Archives for category: Girls on Parchment

GIRLS ON PARCHMENT

Medieval poets love to describe the beauty of women in their stories. Their hyperbole has no limits – they claim left and right that the maiden in the story you’re hearing right now has the best nose, mouth and eyes ever formed by God! 

Wait a second, didn’t Enide possess those one-of-a-kind physical features? It’s beginning to look like there’s a Venus on the half shell in every town in Brittany!

This installment of Girls on Parchment comes from Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas. It is one of the shortest Canterbury Tales – measuring at 241 and… err…1/2 lines. It could have been the longest Canterbury Tale ever – had the host Harry Bailey not made Chaucer stop telling it.

The Tale of Sir Thopas is about a knight who quests after the woman of his dreams, an elf-queen. To win her, he must run from an evil giant knight and make his way through the wild jungle of “the contree of Fairye” – while occasionally making pit stops at his castle to enjoy dainty cakes and model new designer sets of armor. After all, he must look his best on his quest! He’s undeniably the blueprint for Monty Python’s Sir Robin.

bravely bold sir robin

Sir Robin (played by Eric Idle) from Monty Python and the Holy Grail image copyright 1974 Python (Monty) Pictures / Sony Pictures

And now, “Liseth lordes, in good entent!”

– Oh, and make sure you always sing Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times they are a-changin'” –

here is Chaucer’s description of our tale’s hero:

Sir Thopas wax a doghty swayn,
Whit was his face as payndemayn,
Hise lippes rede as rose;
His rode is lyk scarlet in grayn,
And I yow telle, in good certayn,
He hadde a semely nose.
His heer, his berd, was lyk saffroun (ll. 1914-20)[1]

saffron

Saffron for sale at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.

This brave knight has a beard like saffron – a soft, yet bristly beard with a complex red aroma. That’s certainly more intimate detail of a knight’s physical features than we usually get in medieval poetry – except for Chaucer’s Squire of course.[2]

Sure, we get endless descriptions of the quality of a knight’s gear, but as far as detailed descriptions of physical features go – the English medieval poet might give us, “he was passing fair” – if we’re lucky – as Malory did for Galahad:

… therin came twelue nonnes that broughte with hem Galahad the whiche was passynge fayre and wel made that vnneth in the world men myghte not fynde his matche…[3] … therin came twelve nuns that brought with them Galahad, the which was passing fair and well made, that unnethe in the world men might not find his match…[4]

But let’s return to Chaucer’s description of Sir Thopas. It continues to describe his outfit – how fashionable and expensive it is:

Hise shoon of Cordewane.
Of Brugges were his hosen broun,
His robe was of syklatoun,
That coste many a jane. (ll.1922-25)

Of clooth of lake, fyn and cleere,
A breech, and eek a sherte (ll.2048-49)

…a fyn hawberk,
Was al ywroght of Jewes werk (ll.2053-54)

His swerdes shethe of yvory (l.2066)

It really goes on and on… shoes made of Cordovan leather, brown socks imported from Belgium. If it was written today, we would need the September issue of Vogue just to follow it. 

Chaucer pays tribute to the masters of French Romance by emulating how they describe luxury clothing and character dwellings in such a way that they seem incredibly expensive, even to an audience of court nobility. 

He emulates the style of Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France, but does it so well that he doesn’t realize he’s filling his fantasy balloon with so much air that it will burst.[5]

Enough about Thopas. What about the maiden? Our girl on parchment – how beautiful is she? Well, the only description we get of her is, “elf-queen.” That’s it. “Elf-queen.” Not even, “beautiful elf-queen with ears like sweet pointed peppers.”

We get a longer description of the gingerbread cake that was baking at the court of Sir Thopas:

And gyngebreed that was ful fyn,
And lycorys, and eek comyn,
With sugre that is so trye

The host makes Chaucer end this train wreck of a tale before the elf-queen actually appears in the story. Though we’ll never know how Chaucer’s pilgrim would have described the elf-queen’s supreme beauty, at least The Tale of Sir Thopas provides a different sort of girl on parchment.

“That’s enough music for now, lads!”

Click here for another installment of Girls on Parchment


[1] References to Chaucer in Middle English are taken from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

[2] Sir Thopas resembles the Squire more than the Knight in The Canterbury Tales. I wonder if Chaucer had originally intended the Squire to tell this tale. Also, I wonder how common stories and jokes about “Runway Knights” who could pass as Zoolander were in Chaucer’s day.

[3] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English from Middle English Compendium (Ch. 13, leaf 307r) available online: http://name.umdl.umich.edu/MaloryWks2

[4] Caxton’s Malory in modernized English spelling from Le Morte D’Arthur, Ed. Elizabeth J. Bryan (New York, 1999), p. 656

[5] Is it purely the English making fun of French style? As always, Chaucer gives his work plenty of layers of comedy. On the surface the poem seems simple enough, but it has an absurdly complex structure that is just waiting to topple over itself like a lost game of Jenga. Though the rhymes technically work, they keep surpassing themselves in their corniness. The cringing audience is forced to take action as a barkeeper would do to stop an absolutely terrible karaoke singer 3 minutes into Don McClean’s “American Pie.” For a few laughs from the scribes at Hengwrt and Ellesmere, see Maik Hildebrandt‘s The Layout of “Sir Thopas” http://maikhildebrandt.wordpress.com/2012/10/19/the-layout-of-sir-thopas/

Update July 28, 2013: Consider King Horn, Havelock the Dane, and other 13th century Middle English Romances in addition to or instead of the French Romances. Chaucer may be parodying English Romance specifically and contributing to its popularity by virtue of his parody. After all, it has been argued that “the spirit of English Romance became the spirit of English literature.” It’s also been argued that Chaucer’s parody of English Romance in Sir Thopas is not restricted to the romance lyric or the minstrel style, but “oral performances of all kinds.” Another good article to help us appreciate the reception and physical form of Sir Thopas is: Jessica Brantley, “Reading the Forms of Sir Thopas“, Chaucer Review 47 (2013): 416-38.

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).

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