By Minjie Su
Have you ever wept for the heartrending love of Romeo and Juliet, or sighed over the cruel fate shared by Tristan and Isolde? Or, perhaps, pitied Lancelot when he is tormented by his affair with Guinevere, while moved by the tragedy of Sigurðr, the mighty dragon-slayer, and his proud Valkyrie lover? No doubt, these characters experienced feelings so profound, that they felt they were worth dying for. However epic their love stories are, they are not the only memorable lovers in medieval literature.
Guillaume and Melior
Composed in verse and dated back to around 1200, the romance of Guillaume de Palerne was commissioned by Countess Yolanda, daughter of Baldwin IV of Hainaut. The story revolves around the foundling Guillaume, and his sweetheart Melior, daughter of the Emperor of Rome. Guillaume himself is the sole heir of Sicily but is abducted (for good reasons) by a werewolf, and becomes adopted by the Emperor of Rome. Now with Guillaume grown into a handsome young man and excellent knight, Melior starts to feel differently towards him. The knight himself is scared at first, for he does not quite understand why he feels both sorrow and happiness when he is near the princess. Nor does he understand what it means when he, in dreams, mistakes his pillow for Melior and kisses it fervently.
Fortunately, it does not take long until both lovers find out that is indeed the first taste of love, but, sadly, they could not enjoy it for long: Melior is to be married to the prince of Byzantium. Their only solution is to elope, and the lovers successfully elude their pursuers by disguising themselves first as a pair of white bears, then as a stag and a doe. The werewolf reappears and helps the lovers all the way to Sicily, to ensure their happy ending, while finding justice and happiness for himself.
Learn more: Eloping Lovers and A Werewolf: The Romance of Guillaume de Palerne
Roswall and Lillian
Although no manuscript managed to survive the Middle Ages, the Scottish romance Roswall and Lillian must have been already written down by the sixteenth century; the story itself may be traced back to the fifteenth century. The plot, interestingly, follows rather closely that of Guillaume de Palerne, though the supernatural element is entirely missing. Against his father’s will, the young Roswall frees three lords who have been imprisoned for decades for treason.
For this reason, he is sent to a neighbouring country, accompanied only by the steward. When they are in the wilderness, the prince asks the steward to show him how to drink directly from a brook – as a prince, he apparently only drinks from cups and chalices. Following the steward’s example, he lies down on his belly; the servant takes this chance and seizes the prince’s legs, threatening to drown him unless Roswall forfeits everything in his favour. In fear of his life, Roswall swears to do the steward’s bidding; the knave rides away with Roswall’s gold, horse, letter, and title.
What happens next closely resembles Guillaume. Roswall’s good looks and conduct attract the attention of the royal court. Now he calls himself Dissawar – possibly a corrupted form of disawar, ‘unwary’ – while the false prince sits on the high table, adorned with honour and glory. Not long after, Princess Lillian, the only child of the king, falls love with the foundling. In a Juliet-like fashion, she asks Dissawar to forsake his miserable name (‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?’) but be her Hector, or Oliver, or other famous knights in romances – here the poet showcases his profound knowledge of the genre. The feelings are mutual, but Lillian is promised to the false prince. Now Roswall must stop being a carefree child and reclaim his title and birthright. A three-day tournament is held to celebrate the betrothal. On each day, Roswall climbs up the hill and finds a knight who is willing to give him his armour and stallion – here the story becomes very Cinderella, only that the princess becomes the prince, and the fairy godmother becomes the mysterious knights. On the wedding day, the three knights show up at court, bowing not to the steward, but to Roswall. All is revealed, and the three knights turn out to be the three lords Roswall freed from prison. In the end, Lillian is remarried to Roswall; everyone lives happily ever after.
Urashimo Taro and the Princess of the Sea
The adventures of Urashimo Taro can be traced back to as early as the eighth century. It is recorded in several written sources throughout Japanese history, but the best-known version is taken from the early twentieth century, when it was included in Japanese textbooks. One day, fisherman Urashimo Taro finds a turtle captured by a few naughty children. Out of pity, he buys it from them and sends it back to the sea. Three days later, the turtle revisits him and invites him to the Dragon Palace under the sea, for the turtle is no other than Otohime, Princess of the Sea. She reveals herself to be a beautiful maiden and, naturally, Urashima falls in love with her.
They soon get married and live happily in the palace for some time, until Urashima remembers life on the ground and decides to visit home to tell the others about his whereabouts. Knowing that she cannot stop him, the Princess sighs but says nothing. Instead, she gives Urashimo a jewelled box, forbidding him to open it. Urashima finds the village entirely unrecognisable – it turns out that he has been gone of hundreds of years, and his name is but a local legend. Shocked, he absent-mindedly opens the box. As a thin streak of smoke slowly rises, Urashima ages and collapses into dusts. Some versions also have him turned into a crane (symbol of death), flying to the west. When he flies over the sea, he sees the grief-stricken turtle floating among the waves.
The motif is also found in various legends from other parts of the world. One notable parallel is the medieval Irish tale Immran Brain (‘Voyage of Bran’). Falling in love with a woman from the Otherworld, Bran travels to and lives in the Island of Women with his sweetheart for a year. When they return, they realise that if they touch the earth, they will crumble like dust – they’ve become something of both this world, and the other, yet belong to neither. Having told their story to someone on land, Bran and his crew sail again, disappearing into the sea forever.
The Butterfly Lovers
Hailed as the Chinese Romeo and Juliet, the earliest written record of the tragic love between Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai is traced to the eighth century (about the same time as Urashimo Taro’s legend), though the story itself is set some three or four centuries earlier.
Zhu Yingtai, the spoiled young daughter of a wealthy family, persuades her father to send her to school in disguise as a man, accompanied by a similarly disguised lady’s maid During her studies, she falls in love with Liang Shanbo, a fellow scholar who comes from a minor aristocratic family who have been almost ruined by poverty. At first, firmly believing that Zhu is a boy, Liang refuses to read any signal given by the brave girl; he treats whatever he feels about ‘him’ as mere friendship between brothers. The romance only begins when, (strategically) inviting Liang to her family manor upon graduation, Zhu reveals to Liang that she is really a girl. Yet two obstacles still stand between the lovers: the financial difference between the two, and the fact that Zhu has been betrothed to another. Having been turned down by Zhu’s parents, Liang soon dies of grief.
A year later, on her wedding day, the lady orders her litter to go past Liang’s grave. A storm rages when she reaches the spot, forcing the marriage procession to stop. In her scarlet red bridal dress, adorned with dazzling gold, and precious stones, Zhu walks to her lover’s grave as if she were really his bride. The grave suddenly opens, and the faithful lady jumps in. When the sky clears, a pair of butterflies appear fluttering above the tomb – the lovers have broken all the rules in this world, social, and physical, and finally manage to be together.
Read more: The Butterfly Lovers: A Classic Chinese Love Story
You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.