Middle English Word of the Moment

Sunday, December 21, 2008

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.

4 comments:

Fretful Porpentine said...

Ooo! I got them all right! (Well, I didn't know who wrote the second one, but I knew which king and incident it was about.) Do I win anything?

tenthmedieval said...

Very nicely observed, though as you say I did think when I recognised the Froissart that I wasn't sure whether he counted as hoax or not... But as we have probably all observed at one time or another the Middle Ages cared less about genre divisions than we do, perhaps because of our larger-scale teaching (or bookshops)...

Ceirseach said...

Yes! You win your very own set of I AM KING ARTHUR robes. They may be actual, allegorical or woven of propaganda, according to taste.

Ceirseach said...

Well, actually, hoax is more of a misnomer than history or fiction, since it implies intention to deceive, but it alliterates with history, so it got into the title. :) But yes, I'm going to return to the question of genre and intention in the third post. Probably. I may end up just spending all the time talking about Isabella and propaganda.

And yes, it is much easier to have firm genre divisions when you have a) a larger literate population, b) a larger population of literature and c) a demanding ways to distinguish between different types of b.