The Tale of Florent begins with the knight Florent, who is eager to prove his worth. Abroad he travels until he finds a battle to fight of which, in the process, he kills Branchus, heir to a castle ruler’s throne. In anger, Florent is taken captive by a vast army. The parents of the slain warrior are aware that Florent is the nephew of the emperor, and so they decide not to kill him in revenge; but this doesn’t mean they don’t want him dead. The cunning grandmother of Branchus offers to contrive a plan that will cause his death, by the trickery of a covenant. Surmising that he will never succeed, and decreed to die if he fails, Florent is given time to quest for the answer that eludes the entire race of men:
“What thing all women most desire…”
Florent’s uncle the emporer learns of the tale upon his return and summons wise men to take a stab at the answer, but no one seems to know. The knight figures he’s out of luck and realizes he must venture the world to learn if such an answer even exists.
One day as he approaches a forest, he spots an ugly hag lingering beneath a tree. He tries to avoid her, but she hails him, informing that she knows of his quest and that he must listen to her if he wants to live. Florent is interested but slightly disturbed by the condition that, if he wants her help, he has to marry her. At first he declines, but when he realizes the urgency of his situation at her repeated warning, he reconsiders. He figures he can marry the ugly woman and keep her hidden away, and so he decides to accept her offer. She accedes and tells him what women want:
“To be the sovereign of a man’s love…”
She promises him this is the answer and implores him to return to her after he has faced his inquisitors. Though he senses some relief, he can’t tell what is better, to die miserably with a false answer, or to be married to the ugly woman for delivering the correct answer. Florent returns to face the court where his inquisitors await. He delivers word for word what the hag said, and here the grandmother of Branchus stirs in malign astonishment, demanding to know who told him; yet nevertheless, he’s freed of his death sentence.
The reality of having to marry the old hag sets in, and Florent experiences depression. His word of honor is of the utmost importance to him, and sees no way of avoiding the match. He finds her where he met her at the tree and she appears to him as ugly as any vision of womanly ugliness could possibly be.
“And like some bulging wool-sack, she / Proffers herself, and tells him now / It’s time to keep his vow…By the bridle she seizes him…”
Florent owns up, places her on his horse, and rides off to his castle, traveling primarily by cover of night. He has to explain to his friends the reason for bringing the wretched thing to his room.
She’s bathed and the servants bring clean clothes for the hag, but they find not a single comb that will go through her knotted hair. After caking her face with make-up, he realizes she’s truthfully even uglier than before; it is at this point that he marries her. She’s as tickled as ever before the distraught knight and later that evening something even worse happens: he has to sleep with her, as she declares: “That you would be my worldly bliss.” Florent buckles down and kisses her, pretending she’s attractive, but perceives he’s nothing left to live for.
Later they lie in bed naked, and his stomach can barely handle the situation. He clings to the far end of the bed, avoiding her like vile smelling death, but she stretches her bony fingers out to him for cuddling. Their love consummated, she begins to speak, but he notices the person speaking is a voluptuous, eighteen year old girl. He wastes no time, but she instantly props up “the hand.” The beautiful young woman poses a decision for him to make, that he can have her either pretty by day, or by night, but not both. Florent cannot figure out what to do, what to decide. Thus he declares to his acknowledged, lifelong-to-be wife, that he will be happy with the decision she decides is best, that he trusts her to do the right thing by what she feels is right.
In this fashion, Florent gave his woman full sovereignty, the precise thing that women want. By allowing her the one thing that all women want, all her ugliness melts away forever, and she declares that she will remain beautiful for as long as they live. Turns out, she had been cursed by her evil step-mother who hated her, and was stuck ugly till she won love and sovereignty from a knight. They proceed to flirt and play with each other, and go on to live merrily forever, the moral of the story being:
“To teach us [men] how obedience to ladies leads to luck in love.”