William the Clerk (DNB00)

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WILLIAM the Clerk (fl. 1208–1226), Anglo-Norman poet, was the author of five Norman-French works. The most important is a romance belonging to the Arthurian cycle, called ‘Frégus et Galienne, ou Le Roman du Chevalier au bel escu,’ which was edited by Francisque Michel for the Abbotsford in 1841 (4to). It relates the story of a shepherd youth named Frégus, who, struck with admiration of Arthur and his court as they passed on a hunt, persuaded his parents to allow him to try his fortunes as a knight of King Arthur. He went to court, and, though received with ridicule by some of the knights, was commissioned by Arthur to fight the gigantic ‘Chevalier au Lion.’ This he did, compelling the knight to go to court and submit. But in the course of his mission he had met with Galienne, who became so enamoured of him that when he coldly repulsed her advances she left her father's castle in despair. Stricken with remorse and awakened love he went in quest of her, and after various adventures found her. Returning to Arthur's court, Frégus and Galienne wind up the romance with their happy marriage.

William wrote also a ‘Bestiary’ (extant in MS. Royal 16 E. viii and MS. Cotton. Vesp. A. vii), in which in the article on the dove there is an allusion to the interdict in England which places the time of composition of the book in 1208. The ‘Besant de Dieu,’ a serious poem, which belongs to the end of his life, contains some outspoken strictures on the Albigensian crusade, and refers to the death of Louis VIII in his expedition to the south; a manuscript is preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris. Both the ‘Bestiary’ and the ‘Besant’ are printed in Barbazon's ‘Fabliaux et Contes’ (Paris, 1808, vols. iii. and iv.). The ‘Besant’ has also been edited by Ernst Martin (Halle, 1869).

The two fabliaux he wrote must belong to an earlier period than this last. One, called ‘La Malle Honte,’ seems to be a kind of satire and directed against the king of England, the sting of it lying in the title. The same subject was treated by Hugh of Cambray. ‘Le Prêtre et Alison, ou La Fille à la Bourgeoise,’ relates the trick played by the parents of a girl on her priest-lover. They feigned assent to his advances, but substituted a prostitute for their daughter in her room. The priest did not find out his mistake till the morning.

The noteworthy feature about William's works is their democratic character. Frégus, a shepherd boy, becomes a knight and marries a lady of rank; the king is twitted with some shameful actions by the tale of ‘La Malle Honte;’ and in the ‘Besant de Dieu’ and ‘Le Prêtre et Alison’ the papacy and the priesthood are respectively attacked.

[The best account of William and his works is in vol. xix. of the Histoire Littéraire de la France commencée par les Benedictins de St. Maur, continuée par des Membres de l'Institut, pp. 754–65 (Amaury Duval). See also Wright's Biographia Britannica Literaria, Anglo-Norman Period, and Martin's (Ernst) Le Besant de Dieu mit einer Einleitung über den Dichter und seine sämmtlichen Werke, Halle, 1869.]

W. E. R.