Archives for posts with tag: medieval

marco polo

So you know Marco Polo the Venetian? The story goes Marco Polo told this French guy all about his travels while he was in prison in Genoa. The first manuscript of The Travels of Marco Polo is 13th century and was written in Old French. Anyway, one of the little stories[1] he heard was from his brothers Nicolas and Maffeo when they were in Jordan. They heard about these Christians who had a flame in their temple that was so popular people came from miles around to light their lamps with it because it was Holy light, etc. – sort of like a relic. When the Magi (or, the Three Kings) went to visit baby Jesus, they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts were to test the prophet. If the prophet chose the gold he was only an earthly king and if he chose the myrrh he was a physician – but if he chose the frankincense he was truly a prophet. Well, it turns out the baby Jesus accepted all three gifts and gave them a little box in return.

On their way home the Magi opened the little box to see what was inside. It was a little stone – meant to symbolize their faith in Christ – steadfast, like a rock, etc. Well, that symbolic meaning went straight over their heads and they thought it was a stupid gift so they threw the stone in a well. At that moment, a huge blast of fire came from the heavens, hitting the stone, and setting it alight. It has been burning ever since. So that’s why people come to visit the temple.

Now, I can’t tell whether this temple was a major pilgrimage spot in 13th century Jordan or if some rural village was just enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame while Nicolas and Maffeo Polo were passing through. It is interesting though, that in the Medieval World stories were written to embellish Biblical sources. A couple of interesting ones are the Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament and The Three Kings of Cologne. The latter is kind of like a “Further Adventures and exploits of the Three Kings.” It’s a text with a strong Christian message told in the style of a medieval travel narrative. The Three Kings’ characters are fleshed out in this text. We know their names, where they’re from, and what they do after visiting the baby Jesus besides not returning to King Herod and going home by another route – but more importantly, the text gives you an idea of how the author thought various Temples and newly formed sects responded to the news of the Christ’s birth.

Though the little box and fiery stone gift from baby Jesus is not mentioned in the The Three Kings of Cologne, the text mentions that their gifts were meant to test the baby Jesus.[2] The text does mention, however, another “relic” collected from the nativity, adding that cringe-worthy touch of anti-Jewish sentiment found in most Medieval Christian texts written for a popular audience.

After the Kings traveled around, relating their tale of having seen the Christ, Mary grew frightened that the Jews would come and get her, so she went underground (literally) into a dark cave and waited there until things calmed down a little:

“þer bygan to wex a grete fame of oure lady and of her childe and of þes .iij. kyngis alle aboute. wherfore oure lady for drede of þe Iwes fledde oute of þat litil hows þat crist was bore in, and went in to an oþir derke Cave vndir erþe: and þere sche abode with her childe til þe tyme of her Purificacioun.”[3]

madona de la late

Madonna Suckling the Child, in Venetian vernacular known as the Madona de la late, panel, 13th-14th century. Venice, Museo di S. Marco. Image: Venice: Art & Architecture, Könemann.

While Mary was in that cave she sat on a stone and nursed the baby Jesus. Some of her breast milk sprayed on that stone. Sometime later, the cave was turned into a chapel and became a pilgrimage spot. It still had that stone and it still had milk too. If the stone was scraped with a knife, it would spray some of Mary’s breast milk. Just imagine going to a pilgrimage spot and hearing the guide say, “And Behold the everlasting milk still flows! For a small donation you can take a few drops!” That’s not the only mention of stones and the baby Jesus in Three Kings. More detail is given about the star they saw that signified the Christ was born. Its edges resembled that of a cornerstone.

So, according to The Three Kings of Cologne, after they described the star to people, it was pretty fashionable to put it on all the temples that had decided to follow Jesus. So I guess they did get the metaphor after all – you know, Jesus being like a stone at a strong building’s foundation.

[1] My telling of this tale is loosely adapted from Yule-Cordier’s edition of The Travels of Marco Polo.

[2] Makes me think of the Dalai Lama choosing his glasses!

[3] John of Hildeshesheim, The Three Kings of Cologne: an early English translation of the “Historia Trium Regum”, ed. C. Horstmann. available online

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

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

hurstwic axe application

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Egil’s Saga, 87.

On a winter morning earlier this year, I was reading Pearl on the 27 bus. I was headed to the mall to make a connection with the 98 bus so I could get to work – my regular morning commute. On a good day, the connection isn’t too long, but it’s usually long enough to justify taking a little walk if the weather’s not too bad. So as I walked around the parking lot, passing time until the Norristown 98 bus arrived, I noticed a little pearl on the ground:

pearl

My secret pearl without a spot was sighted in the parking lot near the bus depot at the Plymouth Meeting Mall.

Some little pearl, from the earlobe of a joyless jeweler, “to ground away it shot.”[1] On the street the pearl “went tumbling wide,”[2] rolling through a few loose strands of tumbleweave and past a cigarette butt, stopping in a patch of weathered asphalt. I wondered if the owner of the cheap plastic pearl earring purchased from Forever 21 was in a marvelous dream vision at that very moment, having just reached “a cliff of crystal bright, With resplendent rays all aureoled.”[3] The person who lost this precious cheap plastic earring was either arguing the finer points of Fortune with the maiden child or already in fellowship with the Lamb of God. Perhaps they’d already learned to let go of their little pearl.

Well, I thought that that was a pretty interesting coincidence – but a few days later I spot the little pearl again. This time it’s on the 27 bus by the exit door:

pearl 27

What started as a rare coincidence, I’ve now encountered several times. Just yesterday the 9 bus was detoured because of some construction on Walnut Street, so my wife and I walked East along Latimer or Locust up to Broad to catch the 27 instead. On the sidewalk under one of those walkways they make under the scaffolding when they’re doing work on a building, what do I see but the little pearl again! Finding a pearl on the ground doesn’t seem like something that would happen as often as three times in the same year. Perhaps I need to read Pearl more often because it’s not a bad thing to be reminded of this line:

O may we serve him well, and shine
As precious pearls to his content!

What are some little things that remind you to return to medieval poems?


[1] Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Pearl: Verse Translations, trans. Marie Borroff, (New York, 2001), 125.

[2] Pearl, 126.

[3] Pearl, 129.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur was released last month.  I had no idea Christopher Tolkien was even working on this project. It was a surprise because I thought Sigurd and Gudrun was the last we’d see of resurrected Tolkien poetry composed in the Alliterative style.

tolkien reading some old poetry

But I guess there’s plenty more in the vaults. The recent release of a Tolkien telling of Morte D’Arthur reminded me that I had yet to read the Middle English Stanzaic and Alliterative Arthurs – so I decided that now’s as good a time as any.

The first thing that struck me (besides lamenting that “breme as a bore”[1] – one of the Stanzaic Arthur poet’s favorite clichés – will never be a popular expression in my lifetime) was how Lancelot comes to wear the lady’s sleeve at the tournament in Winchester.

Lancelot announces that he will not attend Arthur’s tournament in Winchester because he’s feeling sick. Ever since Lancelot returned from the Quest for the Holy Grail, Agravain’s been trying to catch Lancelot in bed with Guinevere. Agravain, of course, thinks Lancelot is feigning sickness simply to stay behind and get physical with Guinevere. It turns out that Lancelot doesn’t hang around Castle Camelot as long as Agravain thought he would. Instead, our knight du lac travels by night and attends the tournament in disguise and fights so valiantly there that he almost dies in combat but that’s another story.

On the way to the tournament Lancelot stays with some guy who has armor he can borrow, allowing him to appear anonymously in the tournament. The guy has a daughter who complicates the situation of Lancelot’s love interest.

Now here’s where the French and the English versions differ. Lancelot’s interaction with the daughter is a little different in the Middle English Stanzaic than it appears in the French Vulgate cycle.[2] Here’s how the scene plays out in the French version:

That day Lancelot remained there and was served and provided with everything that nobleman could desire. The people in his lodging kept asking him who he was, but they were unable to find out anything. However, his squire spoke to the vavasour’s daughter, who was very beautiful and pressed him hard to reveal who his lord was; and when he saw her great beauty, he did not wish to refuse utterly, because that would have seemed an unmannerly thing to do, but said: “I cannot reveal everything to you, because I should probably incur my master’s anger, but I will certainly tell you all I can without harming myself. In fact he is the finest knight in the world…” (verse 13)[3]

Everyone, especially this girl, knows that that means, “Lancelot – that’s right – Lancelot is staying in your house!”

Then the girl went straight to Lancelot, knelt before him, and said:

“Noble knight, grant me a gift by the faith you owe to whatever you love most in the world.”

When Lancelot saw such a beautiful and charming girl on her knees before him, he was embarrassed and said:

“Please get up. Be sure there is nothing in the world within my power that I should not do in answer to your request, because you have asked me in such solemn terms.”

She got up and said, “My Lord, I thank you. Do you know what you have granted me? You have promised to wear my right sleeve on your helmet at the tournament instead of a plume, and to bear arms through love for me.”

When Lancelot heard this request he was annoyed; nevertheless he did not  dare to refuse it because he had already promised. However, he was very regretful about having granted what she asked, because he realized that if the queen found out about it, she would be angry with him that, as far as he could see, he would never find his peace with her. (verse 14)[4]

 

Here’s how the scene appears in the Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur:

Th’erl had a doughter that was him dere;
Mikel Laucelot she beheld;
Her rode was red as blossom on brere
Or flowr that springeth in the feld;
Glad she was to sit him ner,
The noble knight under sheld;
Weeping was her moste cheer,
So mikel on him her herte gan helde. (Verses  177-84)[5]

The maiden with cheeks as red as a rose is so taken by Lancelot’s sight that she cannot look upon him without weeping. It of course incorporates soft and delicate flower imagery that penetrates with a painful prick like the point of cupid’s bow or a thorn on a rose or a… you get it.

He sat him down for the maiden’s sake
Upon her bedde there she lay
Courtaisly to her he spake
For to comfort that faire may.
In her armes she gan him take
And these words gan she say:
“Sir, but yif that ye it make,
Save my life no leche may.”(Verses 192-200)[6]

Reading this today summons images of girls screaming louder than the Beatles’ amplifiers in the 1960s or fans passing out at Michael Jackson concerts in the 1980s. One could almost imagine the wall of this maiden’s room covered with pictures of the Knights of the Round Table clipped from issues of Tiger beat magazine. There is little doubt that this maiden is as much a fan of Lancelot as these girls were of The Beatles.

girls screaming at a beatles concert

Girls screaming at a Beatles performance in the Richard Lester film A Hard Day’s Night. Image copyright 1964 United Artists/MGM Holdings

Her blushing and swooning is a typical medieval description of love sickness. “Save my life no leche may” basically means that even a doctor cannot cure her of her love sickness. For its effect on men, see Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale when Arcite and Palamoun fall deeply in love with Emelye from simply seeing her gather flowers in the garden during the month of May from their prison window. Yes, it was that easy to get lovesickness in a Chaucer story. Arcite’s lovesickness caused by Emelye is so severe that it dramatically changes him when he is banished from Athens and forced to live with Perotheus in Thebes:

…lene he wex and drye as is a shaft;
His eyen holwe, and grisly to biholde,
His hewe fallow and pale as asshen colde,
And solitaire he was and evere alone,
And waillynge al the nyght, making his mone;
And if he herde song or instrument,
Thanne we wolde wepe, he myghte nat be stent.
So feble eek were his spiritz, and so lowe,
And chaunged so, that no man koude knowe
His speche nor his voys, though men it herde.
And in his geere for al the world he ferde,
Nat oonly lik the loveris maladye
Of Hereos, but rather lyk manye,
Engendered of humour malencolik,
Biforen, in his celle fantastik. (ll. 1362-76)[7]

Yes, he grew as thin and dry as a dried stalk. His face changed so much that no one he knew could recognize him anymore. He moaned and wailed all night and whenever he heard the sound of someone playing a musical instrument, he would cry so hard that no one could stop his tears. Chaucer ties his exaggerated description of lovesickness as it often appears in Heroic poetry together with some medical terminology suggesting that it could actually be a passage from a medical treatise. Everything can be said in the same breath by Chaucer…

Perhaps knowing she will suffer the same fate as Arcite for her love of a knight, the maiden in the Arthurian story asks Lancelot to at least display a token of her love when he fights in the tournament:

“Sithe I of thee ne may have more,
As thou art hardy knight and free,
In the tournament that thou wolde bere
Some sign of mine that men might see.”
“Lady, thy sleeve thou shalt of-shere;
I will it take for the love of thee;
So did I never no ladies ere,
But one that most hath loved me.”(Verses 201-08)[8]
 

The Stanzaic Arthur omits the scene with the maiden asking the squire Lancelot’s identity. Also, in the French version, the maiden specifically asks Lancelot to wear her sleeve, not just “some sign.”

In the French version, the maiden uses the manners of courtly love to her advantage by making Lancelot promise to grant her wish knowing that his code forbids him from rejecting her request – even if he doesn’t know what it is. This differs from the English version, where Lancelot offers to wear her sleeve.

The whole part about Lancelot’s annoyance with the matter and worrying about it complicating his relationship with Guinevere is omitted from the English version. It’s not a question of trimming down the length of the scene, because the English poet embellishes the scene in his own way to give a description of love sickness. Instead, deciding not to point out to the audience that Lancelot’s wearing the sleeve may create a problem with Guinevere, the English poet tells us something interesting about his audience. It suggests that the audience is well-versed in literature and intelligent enough to draw that conclusion on their own. It also allows for surprise which may mean that there was an audience growing tired of the storytelling styles that prevented the audience from experiencing surprises for themselves.

While it often serves the purpose of bringing a circular balance to their work, medieval poets are notorious for using foreshadowing to such an extent that the stories seems to contain no surprises for the audience whatsoever. The English version, at least in this scene, allows an engaged audience to formulate their own questions and see for themselves how the drama unfolds.

I prefer to have some of both. Medieval court audiences may have as well. There’s something to be said for the poet who holds the audience’s hand, giving clues, and sharing observations. The audience shares the experience with the poet – they are going on the journey together and seeing the same sights at the same time. It takes a tremendous amount of faith in the audience for the poet to allow them to draw their own conclusions about the drama and the meaning of the work. It may also suggest that the public recitation of poetry was meant to be interactive rather than just silently absorbed – or simply a new way for a dining court audience to enjoy a telling of an old poem.


[1] Fierce (or wild) as a boar. (O.E. valiant). Another cliché the poet uses every chance he gets is “withouten lees” – which passed the gulf to Modern English literally as, “Without lies.” It doesn’t have the same the ring to it, but it’s understood. What are some of the expressions storytellers use in place of “breme as bore” or “withouten lees” today?

[2] Mort du Roi Artu – the early 13th century French version. In this post I’m using the edition: The Death of King Arthur, Trans. James Cable, (London: Penguin, 1971).

[3] The Death of King Arthur, 29.

[4] The Death of King Arthur, 30.

[5] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur from King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. Larry D. Benson, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1974), 8.

[6] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, 8.

[7] Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963), 264.

[8] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, 9.

Spring is not quite in full swing, but some of its signs are here. We haven’t had below-freezing temperatures in Philadelphia for nearly a week and the wind is becoming a little less harsh. The daffodils have come up and are just about to bloom.

daffodils

So, now that the Sun has entered Aries (the zodiac constellation of the Ram), let’s take a look at what time it is. According to the Secreta Secretorum:

“Ver bigynneth whan þe soone entrith into the signe of þe Ram, and dewrith foure skore dayes and xiij, and xviij hours, and the fourthe part of an houre, that is, from the xiij day of marche vnto the xiij daye of Iune. In veer the tyme is so hote, þe wyndis risen, the snowe meltith. Ryvers aforsen hem to renne and waxen hoote, the humydite of the erthe mountith into the croppe of alle growing thingis, and makith trees and herbes to leve and flowre, þe medis waxen grene, the sedis risen, and cornes waxen, and flouris taken coloure; fowlis clothen them alle newe and bigynne to synge, trees are fulle of leves and floures, and the erthe alle grene; bestis engender, and all thingis take might, the lond is in beute clad with flouris of diuerse cloures, and alle growing thingis are than her bewte.” [1]

The sun warms the wind and the snow melts. Rivers and streams that were dry and stagnant for months loosen up and bend and flow. Moisture in the ground rises up and nourishes the roots. Seeds sprout, dead grass is replaced with green grass. Birds get new colorful feathers and sing as the trees adorn themselves with fresh leaves.

Doesn’t this description remind you of the lines Chaucer used to open The Canterbury Tales?

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale fowles maken meloldye,
That sleepen al the nyght with open yë…” (v.1-10)[2]

Chaucer tells us that it is spring by using the same method of astrological calculation as Secreta Secretorum. The Secreta Secretorum tells us that spring is the time that the sun is in Aries. Chaucer mentions that the sun’s position is in Aries the Ram, “the yonge sonne / Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne.” The Canterbury Tales starts in the middle of spring, when the sun has ran half its course through Aries the Ram.

Chaucer mentions the same natural signs of spring: birds chirping and seeds sprouting but instead of using a literal and scientific description of the wind like we have in Secreta Secretorum, “þe wyndis risen, the snowe meltith,” Chaucer personifies the wind by using Zephyrus, the west wind. Chaucer then tells us that it’s the perfect time for people to get outdoors and go on walking pilgrimages: “(So priketh them nature in hir corages) / Thanne longen folk to goon pilgrimages.”

It’s sunny outside and all the birds are trying to find mates so they can have sex. Now, aren’t you in the mood to go on a religious pilgrimage?

well, now that Chaucer’s got us on the subject of active and healthy lifestyles, let’s turn back to Secreta Secretorum to see what this medieval mirror for princes says about good things to do during spring to keep fit:

“Prime temps, that is, veer, is hoot and moyste; in this time sterith mannys blood and spredith into alle the membris of þe body, and the body makith it intemperate complexioun. In this tyme shulde chykenys be ete, and kyndes and eggis, soure letuse þat men call carlokis, and gettis 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 thinges 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.”[3]

So, as the cows and chickens eat fresh green grass, it’s a good time to have eggs, chicken, and milk. Bitter greens, like dandelion these days, grow first, so we should eat them. It’s a time to flush the body of toxins by sweat-inducing physical activity, bloodletting, and eating food with laxative properties. The idea here is that while nature flushes itself out with warm wind and rain, it renews and repairs itself with new growth. So too do our bodies during this time.

This concept of spring as a period of flushing toxins was not limited to esoteric thought in the medieval west. In Chinese medicine, the liver, which is an organ that plays an important role in digestion and detoxification, has been associated with spring for over one thousand years.[4] In a Kung Fu manual that incorporates Taoist alchemy, the liver’s association with spring is mentioned: “The liver is the viscus which stands at the head of the three months of spring…The form of the liver is that of a dragon; it stores up the soul; it resembles a banging bottle-gourd of a whitish brown colour; it is placed below the heart, a little nearer the back; the right has four lobes, the left three lobes; its pulse emerges from the end of the thumb. The liver is the mother of the heart and the son of the kidneys.” [5] The old manual continues with an exercise that should be performed during spring to assist the liver with its natural function: “To repair and nourish it, during the first half of the three months, one must sit facing the east, knock the teeth 3 times, shut the breath and inspire 9 times; breathe the south air,—take in 9 mouthfuls and swallow 9 times…This will cure obstruction of the liver from vicious wind and poisonous air, and prevent disease from developing. These exercises must be incessantly attended to morning and evening in the spring, without intermitting even one day; and, with the heart set upon it, the cure is complete.”

Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s hail the coming of spring and get brand new attitudes! Up for a walk?


[1] 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), 27.

[2] The General Prologue from The Canterbury Tales in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

[3] The Secrete of Secretes, 27.

[4] Five Animal Sports Qigong: Medical Qigong Exercises for Health, Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, YMAA, 2008.

[5] Kung-Fu, or Tauist Medical Gymnastics, John Dudgeon, 1895. Available online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/tao/kfu/index.htm

Westvleteren XII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moses Breviary of Chertsey Abbey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le Fraisne v121-134 from Harley 978

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

En un chief de mult bon cheinsilenvolupent l’enfant gentil

e desus un paile roe

sis sire li ot aporté

de Constentinoble u il fu

unques si bon n’orent veü

a une piece d’un suen laz

un gros anel li lie al braz

de fin or I aveit une unce

el chasten out une jagunce

la verge en tur esteit letree

la u la meschine iert trovee

bien sacent tuit veraiement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elora Danan's birthmark

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

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


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

[2] Exodus 1:22, KJV

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

[4] Exodus 2:6

[5] Exodus 2:7

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

[7] Exodus 2:10

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval Tour Guides and The Stations of Jerusalem

reblog medieval pilgrimage

Psalter Mappa Mundi

reblog medieval pilgrimage2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edel Mulcahy is on a quest to popularize the idea of family in the medieval pilgrimage. Lately, she’s been leafing through dusty old guide books of medieval pilgrimage sites and in her latest dispatch, she introduces us to The Stations of Jerusalem from Ashmole 61 – a saddle-book of late medieval miscellany. If seeing one of your favorite saint’s teeth and a holy kneecap is your idea of a vacation, well then, this post is right up your alley!

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.

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

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

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

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

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

miri bodleian

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

Myrie it is while sumer

ylast with fugheles song.

oc nu neheth windes blast

and weder strong. Ei, ei!

what this nicht is long.  and

ich with wel michel wrong

soregh and murne and

fast

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

Merry it is while summer

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

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

And weather strong. Whoa oh

Oh this night is so long. And

I with very much wrong

sorrow and mourn and

fast

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

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

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


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

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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