Middle English Word of the Moment

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Thoughts on 'venire'

Working again, after a five-year hiatus, on memorising Latin noun and verb forms (and I have to say, no wonder all the Romance languages today have dropped the habit of declining nouns - how did anyone ever construct accurate sentences without years of formal grammatical training? Surely there must have been a simpler vernacular!), one word struck me curiously, after the continuous repetitious muttering chant of memorising verb forms that goes on for so long the words are reduced to meaningless shapes of sound.

The chant in question went "uenio, uenis, uenit, uenimus, uenitis, ueniunt". Occasionally, because my focus is on mediaeval Latin rather than classical and it doesn't really matter, it would go "venio, venis, venit", etc. The verb is "venire", "to come"[1], and I spell it with the "v" here because "venire" is also the modern Italian infinitive of "to come". What suddenly struck me as I was muttering, slurring syllables into musical chants, was the way "venio" can have three syllables ("ve-ni-o") or two ("ven-yo"). And this second form sounded oddly familiar. Not from modern Italian - today, the verb runs "vengo, vieni, viene, veniamo, venite, vengono". Italian "vengo" and "vengono" ("they come") are pronounced exactly as they look, each consonant alone ("ven-go", "ven-go-no").

And with one of those pleasing little moments when one more linguistic link falls into place, I realised where I'd heard the form "ven-yo" before:
I' son Beatrice che ti faccio andare
vegno del loco ove tornar disio;
amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare. (Inferno, ii.70-72)
I am Beatrice who bids you go,
I come from whither I long to return;
Love moves me, and moves my speech.
And the third person plural derived from it:
Quali colombe dal disio chiamate
con l'ali alzate e ferme al dolce nido
vegnon per l'aere, dal voler portate. (Inferno, v.82-84)
Like doves summoned by desire
wings lifted, then still, to the sweet nest
they come through the air, borne by will.
It's not modern Italian, but Trecento Tuscan. In modern Italian, "gn" (as in "gnocchi", "agnello", "magno") is pronounced "ny", so Dante's "vegno" is pronounced "venyo" - ie, very similar to the way Florentines were probably pronouncing the Latin "venio" at the time, as "io" in Tuscan was almost invariably a diphthong[2].

A quick search on Dante Online (which I adore) confirmed that the form "vengo" never appears in any of Dante's works, and "vengono" only twice, both in the Convivio.

But of course, this is a modern (online) edition of the text. The extant manuscripts - of which there are many - vary wildly in their spelling, abbreviations, punctuation, capitalisation, and aeration (where one word ends and the next begins), even if one confines oneself to manuscripts produced in Tuscany in the fourteenth century.

For example, comparing one line across nineteen manuscripts at Dante Online that fit those criteria, we have:
Sol con un lengno e co(n) quella co(m)pagna
sol chon un lengno e cchon quella chonpangna
sol con un lengno (et) con quella compagna
sol chon u(n) legno (et) co(n) quella compagna
sol con un legn (et) con quella compagna
sol con un legno (et) co(n) quella co(m)pagna
sol con un legno (et) co(n) quella co(m)pagna
sol con un legno,' et conquella compagna
sol con un legno (et) conquella co(m)pagna
sol conu(n) legno eco(n) quella co(m)pagna
sol con un legno (et) co(n) quella co(m)pagna
sol con un legno (et) cu(n) quella compagna
solchonun lengno eco(n)quella compangna,
Sol chon vn lengno et chon q(ue)lla (com)pagna.'
sol con un legno (et) co(n) q(ue)lla co(m)pagna
sol con u(n) lengno e con quella conpagna
sol con un legno et con quella compagnia
sol co un legno (et) con quella compagna
sol conun legno (et) co(n) quella co[m]pagna
Letters or words in brackets are rendered by abbreviations imported from Latin. Spelling of the sound rendered nowadays by "gn" varies between "gn", "gni" and "ngn". But it's worth pointing out that the "gn" in both "legno" and "compagna" are descended from the Latin "gn", rather than "ni". And in the same manuscripts, the spelling of "vegno" is actually far more stable (the text is Beatrice's speech quoted above):

Bibl. Medicea Laurenziana: Pluteo 26 sin. 1 3v
Bibl. Nazionale Centrale: Fondo Nazionale II.I.36 5v
Bibl. Medicea Laurenziana: Strozzi 152 2r
Bibl. Medicea Laurenziana: Ashburnham 828 2r

You could have hours of fun comparing the spelling of just those four little extracts. "Beatrice" appears twice as "Biatrice", "I'" appears once as "I" (without any indication of the elided "o", twice as "Io" and once as "Io" with the "o" subpuncted - marked for deletion by a discreet dot underneath. The "or" in "amor" and "tornar" appears in three of them with the half-r, which, in the fourth manuscript, is also irregularly used after "a". Not one is even internally consistent in how they join "che" to the following pronoun ("ti" in the first line, "mi" in the third). The consonant is sometimes doubled, sometimes not, and the second manuscript spells it "che" in the first line and "ke" in the third. Three of them change "di" to "del" and attach it with a doubled consonant to "loco", but the fourth doesn't, effectively omitting the definite article, which could be an interesting Latin-derived mannerism in itself, or just a mistake. One has "dove" for "ove", which means much the same thing but is more common in modern Italian.

But one word that stays consistent - save for the immaterial distinction between "u" and "v" - is "vegno". Perhaps the "gn" in words derived from a Latin "gn" (such as "legno" and "compagna" above) was pronounced more nasally (ng+n), leading to irregular spelling, where the "io"-descended "gn" was harder to confuse as it was one consonant ("n") followed by a diphthong.

Nowadays you wouldn't distinguish "legno" from "vegno" - except, as I said before, that "vegno" has vanished. The consonants reversed, and hardened to "vengo". So at some point, farther down the track, the pronunciation was distinct enough to stratify in the spelling.

I wonder when that happened?



[1] Yes, I know it's conventional in Latin to use the first person singular indicative - "venio", "I come" - to "name" a verb. No, I don't care. To me, the infinitive of a verb is the name. Favouring one finite form over another is silly.
[2] Although, an exception occurs in both of the above quotes - both contain the word "disio", "desire", in which the primary stress falls on the second "i" and it is therefore a full syllable in its own right.

Except where specified as manuscript transcripts, quotes are from the Commedia seconda l'antica vulgata, Edizione Nazionale of the Società Dantesca Italiana, under the general editorship of Georgio Petrocchi (Florence 1994), accessed at Dante Online. Translations are mine.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas from the Kilpatrick household!

Every family has Christmas traditions, right? Each has something unique that they do that they can be fairly sure no one else is doing right at that moment. For example, two years ago as we hung our newly iced gingerbread men on the christmas tree, we could be fairly sure that no other family in Australia had a gingerbread Lucia di Lammermoor, swaying sensuously in her blood-spattered white nightdress. I think I even managed to make a dagger for her, possibly out of slivered almonds.

This Christmas, gingerbread forms were dictated rather by chance. For example, someone lost his head accidentally. So of course, he had to be consoled by translation into an approprate semi-Christmas figure:


He isn't wearing a dress. The Green Knight is far too manly to wear a dress. It is an embroidered robe. With almond embroidery on the belt.

His flashing red eyes did run a little, though.

Unfortunately, we didn't have any horse-shaped cutters, so his colour-coordinated steed lacks a little grandeur:


But his friend/adversary is very pretty, in appropriately Christmassy colours, and with an almost-pentangle on his shield.

I'm not sure why Gawain has no eyes. Either there was some solemn symbolism about his inability to see truly due to being distracted by earthly beauty, or I had used all the cashous by this time.

In any case, he probably got the better deal:
Poor Grendel is not only missing an arm, and some claws from his remaining hand, but he was strung up to the tree upside down - and as a result, an enterprising beagle has nibbled his head.

In fact, limblessness and missing bits seemed to be a theme this year, right down to the story my younger sister told with some of the old Christmas tree ornaments:



From left to right, Mrs Dobbins (missing her legs, an arm and the loop of string on top of her head due to her enthusiastic habit of rolling down the street), Clive the Headless Rocking Horse (ran afoul of a beer company for criticising its objectification of women, a subject about which he feels very strongly despite the fact that he is neither female or human), various soldiers who lost their bits in battling the evil chicken minions of the Easter Bunny, and another horse who's quite literally gone off his rocker and also has to wear his head slung over the left side of his rump for fear of over-balancing. I don't remember his story, except that he now runs a bicycle shop.

A slightly more serious attempt at decoration (I disapprove of Yule logs that involve feral plants like holly):


... and my two dogs worn out after a long morning beach walk.


Not that Snowy went on the walk. He was worn out by all his quiet sleeping while the rest of the family (including both beagles) was on a morning beach walk. He's seventeen, blind, deaf and doddery, lives with my parents because he'd be far too disoriented if I took him with me to Melbourne, and we've been expected him to die suddenly for about three years.

He quite likes Oliver, though I don't think Oliver really notices him.

I also think it's fair to say that we were the only family in Adelaide or farther playing the dictionary game from the Oxford Latin Dictionary (we found it's easier than the English, because it's much easier to find a word that no one knows), and making up family line-by-line stories involving Chrétien de Troyes, Cleopatra and Amanda Vanstone.

It works like this. Everyone in the circle has a piece of paper. They write a man's name up the top, followed by the word 'met'. They fold the top down to hide the name from the next person, then pass the paper on. On the next paper, they write a woman's name, then fold it down and pass it on. Everyone contributes a sentence to each story, following a consistent pattern to preserve some coherence. In this case, the pattern was:
[man's name] met [woman's name] at [place]. He [said/did something]. She [ditto]. [repeat actions, alternating he/she, a certain number of times agreed in the group]. The upshot was that... [something happened].

For example:

David John Kilpatrick [my father] met
Cleopatra at
Windsor Castle.
She raised one finely plucked golden eyebrow at his choice of garter.
He tickled her tummy.
She rose onto her tiptoes and wiggled her ears conspiratorially.
The consequence was they got married and had lots and lots of babies and two rather scrawny cockatoos.

Or:

Margaret Thatcher met
Kevin Rudd [our Prime Minister] at
the Chelsea Flower Show, where he was judging the cyclads and she was dressed as one.
He remembered that he'd always had a phobia about that kind of female and began to run around in circles, squawking and flapping his arms about.
She replied, "But sir, where do you put your Grumpy Old Mysterious Stranger Who Holds The Information Necessary For The Quest, But Who Talks Only In Cryptic Epigrams?"
He rabbited on a bit longer, but finally shut up when they started playing some of his favourite music.
She raced after him, intending to catch him by train, but then remembered that she'd previously rigged all the points.
The upshot was that he joined the Australian Labour Party and developed a terrible phobia of floral print.

I don't know how we got such an appropriate final line, given whoever wrote it can't have known that the story had previously contained either a Labour PM or flowers.

Merry Christmas and New Year, and may you lose no limbs, or even claws!

Monday, December 22, 2008

A verray, parfit gentil king (part 3): Froissart, Edward III’s public relations manager.

Part the third of a three-part post on The Perfect King and his Eyes of Flash, and the reason why I started them in the first place. Here are parts one and two.

So, if it’s all about the PR, Froissart was doing Edward III a good service. He was working for Edward III’s decidedly less martial grandson, in a court that was arguably falling away from the Arthurian ideals that Edward III had seemed to realise:
His Scottish and Irish campaigns notwithstanding, Richard was seen as a military failure in comparison to his father, the Black Prince, and, more especially, in relation to his grandfather, Edward III. Unlike Edward, who had painstakingly developed support for the war in France – and thus political support for himself – Richard embarked on a quest for peace … But the virtues of peace were contrused by Richard’s detractors as symptoms of the failures of warriors; as many chronicle accounts have it, in Richard’s court, a chivalric knight was not a fighting knight. Instead, the king was said to surround himself with his friends and favourites, with ladies, and with foreigners ... Ricardian knights are still vigorous and powerful, but this energy is misdirected toward the wrong place, the bedroom rather than the field, and deployed in the wrong way, with language rather than deeds. [1]
It was therefore very much in Froissart's interests as an employee (in the loose sense) to present his patrons and the whole Ricardian court with an image of the past that was at once perfect and glorious, and recognisably real. Ideals must be upheld, but they must also seem attainable, and not contradict the memories of anyone who still remembered the events recounted. Froissart’s Edward III fits perfectly into his world of martial prowess and honour, heraldry and chivalry and national (or bi-national) glory. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that he emerges as the epitome of this world, simultaneously held to and upholding a higher standard of it than anyone else. Froissart’s pen creates a chronicle, but also an adventure story, and a world that can contain and exult it. Every age, every social group, perhaps every person, has a similar world: a reflection of what the world in which we wish we could be set. Froissart creates that for Richard II’s court, creates a worthy setting for the king’s legend of a grandfather, and a grandfather worthy of that setting.

So, Froissart could do the PR gig with no problems. But the portrayal of Edward III as the epitome of Arthurian ideals wasn’t his idea. It was Edward III’s[2]. The man who created the Order of the Garter, who managed at age seventeen to not only draw together the support to overthrow his mother and Mortimer but to actually keep hold of those threads and build the support base that he did, who dealt with such sleight with the lingering shadow of his father’s deposition and possible murder, who combined the arms of England and France, was no amateur at self-representation. And remember whose son he was[4]:

... when the king sent his son to France, he ordered his wife to return to England without delay. When this command had been explained to the king of France and to the queen herself by the messengers, the queen replied, ‘I feel’, she said, ‘that marriage is a union of a man and a woman, holding fast to the practice of a life together, and that someone has come between my husband and myself and is trying to break that bond; I declare that I will not return until this intruder is removed, but, discarding my marriage garment, shall put on the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged of this Pharisee.’ [5]

This accusation and the complementary image of Isabella as suffering widow were developed in various speeches and proclamations. By appearing to embrace gender norms, even as she took a lover of her own and led an army against her husband, she effectively turned the blame for the breakdown of the royal marriage on Edward and his (arguably) more scandalous affair[7]. And throughout her time in France and the subsequent invasion, she showed flare for public relations that tends to be obscured nowadays by the absolute debacle that arose when she and Mortimer were secure and appeared to forget that they had any need of it. Isabella’s mourning weeds, her care to keep her adulterous relationship with Mortimer out of sight, to identify her cause with Thomas of Lancaster (killed in 1322 for rising against Edward and the Despensers, but now widely regarded as a saint), to visit shrines as she travelled “as if on pilgrimage” [8], to stay on the right side of the populace and to present herself as a rejected wife anxious to save the country for its rightful heir, formed masterful and effective propaganda. And the boy who was to be Edward III was there, saw it all, and – clearly – learned.

So, Edward III seems to have been just as capable as Froissart at presenting an inspiring vision of reality and of himself. The idea of his reign as a golden age of chivalric perfection (at least prior to the return of the Black Death) was not purely Ricardian nostalgia – although that probably helped – but was an image that Edward III conceived of and worked for. How much artistic licence do we allow Froissart, then, in his depiction of individual scenes like the aftermath of the siege of Calais? Is the scene he depicts the sort of scene Edward was likely to have enacted? In its general scope? in precise details? at that time and place? If so (to any of those), how much was it embroidered or altered in the telling? Because it isn’t the historical accuracy of the scene that matters so much as the story: what people heard, how they heard it, whether the audience is Froissart’s or the people to whom it may have been recounted in Edward III’s time. It is a display and a fantasy, power designed to be seen and recounted, an allegorical enactment of the theoretical process of justice, whether or not he and Philippa actually performed this in real life. It is how he (or Froissart, or Richard II) wanted the process and the nature of kingship to be understood, perhaps in order that they might understand that this is what happens in the arena of justice, this is what kings are, even if they never actually see this for themselves. A way to read their own experiences of the actual king, perhaps.

So the question is a fairly straightforward one: how far was this image of kingship deliberately constructed according to existing tropes of idealised majesty? The complication lies in trying to find a subject, to turn that sentence into the active voice. I think it wouldn’t be too controversial to say that Froissart was intentionally portraying Edward III’s actions and manner in this way; but to what extent was Edward himself doing the same thing?


[1] Federico, Sylvia, “The Place of Chivalry in the New Trojan Court: Gawain, Chaucer and Richard II,” Place, space, and landscape in medieval narrative, ed. Laura L. Howes (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007), 172. Incidentally, a page earlier she makes a similar comment about the bedroom, with reference to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Troilus and Criseyde: “…the intersections of historical place and chivalric identity ... [are] two of the main issues of concern in the chronicles of the late fourteenth century. These texts identify martial failure as a central element of Richard’s rule and further assert a relationship between the misdirection of knightly prowess and the physical site of its occurrence: the bedroom is where Ricardian chivalry is lost.” (171) I’d qualify this with a resounding “Step forward, Erec and Enide”, which rather stars the emasculating bedroom some time before anyone could possibly have been concerned about Richard II (or even Richard I), but it is an interesting point which is certainly not invalidated by the fact that Chrétien de Troyes got there first. Suddenly I have an urge to explore every bedroom scene in Ricardian literature. I imagine the Wife of Bath’s bedroom and the wedding bed of her fictional knight would both contribute to and cheerfully twist any conclusions I could make.
[2] Actually, one could blame Roger Mortimer for the magnificent Arthurian-themed tournaments he held while he was ‘regent’ at Isabella’s side, at which he actually represented Arthur himself at least once[3]. One can always blame Roger Mortimer for anything. Someone usually does.
[3] Cue vague, incomplete citation: I read this either in the first chapter of Ian Mortimer’s biography of Edward III, or the last few of his biography of Roger Mortimer. As I have access to neither now, I can’t check page references, but: The greatest traitor: the life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, Ruler of England, 1327-1330 (London: Jonathan Cape, 2003), and The perfect king: the life of Edward III, father of the English nation (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006).
[4] No, not Edward II’s. Well, indisputably Edward II’s, unless you buy into the theories that he was actually Edward I’s bastard after a really, really long pregnancy, or that Roger Mortimer was hopping into Isabella’s bed a lot earlier than is in any way feasible. But Edward II, whatever his other qualities, was resoundingly rotten at public relations.
[5] Vita Edwardi Secundi: the life of Edward the Second: re-edited text with new introduction, new historical notes, and revised translation based on that of N. Denholm-Young, eds. Wendy R. Childs and N. Denholm-Young (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005). 243.
[7] Ormrod hints at this when he argues that both Edward II and Edward III worked to “rehabilitate [Edward II] both as heterosexual and king... through the representation of the marriage of Edward II and Queen Isabella as a normal and functional relationship, disrupted not by the intervention of Piers Gaveston and the Despensers but by the queen’s own adultery with Roger Mortimer and by her usurpation of kingly power and prerogative”. (27) (“The Sexualities of Edward II”. The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives, eds. Gwylim Dodd & Anthony Musson (York: York Medieval Press, 2006. 22-47.)
[8] “... quasi peregrinando” Annales Paulini, in Chronicles of the reigns of Edward I and Edward II, ed. William Stubbs, (London: Longman, 1882). 314.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A verray, parfit gentil king (part 2): The comparative bit.

Part the second of a three-part post on The Perfect King and his Eyes of Flash.
Part one.
Part three.

Following on from this post, there are a few points I want to pick out with regards to the construct of the perfect king in the passages I quoted (the scene with the Roman ambassadors in the alliterative and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur; Theseus’ condemnation of Palamoun and Arcite and the women’s intervention in The Knight’s Tale; Edward III’s reception of the burghers of Calais at the end of Froissart’s account of that siege). Each of these stories follows the same pattern, with a few – but remarkably few – variations. Within that pattern, details recur: the effect of the king’s eyes, and his criticism of the words of his opponents, for example. But there are three threads in this story (and it is, essentially, one story) that I find particularly interesting in their reflection on contemporary notions of kingship.

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Firstly, in each case the voice of the narrator or the king takes pains to keep us from sympathising too much with the king’s opponents, placing him on a higher moral plain. There is a particular emphasis on making us feel that he is acting justly in responding with anger to the challenge, especially in the two instances when this leads to death sentences.

In the Mortes, the king takes no action and says not a word against the messengers: he merely glares, and their cowering reaction both elevates him (in the power of his gaze) and diminishes the messengers, that they would respond with grovelling terror to a look. Sympathies and admiration shift firmly towards the king – of whom, after all, an unjust and insulting tribute is being demanded (at least from our partisan perspective). Linking this symbolic victory to moral qualities, the king highlights the difference between his behaviour and that of the messengers when he characterises their words as “brym”, but denies their ability to affect his decision. In considering his response to the demand, he declares (in Malory) that he “woll nat be to over-hasty” and he will take “avysement”, implying both careful judgement and proper consultation with trusted advisers. In the alliterative version this becomes a less open reprimand which nevertheless contrasts his judgement with their discourtesy: “Thow has me somonde... and said what the lykes; / Ffore sake of thy soueraynge I suffre the the more”. This Arthur also goes on to say that he will consult with his nobles before reaching a decision. In courtesy, his behaviour is more proper to the situation than that of the representatives of his rival power, while the skin-saving emphasis of those representatives on the emperor’s “commaundement” gives the impression of a far less consular and more tyrannical model of royalty at the foreign court than at Camelot.

In the Mortes, the king’s anger serves as a deserved rebuke, but the spectre of physical punishment is evoked only by the fearful ambassadors when they plead that he “misdoo no messangere”. In Froissart and Chaucer’s stories, however, he passes a sentence of death himself. The balance of sympathy is therefore more easily tipped towards the victims, and as a result the king’s justice in this particular instance is emphasised, rather than his superior adherence to social codes of behaviour overall. Both stories allow the legitimacy of sympathy towards the condemned – in fact, they dramatise it. The “tears of pity” of the nobles in Froissart, and of the ladies in The Knight’s Tale, heighten the emotional stakes and encourage a stronger engagement with the eventual outcome.

Theseus, however, seems to have no personal emotional involvement in the situation. In the only instance in these examples devoid of eye-flashing, the duke pronounces a dispassionate “conclusioun”, in which “youre owene mouth, by youre confessioun” is the instrument of the sentencing. The unemotional precision of his response is his legitimacy as a just ruler[1]. It characterises him in this moment as the stern, clear-headed judge, looking down from his horse on the two sweating, bleeding, sulking young men whose emotions rule their judgement. To condemn to death two men who have previously been banished on pain of the same and discovered again in the country forbidden them is perfectly logical, and the duke determinedly keeps it on a logical footing until the ladies unbalance it with their emotional pleas. The only reference to the kingly wrath so emphasised in the other three extracts is the narrator’s “at the last aslaked was his mood”: previously, we had not been aware that he had a mood to slake.

By contrast, in the second extract, the king’s reaction is justified entirely by his anger against the citizens of the town in question. “He hated” them, we are told, and he looks at them with his heart “bursting in anger”. Hardly an impartial judge, to modern eyes; but the reason for his hatred? “Because of the losses they had inflicted on him at sea in the past”, the narrator tells us, and the king himself says “The people of [this town] have killed so many of my men that it is right that these should die in their turn”. This is not, then, the anger of a man on a private vendetta, but the righteous wrath of the king of sword and sceptre, defending his people and enforcing justice. In retrospect, this is probably the ‘mood’ that we are meant to understand was “aslaked” in the duke.

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The second, and perhaps the most important point that I want to pull out of these pieces is the importance of balancing justice with compassion – and vice versa. If the king did not make a display of anger and authority in each case – and I call it a display though there is no indication in any of the texts that the king is insincere in making it – his power and image would be significantly lessened. In two Mortes, he would be losing face diplomatically, in an international negotiation; in The Knight’s Tale and Froissart’s account, the power at stake is the king’s ability to enforce internal justice in his realm (despite the fact that the defendants in both cases are foreigners). In any of these cases, he could have his opponents put to death. We have seen the authors justifying the king in each case, and it would take little effort to exaggerate the behaviour of the messengers in the Mortes so that even the execution of diplomats wouldn’t be viewed too harshly by the audience. Even more so in Froissart and Chaucer, the king/duke would be well within his rights to pursue justice and the full extent of the law – but he does not.

To make a point, I shall quote (slightly anachronistically) a political tract written for the education of princes which was written in 1365, but not translated into English until the mid 1400s:

Mercy is a vertue greetly necessarye to every man, ffor it is a vertue that moch causeth the sauftie of the werkys of oure lorde God... And the wise man seith that mercy with oute justise is no verrey mercy, but rathir it may be seid folye and symplesse. And also justise with oute mercy is crueltie and felonye, and therfore it is convenient that these II vertues be ever ensembled, soo that the oon may at alle tymes attempre the othir. [2]

In all four passages, and particularly the ones in which the possibility of death is raised by the king himself, this tension between mercy and justice is played out. Where punishment is deserved, it must be a real possibility: the king cannot grant justice immediately and without deliberation, or he gives in to “folye and symplesse”. But nor can he carry out the sentence in all cases with no possibility of reprieve and – perhaps more importantly – without heeding the advice of his court and the voice of compassion, or he turns to “crueltie and felonye”. Mercy must therefore be hard-won, but won nonetheless. To this end, the voice of compassion is externalised – and feminised. The call for clemency is led in both these instances by the women. This does not represent a disowning of that aspect of royal power – on the contrary, there is a repeated emphasis on how well it befits a king. I believe that it has more to do with the developing role of the queen in embodying that royal power[3]. To allow her to intercede visibly (as Philippa does with Edward III) is not to set her up against the authority of the king, but within it. She is performing within a formalised role, embodying the mercy of the crown in her own (movingly pregnant, and thus extra-feminine) body, allowing the king to concede while retaining his authority and the fear aroused by his wrath. The queen, then, becomes the feminine embodiment of mercy to the king’s masculine justice, marriage keeping them “ever ensembled” as the above passage recommends, while the separation across two bodies prevents either from eroding the other.

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Nevertheless – and this is the third point I wanted to make – note the flourish with which each passage ends. Rather than petering off in clemency, the king takes another step and provides a demonstration which combines (feminine?) generosity inextricably with a politically advantageous display of power. In the Mortes, the ambassadors are treated with extravagant hospitality, no “spycerye” is spared, and the representatives of the rival power find themselves cowed by merely by the spread of expensively exotic dishes on Arthur’s table. Edward III presents each burgher with new clothes, “an ample dinner”, a large noble entourage and the means to set himself up in some comfort and style in Picardy. And Theseus, of course, subsumes the petty personal duel of Palamoun and Arcite in a massive monument to his own wealth and power, in the dual form of the physical structure of the arena and the international social significance of the tournament.

So, a good king is one who can act with force and decision in the interests of his kingdom, but knows how to listen to advice, and can turn a challenging situation to a resounding demonstration of his own power. And above all, he knows how to make a good show. Acting out the drama of justice and mercy before the court, cowing messengers with a glare, positioning himself to be physically as superior as he (would like to prove that he) is morally, casting himself as the bastion and centre of civilisation, from which he may distribute mercy or more physical tokens of generosity... it’s all about the PR. And that is what I will consider tomorrow!


[1] Although, of course, one can’t take Theseus as a pure and sincere representation of the perfect monarch without acknowledging the presence or proving the absence of Chaucerian irony. Theseus has reasons selfish as well as disinterested for acting as he does; but setting the question of sincerity aside, Chaucer is using a standard trope here, and audience expectations formed by previous settings of similar scenes do play a part in how we are to understand, if not the private motivations, at least the public behaviour of the characters involved.
[2] “The III Consideracions Right Necesserye to the good governaunce of a prince.” Four English political tracts of the later middle ages. Ed. Genet, Jean-Philippe. Camden fourth series 18. (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977). 100.

[3] I know I've read an article putting forward the idea of this gendered division of royal power in the reign of Richard II, but can't quite work out where. I blame this on being in Adelaide with my parents for Christmas, hampered by my inability to check sources. My hunch is that it was one of the chapters in Cullum, P. H., and Katherine J. Lewis (eds), Holiness and masculinity in the Middle Ages (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).

A verray, parfit gentil king (part 1): Pick the history from the hoax.

Part the first of a three-part post on The Perfect King and his Eyes of Flash.
Part two.
Part three.


This was going to be one post, but it turned into three. These things just happen in my life.

Firstly, consider the following four extracts, all written in the fourteenth century (or fifteenth century, following a fourteenth century text, in one case), all narrating a similar test of royal authority. Three are fiction - chivalric literature, the pinnacle of idealised knighthood and kingship - and one is history. Pick which is which.

1. So hit befelle that the Emperour ... sente unto [the king] messyngers commaundynge hym for to pay his trewage that this auncettryes [ancestors] have payde before hym. Whan [the king] wyste [understood, had heard] what they mente he loked up with his gray yghen [eyes] and angred at the messyngers passyng sore. Than were this messengers aferde and knelyd stylle and durste nat aryde, they were so aferde of his grymme countenaunce.... Than one of the knyghtes messyngers spake alowde and seyde,
'Crowned kynge, myssedo [mis-do, harm] no messyngers, for we be com at his commaundemente, as servytures sholde.'
Then spake the Conquerrour, 'Thou recrayed and coward knyghte, why feryst thou my countenaunce?'
.... 'Sir,' seyde one of the [messengers], 'so Cryste me helpe, I was so aferde whan I loked in thy face that myne herte wolde nat serve for to sey my message....'
'Thow seyste well,' seyde [the king], 'but for all thy brym [rash, fierce] wordys I woll nat be to over-hasty, and therfore thou and thy felowys shall abyde here seven dayes... and whan we have takyn our avysement [come to a judicious decision] ye shall have your answere playnly, suche as I shall abyde by.'

2. [At the surrender of a town who has dared defy our Idealised King.] The King was in his chamber with a large company of earls, barons and knights [when the deputation from the town was brought to him].... The King kept quite silent and looked at them very fiercely, for he hated the people of [the town] because of the losses they had inflicted on him at sea in the past. The six burghers knelt down before him and, clasping their hands in supplication, said: 'Most noble lord and king, here before you are we six citizens of [Mystery Town].... We surrender to you the keys of the town and the castle, to do with them as you will. We put ourselves as you see us entirely in your hands.... We pray you by your generous heart to have mercy on us also.'
None of the brave men present, lords, knights or men-at-arms, could refrain from shedding tears of pity when they heard this....
But the King continued to glare at them savagely, his heart so bursting with anger that he could not speak. When at last he did, it was to order their heads to be struck off immediately.
All the nobles and knights who were there begged the King to have mercy, but he would not listen.... At this the King ground his teeth and said: 'That is enough... my mind is made up. Let the executioner be sent for. The people of [this town] have killed so many of my men that it is right that these should die in their turn.'
Then the noble Queen... pregnant as she was, humbly threw herself on her knees before the King and said, weeping, 'Ah, my dear lord, since I crossed the sea at great danger to myself, you know that I have never asked a single favour from you. But now I ask you in all humility, in the name of the Son of the Blessed Mary, and by the love you bear me, to have mercy on these six men.'
The King remained silent for a time, looking at his gentle wife as she knelt in tears before him. His heart was softened, [and he granted her request].... They were given new clothes and an ample dinner. Then each was presented with six nobles and they were escorted safely through the English army and went to live in various towns in Picardy.

3. [Our perfect king (well, duke, in this instance, though his wife is still called a queen) comes across two young men duelling in the forest, both of them banished from his realm. They confess their identity and their transgression, and eagerly dob each other in.]
This worthy duc answerde anon agayn,
And seyde, "This is a short conclusioun.
Youre owene mouth, by youre confessioun,
Hath dampned [damned] yow...
Ye shal be deed, by myghty Mars the rede!"
The queene anon, for verray wommanhede,
Gan for to wepe, and so dide [another woman],
And alle the ladyes in the compaignye....
And alle crieden, bothe lasse and moore,
"Have mercy, Lord, upon us wommen alle!"
And on hir bare knees adoun they falle
And wolde have kist his feet ther as he stood;
Til at the last aslaked [slaked, calmed] was his mood,
For pitee runneth soone in gentil herte.
[He declared them pardoned, but ordered that they resume their duel in a year's time in the context of a highly organised tournament, to be arranged and paid for by himself, where each of the two young knights will lead a team of the mightiest warriors in the land and certain measures will be taken to reduce actual fatalities.]

4. [Two ambassadors arrive and demand that the king swear allegiance to their emperor.]
The kynge blyschit one [looked at] the beryne [man] with his brode eghne [eyes]
That fulle brymly [fiercely] for breth brynte [burnt] as the gledys [hot coals]...
Luked as a lyone [like a lion, or as a lion would], and on his lyppe bytes!
The [ambassadors] for radnesse [dread] ruschte to the erthe [rushed to the ground, ie, fell on their faces/knees, quailed]...
Thene couered vp a knyghte [one of the ambassadors rose], and criede ful lowde,
"Kynge corounede [crowned] of kynd [by/in/above all nature/race], curtays and noble,
Misdoo no messangere for menske of thi seluyne [honour of yourself, ie, by (or for the sake of) your honour]...
We come at his [our lord's] commaundment; haue vs excusede" [pardon us].
Then carpys [speaks] the conquerour crewelle [hard] wordez, -
"Haa! crauande [craven] knyghte! a cowarde thee semez!..."
"Sir", sais the [messenger], "so Crist mott [might] me helpe, [ie, may Christ help me, an intensifying oath]
The voute of thi visage has woundyde vs alle!
Thow arte the lordlyeste lede [lord] that euer I one lukyde [that every I looked on, saw];
By lukynge [by looking, ie, to the eye], with-owttyne lesse [truly], a lyone the semys!" [you seem to be a lion!]
"Thow has me somonde [summoned me]," quod the kynge, "and said what the lykes [said what you would];
ffore sake of thy soueraynge [for your lord's sake] I suffre the the more [I grant you greater license]...
[The king says that he will take counsel with his dukes, etc, while the ambassadors stay a week and are entertained with great extravagance, treated royally:]
"Spare for no spycerye [spices], bot spende what the lykys,
That there be largesce one lofte [largesse on high, ie, great largesse], and no lake foundene [and no lack be found]."

And of course, even if you recognised none of those, it’s obvious that when I used the word ‘history’ to describe one of them (the second, Froissart’s account of the siege of Calais[1]), I did so reservedly. It’s less obvious, though equally true, that I used ‘fiction’ in the same way. There is, of course, a genre division between the chronicle and such a poem as the Knight’s Tale[2]; but the division is far from distinct, and the boundaries are blurred by the insistence on historical and literary authority in the latter (Chaucer claims to be recounting his own experience of hearing a knight recite a tale he in turn insists is not his invention but drawn from “olde stories”) and the influence on the former of the shape that the author feels a story ought to be - not to mention the distortion to the same effect imposed by his sources, be they written or oral, and the expectations of patrons or audience. The first and fourth extracts are from two different versions of the Morte d’Arthur, Malory’s first[3] and the anonymous alliterative version[4] (his source for that particular scene) last[5], and they also straddle the boundary between romance fiction and chronicle to an extent that modern readers don’t always appreciate. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history of England, after all, was the literary source of the vast bulk of Arthurian romance that blossomed in the following centuries, and Arthur stalked through his pages alongside kings that we would nowadays regard as perfectly historical. This is a familiar topic to anyone accustomed to the literature (of any sort) of the fourteenth century, so I won’t labour the point.

In any case, the passages above rather speak for themselves in their similarity. According to them, the perfect king:
- has really flashy eyes
- is fierce and furious in his defence of his kingdom, his people and his own authority
- cuts a fine figure of dignity and power (and theatricality) in front of his court
- looks like a lion, especially with those flashy eyes
- is not afraid to temper justice with compassion, and compassion with justice
- knows the political value of generosity, and of making shows of largesse
- did I mention the flashy eyes?
- is far, far more civilised than you, especially if you’re the emperor of Rome or a pair of hormonal teenagers scrapping in the woods
- would happily sing along with the chorus of Sir Joseph Porter’s ode to the common British tar:
His foot should stamp and his throat should growl,
His hair should twirl and his face should scowl;
His eyes should flash and his breast protrude,
And this should be his customary attitude -- (pose). [6]

Post #2 tomorrow. More actual content guaranteed.


[1] Froissart, Jean, Chronicles, ed. Geoffrey Brereton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 108-09.
[2] The third extract - The Knight’s Tale 1742-1761, from the Canterbury Tales, in Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Benson, Larry D. (3rd ed). (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). 48-49.
[3] Malory, Thomas, Le Morte Darthur: the Winchester manuscript, ed. Helen Cooper, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998). V.6..36
[4] Morte Arthure, ed. Edmund Brock, EETS OS 8 (London: Oxford UP, 1961), 116-165.
[5] I originally had the order of all four extracts in chronological order, but it occurred to me that starting with the alliterative Morte, the hardest of all four in terms of language, was an excellent way to befuddle anyone not entirely with alliterative Middle English. It is much easier to read after reading three scenes all essentially saying the same thing – so the temporal order was reversed.
[6]
HMS Pinafore, Gilbert & Sullivan.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Friday, December 12, 2008

A quarter of a century old today...

... and, corresponding with that milestone, another, possibly smaller, possibly greater. After all, I did work rather harder to achieve it.

Results for this semester were released yesterday, but I learned them today:

Mediaeval Body: 87%
Mediaeval Representations: 86%
English thesis: 88%

And my first semester results:
Research Principles and Practices: 85%
Latin Paleography and Codicology: 83%
To Hell with Dante: 89%

So, with an (unweighted) average of 86.3%, I think it's fair to say I passed.

I am pleased with my thesis mark. I think that is a good mark for a thesis.

So. Now for the future.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A new project: the arrival of Adam Murimuth

A terribly exciting parcel arrived for me yesterday.

It contained a book, entitled:



This is the 1889 edition of the chronicles of Adam of Murimuth, perhaps the most level-headed and well-informed of all chroniclers of Edward II's reign. And yet, so far as I have been able to find, no edition has been published since, and it has never been translated. I don't aspire to remedy the first - yet - but the second I can and will do.

And if I think it's good enough, and think myself capable of undertaking the full exercise, I will go on and do everything necessary to make a critical edition in both languages, for my MA or PhD.

So yes, it is a very exciting parcel, particularly as it was a long hard search through the dark and woodsy wilds of the internet to find it. It's kind of out of print, after all.


The book is exciting enough from a codicological perspective, never mind the contents. The edges are rubbed, the spine a little cracked where it connects to the front cover, and it will need careful handling, but nothing serious. And if it becomes serious, it can be rebound. The pages are in perfect condition - and I mean perfect, which I will get to with delight in a minute. The pastedowns are thin enough that I can see quite clearly the binders' methods inside the front and back covers. The first and last pages bear the imprint of "Wigan Free Public Library", and inside the front cover someone has jotted in lead pencil "228 - FP".

But the two most exciting features are, firstly, this little insert:


Why is the "to" space blank? Was it not presented, in the end, or did someone just forget to fill in "Wigan Free Public Library"? Does the same insert appear in every volume of this publication? The slip is glued into the spine, but after binding. Were any copies for public sale, as the printer's note on the title page implies, or was the distribution of them entirely within the gift of the Treasury? If not entirely, what percentage? And - Her/His! Victoria died in January 1901, so this presentation must have been very shortly after that - so soon that they were still using the stacks of these slips printed off before her death, and amending them by hand (in black ink, slightly faded to brown). And did the Library break up? Was it returned to the royal Stationery Office, Westminster? I got it from Abebooks.com, an online American amalgam of various secondhand and rare books stores - specifically, from Second Story Books in Rockville, MD (whatever MD is - no, I don't have America's states' abbreviations memorised, and I don't believe many Americans have Australia's states' abbreviations memorised either, and we have far fewer). I think I shall write a slip containing my information, the year and reason I bought it, the source and the condition it is in now, and attach it under the first slip. Some books deserve to have their histories known.

The second and perhaps most exciting thing is the state of the pages. No one has ever read this book before. Look:


Save for the first quire, and one quire later on in the book, none of the pages have been cut. This presents me with a dilemma. I have to cut it myself if I want to read it. But in doing so, I will be spoiling its uncutness. I will be submitting it to common use.

The solution, I have decided, is to find a beautiful old penknife that is worthy to cut it, and to use that to cut only the pages of Murimuth's chronicles, leaving Avesbury's intact. Such a wonderful and unique surviving feature of a volume cannot be completely obliterated in the name of vulgar research, after all!


And, just a thought. Why is it that Edward II's chroniclers largely deplore him and, at best, either tolerate him or describe him with relish as a martyr and, in doing so, present a really unflattering and graphic picture (hi, Geoffrey le Baker!), while his son's chroniclers entitle their works things like "De Gestis Mirabilibus Regis Edwardi III"? He should have made favourites of men who were better at PR. Like Roger Mortimer.

... Well, he was. Until the power went to his head and he started setting himself up as the new King Arthur.

Also, because these were on my camera though I do not remember taking them, have some pictures of two much adored beagles. My lad, Oliver, is on top so that he can cuddle her better because he thinks she's the best thing ever, and my sister's girl, Solace, is snuggled in under her with the self-satisfied and rather coy expression of someone who has a man to look after her but has him right under her thumb, thank you. Except when she looks at me, when she takes on her pleaselove/feedmeI'lldoanything look. Beagles do that look very well. I think it's the ears. Also, that's a girl who knows how to apply (and use!) her eyeliner. While Oliver looks cheerfully and sleepily oblivious to feminine wiles, so long as he has a nice warm Solace-smelling body to cuddle.