Songs of William

This epic cycle includes several different songs. Together, they tell William’s life.


William’s Youth (Les enfances Guillaume)


This song deals with a first meeting – and even a first romance – between William and Orable. It has clearly been written after the other songs of the cycle.

While young William, son of Aymeri of Narbonne, has left his home town and is on the way to Paris where Charlemagne sends for him, the pagan king Thibaut moves towards Orange where he is on the verge to marry its sovereign, the Saracen princess Orable. William intercepts the ambassadors who come back from Orange, defeats them and seizes the horse Baucent, which was the lady’s present for Thibaut. The hero falls in love with the princess when he hears of her legendary beauty, whereas she herself falls in love with him after his recent exploit. She helps him not to be ambushed, sending him a message, and promises him, even if she has never seen him yet, to become a Christian and to marry him. But Thibaut hastens the wedding. Orable, thanks to her magic powers, starts the « Orange games » : she makes hunters, bandits, a procession of monks and beasts appear – all of them spread panic among the guests. Lastly, during the wedding night, Thibaut is changed into a little gold ball : thus she succeeds in keeping her a virgin for the man she loves. And, as Orable has planned everything, her husband knows nothing about this last spell and leaves the city the next day, thinking that he has spent a wonderful wedding night !

William continues his journey to the royal court, where he immediately shows his valour. His feat against an insolent Breton who has come to provoke the emperor’s knights induces Charlemagne to dub the hero. The, learning that Narbonne is besieged by Thibaut, William sets out in haste to free the city and give back their fief to his parents.


Louis’ coronation (Le couronnement de Louis)

Le couronnement de Louis (enluminure illustrant un manuscrit médiéval de la chanson de geste Le couronnement de Louis)

Louis’ coronation (illumination from a medieval manuscript telling the story of Louis’ coronation)

After having installed young Louis on the throne, William defends the kingdom from its internal and external enemies, and affirms the solidarity between the Pope and the emperor. At the end of the song, the pacification is achieved.

Emperor Charlemagne has become an old man… He decides to let the crown to his son Louis, but the young heir, who is still a teenager, is frightened by the high responsabilities that await him , and a traitor baron, Arnéis of Orléans, almost usurps kingship. William arrives just in times to save the situation : he knocks out his opponent who – accidentally – dies. Since then, the relationship between the lord and the vassal will remain the same : Louis will ever be weak, and William will always endeavour to compensate for this weakness.

Then, William goes to Rome, where the pope is threatened by the Saracens. A single combat between two champions will determine the fate of the war. William fights the giant Corsolt and kills him after a fierce duel during which his opponent cuts his nose tip : that’s why William is nicknamed since then the « short-nose marquis ».

But Charlemagne dies… William must come back to France in order to defend young Louis who is threatened by the rebellion of some vassals. The hero succeeds in pacifying the kingdom and is determined to devote all his efforts to serve his king and emperor Louis. However, the last verse of the song forecasts Louis’ ungratefulness : « When he became powerful, he was not grateful to William ».


The Cartage of Nîmes (Le charroi de Nîmes)


Louis’ power is finally consolidated, and William can now spend his time to conquer his own estate. The Cartage of Nîmes relates the first step of this conquest.

The first part of the song takes place in Louis’ court : William returns from a hunting party and discovers that the king, who is giving fiefs to his vassals, is about to forget William. The most faithful supporter of the king demonstrated his bitterness and anger. But he rejects every fief that would deprive a widow or an orphan. Then he asks the king for permission to conquer a fief in the Saracen lands. First, the king answers that he cannot give it to him, but in the end, he agrees reluctantly and promises a limited support : William cannot ask him for help more than once every seven years.

The second part tells how William takes Nîmes, a Saracen city, where he arrives following the Regordane Way. On this occasion, William shows some talents that are quite uncommon among medieval epic heroes : his liking for disguise and his trick. In fact, the city is taken thanks to a stratagem that reminds the trick of the Trojan Horse : William and his companions dress up like merchants and convoy carts loaded with barrels in which knights in weapon are hidden. That is how the cartage enter the city, which is then taken by the hero.


The Capture of the City of Orange (La prise d’Orange)


The Capture of Orange deals with the conquest of a woman (the beautiful Saracen Orable) and the conquest of the city.

In springtime, William is bored : from a window of his castle of Nîmes, he observes the rebirth of nature and regrets the absence of maidens. Then comes a Christian prisoner, who has escaped from the jail of Orange. This man praises the wealth of the city of Orange, and also the beauty of Orable, its sovereign. William’s melancholy suddenly vanishes. It is an occasion for him to accomplish another feat, which will give him his full name : William of Orange. William enters the city thanks to another disguise, pretending to be a Saracen ambassador. But he is recongnized and he seeks refuge with his two companions in the Tower of Gloriette, in Orable’s palace. There they fight with fierce resistence. Thrown in jail, they are delivered by Orable, which has fallen in love with the hero. A messenger is sent to Nîmes through an underground passage. He will come back with a troop that forces the pagans to flee. At the end of the song, Orable converts to Christianity, changes her name into Guibourc, and marries William.


Vivien’s Chivalry (Chevalerie Vivien)

The hero is now installed in his fief, but the Saracens are eager to reclaim « their » cities and fight for that. This story is told in two songs : Vivien’s Chivalry and Aliscans. The battle of Archant – or battle of Aliscans – is a glorious defeat followed by a major victory.

William dubs his nephew Viven knight. Vivien makes a solemn pledge that he will never move back a single pace from the Sarcens. Then he goes to Spain, the traditional land of conquest for Christian knights. There he takes some cities. Provocatively, he even sends to King Déramé, emir of Cordova, 500 Saracens after having put out their eyes. The emir assembles an army and engages in combat at Archant. So, in the song, Vivien is liable for the impending disaster.



Enluminure du XIIIe siècle de la chanson des Aliscans

13th century illumination from the song Aliscans

As the Song of William (which is independant from the cycle itself), Aliscans deals with the battle of Archant which has begun in Vivien’s Chivalry. Three main characters are present in this song : William, his nephew Vivien, and Rainouart, a giant which uses fiercely but also comically a makeshift weapon : his « tinel » – a tree trunk.

The battle rages at Aliscans, and Vivien lets fly at the enemies whereas his uncle William fights in another place of the battlefied. Vivien is seriously wounded, but William arrives on time to give him communion before seeing him dying in his arms. Given the magnitude of the disaster, William decides to leave to get help. At Orange, Guibourc advises him to ask King Louis. So William crosses the country and meets the king at Laon. First, he is not well received, but he eventually gets the help he needs. During the banquet, he notices a gigantic-sized young man of Saracen origin which works in the kitchens : Rainouart. The man terrifies everybody because of his brutality and the excessive use of his « tinel » – a wooden pole with the size of a tree trunk, with which he carries buckets of water on his shoulders. William is allowed to take Rainouart with him. The royal army, led by William, arrives at Aliscans. The second battle of Aliscans begins. It will end, thanks to Rainouart and others, with a victory for Christians. Déramé is routed but succeeds in fleeing by sea.


Rainouart’s Monkship (Le moniage Rainouart)

Rainouart, despairing of the world, becomes a monk at Brioude, and is involved in contentious relations with the members of his community.

Imagine a big hearted but silly and quick-tempered giant, whose love for Go dis associated with a fierce pleasure of bloodshed… With a real sincerity, he vows to become a monk, but the means used for that are epeditious. If clothes don’t make the person, Rainouart doesn’t know the proverb !


William’s Monkship (Le moniage Guillaume)

The warrior becomes a hermit…

Guibourc is now dead. William decides to expiate his sinful life and to become a monk in an abbey at Aniane. But entering in religion is quite difficult for him ! The fiery-natured hero hardly submits to a life in community. His warrior lifestyle shocks the monks… whe even plan to expose him to the danger of death, asking him to cross a forest that was the home of many bandits. The conventual life doesn’t suit William, so he tries then to create a hermitage, a few kilometres from Aniane, in a desolate and dangerous place.

However, in this song, religious scenes alternates with battle scenes : it is difficult indeed for the hero to abandon his former way of life. In particular, William delivers the city of Paris, which was besieged by the pagan giant Ysoré. This story explains the name of one parisian street : « Tombe-Issoire » Street, which means « Issoire’s tomb » Street (Issoire being a corruption of the name Ysoré).

In a last episode, William comes back to his ermitage and fights the devil himself, on a little bridge over the river Hérault – a bridge we can still admire when we go to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.

Guillaume d’Orange vainc le géant Isoré, fresque de la Tour Ferrande à Pernes-les-Fontaines, XIIIe siècle

William fights the giant Isoré. Freso on the Tour Ferrande (Pernes-les-Fontaines), 13th century