Archives for posts with tag: Chrétien de Troyes

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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!

GIRLS ON PARCHMENT

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

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

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

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

bravely bold sir robin

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

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

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

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

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

saffron

Saffron for sale at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His swerdes shethe of yvory (l.2066)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s enough music for now, lads!”

Click here for another installment of Girls on Parchment


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature qui faite l’avoit.

Ele meïsmes s’en estoit

Plus de .vᶜ. fois mervoillie

Comment une soule feïe

Tant bele chose faire sot;

Ne puis tant pener ne se pot

Qu’ele peüst son examplaire

En nule guise contrefaire

De ceste tesmoingne Nature

C’onques si bele creature

Ne fu veüe en tot le monde.

Por voir vos di qu’Isuez la blonde

N’ot tant les crins sors et luisanz

Que a cesti ne fust neanz.

Plus ot que n’est la flor de lis,

Cler et blanc le front et le vis.

Sor la blanchor, par grant merveille,

D’une color fresche et mermeille,

Que Nature li ot done,

Estoit sa face enluminee.

Li huil si grant clarté rendoient

Que deus estoiles resembloient.

Onques Dex ne sot faire miauz

Le nes, la boche, ne les iauz.

Que diroie de sa beauté?

Ce fu cele por verité

Qui fu faite por esgarder,

Qu’en li se peüst on mirer

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

 

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

all of her skill in forming her.

Nature herself had marveled

more than five hundred times

how upon this one occasion

she had succeeded in creating

such a perfect thing.

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

Nature bears witness

concerning her that never was

so fair a creature seen in all the world.

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

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

But with wondrous art her face

with all its delicate pallor

was suffused with a fresh crimson

which Nature had bestowed upon her.

Her eyes were so bright

that they seemed like two stars.

God never formed better nose,

mouth and eyes.

What shall I say of her beauty?

In sooth, she was made

to be looked at;

for in her one could have seen himself

as in a mirror. (6)[2]

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And uchone halched in other, that non ende hade,

And fyched upon five poyntez, that fayld never,

Ne samned never in no side, ne sundred nouther,

Withouten ende at any noke I oquere fynde,

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

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

Each one linked to the others in an endless design,

Based upon five points that was never unfinished,

Not uniting in one line nor separating either;

Without ending anywhere at any point that I find,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[3]Lloyd Alexander, 117.

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

[5] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

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

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

[8] Katharine Breen, 120.

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

[10] The Secrete of Secretes, 22.

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

[12] The Secrete of Secretes, 27.

[13] The Secrete of Secretes, 29.

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

[15] The Secrete of Secretes, 10.

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

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

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

[19] Katharine Breen, 132.

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