Archives for posts with tag: 14th century

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.

One thing that always makes me cringe is reading a medieval English poem with anti-Jewish[1] sentiment. I sink into my chair, hoping that no one can tell that I’m reading it. Anti-Jewish sentiment is uncomfortably common in medieval literature and it’s something you’ll encounter more often than you’d like if you read a lot of it and “to exclude these references would be desirable but… it would be unhistorical: for medieval Christian writers, Synagogue was the blindfold girl with the broken staff, prominently sculpted on their cathedrals.”[2]

We know that we should try to read medieval literature in as close as we can get to its historical and cultural context, but let’s be serious: If I organized a reading of medieval poetry at a local library or café and recited a tale of a little innocent boy, who, while whistling a tune of praise to the Virgin Mary through a Jewish neighborhood had his throat slit by Jews and dropped in a latrine to die – I’d feel compelled to explain the reasoning behind my selection unless I had the sweet and obnoxious naivety of Borat Sagdiyev.

Image

Borat Sagdiyev demonstrates the “Jew Claw” in his guide to “American Hobbies” from Da Ali G Show Season 2: Episode 9 “Politics” (Original airdate: March 7, 2003). Copyright 2003 Talkback, Freemantle Media, HBO, Channel 4.(image: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_GOmXt-DKg)

Depending on how politically correct the audience was, I might even feel obligated to offer some sort of apology for the reading. But let’s get back to how I cringe when I see anti-Jewish material in medieval poetry. I read a lot of Chaucer. 

Most of the cringing I get from Chaucer comes from his corny jokes, but sadly, his works are not without its own anti-Jewish material – though to be fair this material says more about the charaters being portrayed and parodied in his work than his own personal views.

In his Canterbury Tales we have “The Prioress’s tale” which is about an innocent little boy being viciously murdered and cast into a latrine by some evil Jews. It could easily be interpreted on the surface level to both a 14th century audience and a modern one as nothing but a tirade against Jews.

So here we go. If you’ve read this far, you probably won’t be offended – and if you are, well, it’s your own damn fault.

Drama builds as the little boy doesn’t return home from school. His mother asks if anyone has seen her darling little boy. To her horror, she discovers that he was last seen in the Jewish ghetto. 

A searching party is gathered and the mangled, bloody body of the boy is found.

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.

But wait! Something miraculous happens.

Though the boy’s throat is cut, he’s singing a song of praise to the Virgin Mary. When he’s asked by a priest how this could be, the boy tells him that the Virgin Mary herself came to him and put a grain under his tongue which brought him back to life. The priest removes the grain from the boy’s mouth, the boy’s body stops singing and his soul ascends to heaven. 

What a miraculous sight! 

The Jews are rounded up and executed without a trial. Everyone lives happily ever after!

Why would Chaucer write something like this? Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales, but within the tales themselves, he is only the narrator and a quiet narrator at that. 

We should approach each pilgrim’s story as verbatim quotes from the pilgrims themselves into a reporter’s microphone. 

Since Chaucer is mostly a silent observer anyway, he’s more like a quiet documentary filmmaker than an eye-witness news reporter. 

Of course, there is the occasional aside, and the audience sees its fair share of boom mics, but with the exception of his commentary in the General Prologue, he resigns himself to the role of a quiet cameraman documenting the goings ons of an English pilgrimage to Canterbury. 

Actually, he’s more akin to a producer of a reality show. Well, not really… but let’s consider it. If the prioress character hates Jews, it doesn’t mean that Chaucer shares this sentiment. I mean, of course he kept the camera rolling and put it in the show – but people like trash TV. They seem to have watched it as much in the 14th century as we do today. 

So, if a character on Chaucer’s reality show spews anti-Jewish rhetoric, it’s their voice – not his. Right?

The Prioress tells us this tale of the Virgin Mary’s youngest holy martyr going against the big bad wolves of Jerusalem. The clouds part, the community comes together, kills the evil doers and praises their holy Mother. Problem is, the story isn’t very nice for today’s audience because its bloodthirsty villains are Jewish people.

A modern educated audience understands that these villains are distorted caricatures of Jewish people, but adding all of those disclaimers interferes with the flow of the narrative.

The Prioress starts her tale by describing the boy. He’s an adorable “litel book lernynge,” studying his “prymer” in school minding his own business when, suddenly, he hears a beautiful song. It’s not just any song, it is Alma Redemptoris.

 He absolutely loves it. It’s in Latin and he doesn’t know what it’s about, but he knows that it is something special so he tries to learn to sing it himself even though it’s a song intended for the older boys.

One day, he asks an older boy what the words mean and if he’d help him learn it.

The older boy tells him that it is about the glory of the Virgin Mary. He teaches him how to sing it in secret with the little boy knowing full well that if he studies the big boys’ “antiphoner” he may punished for falling behind in his own “prymer” studies.

Once the boy learns this beautiful song, he finds that it brings him such joy that he just can’t stop singing it!

This litel child, as he cam to and fro,

Ful murily than wolde he synge and crie

O Al redemptoris everemo.

The swetnesse hath his herte perced so

Of Cristes mooder that, to hire to preye,

He kan nat stynte of snyging by the weye. (1742-47)

The Prioress’s description of the joy in the boy’s heart is full of saccharine. Imagine this boy skipping for joy – or better yet, in the backseat of a car singing John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt for five hours straight. We can see how this could be a little irritating for people, but to the prioress this precious little boy could do no wrong. 

He wanders into a Jewish ghetto and the Jews who live there sure are evil. In fact, they are the limbs of Satan. Don’t believe me? The Prioress clearly considers the Jews in the story to be limbs of Satan because she has Satan himself appear in the story. It’s like saying that the Jews fail to consider Jesus Christ God not because they worship the God of the Old Testament or disagree that Jesus is the new prophet or Messiah, but because they worship Satan instead.

Well, as you probably guess, Satan appears and orders the Jews (Hebrayk peple) to kill the boy and they follow his orders.

Image

“for medieval Christian writers, Synagogue was the blindfold girl with the broken staff, prominently sculpted on their cathedrals” Synagogue (Old Law) 20th century copy on Strasbourg Cathedral. photo: Aidan McRae Thomson (detail) http://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/4996417314/in/photostream/ see also (New Law) http://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/4996417778/in/photostream/ and the originals in Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesia_and_Synagoga

How can they find it in their hearts to kill a boy walking through their ghetto? Don’t be silly! Everyone, including the Prioress, knows that Jews have Satan’s wasp nest for a heart! 

As shocking as these anti-Jewish statements seem to us today, there is such hyperbole and ridiculousness to them that, knowing Chaucer’s wit and appreciation for secular classics, this passage should be read as satire of anti-Jewish sentiments held by the many so-called Christians of his day:

Oure firste foo, the serpent Sathanas,

That hath in Jues herte his waspes nest,

Up swal, and seide, “O Hebrayk peple,

allas!

Is this to yow a thing that is honest,

That swich a boy shal walken as hym lest

In youre despit, and synge of swich sentence,

Which is again youre laws of reverence?”

Fro thennes forth the Jues han conspired

This innocent out of this world to chace,

An homicide thereto han they hyred,

That in an aleye hadde a privee place;

And as the child gan forby for to pace,

This crused Jew hym hente, and heeld hym

faste,

And kitte his throte, and in a pit hym caste. (1748-1761)

Another thing, how did the boy get into this situation? Did he really just wander into the Jewish ghetto? Of course not! He went there. During the middle ages, the Jewish ghetto wasn’t just “the bad side of town” that a little Christian boy crossed through each day on his way to school. 

During the middle ages, the Jews of Western Europe lived in walled ghettos with strict curfews that required them to be locked-in during the night and on Sundays.[3] This little boy walking through the Jewish ghetto is like Jesus marching into the Temple of Jerusalem and knocking over the money changing tables and pigeon coops:

And Jhesus entride in to the temple of God, and castide out of the temple alle that bouƺten and solden; and he turned vpsedoun the bordis of chaungeris, and the chayeris of men that solden culueris. And he seith to hem, It is writun, myn hous schal be clepid an hous of preier; but ƺe han maad it a denne of theues. (Matthew 21:12-13)[4]

It’s a different sort of boldness. It’s a bold innocence. It’s an action that is difficult for people to criticize.

How can you hold a little boy responsible for his actions – especially when he’s singing praise for his Heavenly, matchless maiden mother? 

The boy confronts medieval Christian society’s perceived enemies of Christ with innocent sweetness. Well, isn’t that cute!

Either the boy doesn’t know what he’s doing because he’s just beaming with the joy of the Virgin Mary or he knows exactly what he’s doing: marching bravely into the Valley of Death as Christ’s newest and youngest soldier. 

Whichever one you choose, it’s still blind faith. 

So this leads us to Chaucer’s question: Well, if the Jew represents the blind girl with the broken staff, and this boy is blindly walking into a Jewish ghetto spreading his own recently acquired blind faith, well then, what is blind faith?

Don’t know how to respond? That’s ok, the audience in Canterbury Tales doesn’t know how to respond either. There’s a sobering silence over the entire party.

 


[1] This article follows Esther Zago’s example of using the term “anti-Jewish” instead of “anti-Semetic” to describe the attitudes toward Jews in “The Prioress’ Tale” because anti-Semetic is a “19th century term which shifted the focus of the entire Jewish question from religion to race.” A more detailed explanation of her purpose in using the term “anti-Jewish” and her succinct placement of the Jews in 14th century Britain into historical perspective can be found in her “Reflections on Chaucer’s ‘The Prioress’s Tale’” http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1661&context=mff

[2] Brian Stone, Medieval English Verse (Middlesex, 1964), 35.

[3] George Robinson, Essential Judaism (New York, 2000), 468.

[4] Wyclif, John. Matthew 21:12-13 in Forhsall and Madden, eds. The New Testament in English According to the version by John Wycliffe, about 1380, and revised by John Purvey about 1388. (London: Oxford, 1879).

Apollo XI and the Saturn V moon rocket (image: Bruce Weaver)

I was reading a particularly amusing post from Christopher Knowles today about why he Hates Saturn and this part especially reminded me once again that we still describe things in similar terms as medieval storytellers:

Either way, when Saturn was transiting through Cancer it was kind of like living with a physically-abusive alcoholic; you never knew what kind of nightmare was going to pop up next. I ended up in the hospital quite a few times and things just generally went to hell. This recent Saturn in Libra thing was more like walking around with fifty pound sacks of wet sand on my back. Everything just ground down, like driving a car with four flat tires. Of course, the daily burden of managing a severe chronic pain condition doesn’t make any of this any easier.[1]

Referencing Saturn’s position (or influence) among the planets is a cliché that medieval storytellers use to explain things going amiss.

Whenever a medieval storyteller needs to say that something went wrong, he can simply point to Saturn’s involvement in the situation. It often serves a comic purpose too (think narrator in an Ed wood movie: “all was pleasant until Saturn appeared …”).

It’s a little more complex than that of course, and life and death situations for man on earth mirror petty
disputes among the gods and vice versa.

A good example of Saturn being used this way in 14th century English literature is in part One of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale [Saturn is mentioned several times in this story following and affecting the action, but first when Palamoun is consoling his friend Arcite while he curses his imprisonment just after he casts his eyes on the beautiful Emelye who will become the cause of a great dispute with his friend which will tragically end in death]:

Cosyn myn, what eyleth thee

That art so pale and deedly on to see?

Why cridestow? Who hath thee doon offense?

For Goddes love, taak al in pacience

Oure prisoun, for it may noon oother be.

Fortune hath yeven us this adversitee.

Som wikke aspect or disposicioun

Of Saturne, by sum constellacioun,

Hath yeven us this, although we hadde it sworn:

So stood the hevene whan that we were born.

We moste endure it; this is the short and playn. (1081-91) [2]

 

Did you read your horoscope today?

 


[1] Christopher Knowles, The Secret Sun: Why I Hate Saturn http://www.secretsun.blogspot.com/2012/10/why-i-hate-saturn.html

[2] The Knight’s Tale in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 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.

Sequitur pars quinta.

When King Alla returns to his castle he is surprised to see that his wife and child are nowhere to be found. He asks the constable where they are. The constable is confused and shows King Alla the letter he received with orders in his name:

“Lord, as ye commanded me

Up peyne of deeth, so I have done, certain.” (884-85)

With this, the messenger is tortured until he tells, “plat and pleyn, Fro nyght to nyght, in what place he had leyn” (886-887).

Chaucer’s Man of Law doesn’t tell us which form of torture King Alla used to get the messenger to talk, but the messenger may have been dunked in the ducking-stool. Pictured is Ollie Dee being dunked after being charged with burglary in Toyland (Babes in Toyland / March of the Wooden Soldiers) (image: copyright 1934 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

King Alla discovers the disturbing truth that his own mother forged the letters that called for Constance to be pushed out to sea in a boat without oars. He finds her guilty of treason and we can only guess that she is swiftly put to death, because all Chaucer’s Man of Law says about the matter is,“thus endeth olde Donegild, with mischance!”

Now, Constance, who is once again faring the sea in a rudderless vessel, finally reaches the safety of land. And just when you’d think she’d find repose, it turns out she’s landed just below “an hethen castel.” The steward of the castle comes down to see who has arrived and when he realizes it’s a woman, he tries to have her against her will right then and there. As baby Maurice cries, Constance struggles with the assailant until he is thrown overboard and drowns. The Virgin Mary somehow comes to Constance’s aid, “But blisful Marie heelp hire right anon” (920). We are not told precisely how the power of Mary is manifest through Constance except by Christian miracle. The Man of Law supports this argument with Old Testament Scripture by asking the audience how this weak woman had the strength to defend herself against this renegade:

“How may this wayke woman han this strengthe

Hire to defende again this renegat?” (932-33)

He reminds us that in the Bible, Goliath was a giant warrior, yet young David defeated him in battle. As if presenting evidence for a case in a court of law, his second piece of “evidence” is even stronger and more relevant because it deals specifically with a woman defeating a wicked and powerful man. He references Judith who slew the general Holefernes, ending the Assyrian occupation in her land.

Judith holds the head of Holofernes – 1493 illustration from Nuremberg Chronicle (Morse Library, Beloit College) (image: http://www.beloit.edu/nuremberg)

Remember that the Man of Law did this earlier in the tale when he told the audience how Constance survived the wedding massacre in Syria and was delivered safely to the Northumbrian shore. The miracles that deliver Constance from heathen treachery are comparable to other well-known saint characters in the Christian canon such as Jonah who survived the whale, Mary the Egyptian who survived alone in the desert wilderness, and, of course, Christ who fed the many with five loaves of bread and two fish. By doing this, The Man of Law provides evidence to prove that miracles occur because of Christ’s divine intervention and that, more importantly, the ones he cites are no different in significance to the miracles that save his story’s heroine. In a sense, he’s defending the legitimacy of Constance’s sainthood, however, Constance’s sainthood isn’t exactly on trial in this story.

While the Man of Law’s references may be meant to demonstrate his bookishness and familiarity with “Christian” law, their inclusion may not only call for lay people to read Scripture, but assume that the layperson appreciates these stories as much as he does. His delivery of the “evidence” to support his argument is entertaining. They are presented in a tone that may be perfectly read on both serious and lighthearted levels, providing the perfect balance of “sentence” (moral insight) and “solace” (pleasure).[1]

Though the references are traditionally accepted Christian miracles, they also provide us an interesting glimpse into 14th century English religious worldview. The Man of Law’s evocation of miracles from the Christian tradition in this tale is very similar to what folklorists call “sympathetic magic.” The concept behind sympathetic magic is based on “like influences like” and the notion “that the image of Christ or [another saint] overcoming [an] affliction [helps] the afflicted person overcome it as well.”[2] By using the images of David defeating Goliath and Judith slaying Holofernes, the audience understands how Constance would have the power through sympathetic magic to overcome her assailant in the boat just as an image of Jonah surviving the whale would help her survive the sea in a rudderless boat.

So back in the water Constance goes, floating every which way, “dryvynge ay / Somtyme west, and sometime north and south / And somtyme est, ful many a wery day.” (948-49)

Leaving Constance in the water again with the protective images of Christian heroes, the narrator turns back to the Roman Emperor. Once The Emperor hears of the wedding massacre that occurred at the Sultan’s palace, he sends his senator with ships over to Syria to pay them vengeance for their evil acts. The Sultan’s palace is burned to the ground and everyone is slain. On their way back to Rome, the senator’s fleet runs into Constance. They don’t know that the woman with the child is the Emperor’s daughter and either does she, as she still suffers from amnesia. When they return to Rome she lives with the senator and his wife just like she lived with the constable and his wife in Northumberland. The senator’s wife is actually Constance’s aunt, but none of them recognize each other.

Back the story goes to King Alla who feels compelled to go to Rome and give the Emperor his allegiance and to request forgiveness for his wicked works. Off he goes to Rome where he receives a welcome fit for a Christian king.

King Alla traveling to Rome and being able to communicate with everyone there reminds me to return to the question from the first post on Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale about how medieval storytellers deal with language barriers. Remember how Chaucer’s Man of Law has Constance speak a “Latyn corrupt” to communicate with the characters in Northumberland? Though the story is set in the 6th century, Chaucer may have used the linguistic landscape of 14th century Western Europe. Susan E. Phillips points out in “Chaucer’s Language Lessons” that a colloquial Latin was used as a lingua franca among merchants in late medieval Europe and that Chaucer’s characters’ use of this language in his Man of Law’s Tale suggests that multilingualism was not limited to the aristocratic class and that his use of this colloquial Latin in the story shows some of the linguistic changes that were occurring in late 14th century England.[3] Morris Bishop, as well, noted that during the High Middle Ages as the new culture in Western Europe became more cosmopolitan, “its common language [was] the easy, unpretentious Latin of the time.”[4]

Phillips also reminds us that in the 14th century the vulgar or common Latin was becoming vernacular Italian.[5] It would make sense for members of the royal court to understand colloquial Latin/Italian for the purpose of negotiating trades with merchants. The Man of Law, for example, learned the tale of Constance from a merchant and he shares this with the audience before beginning the story:

Nere that a marchant, goon is many a yeere

Me taught a tale, which that ye shal here (132-33)

The Man of Law, however, does not restrict this ability to communicate in Latin to characters in direct contact with members of the royal court. As we recall when Constance, the Constable, and Hermengyld were walking along beach, they came upon the “blinde Britoun.” Up until this point in the story, all characters in contact with Constance had been either members of the court or characters whose profession or post required frequent interaction with members of the court. Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrim characters (the “audience” of the tale within the tale) don’t need to suspend their disbelief to accept that even characters from outside of the court can communicate using this colloquial Latin because the “pilgrims and their characters pick up foreign languages from their professional and personal lives rather than through formal education.”[6]

Chaucer may have “picked up” bits of foreign languages in this way as well. Peter Ackroyd, in his Chaucer biography, points out that Chaucer’s childhood home in London was several hundred yards from an area by the riverside where a community of Genoese merchants lived.[7] Though Chaucer may have studied Latin grammar of Donatus formally, Ackroyd notes that “it has been suggested that Chaucer’s knowledge of Italian sprang from such early contacts” with the merchant colonies in London.[8] Chaucer shows us that the merchants spread their linguistic currency with the noble class, but he is also interested in the parts tradesmen and the common man play in developing national language.

“The Man of Lawe – Of Dame Custance” – from added table of contents to a 15th century English manuscript of Canterbury Tales EL 26 C 09 commonly known as “Ellesmere Chaucer” (Huntington Library, San Marino) (image: http://www.scriptorium.columbia.edu)

Though most Chaucer tales blur the lines of contemporary storytelling styles, the Man of Law’s Tale is usually categorized as a secular saint’s life.[9] By choosing the style of a secular saint’s life, Chaucer could have employed xenoglossia both to deal with a possible language barrier issue and to demonstrate to the audience that Constance fits the description of a saint according to the literary styles of his day. Xenoglossia, the “sudden, miraculous ability to speak, understand, or be understood in… a foreign language previously unknown to the recipient… is described in a number of late medieval vitae and visionary texts.”[10] If Chaucer used xenoglossia to have Constance communicate with characters from other countries, he did it in a subtle manner because he doesn’t point it out. He could have said, “Lo and behold, by some great miracle, our Saint Constance could be understood!” Instead, he says something along of the lines of, “she spoke using a bit of pidgin Latin, but nevertheless, she was understood.” Christine Cooper argues that Chaucer puts Constance is an ambiguous xenoglossic situation[11].

If Chaucer used xenglossia in Man of Law’s Tale, it was likely to make his opinion on the position of the Latin language in 14th century English society ambiguous to protect him from making a divisive political statement. Chaucer mentions the Lollard movement[12] several times in the Canterbury Tales. If Chaucer is using language to provide commentary on either the common Englishman’s proficiency in Latin, the degree to which Latin is a common tongue among all Christian nations, or, if it isn’t whether or not Scripture should be translated into the emerging common tongue of England, English, then he is doing so with great subtlety and ambiguity. If the use of Latin in the story provides us Chaucer’s position on the state of the Catholic church’s role in England, he recapitulates at the end of the story with the most popular reference to Lollardy in the Canterbury Tales. Right after the tale ends, Jankin the Parson admonishes the Host for profanity in his exclamatory use of “Goddes bones” to which the Host replies, “O Jankin, be ye there? / I smelle a Lollere in the wynd.” (1172-73). The Host is the forum moderator of the Canterbury Tales, if you will, and his response to the Parson taking offense to his language suggests that Lollards can be staunch conservatives, and not necessarily liberators for the liberally leaning Englishman who feels persecuted in some way by Catholic Rome. Perhaps Chaucer’s joke about “those crazy conservative Lollards” was inserted as a way of protecting himself from making a statement about a saint coming to town and speaking a language that everyone understood. How shall we take the humor of that outburst?

Illustration of the Man of Law from the beginning of the Man of Law’s Tale in the “Ellesmere Chaucer” (Huntington Library, San Marino) (image: http://www.scriptorium.columbia.edu)

Now, something important to consider is when Chaucer was writing. “Latin is the dominant language in literature surviving from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries”[13] and Chaucer wrote during the end of the 14th century. By linguistic landscape, I’m not suggesting that everyone in 14th century England was conversationally proficient in Latin. I mean that the political and cultural landscape of the story has a 14th century flavor to it and the way language is used is part of the dynamics of the setting. Chaucer changes the political geography in his telling of Trevet’s story. Chaucer “makes the Imperial family Roman, whereas Trevet began his account by describing them specifically as Byzantine (“Capadoce”) – Tiberius Constanitus.”[14]

To be historically accurate, Rome was under Byzantine rule during the 6th century, yet, Chaucer uses 14th century geography. Taking a story that occurred in the past and putting it in a modern and contemporary setting was common practice in medieval literature. The geography isn’t the only detail, it’s also the culture, the language. Chaucer points out that Latin is being spoken, yet the Scripture that appears in the story is written in a local language. Chaucer is very specific that it is not a Latin Scripture but a version in the Welsh language – “A Britoun book, written with Evanguiles” (666) – which suddenly looks like the Welsh biblical translation cited in the Prologue of the Wycliffe Bible.” (124)[15] Could this be a way of Chaucer implying that Scripture should be translated into English – the emerging common language of 14th century England?

There is also a proto-Protestant tone to the story. The Man of Law, though not a church official is, in a sense, delivering a sermon. In fact, the entire Canterbury Tales shows a cross-section of 14th century English society demonstrating diverse Christian faith as one collaborative movement, warts and all. Is Chaucer calling for political religious reforms in 14th century England? Chaucer suggests that a land can become Christian on its own terms by retaining its own language, because throughout the subsequent process of Christianization, Constance’s offer of the true faith does not require the imposition of the Latin language upon the newly converted English.[16] Northumberland in the Man of Law’s Tale is an “early English kingdom [that] manages to become Christian while remaining – in Chaucer’s account – resolutely independent as an English homeland free of any foreign military, political, or linguistic domination.”[17]

Constance converts England to Christianity using a back to basics evangelical style that smacks of Jesus “prechynge the gospel of the kingdom” in Judea.[18] Both Constance and Jesus have Church authority in their respective stories by virtue of their lineage: Jesus from Abraham and King David and Constance from her father, the Roman Emperor. As Jesus comes “not to vndo the lawe, but to fulfille”[19], Constance brings Christianity to Northumberland “without submission to the authority of Rome and imposition of the Latin language.”[20] This idea of the diffusion of Christianity without clerical control was not a new idea in England at the time Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale was written.

The English crown along with some radicals like John Wycliffe didn’t see eye to eye with the Pope on the issue of taxation and there was a growing sentiment in England that The Bible should be taught in the vernacular. A proto-Protestant movement called Lollardy was so popular in England at the time that “you might hardly see two people in the street, but one of them would be a follower of Wyclif.”[21] Let’s not forget that Chaucer’s Man of Law’s tale was written and probably first performed in England during the reign of Richard II. He was “the first king since the Norman Conquest of wholly English parentage” and “the language generally spoken at Richard’s court was English.”[22] It was also a “breakthrough in the writing of English”[23] that saw the translation into the English vernacular of “highly learned argumentative Latin material”[24] and the sudden flourishing of national literature in the English vernacular. If “highly argumentative Latin material” was being translated into English, why couldn’t the Latin Vulgate Bible be translated as well? More importantly, if Latin was so widely spoken in England in Chaucer’s time as the story implies, why would translating The Bible into English make a difference anyway? Though the setting is 6th century England, Chaucer wants his audience to compare this fantasy revisionist story of England’s conversion to Christianity with the moral and political issues of their own 14th century contemporary society.

Well, there is more to the tale of Constance, “But of my tale make an ende I shal / The day goth faste, I wol no lenger lette” (1116-17)[25]. So let me summarize: Alla sees young Maurice as a page in the Roman Emperor’s court and is instantly reminded of Constance. He asks the Senator who the child is and the Senator tells him how he found him and his mother alone in a small boat in the middle of the sea. King Alla visits the Senator at his house and is reunited with Constance. King Alla and Constance return to Northumberland to rule King Alla’s land. Maurice later becomes the Roman Emperor. After King Alla dies, Constance returns to Rome. More details and a better telling in the old Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, you’ll find because “I bere it noght in mynde.” (11127)

Heere endeth the tale of the Man of Lawe tolde by the weye.


[1] Kate Narveson’s translation of Chaucer’s “best sentence and moost solaas” – the judging criteria for the Canterbury Tale-telling competition. http://reason.luther.edu/english/faculty/narveson_kate/ Accessed 06/10/2012

[2] Kathleen Stokker. Foreword. The Black Books of Elverum (Lakeville: Galde, 2010), xiv.

[3] Susan E. Phillips, “Chaucer’s Language Lessons,” The Chaucer Review 46.1&2 (2011): 52,59.

[4] Morris Bishop, The Middle Ages (Boston, 1987), 257.

[5] “Chaucer’s Language Lessons,” 58.

[6] “Chaucer’s Language Lessons,” 40.

[7] Peter Ackroyd, Chaucer (New York, 2005), 4.

[8] Ackroyd, Chaucer, 15.

[9] Arnold Sanders,Chaucer Seminar: Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, “Man of Law’s Introduction, Tale, and Epilogue” http://faculty.goucher.edu/eng330/chaucerman_of_laws_tale.htm accessed 6/24/2012

[10] “Translating Custance.”

[11] Christine Cooper, “’But algates therby she was understone’: Translating Custance in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Talehttp://www.thefreelibrary.com/%27But+algates+therby+was+she+understonde%27%3a+translating+Custance+in…-a0142923837 accessed 5/6/2012.

[13] Brian Stone, Medieval English Verse (Harmondsworth, 1964), 13.

[14] John M. Bowers, “Colonialsim, Latinity, and Resistance,” in Fein and Raybin, eds., Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches 46 (University Park, 2011), 126.

[15] “Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance,” 124.

[16] “Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance,” 124.

[17] “Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance,” 127.

[18] John Wycliffe. Matthew 4:23 in Forhsall and Madden, eds. The New Testament in English According to the version by John Wycliffe, about 1380, and revised by John Purvey about 1388. (London: Oxford, 1879).

[19] John Wycliffe, trans. Matthew 4:18.

[20] “Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance,” 122.

[21] Terry Jones, Who Murdered Chaucer? (New York, 2004), 67.

[22] Who Murdered Chaucer?, 36.

[23] Who Murdered Chaucer?, 45.

[24] Who Murdered Chaucer?, 86.

Sequitur pars quarta.

People celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today in Philadelphia (image: instagram.com)

Since today is Saint Patrick’s today, I was reminded of the Celtic Tale The Children of Lir.[1] I thought of this story because the enchantment that turned Lir’s four children into swans ended soon after Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. Thinking of this story then turned my attention (I’ll explain how later) to Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale – which, of course, reminded me that I have really neglected tolde by the weye in recent months… So, remember we left Constance in a newly Christian Northumbria? King Alla took her as his queen. It seemed like happily ever didn’t it? But it was not – at least not yet. Everyone in King Alla’s land was overjoyed that Constance was their new queen and they were having a grand old time at the wedding feast. Well, everyone, that is, except one person – King Alla’s mother Donegild:

But who was woful, if I shal nat lye,

Of this weddyng but Donegild, and namo,

The kynges mooder, ful of tirannye? (II 694-96)

Queen Grimhilde, stepmother of Snow White from Walt Disney’s Snow White (image: pentopaper.wordpress.com, copyright 1937 Walt Disney Pictures)

King Alla’s mother was not happy about her son’s marriage to Constance. This was no ordinary case of the mother who needed a little time to warm up to her new daughter-in-law. Her despiteful disapproval of their union is strikingly similar to the Sultan’s mother’s hatred of Constance earlier in the tale. In the way the Sultan’s mother knew that Constance was the reason the Sultan was giving up Islam to take her as his bride, King Alla’s mother saw Constance as a foreign threat to their way of life as well:

Hir thought a despit that he sholde take

So strange a creature unto his make (II 699-700)

She bided her time, though, waiting for the perfect moment to take her vengeance upon Constance. Time passed and a war started with the Scots. King Alla entrusted Constance in the care of the Constable and a bishop and he left to fight the Scots. Constance soon gave birth to their little prince. The infant was christened Maurice and the Constable wrote a letter to the King announcing the birth. He chose a messenger and sent him off to deliver the joyous news. The messenger first passed by the Queen mother Donegild’s house to share the exciting news with her. She suggested to the messenger that he rest for the night at her house and deliver the letter to the King the next day. The messenger, knowing there would be fine food and drink at Donegild’s house, stayed for the evening. He drunk himself silly with ale and wine and soon passed out. As he slept like a swine Donegild exchanged his letter for a forged one.

(image: montalcino-tuscany.com)

The messenger left the next morning to deliver the letter to the King. The counterfeit letter told of a horrible demon child born out of the depths of hell. It also informed the king that Constance was really an elf and that the only reason why everyone loved her in the first place is because she was an evil sorceress who had everyone under her spell. Now that everyone in the castle knows the truth about the wicked Constance, they shun her and her savage spawn.

King Alla was terribly grieved by the letter but replied requesting that everyone show Christian charity to Constance and the child. He made it clear that no action should be taken against them until his return to the castle. As he sealed the letter tears burst from his eyes. He returned to battle and those Scots really took a beating that day.

The messenger sped off for the castle but instead of delivering the letter directly to the Constable, he went first again to the Queen Mother’s court. Just where does this messenger’s allegiance lie – in his King or the drink? She again entertained him with food and wine and exchanged his letter once more for a forged one.

When the Constable received the letter he was horrified by its contents. It told him that under penalty of death by hanging he must not let Constance and the demon child stay in the castle. He was ordered to put her and the infant back in the very boat from which Constance washed ashore and push them out to tide. The Constable couldn’t believe that God could let such horrible things happen in the world to pious people, but he followed the King’s orders.

The Irish folktale The Children of Lir shares a few elements with Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale. The protagonists are loved by everyone except an evil mother figure who is bent on their destruction, these same protagonists must face dangerous waters on their own, and, finally, the events of the tale occur at the time the country is converting to Christianity. There are plenty more similarities but this post is too long already and I need to make it to market and back by sunset.

Children of Lir is set at the Hill of the White field, which today the Irish call County Armagh. There once were four kings, Bov the Red, Midir the Proud, Angus of the Bird, and Lir, father of the sea-god Manannan. They were all descendents of the goddess Dana. One day everyone in the land decided that among these great kings, one must be chosen to rule over everyone. Bov the Red was chosen. Lir was not pleased with this decision because he felt that he should be the king. Bov the Red allowed Lir to rule his own land and there was no ill will between them. One day, Lir’s wife died. Bov sent Lir his condolences and words of friendship. He also offered him the choice of his three foster daughters for a new wife. Lir accepted Bov’s offer and went to his hall to choose his new bride. The names of Bov’s foster daughters were Aev, Eva, and Alva. They were all beautiful and Lir decided upon Aev who, being the eldest, he thought would be the most wise.

Lir and Aev lived happily together and had twins, a girl named Finola and a boy named Aed. A couple of years passed and Aev once again gave birth to twins – this time to two boys, Fiachra and Conn. Each year the children visited King Bov’s Hall. Everyone at both King Bov’s Hall and King Lir’s Hall loved the four children and wherever they were, everyone was joyous.

One day, Queen Aev passed away. King Lir was devasted. King Bov heard of the tragedy and offered his foster-daughter Eva as King Lir’s new wife. King Lir accepted Eva as his new wife. Eva was initially happy in King Lir’s hall, however, after about a year she grew very jealous of the children. It seemed to her that everyone, including her own husband, loved them much more dearly than they did her. She feigned a terrible sickness and stayed in her chamber for several weeks. She thought the solitude would help, but the time spent alone obsessing over the problem only worsened her jealousy of the children of Lir. One day, she found a solution to the problem. She emerged from the her room and suggested to King Lir that she take the children to visit King Bov.

Along the way she stopped by Lake Darva. She ordered her servants to murder the four children and though this order came from the Queen they could not obey it.  Queen Eva took matters into her own hands and made to kill the children herself, but she could not bring herself to murder them either. The Queen, instead, gathered the children and brought them down to the lake. She bade them remove their clothes and bathe in the lake. As they swam in the lake she pulled a wooden wand from her robe. The wand was inscribed with runes she had carved into it while she was going mad in her room. She muttered an incantation and suddenly the four children were magically transformed into white swans.

She left the children as swans in the lake and made for King Bov’s hall. King Bov was happy to see that his daughter and glad to see she had recovered from his illness but he was surprised to see her arrive without the children. Queen Eva told King Bov that King Lir no longer trusted him and that he could never see the children again. King Bov was upset by this news and sent King Lir a letter requesting an explanation. King Lir, upon receiving the message and, learning that the children did not make it to Lough Derg to visit King Bov, he feared for their lives.

King Lir discovers the fate of his children at Lake Darva (image: wikipedia)

He immediately made his way to Lough Derg and as he passed by Lake Darva the four swans called out to him. Though they were swans, they could still be heard and understood by the people of Dana. He discovered the fate of his children. Now, I’m not going to talk of the chaff or stalk that makes tales so long as corn, but the children remained in swan form until someone from the North married someone from the South – which in itself could be another Irish fairy tale! But I can tell you this: before they changed back into their human forms, they spent three hundred years in Lake Darva, another three hundred years in the dangerous and stormy sea of Moyle, and yet another three hundred years on the Isle of Glora. Now, while they were on the Isle of Glora, Saint Patrick came and brought the Christian faith to Ireland. Well, since the Children of Lir survived as swans for three hundred years on the stormy sea of Moyle, something tells me that Constance and Maurice will not be swallowed up by the sea…

Explicit quarta pars.


[1] My telling of The Children of Lir is adapted and embellished from Barbara Leonie Picard’s version which can be found in Celtic Tales (New York: Criterion, 1964).

Sequitur pars tercia.

Well, the magic boat that Guigemar saw docked in the creek really must have been a sight to see. Marie’s description of the vessel’s superb construction gives it a futuristic quality:

Defors e dedenz fu peiee,Nulls huem n’i pout trover jointure. (v.154-155) Calfaté en dehors et en dedans Sans qu’on puisse voir la moindrejointure (v.154-155) caulked inside and out in such a way that it was impossible to detect any joints.(45)
Clinker-built medieval ship

Clinker-built medieval ship (image: wikipedia)

Well, futuristic compared to the clinker-built ship of Marie’s time whose “hull was formed of overlapping oak planks, joined with iron rivets and sealed with a caulking of tarred animal hair.”[1] The smooth look of this vessel must have seemed to Marie’s 12th century audience as fantastic as a spaceship.

David boarding an extraterrestrial spacecraft in Disney’s Flight of the Navigator (image: http://www.coolhd.org, copyright 1986 Walt Disney Pictures)

Meanwhile, back in Northumberland, Constance is still living with the constable and his wife Hermengyld. The constable, his wife, and all of their neighbors are pagan. The region has a Christian past, but the Christians who once lived there fled to a community in Wales. Though no Christian still living in Northumberland dares to openly practice their faith for fear of persecution, Constance prays to Jesus. Constance’s prayers are answered and, by God’s grace, Lady Hermengyld takes to her guest’s way of worship and converts to Christianity.

So, on a nice and sunny summer day, Constance, the constable, and Hermengyld go out for a stroll by the seaside. It turns out that there are three Christians living in the area who practice their faith in secrecy. One of these Christians is an old Briton man who is blind with “eyen faste yshette.” The old and hunched fellow crosses Constance, the constable, and Hermengyld on the road. The old man miraculously regains his sight and exclaims, “In the name of Crist! … Dame Hermengyld, yif me my sighte again!”

This frightens Hermengyld because her husband doesn’t know she’s a Christian woman yet. And not only is she a Christian woman, but she’s a Christian woman capable of performing miracles. It’s her husband’s job as constable of his region to uphold King Alla’s law – and the practice of Christianity in Northumberland is punishable by death! The constable is astonished by this sight and asks everyone what the heck is happening, “What amounteth al this fare?” To which Constance replies, “Sire, it is Cristes might, that helpeth folk out of the feendes snare.” Needless to say, this was enough to convert the constable to Christianity right then and there.

Though the constable serves King Alla, he keeps the secret of Constance’s Christian faith. The scene of the walk on the sunny day, a blind old man having his sight restored, and the constable’s conversion to Christianity and his new dilemma of having to serve two lords probably reminds Chaucer’s Man of Law’s pilgrim audience of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount:

lucerna corporis est oculus si fuerit oculus tuus simplex totum corpus tuum lucidum erit si autem oculus tuus nequam fuerit totum corpus tuum tenebrosum erit si ergo lumen quod in te est tenebrae sunt tenebrae quantae erunt nemo potest duobus dominis servire aut enim unum odio habebit et alterum diliget aut unum sustinebit et alterum contemnet non potestis Deo servire et mamonae[2] The lantern of thi bodi is thin iƺes; if thin iƺe be simple, al thi bodi shal be liƺtful; but if if thin iƺe be weiward, al thi bodi shal be derk. If thane the liƺt that is in thee be derknessis, how grete schulen thilk derknessis be? No man may serue tweyn lordis, for ethir he schal hate the toon, and loue the tother; ethir he shal susteyne the toon, and dispise the tothir. Ʒe moun not serue God and richessis.[3] The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome. But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be! No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.[4]

And moving on, how else does Chaucer’s Man of Law advance the plot than with Satan himself who “evere us waiteth to bigile?” It turns out that a young knight living in the town craves Constance with a “foul affeccioun.” Now of course Constance rejects the knight’s sin-soaked advances because as we all well know, she “wolde do no synne, by no weye.”

Since this lusty bachelor can’t have her, he doesn’t think that anyone else should either, so he plots to ruin our poor and pious Constance. One night when the constable is away the knight creeps into Hermengyld’s chamber. He ruthlessly slits Hermengyld’s throat and leaves the bloody knife by Constance. When the constable returns, he’s with King Alla, and they discover Hermengyld “despitously yslayn” and they find the “blody knyf” near Constance.

When King Alla sees her face, he wonders how she could possibly be responsible for such a gruesome act. He looks to the constable who tells the King all about how Constance was discovered. The King looks into her pretty face and his heart fills with pity for her. Nonetheless, King Alla immediately summons a trial. Constance prays to God, reminding him that he, through Daniel, saved Susanna[5] when she was falsely accused of adultery.

The knight appears at the trial and announces that he’s prepared to give a testimony proving that Constance murdered Lady Hermengyld. King Alla orders that a book brought for the knight to swear upon so he can give his testimony:

“Now hastily do fecche a book,” quod he,

“And if this knight wol swern how that she

This woman slow, yet wol we us avyse

Whom that we wole that shal been oure justice.” (II 662-65)

At the very moment the knight swears on the book – which curiously happens to be a version of the Gospels written in Welsh – a hand smites him on the back of his neck so hard that he falls to the ground and his eyes burst out of their sockets. A thundering voice from above admonishes the crowd for defaming an innocent daughter of the holy church in the King’s presence:

“Thou hast desclaundred, giltelees,

The doghter of hooly chirche in heigh presence;

Thus hastou doon, and yet holde I my pees!” (II 674-76)

God

God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail copyright 1974 Python (Monty) Pictures / Sony Pictures image: http://www.rottentomatoes.com

Constance receives an introduction similar to the one Jesus received when he was baptized by John the Baptist, “and loo! a vois fro heuenes, seiyinge, This is my louyd sone, in which Y haue plesid to me.”

Everyone repents for falsely accusing Constance and converts to Christianity on the spot. Northumberland becomes a Christian nation just like that and King Alla takes Constance as his queen.

Explicit tercia pars.


[1] Benjamin Merkle, The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred The Great (Nashville, 2009), 15.

[2] Matthew 6:22-24 in Latin Vulgate Bible from http://drbo.org/lvb/chapter/47006.htm

[3] Wyclif, John. Matthew 6:22-24 in Forhsall and Madden, eds. The New Testament in English According to the version by John Wycliffe, about 1380, and revised by John Purvey about 1388. (London: Oxford, 1879).

[4] Matthew 6:22-24 in Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible from http://www.drbo.org/chapter/47006.htm

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ford puts a Babel fish in Arthur’s ear so he can understand the Vogan language intercom announcements. The narrator describes the Babel fish as:

“small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”[1]

Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale follows Constance from Rome all the way to Syria and Northumberland and back again – yet despite the linguistic and cultural differences found among these places, she is understood without a Babel Fish.

the queene of al Europe

Unknown female saint (Photo: Réunion des Musées Nationaux)

There are several ways medieval storytellers deal with the problem of language barriers when their tales must cover a geographical landscape as large and culturally diverse as the one in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale. The storyteller could suspend the audience’s disbelief by “glossing over” the problem of both potential and obvious language barriers through romance convention – that is, giving the story romance (fantasy) qualities so the audience doesn’t question the language the characters speak or by supplying a magical object like a talisman or an amulet to do the translation work for everybody. The storyteller could also rely on the main character’s ability to speak various languages and know the necessary customs for communicating with characters in distant lands. The third is simply employing the linguistic landscape of modern reality, which, despite the fantasy and miracle elements already present in the story, is the method Chaucer (or, ahem, his Man of Law) chose to use in his telling. Who cares that these events take place in the 6th century – we’re performing this production for a late 14th century English dinner party audience and there’s little demand for historical and cultural accuracy!

Heere bigynneth Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale tolde by the weye

The Man of Law’s Tale is a Canterbury Tale that starts with some Syrian merchants telling the Sultan of Syria (Sowdan of Syria) about their recent business trip to Rome and, “Amonges othere thynges, specially, Thise marchantz han hym toold of dame Custance” (I 183-84).[2] It turns out that all the merchants in Rome are talking about the Roman Emperor’s daughter, Constance, because a typical conversation between merchants in Rome went like this:

Our Emperour of Rome – God hym see!-A doghter hath that, syn the world bigan,To rekene as wel hir goodnesse as beautee,Nas nevere swich another as is shee,I prey to God in honour hire suteene, And wolde she were of al Europe the queene.(I 156-61) Our Emperor – God save his majesty! –Has such a daughter, since the world beganThere ever was another such as sheFor beauty and for goodness; she could beThe Queen of Europe with all eyes upon her.May God sustain her long in health and honour!(127)[3]

Well, upon hearing of Constance’s beauty, the Sultan gets it in his mind that he must have her as his wife. His court advisors think he’s gone mad and has not only forgotten his duty to the prophet Mohammed (God bless him and his household), but remind him that, “no Cristen prince wolde fayn / Wedden his child under oure laws sweete / That us were taught by Mahoun, oure prophete.” (I 222-24) Now, the Sultan isn’t going to let Islamic law stand in the way of having the Roman Emperor’s daughter all to himself. No, “Rather than I lese / Custance, I wol be cristned, doutelees” (I 225-26), he says. After a few exchanges of diplomatic letters, an amount of gold in unspecified quantity, and the pope’s consideration Syria finally becomes a Christian nation! This is all happening because the Roman’s Emperor’s daughter is the talk of the town? If only our modern global relations were so simple. But is it really that easy for the Sultan? Does he actually possess such great executive power over his country? Well, it turns out that his mother has a bit more political influence than he’d probably care to admit and she’s not too happy with his decision to marry the Emperor’s daughter. She calls a secret meeting with the sultan’s men:

“Lordes,” quod she, “ye knownen evirichon,How that my sone in point is for to leteThe hooly laws of oure AlKaron,Yeven by Goddes message Makomete.But oon avow to gret God I heete,The lyf shall rather out of my body sterteOr Makometes lawe out of myn herte!” (I 330-336) “My lords,” she said, “you know it to a manHow that my son is purposed to abjureThe holy teaching of our AlkoranAnd all Mahomet had from God the Pure.And to that God I here make promise sureRather to die the death than to departFrom what that Faith has written in my heart.” (132)

If I’m not mistaken, those words mean that Syria will give up Islamic rule over her dead body. She wastes no time in plotting with the Syrian nobles to feign baptism, because, after all, “Coold water shal nat greve us but a lite!” (I 352) and turn the wedding party into a gruesome bloodbath. Roman visitors and any Syrian – including her own son – interested in adopting Christian laws will meet their maker at the edge of a knife. Come the wedding day and the Sultan’s mother with her secret coalition slice everyone to bits except for Constance. They put her in a rudderless boat, push her out to sea, and “bidde hire lerne saille / Out of Surrye agaynward to Ytaille” (II 440-41). With Custance left to fare the ocean blue with lady Fortune at the helm, the sultan’s mother is Syria’s new commander and chief.

Byzantine procession

Procession of the guilds in front of the Sultan in the Hippodrome (Photo: wn.com)

Constance does not leave the trip from Syria back to Italy to the whims of Fortune’s wheel. She prays to Christ’s cross to lead her to safety. With our heroine now in the hands of Christ, the Man of Law takes a moment to explain just how Constance survived the massacre in Syria. He does this by asking rhetorical questions and answering them for us. Now, we must not forget that the story’s teller is a lawyer and every strong Christian case carries at least a couple Old Testament references for convincing evidence.

“Who saved Danyel in the horrible cave…?” (II 473) and “Who kepte Jonas in the fishes mawe / Til he was spouted up at Nynyvee?” (II 486-487). “Who fedde the Egipcien Marie in the cave…?”[4] (II 500) Though each and every God-fearing pilgrim en route to Canterbury already knows the answer without these obvious clues, our narrator provides it anyway to conclude his sermon, “No wight but Crist, sanz faille / Fyve thousand folk it was as greet mervaille / Withloves five and fishes two to feede / God sente his foyson at hir grete neede” (II 501-504). Who but Christ delivers Constance to safety?

So, as you may have already guessed, Constance miraculously reaches the shore in one piece. She’s in Northumberland. The constable from a nearby castle comes down to inspect the shipwreck. He finds her a bit shaken up from her voyage and she has amnesia too. He feels pity for her and invites her to live with him and his wife Hermengyld. They are pagan, but they will soon be Constance’s first Northumbrian converts to the Christian faith.

For some reason, The Man of Law makes a point to tell us how Constance and the constable communicate: “A maner Latyn corrupt was hir speche / But algate therby was she understonde” (II 519-520). The constable isn’t fluent in this “Latyn corrupt” and Constance may also be reducing her language to a pidgin form. They are probably using a lot of hand gestures, nods, and head shaking, but nevertheless they are communicating. If Marie de France were telling this story, she probably would have used romance convention to deal with the possible problem of Constance encountering a language barrier with characters in Northumberland.

Join us next time for more of The Man of Law’s Tale with special guest Guigemar.

Explicit prima pars.



[1] Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (New York, 1979), 54.

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

[3] References to Chaucer in Modern English translation are taken from The Canterbury Tales, Trans. Nevill Cohill (New York, 1977).

[4] Mary of Egypt patron saint of penitence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_of_Egypt)

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