Archives for category: Arthurian Legend

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When I think violence in medieval French poetry, I think Chanson de Roland. After all, who can forget Roland impaling Aëlroth with his lance, hoisting him high up in the air, and then tossing the freshly dead foe a good spear’s length away? There are other medieval French tales with violence. There are violent deaths in Marie de France. For example, in her lai Equitan, two adulterers are boiled to death in baths of scalding water. Though the violence is gruesome, it is described in the way violence appears in fables or fairy tales and folk tales: direct and to the point. The poet or storyteller simply says, “They were burned alive in a bath of boiling water.” The descriptions typically lack the relish and gruesome detail found in other works of medieval poetry like Chanson de Roland. If someone were burned alive in a bath of boiling water in Chanson de Roland, the poet would likely go on about the burns, mingling their shrieks of pain with steam silently rising from the water.

Now, you also have violence in the French versions of Arthurian tales like the Arthurian Romances and Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes and the anonymous Mort de Roi Artu, but I’d previously found that the violence in these texts was reserved for tournaments and single-person combat scenes. The scenes can get quite bloody, but the wounds suffered are typically the type to heal after a poultice and a day or two of sitting out the hunt. In other words, justice is not usually served in these tales with a violent death. It’s more likely the offender would be sent to personally apologize to Queen Guinevere and then spend the rest of his life in her service as punishment for his rude behavior to women or something like that.

But after seeing his description of Erec in a rotten mood being ambushed by three robbers in the woods a few days ago, I realized I had been wrong about the 12th century poet Chrétien de Troyes. He deserves his own installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest. This one comes from Erec et Enide the first of his Arthurian Romances.[1]

Erec is King Arthur’s second favorite knight. He’s probably Arthur’s real first favorite knight, but we know what a fragile ego Gawain has in the French books. Gawain’s a pretty good guy in the English books, but in the French he can be a bit of a jerk. If I was one of the Knights of Round Table knowing I only got the job because I’m the king’s nephew I guess wouldn’t be a very secure fellow in the company of self-made heroes either. Anyway, back to Erec – he accompanies Queen Guinevere and her maiden on the hunt for the White Stag. Stuff happens and Erec is forced to separate from Guinievere and go on a quest. During this quest he defeats a rude knight in single-combat and sends him back to Queen Guinevere for further punishment for his wretched offense. Erec meets a maiden named Enide, he gives her the honor to hold a hawk that only the most beautiful woman in the land can do and then brings her back to King Arthur’s court where an even greater honor is bestowed upon her – publicly receiving a kiss from King Arthur – a ceremony associated with the White Stag hunt.

Erec marries Enide and they live happily ever after. Well, almost. Before Erec met Enide he was one of the greatest knights around, but since meeting Enide he’s stopped competing with other knights and instead spends all of his time adoring his lovely wife. Though he still gives his fellow knights money for gear and travel expenses, he’s basically dropped out of the tournament circuit entirely. Erec doesn’t seem to mind, but it starts bothering his wife. She hears the nasty things his friends say about him behind his back, how he’s lost his reputation as a knight and everything. These were the very friends her husband was personally helping rise in the ranks!

Now, one night Enide can’t hold it in anymore. She cries and says that Erec has suffered great misfortune. Only Erec isn’t asleep. He hears her and demands to know everything. He rises immediately, puts on his gear, mounts his horse and bids his wife prepare herself to leave with him at once. They leave together. It isn’t a pleasant ride though. Erec is pissed off and tells his wife not to say anything to him until he says so. After a while three robbers take notice of them and decide to raid them. Though there are three of them, they attack one by one. I love how Chrétien explains this:

“In those days it was the custom and practice that in an attack two knights should not join against one; thus is they too had assailed him, it would seem that they had acted treacherously.”[2]

The robbers were concerned about someone thinking they had acted treacherously. Imagine that! Were they polite robbers? Still, it’s interesting how in tales of chivalry, everyone – even villains – have some regard for humanity. This is why it is difficult to find scenes in them that are violent enough for Today’s Medieval Bloodfest. There simply isn’t the complete disregard for humanity in the texts that is required for violent characters. Bad guys, once caught, are taught a lesson and then proudly reform themselves.

Back to the story. Enide sees them, but Erec doesn’t seem to notice them. She tries to warn Erec. He doesn’t exactly hear her though, he just says something along the lines of, “I’ll forgive you for addressing me this once.” He turns just in time though to not be caught by complete surprise by the first robber:

When Erec hears him, he defies him. Both give spur and clash together, holding their lances at full extent. But he missed Erec, while Erec used him hard; for he knew well the right attack. He strikes him on the shield so fiercely that he cracks it from top to bottom. Nor is his hauberk any protection: Erec pierces and crushes it in the middle of his breast, and thrusts a foot and a half of his lance into his body. When he drew back, he pulled out the shaft. And the other fell to earth. He must needs die, for the blade had drunk his life’s blood.

Here is that passage in Old French and Modern French translation[3]:

Quant Erec l’ot, si le desfie ;

Andui poignant, si s’entrevienent,

Les lances esloingnies tient ;

Mais cil a a Erec faille,

Et Erec a lui malbailli,

Qui bien le sot droit envahir.

Sor l’escu fiert par tel hair,

Que d’un chief en l’autre le fent,

Ne li hauberz ne le desfent :

En mi le piz le fause et ront,

Et de sa lance li repont

Pié et demi dedenz le cors.

Au retraire a son cop estors,

Et cil cheï ; morir l’estut,

Car li glaives ou cors li but.

Quand Erec l’entend, it le défie.

Ils se precipitant l’un à la rencontre de l’autre,

tenant les lances à l’horizontale.

Mais le brigand a manqué Erec,

alors qu’Erec l’a mis en piteux état,

car il a bien su adjuster son coup.

Il le frappe sur l’écu avec une telle violence

qu’il le fend de haut en bas.

Il n’est pas advantage protégé par son haubert

qu’Erec disloque et brise au milieu de la poitrine,

avant de lui enforcer sa lance

d’un pied et demi dand le corps.

En retirant sa lance, il la fait pivoter

et l’autre tombe : il lui fallu mourir,

car la pointe de la lance lui but le sang du coeur.

(Vv. 2856-2870)

Next come the other two robbers:

Then one of the other two rushes forward, leaving his companion behind, and spurs toward Erec, threatening him. Erec firmly grasps his shield, and attacks him with a stout heart. The other holds his shield before his breast. Then they strike upon the emblazoned shields. The knight’s lance flies into two bits, while Erec drives a quarter of his lance’s length through the other’s breast. He will give him no more trouble. Erec unhorses and leaves him in a faint, while he spurs at an angle toward the third robber. When the latter saw him coming on he began to make his escape. He was afraid, and did not dare to face him; so he hastened to take refuge in the woods. But his flight is of small avail, for Erec follows him and cries aloud, “Vassal, vassal, turn about now, and prepare to defend yourself, so that I may not slay you in an act of flight. It is useless to try to escape.” But the fellow has no desire to turn about, and continues to flee with might and main. Following and overtaking him, Erec hits him squarely on his painted shield, and throws him over on the other side. To these three robbers he gives no further heed: one he has killed, another wounded, and of the third he got rid by throwing him from earth to steed. He took the horses of all three and tied them together by the bridles[4]. In colour they were not alike: the first was white as milk, the second black and not at all bad looking, while the third was dappled all over.

So it turns out Chrétien de Troyes can carry his own in poetic descriptions of gruesome violence. While Marie de France might have only used a line or two to say that Erec stabbed the robber in the heart with his lance, killing him with one blow, Chrétien uses 9 lines to describe Erec’s blow that could easily pass for a brutal passage in Chanson de Roland. Chrétien ends the violent passage by telling us that Erec’s lance drank the very blood that gave his attacker life straight from its source – his heart.

[1] Some say that he wrote an earlier Tristan but it is lost.

[2] References to Erec et Enide in Modern English translation are taken from Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, Trans. W.W. Comfort (London, 1963).

[3] Erec et Enide in Old French and Modern French translation from Erec et Enide, ed., trans. Jean-Marie Fritz (Paris, 1992).

[4] I guess that’s the penalty for trying to steal from others – even if they are richer than you. Or, perhaps it’s what happens when you pick on a guy who is fighting with his spouse –he might not give you mercy and send you to be dealt with by the King. Instead, he might just harshly render justice right then and there – and take your horses too!

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur was released last month.  I had no idea Christopher Tolkien was even working on this project. It was a surprise because I thought Sigurd and Gudrun was the last we’d see of resurrected Tolkien poetry composed in the Alliterative style.

tolkien reading some old poetry

But I guess there’s plenty more in the vaults. The recent release of a Tolkien telling of Morte D’Arthur reminded me that I had yet to read the Middle English Stanzaic and Alliterative Arthurs – so I decided that now’s as good a time as any.

The first thing that struck me (besides lamenting that “breme as a bore”[1] – one of the Stanzaic Arthur poet’s favorite clichés – will never be a popular expression in my lifetime) was how Lancelot comes to wear the lady’s sleeve at the tournament in Winchester.

Lancelot announces that he will not attend Arthur’s tournament in Winchester because he’s feeling sick. Ever since Lancelot returned from the Quest for the Holy Grail, Agravain’s been trying to catch Lancelot in bed with Guinevere. Agravain, of course, thinks Lancelot is feigning sickness simply to stay behind and get physical with Guinevere. It turns out that Lancelot doesn’t hang around Castle Camelot as long as Agravain thought he would. Instead, our knight du lac travels by night and attends the tournament in disguise and fights so valiantly there that he almost dies in combat but that’s another story.

On the way to the tournament Lancelot stays with some guy who has armor he can borrow, allowing him to appear anonymously in the tournament. The guy has a daughter who complicates the situation of Lancelot’s love interest.

Now here’s where the French and the English versions differ. Lancelot’s interaction with the daughter is a little different in the Middle English Stanzaic than it appears in the French Vulgate cycle.[2] Here’s how the scene plays out in the French version:

That day Lancelot remained there and was served and provided with everything that nobleman could desire. The people in his lodging kept asking him who he was, but they were unable to find out anything. However, his squire spoke to the vavasour’s daughter, who was very beautiful and pressed him hard to reveal who his lord was; and when he saw her great beauty, he did not wish to refuse utterly, because that would have seemed an unmannerly thing to do, but said: “I cannot reveal everything to you, because I should probably incur my master’s anger, but I will certainly tell you all I can without harming myself. In fact he is the finest knight in the world…” (verse 13)[3]

Everyone, especially this girl, knows that that means, “Lancelot – that’s right – Lancelot is staying in your house!”

Then the girl went straight to Lancelot, knelt before him, and said:

“Noble knight, grant me a gift by the faith you owe to whatever you love most in the world.”

When Lancelot saw such a beautiful and charming girl on her knees before him, he was embarrassed and said:

“Please get up. Be sure there is nothing in the world within my power that I should not do in answer to your request, because you have asked me in such solemn terms.”

She got up and said, “My Lord, I thank you. Do you know what you have granted me? You have promised to wear my right sleeve on your helmet at the tournament instead of a plume, and to bear arms through love for me.”

When Lancelot heard this request he was annoyed; nevertheless he did not  dare to refuse it because he had already promised. However, he was very regretful about having granted what she asked, because he realized that if the queen found out about it, she would be angry with him that, as far as he could see, he would never find his peace with her. (verse 14)[4]

 

Here’s how the scene appears in the Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur:

Th’erl had a doughter that was him dere;
Mikel Laucelot she beheld;
Her rode was red as blossom on brere
Or flowr that springeth in the feld;
Glad she was to sit him ner,
The noble knight under sheld;
Weeping was her moste cheer,
So mikel on him her herte gan helde. (Verses  177-84)[5]

The maiden with cheeks as red as a rose is so taken by Lancelot’s sight that she cannot look upon him without weeping. It of course incorporates soft and delicate flower imagery that penetrates with a painful prick like the point of cupid’s bow or a thorn on a rose or a… you get it.

He sat him down for the maiden’s sake
Upon her bedde there she lay
Courtaisly to her he spake
For to comfort that faire may.
In her armes she gan him take
And these words gan she say:
“Sir, but yif that ye it make,
Save my life no leche may.”(Verses 192-200)[6]

Reading this today summons images of girls screaming louder than the Beatles’ amplifiers in the 1960s or fans passing out at Michael Jackson concerts in the 1980s. One could almost imagine the wall of this maiden’s room covered with pictures of the Knights of the Round Table clipped from issues of Tiger beat magazine. There is little doubt that this maiden is as much a fan of Lancelot as these girls were of The Beatles.

girls screaming at a beatles concert

Girls screaming at a Beatles performance in the Richard Lester film A Hard Day’s Night. Image copyright 1964 United Artists/MGM Holdings

Her blushing and swooning is a typical medieval description of love sickness. “Save my life no leche may” basically means that even a doctor cannot cure her of her love sickness. For its effect on men, see Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale when Arcite and Palamoun fall deeply in love with Emelye from simply seeing her gather flowers in the garden during the month of May from their prison window. Yes, it was that easy to get lovesickness in a Chaucer story. Arcite’s lovesickness caused by Emelye is so severe that it dramatically changes him when he is banished from Athens and forced to live with Perotheus in Thebes:

…lene he wex and drye as is a shaft;
His eyen holwe, and grisly to biholde,
His hewe fallow and pale as asshen colde,
And solitaire he was and evere alone,
And waillynge al the nyght, making his mone;
And if he herde song or instrument,
Thanne we wolde wepe, he myghte nat be stent.
So feble eek were his spiritz, and so lowe,
And chaunged so, that no man koude knowe
His speche nor his voys, though men it herde.
And in his geere for al the world he ferde,
Nat oonly lik the loveris maladye
Of Hereos, but rather lyk manye,
Engendered of humour malencolik,
Biforen, in his celle fantastik. (ll. 1362-76)[7]

Yes, he grew as thin and dry as a dried stalk. His face changed so much that no one he knew could recognize him anymore. He moaned and wailed all night and whenever he heard the sound of someone playing a musical instrument, he would cry so hard that no one could stop his tears. Chaucer ties his exaggerated description of lovesickness as it often appears in Heroic poetry together with some medical terminology suggesting that it could actually be a passage from a medical treatise. Everything can be said in the same breath by Chaucer…

Perhaps knowing she will suffer the same fate as Arcite for her love of a knight, the maiden in the Arthurian story asks Lancelot to at least display a token of her love when he fights in the tournament:

“Sithe I of thee ne may have more,
As thou art hardy knight and free,
In the tournament that thou wolde bere
Some sign of mine that men might see.”
“Lady, thy sleeve thou shalt of-shere;
I will it take for the love of thee;
So did I never no ladies ere,
But one that most hath loved me.”(Verses 201-08)[8]
 

The Stanzaic Arthur omits the scene with the maiden asking the squire Lancelot’s identity. Also, in the French version, the maiden specifically asks Lancelot to wear her sleeve, not just “some sign.”

In the French version, the maiden uses the manners of courtly love to her advantage by making Lancelot promise to grant her wish knowing that his code forbids him from rejecting her request – even if he doesn’t know what it is. This differs from the English version, where Lancelot offers to wear her sleeve.

The whole part about Lancelot’s annoyance with the matter and worrying about it complicating his relationship with Guinevere is omitted from the English version. It’s not a question of trimming down the length of the scene, because the English poet embellishes the scene in his own way to give a description of love sickness. Instead, deciding not to point out to the audience that Lancelot’s wearing the sleeve may create a problem with Guinevere, the English poet tells us something interesting about his audience. It suggests that the audience is well-versed in literature and intelligent enough to draw that conclusion on their own. It also allows for surprise which may mean that there was an audience growing tired of the storytelling styles that prevented the audience from experiencing surprises for themselves.

While it often serves the purpose of bringing a circular balance to their work, medieval poets are notorious for using foreshadowing to such an extent that the stories seems to contain no surprises for the audience whatsoever. The English version, at least in this scene, allows an engaged audience to formulate their own questions and see for themselves how the drama unfolds.

I prefer to have some of both. Medieval court audiences may have as well. There’s something to be said for the poet who holds the audience’s hand, giving clues, and sharing observations. The audience shares the experience with the poet – they are going on the journey together and seeing the same sights at the same time. It takes a tremendous amount of faith in the audience for the poet to allow them to draw their own conclusions about the drama and the meaning of the work. It may also suggest that the public recitation of poetry was meant to be interactive rather than just silently absorbed – or simply a new way for a dining court audience to enjoy a telling of an old poem.


[1] Fierce (or wild) as a boar. (O.E. valiant). Another cliché the poet uses every chance he gets is “withouten lees” – which passed the gulf to Modern English literally as, “Without lies.” It doesn’t have the same the ring to it, but it’s understood. What are some of the expressions storytellers use in place of “breme as bore” or “withouten lees” today?

[2] Mort du Roi Artu – the early 13th century French version. In this post I’m using the edition: The Death of King Arthur, Trans. James Cable, (London: Penguin, 1971).

[3] The Death of King Arthur, 29.

[4] The Death of King Arthur, 30.

[5] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur from King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. Larry D. Benson, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1974), 8.

[6] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, 8.

[7] Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963), 264.

[8] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, 9.

christmas in camelot

Ever since our matchless maiden mother Mary delivered our Christ in the most modest of accommodations in Bethlehem, wondrous things have always occurred during Christmastide. That was the selling point that won the Saxons to Christianity during the 6th century – or at least it should have been – and it’s the same thing that mesmerizes us today when we are in presence of life-size inflatable snow globes and the like.

So, as we gather with our neighbors on Christmas Day, we will almost certainly find ourselves surrounded by poor souls who do not share our same ideas of The Holiday. These heathens do not know, for example, the importance of Christmas to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Wondrous things occurred in Camelot during Yuletide, yet somehow we tell stories of other things said to have occurred on this special day.

Let us not forget the miracle of the sword of the stone – for it was during Christmas that Merlin advised the Archbishop of Canterbury to summon all of the barons in the realm to London for a very special Christmas celebration:

Thenne Merlyn wente to the archebisshop of Caunterbury / and counceilled hym for to sende for
alle the lordes of the reame /
and alle the gentilmen of armes that they shold to london come by Cristmas vpon payne of cursynge[1]

Let’s let the King of mankind show us, on this auspicious day, who should be the king of our realm:

And for this cause that Jesus that was borne on that nyghte
that he wold of his grete mercy shewe some myracle
as he was come to the kynge of mankynde for to shewe somme myracle who be
rightwys kynge of this reame[2]

The barons and their knights arrived to a miraculous sight – and it wasn’t what was inside the church either. The visitors were so marveled by the sword in the stone exhibit that Merlin installed, that the Archbishop nearly lost his audience to it:

Thenne the peple merueilled & told it to the Archebisshop I commande said tharchebisshop
that ye kepe yow within your chirche /
and pray vnto god still that no man touche the swerd tyll the hyghe masse be all done[3]

It’s amusing to picture the Archbishop getting ready for his big appearance at mass, only to realize that everyone was outside looking at something else – on one of the biggest church days of the year no less!

Today many men spend mass with their eyes glossed over in a fantasy football game. Not much has changed because in the medieval world, these same men passed their mass thinking about the jousting tournament that would take place after the service. For, it was really the promise of feasting and swordplay that brought these men to London and not the Archbishop’s wise words. After mass, the men gathered around the sword:

So whan all masses were done all the lordes wente to beholde the stone and the swerd /
And whan they sawe the scripture / som assayed suche as wold haue ben kyng /
But none myght stere the swerd nor meue hit He is not here said the Archebisshop that shall
encheue the swerd but doubte not god will make hym knowen[4]

The knights stuck around London for a few more days of revelry. In medieval Britain, Christmas, or “Christmastide” was a festival that typically lasted twelve days and New Year’s Day was part of the Christmas celebration. There was a great tournament in London that year on New Year’s Day and it was on that same day that Kay was in such a hurry to get to church on time for morning mass that he left his sword back at the house. He asked his foster brother Arthur to fetch it for him – and we all know what happened next…

arthur draws the sword from the stone

Arthur (played by Nigel Terry) draws the sword from the stone in John Boorman’s Excalibur (image: copyright 1981 Orion Pictures/Warner Brothers)

In medieval Britain, presents were typically exchanged on New Year’s Day and not Christmas Day as is done in America today. Though “Christmastide” typically lasted twelve days, we see in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that King Arthur didn’t follow the status quo – Camelot partied for a full fifteen days!

This kyng lay at Camylot upon KrystmasseWith mony luflych lorde, ledez of the best,Rekenly on the Rounde Table alle tho rich brether,With rich revel oryght and rechles merthes.Ther tournayed tulkes by tymez ful mony,

Justed ful joilé thise gentyle knightes,

Sythen kayred to the court caroles to make.

For ther the fest watz ilyche ful fiften dayes,

With alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse… (Fitt 1, v. 37-45)[5]

The king spent that Christmas at CamelotWith many gracious lords, men of great worth,Noble brothers-in-arms worthy of the Round Table,With rich revelry and carefree amusement, as was right.There knights fought in tournament again and again,

Jousting most gallantly, these valiant men,

Then rode to the court for dancing and song.

For there the festival lasted the whole fifteen days

With all the feasting and merry-making that could be devised… (Part 1, v. 37-45)[6]

Well, since Arthur pulled the sword from the stone on New Year’s Day and everything, he expected no less of his subjects on that holiday. He was notorious for refusing to eat at holiday dinners until he had either heard some wondrous tale or had at least seen someone jump “over men and horses hoops and garters lastly through a hog’s head of real fire”[7]:

…he wolde never eatUpon such a dere day er hym devised wereOf sum aventurus thing an couthe tale,Of sum mayn mervayle, that he might trawe,Of alders, of armes, of other aventurus,Other sum segg hym bisoght of sum siker knyght

To joyne with hym in justyng, in jopardé to lay

Lede, lif for lyf, leve uchon other,

As fortune wolde fulsun hom, the fayrer to have. (Part 1, v. 91-99)[8]

…he would never eatOn such a special day until he had been toldA curious tale about some perilous thing,Of some great wonder that he could believe,Of princes, of battles, or other marvels;Or some knight begged him for a trusty foe

To oppose him in jousting, in hazard to set

His life against his opponent’s, each letting the other,

As luck would assist him, gain the upper hand. (Part 1, v. 91-99)[9]

So, be sure to tell a tale of wonder during your Christmas holiday and challenge a mate to a sword fight or a wrestling match or something – it will make our trewe kinge happy.


[1] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English from Middle English Compendium (leaf 20v) available online: http://name.umdl.umich.edu/MaloryWks2

[2] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English (leaf 20v)

[3] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English (leaf 20v)

[4] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English (leaf 20v)

[5] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: Middle English Text with facing Translation, Ed., Trans. James Winny (Peterborough, 1992), 4.

[6] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 5.

[7] The Beatles, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone, 1967).

[8] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 6.

[9] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 7.

It amuses me how medieval storytellers find new and creative ways to use well-known clichés to make you believe that the maiden in the story you’re currently reading is the fairest of them all – ever.

In Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romance Erec et Enide, Erec follows an evil knight to challenge him publicly to a duel. Why? Why else? Because this evil knight just insulted a fair maiden. Don’t be silly.

Anyway, on a normal day, Erec would’ve rectified the situation right then and there. But… problem is, this insult occurred when Erec wasn’t wearing his knight costume. No fancy armor, no painted lance, no golden spurs – not even an undershirt embroidered with nightingales and posies. He left all that stuff back at the castle. The only thing he has with him is his sword.

Now, Erec is a knight of King Arthur’s court and he wouldn’t be caught dead challenging a knight from another castle to a duel unless he looked the part – especially if it is for a lady’s honor! And this fair lady isn’t just a regular fair lady. This fair lady happens to be Queen Guinevere.

Head of a Woman. Stained Glass. 14th century (Rouen, France) (image: Metropolitan Museum of Art – The Cloisters)

So Erec follows the evil knight to make sure he doesn’t get away all the while hoping to acquire some armor. When the evil knight reaches his castle, Erec finds lodging at an old guy’s house on the outskirts of town. This old guy just so happens to be a retired knight and he has some armor Erec can borrow for his upcoming duel. It also just so happens that this old retired knight’s daughter, Enide, is the fairest of them all.

So, without further ado, here is Chrétien de Troyes’ description of Enide when Erec first sets eyes upon her:

Mout estoit la pucele gente,Que tote i avoit mis s’entente

Nature qui faite l’avoit.

Ele meïsmes s’en estoit

Plus de .vᶜ. fois mervoillie

Comment une soule feïe

Tant bele chose faire sot;

Ne puis tant pener ne se pot

Qu’ele peüst son examplaire

En nule guise contrefaire

De ceste tesmoingne Nature

C’onques si bele creature

Ne fu veüe en tot le monde.

Por voir vos di qu’Isuez la blonde

N’ot tant les crins sors et luisanz

Que a cesti ne fust neanz.

Plus ot que n’est la flor de lis,

Cler et blanc le front et le vis.

Sor la blanchor, par grant merveille,

D’une color fresche et mermeille,

Que Nature li ot done,

Estoit sa face enluminee.

Li huil si grant clarté rendoient

Que deus estoiles resembloient.

Onques Dex ne sot faire miauz

Le nes, la boche, ne les iauz.

Que diroie de sa beauté?

Ce fu cele por verité

Qui fu faite por esgarder,

Qu’en li se peüst on mirer

Ausi con en un mireour. (v. 411-41)[1]

 

The maid was charming,in sooth, for Nature had used

all of her skill in forming her.

Nature herself had marveled

more than five hundred times

how upon this one occasion

she had succeeded in creating

such a perfect thing.

Never again could she so strive successfully to reproduce her pattern.

Nature bears witness

concerning her that never was

so fair a creature seen in all the world.

In truth I say that never did Iseult the Fair have such radiant golden tresses that she could be compared to this maiden.

The complexion of her forehead and face was clearer and more delicate than the lily.

But with wondrous art her face

with all its delicate pallor

was suffused with a fresh crimson

which Nature had bestowed upon her.

Her eyes were so bright

that they seemed like two stars.

God never formed better nose,

mouth and eyes.

What shall I say of her beauty?

In sooth, she was made

to be looked at;

for in her one could have seen himself

as in a mirror. (6)[2]

 


[1] Reference to Chrétien de Troyes in Old French from Erec et Enide, Ed. Jean-Marie Fritz (Paris, 1992).

[2] Reference to Chrétien de Troyes in Modern English from Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, Trans. W.W. Comfort (London, 1963).

There are many fantasy novels set in fictional medieval worlds that share very little of the medieval worldview with us. One barely needs to remove a single suit of shining armor to reveal that most fantasy stories have very little in common with the medieval world besides wardrobe. I’m not saying that people who write fantasy need to make it clear in their text that they can distinguish Thomas Malory from Chrétien de Troyes or Beowulf from Sigurd, but I love it when a fantasy author borrows a cliché, a custom, an object, a theme, or a philosophy from a medieval text and fits it snugly into his own story, effectively evoking medieval essence without disturbing the modern narrative. After all, that’s what medieval storytelling is all about and it’s a tradition that should continue to thrive. An example of such a borrowing that achieves this “medieval essence” can be found in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Alexander carried a symbol from a popular 14th century English poem, simplified it, yet kept the kernel of its strong positive moral message, and placed it in his own story for a modern popular audience

The Chronicles of Prydain is a children’s fantasy adventure series set in a medieval imaginary world. Its easy dialogue, storybook humor, caricatures of Tolkien characters, and often predictable story grant it entrance to the children’s fantasy genre, but Alexander added a special depth to his narrative with simple, yet rich glimpses into the wisdom of the medieval worldview.

One such example occurs In The Black Cauldron, the second book of Chronicles of Prydain. In the story, the young hero Taran is on a quest to rescue a magic cauldron from the clutches of an evil lord who uses the anciently powerful object as a sort of weapon of mass destruction involving zombies. During his quest, Adaon, the son of a chief bard, presents Taran with a brooch. Taran discovers that this brooch gives him dream visions with glimpses of future events. Piecing these glimpses of future events together aids him in his quest to save Prydain, the imaginary world where the story is set. In addition to this magical quality, the brooch is decorated with a symbol that represents a powerful system of virtues that is very similar both in concept and appearance to the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Since Alexander’s readers are quite younger than the 14th century court audiences that enjoyed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he created a symbol that is less complex than Gawain’s Pentangle. Although the brooch’s symbol is less complex than the Pentangle in terms of the number of virtues it represents and it lacks Christian iconography, it retains and effectively communicates the same fundamental concept of its 14th century ancestor.

As Taran & company head for the Marshes of Morva, the bard Fflewddur takes a closer look at the brooch which is fastened to Taran’s neck. After examining it, he reveals to Taran that, “it bears the bardic symbol – those three lines there, like a sort of arrowhead.”[1] Fflewddur explains that the three lines symbolize respectively, “knowledge, truth, and love.”[2] Fflewddur then comments on the value and rarity of these virtues, “I sometimes think it’s hard enough to find any one of them, even separately. Put them all together and you have something very powerful indeed.”[3]

Portrait of Adaon. Notice how the artist depicts the bardic symbol “three lines there, like a sort of arrowhead” on Taran’s brooch. image: http://oboe-wan.deviantart.com/art/Adaon-109317843

The Pentangle painted in pure gold on Gawain’s shield represents “something very powerful” as well. The narrator (often referred to by medieval scholars as the Gawain poet or the Pearl poet) of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses forty two lines of his poem to provide his audience with a detailed description of the system of balanced virtues that the Pentangle symbolizes.

The Gawain poet narrator describes the Pentangle as a system of virtues organized by five sets of five. Each point of the star symbolizes five different things, and each of these five things corresponds symbiotically with the other sets of five. To briefly enumerate the five equal layers of the system, the five points represent the five wits, the five fingers of Gawain’s hand, the five wounds Christ suffered on the cross, the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in her child, and the five pure virtues: frankness, fellowship, cleanness, courtesy, and compassion.

The Gawain poet then tells the audience that these attributes are interconnected:

 Now alle these five sythez, for soothe, were fetled on this knyght,

And uchone halched in other, that non ende hade,

And fyched upon five poyntez, that fayld never,

Ne samned never in no side, ne sundred nouther,

Withouten ende at any noke I oquere fynde,

Whereever the gomen bygan, or glod to an ende. (Fitt 2, v. 656-61)[4]

 Now truly, all these five groups were embodied in that knight,

Each one linked to the others in an endless design,

Based upon five points that was never unfinished,

Not uniting in one line nor separating either;

Without ending anywhere at any point that I find,

No matter where the line began or ran to an end. (Part 2, v. 656-61)[5]

Detail of lines 656-61 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as they appear in MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3). c. 1400 British Library / University of Calgary, Libraries and Cultural Resources. image: http://gawain.ucalgary.ca/

Now, keeping a modern audience’s attention while a five point system which is actually a twenty-five point system is explained in detail would be an incredible feat for today’s storyteller and would require a patient, polite, and engaged audience. A medieval court audience, however, would be quite familiar with the concept of this type of system of organization and would probably be receptive to an even more complex one.

An example of a work where the narrator shares a complex system through which man may achieve spiritual, dietary, moral, and physical balance among the elements (or in Gawain’s case, reaching and maintaining a state of purity) that a medieval court audience would be familiar with is the Secreta Secretorum. The Secreta Secretorum was one of the most widely read books in 14th century England and France. It “circulated freely in court circles”[6] and was, as Terry Jones puts it, “de rigueur on any [medieval] thinking person’s reading list.”[7] It was a type of advice text that scholars call “medieval Mirrors for Princes.”[8] Secreta Secretorum is presented as material gleaned from letters sent between Aristotle and his student Alexander the Great while Alexander campaigned in Persia. Aristotle organizes various disciplines of study and states of the body into systems of four and describes how these four components correspond both to each other and collectively.

He divides Astronomy, for example, into four components: the position of the stars among themselves, the constellations and their position as it relates to the sun, the quality and the moving of the celestial dome, and the degrees of the rising of the constellations that reside in the moon’s celestial band (zodiac constellations).

Nowe to oure first mater and purpose, it is to wite, In the ordinaunce of the sterres; In disposicioun of ϸe signes and alyenyng and mevyng fro ϸe sonne; and this party is called Astronomye; that other part is of qualitees, and also for to knowe the mevyng of ϸe firmament, and the dgrees of ϸe risyng of ϸe signes that are vndir the firmament of ϸe mone, and this is the most worthi part of Astronomye, for ϸerin is the cheef knowyng of ϸat science. (Cap. 28 ll. 26-34)[9]

Image of an early 15th century English Medical Treatise HM 19079. Notice how the article has a heading and notes in the margin.  Huntington Library. image: http://sunsite3.berkeley.edu/hehweb/toc.html (Compare to image below of print transcription of Secreta Secretorum)

Detail of transcription of Cap. 28 from MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M. from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898) Image: http://books.google.com/

To make an Astronomical conclusion one must consider all four of these factors, however, data from one category may be used with data from a category of another discipline when answering a question that crosses disciplines. Of course, according to that worldview, to answer any question effectively, it was necessary to cross disciplines – ideally several times. To make it possible to compare the data among the other disciplines, they too were organized into basic divisions of four. They were each thought to influence each other. Aristotle divides the human body into four basic parts: the head, the chest, the stomach, and the genitals. He also organizes humors (tempers or dispositions), elements,[10] and seasons[11] into four qualities. Not every system or exemplum in the text is exclusively organized in units of four, but so many of them are that it seems to be Aristotle’s favorite method of outlining complicated scientific ideas.

Since disease in the medieval world was seen as an imbalance in the way the body and mind interacted with the physical world, symbiotic relationships were considered among the body and the physical world for both the diagnosis and treatment of disease. For example, during spring, Aristotle recommends that one should eat chicken, goat, bitter greens, and milk. It is also the ideal time to “flush out” the toxins that accumulate in the body during winter by inducing sweat, bathing, bloodletting, and eating foods with laxative properties:

In this tyme shulde chykenys be ete, and kydes and eggis, soure letuse ϸat men calle carlokis, and getis mylke. In this tyme is best to lete blood, for onys than is bettir than thre tymes an other tyme ; and it is good to travayle and to haue thi wombe soluble, and than it is good to swete, to bathe, and to goo, and to ete things that are laxatijf, for alle thing that amendith bi digestioun or by blood letyng it shalle sone retorne and amend in this prime temps .i. veer. ” (Cap. 43 ll. 23-30)[12]

While, during winter he recommends one eat hot meats such as chicken and mutton, figs, nuts, and red wine. He also advises to refrain from laxative foods and bloodletting during winter unless it is absolutely necessary.[13]

The Gawain poet doesn’t provide a treatise on medieval medicine and he certainly doesn’t tell us how eating a certain type of food will affect Gawain’s stomach based on his complexion and temper, the constellations as they relate to the moon, and the season. He does, however, include a detailed description of a system (either historical, legendary, or by personal creation) by which one may achieve moral purity.

It is typical of a medieval poet to impart a moral message to a story and one of the methods the Gawain poet uses is describing the meaning of the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield.[14] Since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale about a knight from King Arthur’s court who unknowingly agrees to have his virtue tested, the Pentangle’s description appears as Gawain is gearing up to leave King Arthur’s court to meet the Green Knight to receive his long-awaited return blow. The description of Gawain’s shield tells the medieval audience that Gawain will be tested.

Picture of Sir Gawain and the Pentangle from the video The Quest for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nAd6fffVvs

The brooch in The Black Cauldron tells the audience, in the same way, that Taran will be tested. Though Gawain isn’t forced to wager with his shield in the same way Taran is with his brooch in the Marshas of Morva, the brooch, like Gawain’s shield, offers protection. Where a shield would protect someone from physical harm in a combat situation, the brooch protects Taran by giving him dream visions that arguably save both his life and his quest, but more importantly, they both serve as a reminder to rely on a system of virtue to guide them through life much the teachings of Secreta Secrtorum are meant to do for a king ruling a state. Simplifying the system by presenting fewer virtues and choosing not to give the three lines multiple layers like the Gawain poet did with the Pentangle, Alexander succeeded in using medieval literary devices to promote a positive moral message within a children’s fantasy story.

The narrator poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes the significance of the pentangle painted on Gawain’s shield directly to the audience as part of a character portrait. It is typical in medieval narrative poetry for the narrator to give a physical description of characters and to use their clothing and objects they carry with them to give the audience details about their estate (or social class) and personalities. Medieval scholars call this a character portrait. One of the most popular examples of a medieval style character portrait is when Chaucer describes each of the pilgrims during the General Prologue of his Canterbury Tales.

Character portraits can vary in length and they can sometimes give the audience an idea of the poet’s moral or political agenda. In the Gawain poet’s case, we see that he thinks it is very important for the audience to understand (or to know that he understands) the Pentangle’s system of virtues because it takes up half of Gawain’s character portrait. While Alexander used a symbol that evokes a similar values system as the Pentangle, the method he uses to introduce it to the story is different from the one used by the Gawain poet. Alexander describes its symbolism to the audience in a modern way rather than a medieval way.

While the Gawain poet used the narrator’s voice providing a medieval character portrait to describe the Pentangle, Alexander used dialogue by having a character with some knowledge of bardic lore describe the significance of the brooch’s symbol to Taran. Having Fflewddur explain the significance of the brooch to Taran is similar to Aristotle’s method of teaching in the Secreta Secretorum in that you have an older, wiser, and somewhat quirky character providing moral guidance to a young character in an important leadership position.

Though the focus of the Secreta Secretorum as an advice text is on physical, political, and economic survival, Aristotle imparts a system of virtue in his teaching. One gets the sense that “being good” is a fundamental ingredient in the system of good governance outlined in this treatise.

Occasionally, Aristole is very direct in passages like this one where he identifies envy as the mother of lying and hatred as the root of all vices, “enuye is neuyr without lesyngis, the which is roote and mater of alle vicis. Envye engedrith yville spekyng, and of yville speche cometh hatred.” (Cap. 8 ll. 6-9)[15] To balance his sermon on the root of vice, Aristotle later points out that truth brings good faith, justice, friendship, great renown for the leader both at home and abroad, promotes the creation of reasonable laws, and fosters a positive sense of community.[16] These are direct examples, but the tone and underlying philosophy of the text implies that virtue is a necessary component of success.

The teachings in the Secreta Secretorum vary in length. For example, instruction on the proper way to sleep[17] is 27 lines while advice on what sort of clothing a king should wear[18] is only 11 lines, but “each exemplum is short enough to be taken in all at once, aiming for a flash of insight or identification.”[19] Though Aristotle doesn’t use a symbol like Lloyd Alexander and the Gawain poet do, the answers to the great mysteries of life that are explained in the Secreta Secretorum can be summarized in these key points: man should seek harmony by guarding himself from impulsive behavior, stay connected with nature and use his resources in moderation according to its cycles, be kind to his fellow man, and value truth above all. Like Gawain’s Pentangle and Taran’s brooch, the teachings in the Secreta Secretorum also suggest that Alexander the Great will be tested as a ruler.

The physical symbols of Taran’s brooch and Gawain’s Pentangle appear different in many ways on the surface (one is “a sort of arrowhead” and the other is a five pointed star) and Aristotle’s method aims to achieve a “flash of insight” without the use of a physical symbol. Each author incorporates different imagery; the Gawain poet uses Christian imagery while Alexander does not. Alexander doesn’t mention a concept of God at all and while the medieval manuscript of Aristotle’s Secreta Secretorum referenced in this article often mentions God, the scribe who copied it did not include Christ’s name a single time in the text.

These three authors do not use the same number of virtues in their respective values systems, and these systems are introduced to the stories in different ways. The incorporation of a values system in these texts suggests that the Gawain poet, Lloyd Alexander, and Aristotle all agree that every hero or person in a position of power must have a code or values system to guide him. By looking at the different ways values systems appear in stories and comparing the core of the respective values systems they illustrate, we realize this: the symbol we carry with us on our quest is not as important as our will to practice it every step along the way.


[1] Lloyd Alexander, The Black Cauldron (Holt, Rine and Winston: New York, 1965), 117.

[2] Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[3]Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[4] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: Middle English Text with facing Translation, Ed., Trans. James Winny (Peterborough, 1992).

[5] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

[6] Katharine Breen, “A Different Kind of Book for Richard’s Sake: MS Bodley 581 as Ethical Handbook,” The Chaucer Review 45.2 (2010): 131.

[7] Terry Jones, Who Murdered Chaucer? (New York, 2004), 50.

[8] Katharine Breen, 120.

[9] The Secrete of Secretes. Translated from the French (MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M.) from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898), 21.

[10] The Secrete of Secretes, 22.

[11] The Secrete of Secretes, 27-29.

[12] The Secrete of Secretes, 27.

[13] The Secrete of Secretes, 29.

[14] Though this article only describes the Pentangle that appears on the front of Gawain’s shield, the interior of the shield is painted with a portrait of the Virgin Mary.

[15] The Secrete of Secretes, 10.

[16] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 8 ll. 16-27) 10.

[17] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 39) 25.

[18] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 13) 12.

[19] Katharine Breen, 132.

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