadain and Cuirithir is how early it is—ninth or the beginning of the tenth century.
One can only guess at the reasoning behind Líadain’s decision to become a nun. Perhaps it was entirely religious. Perhaps she also did not want to give up her intellectual and artistic calling to have child after child—a valid response that women of different cultures and time periods during the Middle Ages shared. One need only peruse a work like Hali Meiðhad to catch a glimpse of how motherhood was perceived by some.
Nonetheless, much of the verse in the text is filled with regret. The two seem to occupy separate oratories, overseen by the monk Cummaíne Fota, and are only allowed to walk about at different times. During one of these times, Cuirithir, now a monk himself, is in his hut, and Líadain speaks to him. Cuirithir replies:
Beloved is the dear voice that I hear,
I dare not welcome it!
But this only do I say:
Beloved is this dear voice! (19)
To this Líadain responds:
The voice which comes to me through the wattled wall,
It is right for it to blame me:
What the voice does to me, is
It will not let me sleep. (19)
It is very clear that both long for physical and emotional closeness, and Líadain asks Cummaíne for a reprieve from their separation, which is granted so long as a student in the community sleeps between them as a guard. It must be concluded that this does not work, for Cuirithir is moved to another location and then goes on pilgrimage within Ireland. Líadain sets out in search of him, and it is during her final soliloquy that the power of her poetry truly comes to the fore. Although she made her choices, the remorse is profound:
in chaingen dorigenus:
an rocharus rocráidius.
The bargain I have made!
The heart of him I loved I wrung.
ná dernad a airer-som,
manbad oman ríg nime. (22)
Not to do his pleasure,
Were there not the fear of the King of Heaven. (23)
Ní bú amlos
dó-sum in dul dúthracair:
ascnam sech péin hi pardos.
To him the way he has wished
Was great gain,
To go past the pains of Hell into Paradise.
rocráide frim Cuirithir:
fris-seom ba mór mo míne.
‘Twas a trifle
That wrung Curithir’s heart against me:
To him great was my gentleness.
is fírithir adfiadar.
I am Liadain
Who loved Curithir:
It is true as they say.
hi coimthecht Cuirithir:
fris-som ba maith mo gnás-sa.
A short while I was
In the company of Curithir:
Sweet was my intimacy with him.
fomchanad la Cuirithir
la fogur fairce flainne.
The music of the forest
Would sing to me when with Curithir,
Together with the voice of the purple sea.
ní cráidfed frim Cuirithir
do dálaib cacha ndénainn.
Nothing whatever of all I might do
Should wring the heart of Curithir against me!
ba hé-som mo chrideṡerc,
cía nocarainn cách chenae.
Conceal it not!
He was the love of my heart,
If I loved every other.
A roaring flame
Dissolved this heart of mine,
However, for certain it will cease to beat. (25)
The text clarifies afterwards that “how she had wrung his heart was the haste with which she had taken the veil” (27). When Cuirithir hears that Líadain is searching for him, he takes to the sea and travels to distant lands to continue his pilgrimage. They never see one another again. While we could view Cuirithir’s harsh parting as vengeful, it could also be attributable to a wish to help both of them live out their vows—though these are vows upon which Líadain insisted. However, Líadain’s feelings towards her earthly love never diminish: “The flagstone upon which he was wont to pray, she was upon it till she died. […] And that flagstone was put over her face” (27). We are reassured, though, that her soul is in Heaven.
Part of what makes this account so moving is the tension between their commitments and their love for one another, especially on Líadain’s side. She voices far more of the lines in the text than Cuirithir. Indeed, one could argue that she is the central figure, being that she is the one so vexed and pulled by competing desires. She wants to have it all and cannot, a situation that can ring as true today as ever it did. We also get a strong sense of her talent as a poet, a gift that she did not wish to squander, and indeed, it is her fame, not her partner’s, that is preserved in Irish literary history. When Cuirithir arrives at her abode in Munster, he addresses her thusly:
O woman with the firm foot,
Thy like for great fame I have not found:
Under nun’s veil will not be known
A woman with more sense. (17)
But with her strength, intellectual abilities, and renown also came great sorrow, a sorrow she was never able to overcome.
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.
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: https://auchinleck.nls.uk/.
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).
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’s later life is also the likely subject of two misericords in English cathedrals.
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).
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)
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“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.
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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.
Google “wanderlust” and you’ll be greeted by a barrage of images of stunning landscapes, wrinkled maps, and relatively-unoriginal tattoos. The word, now tagged over fifty million times on Instagram, denotes “an eager desire or fondness for wandering or travelling” and has clearly captured the popular imagination, earning articles on BuzzFeed and finding itself titling disappointing movies. Though the word itself only entered the English language around the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept — according to cognitive theorists — is likely as old as humanity itself. Nancy Easterlin, in her chapter, “Cognitive Ecocriticism: Human Wayfinding, Sociality, and Literary Interpretation,” argues that humans have innate needs to “travel in time and through space without getting lost” as a means for gathering resources, seeking refuge, and obtaining knowledge.1 Wayfinding, this human drive to explore and attach meaning to the world around us, establishes an important cognitive basis for our contemporary obsession with wanderlust. But what happens when our ability to navigate our environments is limited? And is this sudden cultural obsession with travel, with all of its racist and classist baggage, really a new phenomenon?
Religious pilgrimage — a journey “made to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion” — may at first glance have little in common with the contemporary wanderlust fever, but in the late medieval period, faithful pilgrims often went to great lengths to traverse the known world in order to visit many of the same landmarks populating Instagram pages today. Pilgrimages were typically undertaken by groups of travelers, and these journeys could be as short as Chaucer’s famous trip from London to Canterbury or as long as medieval mystic Margery Kempe’s voyage from Lynn to Jerusalem. Records of these pilgrimages prefigure many of the critiques of present-day travel — namely, that “the experience of travel [was] exotic” and “the purview of the privileged.”2 Despite this, I wish to read pilgrimage — one of the most common types of medieval travel — as motivated not just by religious devotion, but by a human cognitive need to wander.
This reading is facilitated by accounts of medieval religious devotees who found themselves confined, enclosed, or otherwise unable to undertake the physical pilgrimages, yet nevertheless invented means to satisfy this cognitive urge. In his work with the itinerary maps of thirteenth-century Benedictine monk Matthew Paris, Daniel K. Connolly demonstrates that “cloistered monks, though discouraged from going on pilgrimages to the earthly city [of Jerusalem], could nonetheless use Matthew’s maps for an imaginative journey to the Heavenly Jerusalem.”3 These imagined journeys, I believe, were abetted by the map’s engagement with the same cognitive processes that human beings experience when wayfinding, or moving through physical space. This map (pictured below), depicts the Holy Land from a bird’s-eye perspective — cognitive scientists call this a “survey” perspective, in contrast to the horizontal “route” perspective experienced when actually traveling through a location.4 At first glance, this seems odd — how does this survey perspective aid imagined travel experiences, when human beings generally experience travel through a horizontal route-based perspective? The answer, in all too-human fashion, has to do with time.
Spatial cognitive researchers theorize that human beings initially conceive of new environments horizontally, using route-based perception; in recall, first-time travelers imagine themselves at the center of their memories, with the environment situated around them. Over time, however, we restructure this mental image, creating survey knowledge of a location — in other words, the more time we spend in a location, the more we’re able to imagine from a bird’s-eye view. The map of Matthew Paris, as a tool for imaginative travel, reflects this cognitive restructuring. If the point of a pilgrimage is to allow a traveler to truly immerse themselves in the historical life of Christ in the world that he knew, then an imaginative traveler needed to experience the world as Christ did: through a complex, survey perspective.
University of Notre Dame
1. Nancy Easterlin, “Cognitive Ecocriticism: Human Wayfinding, Sociality, and Literary Interpretation,” Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies, ed. Lisa Zunshine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
2. Kathryn M. Rudy, Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent: Imagining Jerusalem in the Late Middle Ages (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2011).
3. Daniel K. Connolly, “Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris,” Art Bulletin (81:4), 598.
Ehrenschwendtner, Marie-Luise. “Virtual Pilgrimages? Enclosure and the Practice of Piety at St. Katherine’s Convent, Augsburg.”…
4. Montello, et. al. “Real Environments, Virtual Environments, maps.” Human Spatial Memory, 261.