Archives for category: Medieval Poetry

A week or so ago a reporter on a radio show mentioned that in Homer’s Odyssey Penelope agreed to marry whoever could string Odysseus’ bow and shoot it through a dozen iron axe heads. In Homer’s epic, Odysseus leaves his kingdom in Ithaca to fight in the Trojan War. His people wait for him to return, but as years pass with no word from their king, many of his subjects become gluttons. They spend their time and energy consuming royal resources and having incessant orgies. As the reserves of royal wine start to run dry, they bicker among themselves and plot not only to take the throne from their king Odysseus, but his wife Penelope as well.

Odysseus hears of the rampant corruption in his court and returns to Ithaca disguised as an old man. He watches and waits for the right time to reclaim his rightful seat on the throne. Finally, a perfect time to reveal his identity and crush his opposition arises: Penelope announces that whoever can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot through 12 iron axe heads may have her hand in marriage.

archer

Detail of Archer from 22v of Manuscript Codex Schürstab (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. C 54) (Nürnberg, about 1472) image: e-codices

There is initial suspense when Telenachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, tries to win the competition. Though he has a hereditary claim to the throne and is worthy in a way, his winning the competition would create a tragically Oedipal scene. After Telenachus’ unsuccessful attempt, one of the lusty suitors, Leiodes son of Oinops, tries his hand at stringing Odysseus’ bow but “his hands were weak and unused to hard work, they therefore soon grew tired.”[1] Antinoos suggests warming the bow and greasing it up with lard to make is easier to bend. The audience holds their breath with squinted eyes, wrestling to find a comfortable spot on their seat as they worry that the villains may win by cheating.

At last, as the story goes, no one could do it except Odysseus. He strings the bow like an old bard automatically replaces a broken string on his lyre without skipping a beat. Odysseus then loads an arrow, draws back the string, and releases his missile like a bored teenager would pull and release the plunger of a pinball machine. Our hero shoots through all twelve axe heads with his first shot and boy does the king make heads roll after that!

kevin shoots up his school

Kevin (played by Ezra Miller) shoots up his school in Lynne Ramsay’s film We Need to Talk About Kevin (image copyright: 2011 BBC Films)

The next day, as I continued my way through Das Nibelungenlied on the bus, I ran across a passage that made me recall Odysseus’ bow and how he was the only one who could string it. Just before the scene where the hero Sifried is murdered in Das Nibelungenlied, the poet takes the time to describe the exceptional quality of Sifried’s hunting gear. The poet mentions that no man could bend Sifried’s bow but him:

“… And the huge bow he used
could not be bent by hand, except by him. Winding it
slowly back with a winch   was all that anyone else could do.”
[2]

Homer and the Nibelungenlied poet use the motif of the bow that could not be bent by anyone but the hero for different effect in their epic tales. Homer uses it to show the audience that his hero has no peer in strength and strategy and that his sovereignty should have never been a contest. Everyone in the audience knows that Odysseus is still awesome and that he is the rightful ruler of Ithaca. The Nibelungenlied poet uses the bow in the opposite way. He uses it to take his hero, who is already at the at the pinnacle of greatness, to an even higher point to make his fall all the more tragic. It’s like he rubs salt in a wound before it is even cut. Despite the fact that Sifried is so uniquely powerful that no one in the world but him is strong enough to use his bow, his greatest friends and allies will still betray him.

The bow in Homer’s Odyssey gives us a reason to cheer for his hero Odysseus, but Sifried’s bow gives us a reason to cry for the fallen hero of Das Nibelungenlied – just as a skald wants us to cry for Baldur when he tells us Norse Myth. While Odysseus’ bow allows the hero to bring justice back to Ithaca, Sifried’s bow reminds us that justice must be served. With Sifried gone and an audience hungry for justice, Sifried’s widow Krimhild seeks revenge…


[2] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verse 953, p.133

Westvleteren XII

Westvleteren XII – a Trappist beer that scored a perfect 100 on Beer Advocate last year. Six-packs sold for as much as $85 US (image: www.beercrank.ca)

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois has been making headlines during the last few months for sharing his predictable stance on the issue of gay marriage. He has an interesting surname. I was hoping that Vingt-Trois (twenty-three in English) was descended from a long line of Trappist monks, his ancestor named after a famous batch of beer that fetched such a nice price at market that they were able to buy back their monastery from the bank – but it’s actually a little more interesting than that: One of the Cardinal’s ancestors was, as the story goes, left on a doorstep on the 23rd day of the month.

A baby being named after how, where, or when it is found is a Christian tradition dating back to a story from the Old Testament when the children of Israel lived in Egypt as Pharaoh’s slaves:

Slaves
Hebrews born to serve, to the pharaoh
Heed
To his every word, live in fear[1]

Each time some invaders showed up to conquer Egypt, the children of Israel fought against Pharaoh. So, in an attempt to assimilate them, he offered them the hardest and most important jobs in the service of the Sun God: farming and brick and mortar. They helped Egypt exceed its luxurious food security goals and even solved Pharaoh’s treasure storage problems. The children of Israel planned and dug an irrigation system so that when the Nile flooded according to the stars, they made efficient use of its water and grew healthy crops in great abundance. Pharaoh used the ingenuity of the children of Israel to devise ways to haul massive, good quality stones from remote quarries. They built structures so large and sturdy that they can still be seen today from space. In fact, there are still some people around who believe the work was done by aliens!

When the treasure cities of Pithom and Ramsees were finally built for Pharaoh, he was very pleased, but the children of Israel did not take pride and glory in their work or embrace the Egyptian way of life. They wouldn’t walk like an Egyptian, talk like an Egyptian, or even wear Egyptian clothing. They wouldn’t pray to cats and jackals or even people with crocodile heads. They didn’t even eat Egyptian food even though they helped grow it. Well, since they weren’t interested in becoming Egyptian, Pharaoh tried oppressing them in hopes that they would leave, but the more he oppressed them, the more their numbers grew. In a final attempt to rid Egypt of the children of Israel once and for all, Pharaoh made a new law for the Hebrews:  “Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.”[2]

Shortly after this unusually cruel and utterly uncivilized law came into effect, a Hebrew woman from the house of Levi gave birth to a son. Now, it doesn’t take an alchemist to know that if a baby is thrown into a river it will drown. This woman didn’t want her neighbors to think she was stupid – or worse, a bad mother – so, to avoid bringing shame to the house of Levi, she cast him into the river her own way: “she got a rush basket for him, made it watertight with pitch and tar, laid him in it, and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. The child’s sister stood some distance away to see what would happen to him.”[3]

Moses Breviary of Chertsey Abbey

14th century illustration in an illuminated ‘S’ from Breviary of Chertsey Abbey (Bodlein MS. Lat. Liturgy. d. 42, fol. 006r) (image: LUNA)

Well, as it turned out, Pharaoh’s daughter was taking a walk with her maids that day and she noticed the basket by the riverbank. She ordered one of her maids to go down and get the baby and bring it back to her. When it was opened, Pharaoh’s daughter saw the baby crying and “she was moved with pity for it.”[4] She realized it was a Hebrew baby. At this moment, the baby’s sister stepped up and asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and fetch you one of the Hebrew women to act as a wet-nurse for the child?”[5] Pharaoh’s daughter told her to do so and she brought the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter agreed to pay the woman to nurse the baby for her as long as she brought the child to her when the nursing was done. Now, it was against the law to let a Hebrew baby boy live, but we all know that a father (even if he is Pharaoh) can never tell his daughter no. When the baby was brought to Pharaoh’s daughter, she decided to raise the child as her own. Pharaoh’s daughter called the baby Moses[6] because she “drew him out of the river.”[7]

In Marie de France’s Breton lay Le Fraisne (Le Frêne), the heroine received her name in a very similar way as Moses. She was called Fraisne because she was found as a baby in an ash tree outside an abbey.

Though Marie de France’s Lays were written in the 12th century, they may have been quite popular for a couple hundred years, because a 14th century version in Middle English survives in the Aunchinleck Manuscript.[8]  Here is the scene from this Middle English telling where Le Fraisne is named:

And for it was in an asche yfounde,
Sche cleped it Frain in that stounde.
(The Freyns of the “asche” is a freyn   
After the language of Breteyn;
Forthe Le Frein men clepeth this lay   
More than Asche in ich cuntray). (v.229-234)[9]

The reasons why these babies were left out and found are a little different in these two stories but also strikingly similar. In Le Fraisne’s case, it all starts with two rich, noble, and courteous knights who were neighbors. They married around the same time and when the first knight’s wife gave birth to twins, he sent a messenger to tell his friend the good news. Now, the knight who received the message had a wife who was envious, arrogant, and prone to lying. When she heard the news she laughed out loud in a mocking tone and said, “I can’t believe your friend would announce embarrassing news in such a proud way! You know what they say about twins, right? It means two men were involved! Your friend is announcing to the entire land that he is a cuckold!”

Needless to say, the knight was embarrassed and instantly rebuked his wife, “I can’t believe you would say such a thing about my fellow knight and his wife. They are the most respectable people we know!”

The messenger and the servants heard what the knight’s wife said and told everyone they knew what happened. The story spread like wildfire through the entire Breton countryside and before a week had even passed, she was the most hated and despised noble in Brittany.

Well, the same year, the knight’s wife got pregnant and wouldn’t you know it, she gave birth to twins. Now the knight’s neighbor gets his revenge! As you can imagine, the knight’s wife is devastated. She resolves to kill one of the babies. She would prefer to ask for God’s forgiveness than to suffer the humiliation of everyone hearing that poetic justice had been served. The lady’s maid begs not to kill the baby. She promises her lady that she will take the baby to a monastery, leave it anonymously, and never speak of it again to anyone for as long as she lives. The lady agrees and wraps the baby in fine linen and drapes a fine piece of brocaded fabric her husband brought back from Constantinople over the baby. She also ties a golden ring that held a large precious stone to the baby’s arm with a piece of ribbon:

Le Fraisne v121-134 from Harley 978

Detail of Le Fraisne lines 121-134 (transcribed below) from Harley 978 (13th century) f. 128v (image: British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts)

En un chief de mult bon cheinsilenvolupent l’enfant gentil

e desus un paile roe

sis sire li ot aporté

de Constentinoble u il fu

unques si bon n’orent veü

a une piece d’un suen laz

un gros anel li lie al braz

de fin or I aveit une unce

el chasten out une jagunce

la verge en tur esteit letree

la u la meschine iert trovee

bien sacent tuit veraiement

qu’ele est nee de bone gent. (v.121-134)[10]

Elles enveloppent l’enfant de noble naissance dans une fine toile de linet la recouvrent d’une soierie ornée de rosacesque le seigneur avait rapportée à sa femme d’un séjour de Constantinople:on n’avait jamais vu si belle étoffe!La mere attaché au bras de l’enfant,avec un de ses lacets, un gros anneaud’or pur d’une once:Le chaton portrait une hyacintheet une inscription courait autour de l’anneau.Ainsi quand on trouvera la petite fille,Tout le monde pourra être sure

qu’elle est de bonne famille.[11] (v.121-134)

They wrapped the noble child in a cloth of fine linen and then placed over her the finest piece of striped brocade which her husband brought from Constantinople, where he had been. With a piece of her ribbon, the lady attached to the child’s arm a large ring made from an ounce of pure gold, with a ruby set in it and lettering on the band. Wherever she was found, people would then truly know that she was of noble birth.[12]

I love that, a minute ago she was prepared to kill the baby but now she wants whoever finds the baby to know that she comes from a rich and noble family and should be treated with the respect and given the resources rich and noble people are accustomed to receiving.

Anyway, the maid rides out into the night, finds a monastery and places the baby in the branches of an ash tree. When the porter wakes up early the next morning, he sees the brocaded fabric dangling from the tree and when he goes to investigate it, he finds the baby. It’s a baby girl. He brings it to his wife and she nurses the baby. When the baby is done nursing, the porter brings her to the Prioress and tells her all about how he came to find the baby. The Prioress decides to adopt the girl as her niece and she names her Le Fraisne (the ash tree).

Moses and Fraisne are similar in that their births were kept secret, they were found by someone, nursed, adopted by a strong woman (in Moses’ case, Pharaoh’s daughter and in Fraisne’s case, the Prioress), and named based on how they were found.

Moses was in danger of being killed because of Pharaoh’s law and Fraisne was in danger of being killed because her mother was afraid of being humiliated – which is ironic because she’d probably already endured the worst of the public’s ridicule by insulting the knight whose wife had twins.

Elora Danan's birthmark

Elora Danan’s mark from Willow (copyright 1988 Lucasfilm, Imagine Entertainment, MGM. image: rottentomatoes.com)

In George Lucas’ Willow, the evil queen Bavmorda imprisons all of the pregnant women in her realm so she can find and kill a baby girl who is prophesied to end her rule. When the newborn is found with the mark (curiously on the arm which is the same place the ring was fastened to Fraisne), a woman escapes with the baby before the evil queen can kill the her. The woman sends the baby down a river in an ark of rushes. The baby is found by an unlikely hero and the evil queen’s dominion falls. Lucas uses the famous ark of rushes from the Moses story for his tale of a female savior. Now, Fraisne didn’t turn out to be a savior or a great prophetess in Marie de France’s lay, but she does get the chance to be reunited with her mother and she marries the best knight in the land. Marie, though, may have been the first poet to give a girl the chance to play the part of the foundling.


[1] Metallica, “Creeping Death,” Ride the Lightning (Elektra, 1984).

[2] Exodus 1:22, KJV

[3] The Oxford Study Bible Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha, Ed. M. Jack Suggs. Katharine Doob Sakenfield, James R. Mueller (New York, 1992), Exodus 2:3-4.

[4] Exodus 2:6

[5] Exodus 2:7

[6] Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of The Bible, James Strong, Hebrew word 4872   מֹשֶׁה Môsheh drawing out (of the water), i.e. rescued. (KJV Exodus 2:10, “And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.”)

[7] Exodus 2:10

[8] “Lay Le Freine: Introduction”, The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, 1995). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/freiint.htm

[9] “Lay Le Freine”, The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, 1995). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/freine.htm

[10] References to Marie de France in Old French are taken from Lais de Marie de France, Ed. Karl Warnke (Paris, 1990).

[11] References to Marie de France in Modern French translation are taken from Lais de Marie de France, trans. Laurence Harf-Lancner (Paris, 1990).

[12] References to Marie de France in Modern English translation are taken from The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London, 1999), p.62.

Siegfried and Kriemhild in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924)

Siegfried meets Kriemhild in Fritz Lang’s 1924 film Die Nibelungen (image: cineoutsider)

What is it about family visits that make them unnecessarily complicated? Is it the distance that we need to travel? The hassle of taking time off from work? Or is it the meal planning and that special trip to the grocery store? How about the housework?

Somehow family visits require more preparation than any other type of visit. There’s more stress, situations have the tendency to become more emotional than usual, and there is often at least one elephant in every room.

It isn’t always like that – but it happens often enough in our minds that we brace ourselves to deal with it. When family visits go well, there are tremendous sighs of relief. Everyone is overjoyed and we promise in all sincerity to stay in better touch as we say our good-byes.

So, since the drama of the gods mirrors our own drama – and vice versa – it should be of no surprise to us that family visits have the tendency to turn the lives of epic heroes upside down as well. This happens to Sifried in Das Nibelungenlied, a 13th century epic poem in Middle High German.

In the story, Sifried (Sigurd from Norse Myth) marries Krimhild and brings her back with him to his castle in the Netherlands.[1]

Though Krimhild misses her homeland of Burgundy on the Rhine, she is very happy to be Sifried’s queen in the Netherlands. After several months pass, Sifried and Krimhild receive a message from Krimhild’s parents: they want the newlyweds to come home for the holidays this year.

Sifried initially reacts to this perfectly reasonable and normal request in the exact same way we might find ourselves reacting – albeit in epic proportions:

Sifried summoned his friends     to help him decide what he ought to do.

He asked for their advice:        should he go to the Rhine?
“My good friend Gunter, and all    his family too, would like me
to attend a celebration.    And I would be eager to go
if only Burgundy     were closer, and not so long a ride.

“And if they ask that Krimhild also     come as their welcome guest.
Counsel me, my dearest      friends. How will she get there?
If they asked me to fight a war,     battling in thirty lands,
they’d find Sifried ready    and willing to help them with eager hands.”[2]

In Sifried’s mind, it would be logistically easier to wage war in thirty lands! He’s a seasoned warrior who can win any dispute on the battlefield, so it’s only natural that preparations for a family visit begin with a strategic planning session. Sifried’s friends suggest a way for him to visit his Burgundian in-laws in style:

The bold warriors answered:    “we think you ought to attend.
Take this journey. That        is our best advice. Ride
with a thousand knights and let them     escort you down the Rhine.
That will ensure your honor    from the very moment you arrive.”[3]

There are many complicated things at play here: awkwardness in dealing with family, Sifried’s need to keep up his regal appearance, uncertainty in customs – but what I find the most amusing is his initial reaction.

He moans about the distance to travel as we might do when we know full well that we’d gladly take a 20-hour flight to a destination for a vacation on our own – or in Sifried’s case, wage a war across thirty lands. What is it about family – the people we love more and share more memories with than anyone else – that complicates visits?

I wonder if the 13th century audience laughed during this part of the poem, “Even Sifried the dragon slayer freaks out at the thought of a family visit!” But, fortunately for us, this is where our similarities with Sifried end. The visit is an especially bad one for poor Sifried: it ruins his marriage and he tragically dies.

We’re lucky that we don’t have too many things in common with this epic hero…


[1] We last saw Sifried in an earlier post courting Krimhild in Burgundy. There, he earned the respect of Krimhild’s father with his talent for winning wars.

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verses 757-759, p.106

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 760, p.107

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.

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.

Winters are hard. It’s not quite winter yet, but many of its signs are already here. When I leave for work it’s dark and when I get back home it’s still dark. Philadelphia had its first snow this past Monday. It didn’t really do much, but it was snow. So, when the cold wind blows full force while I’m waiting for the bus, it’s hard to think about much else – except, of course, how miserable people must have been during winter in the medieval world!

Those poor folks probably spent nearly every waking minute of their entire life in moderate to severe physical discomfort.

Anyway, I thought I’d post a Middle English lyric about winter time. It probably brought a little comfort to the rich people in their chilly castles. Who knows, it just might make us warm too:

Here’s an excellent version performed by The Dufay Collective:

You can follow along on the manuscript below. The text is sung 0:00 – 0:33 and repeated several times ending with a refrain of “soregh and murne and fast.”

miri bodleian

detail of the song as it appears on fol. 001v of Oxford Bodleian Manuscript Rawlinson G. 22 (c. 1225) image: LUNA

Myrie it is while sumer

ylast with fugheles song.

oc nu neheth windes blast

and weder strong. Ei, ei!

what this nicht is long.  and

ich with wel michel wrong

soregh and murne and

fast

Here’s a quick very literal translation to follow it in the Middle English:

Merry it is while summer

lasted and birds sung. (or the bird’s song)

But now the wind’s blast is nigh (or comes close upon us)

And weather strong. Whoa oh

Oh this night is so long. And

I with very much wrong

sorrow and mourn and

fast

The two words that really stand out to me are fugheles and fast. In 14th century Middle English, you usually see fowles instead of fugheles – which I find much easier to pick out as “fowls.” For example, in the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales you have “And smale foweles maken melodye.”

During the warmer months the birds are chirping, there is abundance of food and warmth, however, during the winter we must be more moderate (or fast[1]) and use our store because fresh food is scarce. You have this great contrast of warm/cold, summer/winter, rise/decline, bustling & busy/slow and stagnant, sweet/bitter. Though winter will be long, there’s a kind of harmony in this balance. The suffering is part of a cycle and summer will return.

Things can’t be growing fast and fat all the time. So it might bring some solace to folks freaking out about the fiscal cliff to see our troubled economy as a long dormant period of frosty fields left fallow, waiting to thaw and rise again with renewal and growth? Probably not…


[1] I wrote a little bit about what the Secreta Secratorum says about diet following seasonal cycles in a previous post.

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