Middle English Word of the Moment

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.


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.


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.


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).

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