Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Dead royalty and distractions

I'm afraid I can't stop my mind from running into Gawain. This morning at our Mediaeval reading group a description of the red-cross cross hovering over Havelock's shoulder almost made me go off into a ramble about the significance of the red-gold ring the Lady offers to Gawain. And at the moment, I'm alternating between roaming the archives of the Naked Philologist[1] and reading the wills of deceased royalty[2], who do not mention Gawain, but lead to exciting intertextual thoughts! For example, the Black Prince's tomb epitaph is included, in a rather broad stretch of the definitions of 'king' and 'will'. It includes:

En terre avoy grand richesse, dont je y fys grand noblesse,
Terre, mesons, et grand treshor, draps, chivalz, argent, et or,
Mes ore fu je povres et cheitifs, profond en la terre gys.
Ma grand beaute est tout alee, ma char est tout gastee.
Moult est etroite ma meson. En moy na si verite non.

My Middle French isn't wonderful, but this isn't too complicated in grammar or vocab, so at a guess:

On earth I had great wealth and nobility,
Land, castles, and great treasure, clothes [?], horses, silver and gold,
But now I am poor and low, sunk deep in the earth.
My great beauty is all gone, my flesh is quite wasted.
Very narrow is my house. To me remains nothing but truth.

In a tri-lingual society (English, Anglo-French and Latin) equivalent words probably carried the same connotations, right? So the 'verite' in this poem would be closer to the Middle English 'trawthe' than our modern 'truth'. In fact, we could wager on their being nearly identical in sense, and come up with a very bleak picture of the unattainability of trawthe in earthly life that would really depress Gawain!

I think my favourite is not one of the wills themselves, but the note at the end of Richard II's will, written presumably by Nichols in 1780. I shall be incorrect here and represent the printer's occasional long 's's as 'f's because it amuses me more that way:

Richard II. was the youngeft fon of the Black Prince, born at Bordeaux 1366 ; fucceeded his grandfather Edward III. 1377, when he was only eleven years old ; and, after an inglorious reign of twenty-two years, in which fome few traits of a good difpofition fhewed themfelves through the diffipation, effeminacy, and favoritifm of the age, was depofed and fucceeded by his coufin Henry duke of Lancafter, Sept. 29 1399, and on the February following made away. (202)

Isn't it beautifully partial? I have to wonder what exactly he was referring to when he said "effeminacy" - the tastes for extravagant clothing? the reluctance to go out and actively poke sharp things into the French? Shakespeare's strong insinuations that Richard II was sleeping with his favourites?

I particularly admire that little grammatical trick in the final sentence. "Made away" could be an active verb - Richard "made away" as a nice little euphemism for "died". But equally, with the passive verbs in the previous sentence (and just far enough removed for them not to govern this verb too overtly), it could stand for "was made away", and mean murder.

Was there any reason to be coy about 350-year-old regicide under George II?

[1] Who sometimes mentions Gawain.
[2] Nichols, John. A collection of all the wills, now known to be extant, of the kings and queens of England. 1780. Reproduced in facsimile by Kessinger, 2007. It is fun.

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