Archives for category: Today’s medieval bloodfest

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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!

The bad thing about reading medieval dream vision poetry is it’s not a good source of material for Today’s Medieval Bloodfest posts. So I grabbed my sword and spear, had the crew rig the dragon-prowed longboat, hoisted sail to a favorable wind, and went raiding in the Icelandic Sagas. Within minutes we incurred the wrath of the King of Norway – twice! (well, the first time was a misunderstanding due to slander from two of our own kin, but the second time pride and drink got the best of us and our blades at Atloy – so we really deserved that one!)

Outlawed, we headed to the Baltic and plundered and burned all of the cottages along the coast of Courland. After that, we headed to England because word was out King Athelstan was building an army to take Northumbria back from King Olaf. Kings pay in red golden rings!

hurstwic axe application

Two members of Hurstwic, a Viking Age living history group, demonstrate Viking combat at Higgins Armory Museum. Original URL

The game they played over there in England – capture the flag – was a little boring and slow to start, so we decided to show them how we play it in Norway:

Thorolf began fighting so furiously that he threw his shield over his back, grabbed his spear with both hands and charged forward, hacking and thrusting to either side. Men leapt out of the way all around, but he killed many of them. He cleared a path to Earl Hring’s standard, and there was no holding him back. He killed Earl Hring’s standard-bearer and chopped down the pole. Then he drove the spear through the earl’s coat of mail, into his chest and through his body so that it came out between his shoulder blades, lifted him up on it above his head and thrust the end into the ground. [1]

Weapons paused mid-swing as necks craned to see what Thorolf would do next:

Everyone saw how the earl died on the spear, both his own men and his enemies. Then Thorolf drew his sword and hacked to either side, and his men attacked. Many British and Scots were killed then, and others turned and fled.[2]

And that’s how King Athelstan reclaimed Northumbria for England. True Story.

To hear the rest of the tale of this legendary battle and to see how we were richly rewarded for our services to the King of England, you’ve got to read Egil’s Saga.


[1] Egil’s Saga, The Sagas of Icelanders, trans. Bernard Scudder, (New York, 2001), 86.

[2] Egil’s Saga, 87.

robin hood and little john disney

Robin Hood and Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood (image: copyright 1973 Walt Disney Company)

Between the publication of Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version and Maria Tartar’s The Annotated Brothers Grimm, there is some new discussion on the darker materials (sorry, couldn’t resist that one!) found in these classic tales, so I thought I’d take a look at some Child Ballads from England to hear some of the stories English kids were being told and compare them to their German counterparts and wouldn’t you know it – I found an especially violent scene from a Robin Hood story. Well, December escaped an installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest – I only wish I could say the same for Guy of Gisborne…

This installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest comes from a child ballad about Robin Hood called, “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne.” It survives as a mid 17th century manuscript (Thomas Percy Collection, British Library, Additional Manuscript 27879) but a similar plot survives from a play dated 1475.[1] Since we can’t say for certain how long this particular version of the song has been around, let’s just say the scene is 15th century…

The language looks almost like it’s deliberately trying to look old fashioned and still be clearly understood. Twinn for twain, for example – and the extra e’s on so, go, and he to make them soe, goe, and hee give it a “Jolly Ole English” look and sound. I could be wrong – anyone out there with experience in 15-17th century colloquial English can tell if this poem is trying to emulate Middle English?

In any case, let’s get on with the gore!

So, Robin Hood and Little John are hanging around drinking Thunderbird and shooting craps when, would you know it, Guy of Gisborne comes along. This tasty fellow’s looking for none other than Robin Hood, that famous outlaw the peasants and guttersnipes “phone up” whenever they need some “wealth distribution.”[2] The irony of it is Guy’s found the guy he was looking for. The boys all have a short archery competition which Guy loses terribly. To save face with these expert woodsmen, he pokes fun at his uselessness with the bow by saying things like, “Whoa, I’ll bet you’re a better shot than Robin Hood!”

This corrupt cop, Guy of Gisborne, probably thinks he can make friends with these woodsmen and have some new marksmen – or at least forest informants – on Prince John’s payroll. He’s wrong. Dead wrong.

earl of huntington defeats guy of gisbourne in jousting

Earl of Huntington (Robin Hood – played by Douglas Fairbanks) helps Guy of Gisbourne up after defeating him in a joust in Robin Hood (1922) – this courtesy is a far cry from the Robin Hood of Child Ballad 118 “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne”

So he asks Robin and Little John to tell him about themselves – you know, who they are. Robin tells Guy that they’ll tell him who they are after they learn who he is. Since Guy’s sort of on their turf, he obliges them and introduces himself first – and boy was he sorry he did, because, with a sadistic smile:

Robin pulled forth an Irish kniffe,
And nicked Sir Guy in the face,
That hee was never on a woman borne
Cold tell who Sir Guye was. (verse 42)[3]

Robin chopped Guy’s face up so bad that no one – not even his own mother – would recognize him. The language downplays the violence by using the word “nicked” like it was a slight slip of the razor during a shave. The English are masters of understatement.

Poor Guy basically begs Robin to accept a ransom – any amount – in return for his release, but that’s not Robin’s style. Guy doesn’t understand why Robin wouldn’t want to become rich. In addition to not being able to understand Robin’s motive, imagine his horror while he tries to reason with his captor:

“Thou art a madman,” said the shiriffe,
“Thou sholdest have had a knights fee;
Seeing thy asking [hath] beene soe bad,
Well granted it shall be.” (verse 51)[4]

They turn their captive loose and as he’s running for his life, if only just to prove that Guy’s bow isn’t defective, Robin hands it to Little John so he won’t miss out on a little target practice with their new acquaintance:

But he cold neither soe fast goe,
Nor away soe fast runn,
But Litle John, with an arrow broade,
Did cleave his heart in twinn. (verse 58)[5]

Little John’s swift shot is so precise and powerful that it slices Guy of Gisborne’s heart in two!

I wonder how Robin Hood and Little John spent the rest of their day…

For another installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest, click here.

 

 


[1] “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne: Introduction”, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo, 1997). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/guyint.htm

[2] The Clash, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” (CBS, 1978).

[3] “Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne”, Tradtional British Ballads, ed. Bartlett Jere Whiting (New York, 1955), 98.

[4] Traditional British Ballads, 99.

[5] Traditional British Ballads, 100.

Today’s medieval bloodfest comes from La Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland), a 12th century epic poem written in a style the French call chanson de geste (song of heroic deeds). This style of storytelling was popular in France from about the 12th to 15th century.

Chanson de Roland was the Star Wars of its day –Roland and King Marsilla were characters as well-known in 12th century French popular culture as, say, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are to Americans now. Except, as we will see from the scenes below, a faithful adaptation of Chanson de Roland would be quite the medieval bloodfest and it couldn’t have possibly received the PG rating that Star Wars did from the MPAA film-rating system in 1977. The level of brutality in the scenes below simply would not be deemed suitable for a popular audience in the late 1970’s. In 1976, Martin Scorcese darkened the red blood to black at the end of Taxi Driver to avoid an X rating from the MPAA, yet something tells me that if these scenes below were reviewed just as they are for the MPAA in 1150, Chanson de Roland would receive a G rating. Oh, how les temps changent!

So, to set the scene for Today’s Medieval Bloodbath, the Saracens are planning their ambush of Roland and the French at the pass at Roncesvalles. And just like good villains from Star Wars or James Bond, they take this opportunity to fantasize about the future success of their plan with their partners in crime. Aëlroth, the nephew of King Marsilla asks the king for the honor of throwing the first blow against Roland during the ambush:

Give me a fief; that is, first crack at Roland
and I shall kill him with my sharpened spear.
provided that Mohammed will protect me,
I’ll set free every bit of land in Spain
from the Spanish passes down to Durestant.” (verses/laisses 860-870)[1]

This big talk earns him the prestigious honor of first crack at Roland.

Over-inflated with pride, Aëlroth shouts even bolder words on behalf of the Saracens when they meet the French on the battlefield:

“French villains, you shall fight with us today,
For he who should protect you has betrayed you;
The king who left you in this pass is mad.
This very day sweet France shall lose her fame,
And Charlemagne the right arm from his body.” (v. 1191-1195)[2]

This little speech motivates Roland to make Aëlroth eat his words right then and there:

He spurs his horse and lets him run all out
and goes to strike the count with all his force;
he breaks his shield and lays his hauberk open
and pierces through his chest and cracks the bones
and cuts the spine completely from the back
and with his lance casts out his mortal soul,
impales him well, and hoists the body up
and throws him dead a spear’s length from his horse.
The neck-bone has been broken into halves,
and still he does not leave, but tells him this:
“You utter coward, Charles is not a fool,
nor has he ever had a love of treason.
His act was brave, to leave us at the pass;
today sweet France is not to lose her fame.” (v. 1197-1210)[3]

For another installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest, click here.


[1] The Song of Roland trans. Robert Harrison, (New York, 1970), 78.

[2] The Song of Roland, 88.

[3] The Song of Roland, 88-89.

Nothing quite gets the blood flowing, nay, gushing and splattering, like a medieval storyteller describing life (and especially death) on the battlefield. The best of them, so beautifully vivid and precise are always garnished with the right touch of hyperbole – were they wading in a river of blood up to their ankles or was it up to their knees?

Wink Barnes (played by Ned Eisenberg) is delighted by the gruesome traffic safety film “Blood Flows Red on the Highway” in the 1985 movie Moving Violations (image: copyright 1985 20th Century Fox / SLM Production Group)

Today’s medieval bloodfest comes from Burton Raffel’s translation/rendering of the Middle High German 13th century epic poem Das Nibelungenlied.

Sifried (or Sigurd from the Völsung Legends) left the Netherlands for Burgundy to court princess Krimhild. He hung around King Gunter’s hall for a while, spinning his wheels, when, sure enough, some excitement finally came along. The Danish king Ludegast, and the Saxon lord Ludiger joined forces and threatened to destroy the Burgundians unless they agreed to pay them an obscene amount of money. With everyone in the hall shaking in their boots, Sifried smiled at the chance to show his host (and his prospective bride-to-be – via accounts from messengers) his favorite hobby – hacking and slashing!

 

This passage describes Sifried meeting King Ludegast on the battlefield:

 

Sifried struck so hard     against his shining armor

that iron was broken through,      a blow that only brass

-if that-might have blocked,        and blood spattered the grass

and Ludegast was lost,     suffering sharp, deadly harm.[1]

 

This next one shows us exactly what frame of mind Sifried was in when he spotted the Saxon lord Ludiger:

 

None of the Rhineland men    were ever seen behind him.

rivers of red ran             from his blade in a bloody line,

for where his sword came down      helmets cracked with the blow.

And then he saw Ludiger,      marshaling men, row after row.[2]

 

And finally, here is a nice wide angle shot of Sifried convincing King Ludiger to surrender:

 

The two princes battled       on. Gashes sprung

on helmets everywhere,            shields showed gouges long

and wide, still held in heroes’          hands. And all along

the blood of many men’s bodies             came raining down on the thirsty ground.[3]

 


[1] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verse 188, p.28

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 205, p.31

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 212, p.32

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