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Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus and Criseyde

Following last week’s post about The Decameron, I thought I’d write about an English work from the fourteenth century. It’s a story from the Trojan War that’s been used by many writers over the centuries. Criseyde is the daughter of a Greek who fled Troy at the beginning of the war, leaving her behind. She has been an exemplary citizen and is highly regarded, for her virtue and quiet lifestyle as much as for her beauty. Troilus is the son of King Priam, the king of Troy. He’s handsome, brave and a great soldier. One day he sees Criseyde in the temple and it’s love at first sight. He declares that he’ll die if he doesn’t meet her, worrying a friend of his, who happens to be Criseyde’s uncle. The uncle engineers a meeting between the two of them, but that’s not enough for Troilus. He and the uncle trick Criseyde into spending the night with him and they become lovers. They declare their undying love and continue to see one another in secret. Meanwhile, Criseyde’s father decides that he wants his daughter back. He suspects that Troy won’t be a safe place for her for much longer, so he gets a message to her telling her to leave the city. Criseyde doesn’t want to go and Troilus doesn’t want her to go, but he has to escort her out of the city and hand her over to her father. She says that she’ll find a way to run away from the Greeks and rejoin Troilus. He says she’d better not fall in love with the sturdy-looking knight who’s with her father. Diomede, the knight, sees a woman without friends and decides to seduce her. After a few days, Criseyde realises that escaping from the Greek camp is going to be more difficult than she thought and allows herself to be seduced. Troilus eventually admits to himself that she’s not coming back and goes out to die in battle.

It’s a sorry tale, in which no one mentions marriage, which would have allowed Criseyde to stay in Troy, although, given what happens later when the city falls, that probably isn’t a bad thing. You can probably tell that I’m overly taken with the story itself. Troilus wasn’t a hit with me either. He spends a lot of time weeping, which wouldn’t have bothered fourteenth-century readers at all, but annoyed me. It didn’t annoy me because I think men shouldn’t cry, but because Troilus is entirely without agency. He does nothing for himself, but his tears cause his friend to act on his behalf. In many ways, that shows how requirements for a good story have changed over the centuries.

In the elements and structure of the story, Chaucer follows Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato quite closely, although there are whole sections which are Chaucer’s own creations. Boccaccio didn’t invent the story, but took it from a twelfth-century poem, the Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. It was a popular tale in the Middle Ages and the best-known retelling was by Shakespeare. Chaucer finished writing his poem around 1381.

In my Middle English edition, the poem is 347 pages long. That makes it too long to be read to an audience over the course of an evening,  the way in which most people would have experienced it in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It’s divided into five books, though, each of which would probably make an evening’s entertainment.

Troilus and Criseyde is set during the Trojan War, but the world its characters inhabit is very much fourteenth-century England. As well as it being an example of something written in the fourteenth century, the poem can teach us a lot about the world in which Chaucer lived. The garden where Criseyde walks with her ladies is set out like an English garden and the house in which she lives was of a type that would have been familiar to Chaucer and his original audience. The furnishings in her house would have been found in houses of the well-to-do at the time. Chaucer refers to chess and tennis and other games played by fourteenth-century people in their free time. Like Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Troilus and Criseyde is worth reading for its own sake, but it’s also a good source of information about life in the fourteenth century.

You can read about Chaucer’s life in this post.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Boccaccio and Chaucer

Decameron

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I’m fascinated by the Black Death. I want to know what people thought about it, how they coped while it was at its height and what life was like after it. One day, when I’m a much better writer than I am now, I hope to write a novel about it.

Last year, partly in the hope of getting a bit more insight into how people coped during the Black Death, I read Boccaccio’s The Decameron. It’s a collection of 100 stories told by ten refugees from the plague in Florence to while away the time until they can return to the city. It’s a fantasy, of course. They retreat to a lovely, secluded villa, where there are beatific grounds in which they wander until the evening, when they gather together to tell their tales, none of which has anything to do with the Black Death.

The main reason why I read The Decameron was because it’s one of the major literary works of the fourteenth century. Boccaccio had probably been collecting the stories for years and the conceit of ten young people entertaining one another gave him a structure for putting them together. Every evening (except Sundays and the day on which they move to another, even nicer villa) each of the ten has to tell one story. Apart from the first, each evening has a theme for the stories. There are stories about fidelity and infidelity. There are stories against the church and stories against ‘clever’ men. There are stories about revenge and about wives who know more than their husbands. Some of the stories are amusing and some of them are very dark indeed.

Some of the tales found their way into The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer visited Italy at least twice and he probably read some of Boccaccio’s works, as well as those of Petrarch, Boccaccio’s friend, while he was there. His Troilus and Criseyde is a retelling of Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. The structure itself of The Canterbury Tales might be borrowed from The Decameron.

The stories weren’t, for the most part, created by Boccaccio. Some of them aren’t even Italian in origin. His genius lay, as did Chaucer’s, in the way he told them and in the way he put them together.

Although Boccaccio lived through the Black Death, it’s unlikely he was in Florence all the time. Apparently, he hated the city of his birth and preferred Naples, where he spent his early adulthood. He was born in 1313 and, while he was in Naples, he was apprenticed to a banker. Banking was very advanced in Italy and the rest of Europe borrowed from Italian bankers. Boccaccio wanted to write, though, and went back to Florence in 1341. The Black Death arrived in Italy in 1347 and had receded by 1349. Boccaccio probably started work on The Decameron around then. In later life, he travelled on behalf of the Florentine state, visiting Avignon, where the papal court was based, and Rome. He died in 1375.

As it turned out, reading The Decameron did give me some insight into life during the Black Death. In his introduction to the stories, Boccaccio describes what Florence was like in 1348. He describes the symptoms of the plague and what happened when people grew ill and died. It’s the horrors of this nightmare world that his storytellers want to escape and they do so by telling stories of life before the plague arrived.

In case you’re wondering, I enjoyed reading The Decameron. Some of the stories are very dark, but most of them are entertaining.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Edward III and King Arthur

king_arthur_and_the_knights_of_the_round_table

From the time of Edward I English kings used the legends about King Arthur to bolster their claim to rule all the British Isles. Although Arthur was a British hero, by the thirteenth century he had come to symbolise the English, and the mythology was used, consciously or unconsciously, to unite Britons, Saxons and Normans. King Arthur represented many things: he was the ideal king, the ideal knight, the ideal husband and the ideal Christian.

The myths and legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were known all over Europe and were recorded very early in ‘romances’, long poems which are often regarded as the prototype of the novel. Even though Arthur was associated with Britain, works about him were written in many countries. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a twelfth-century cleric, from or based in Wales, whose book Historia Regium Britanniae contains a very early version of the Arthur stories. Later in the twelfth century, Chrétien de Troyes, who served at the court of Marie de France, Coutness of Champagne, wrote four complete and one incomplete romances about Arthur (Erec et Enide, Cligès, Yvain, Lancelot and Perceval). He is also credited with inventing the character of Lancelot. Another French poet of the late twelfth century, Robert de Boron wrote Josephe d’Arimathe about the Holy Grail, and Merlin. Around the same time Wolfram von Eschenbach was writing Parzival in Bavaria (probably), claiming that Chrétien de Troyes had got the story wrong. In the 1360s the Italian poet Boccaccio wrote a long poem about Arthur. Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt was written in England in the late fourteenth century by an unknown poet referred to either as ‘the Pearl poet’ or ‘the Gawain poet’. Possibly the best known version of the stories is Le Morte d’Arhur written by Sir Thomas Malory in the middle of the fifteenth century. Ironically, given the chivalrous nature of Arthur and his knights, Malory was a less than savoury character, being a thief and possibly a murderer. He changed sides during the Wars of the Roses and wrote down the stories while in prison.

Edward I was obsessed with Arthur, even taking his new bride to see Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury.  He usurped the Arthurian mythology when he conquered Wales. To the Welsh Arthur was the British hero who would return to beat back the English, but Edward I used him to bolster his own legend and to demonstrate to the Welsh that Arthur wasn’t coming back.

His grandson, Edward III, was similarly obsessed. Edward venerated his grandfather, and this was probably why he was interested in Arthur, although, as we shall see, there were other reasons for him to pursue this interest. From boyhood Edward III studied the lives of great kings from the past in order to be a good king and these included King Arthur. He studied the histories about Arthur, rather than the romances. Even though Edward III probably did not read the romances himself, it’s probable that he either heard the stories read aloud or told as entertainment. Both his mother and his wife were fond of the romances.

After he had overthrown his mother, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, in 1330 Edward III’s contemporaries began to talk of him as King Arthur returned, fulfilling the prophecies of Merlin. He, however, was careful to claim no more for himself than the rôle of Sir Lionel, which had been assigned to him by Mortimer during a tournament. In this he learned from Mortimer himself. Mortimer had made himself unpopular by (amongst other things) identifying himself with Arthur.

Mortimer’s family held that they, being descendants of the Welsh kings were also descendants of Arthur. In 1329 Mortimer played the part of King Arthur and Isabella played Guinevere at a tournament, while Edward, the king, was a mere knight, Lionel. Mortimer was clearly putting himself above the king and this was probably one of the many things that made Edward III feel threatened and led to his coup against his mother. Lionel could be understood to mean ‘little lion’ and Edward later used it as a reference to the lions on his standard.  He named his third son Lionel.

When Edward III came to found his order of chivalry in the 1340s, his original vision was that his band of knights should have a round table at Windsor. He even planned a round building to house it. It was Edward I who had ordered the construction of the Round Table which is now in Winchester Castle and Edward III was probably thinking of this when he ordered his own Round Table to be built. Although there is nothing specific in the way the Order of the Knights of the Garter was set up that refers to Arthur, the mere fact that Edward set up an order of chivalry with a small number of knights was enough to make his subjects see the comparison.

Other medieval monarchs used the mythology of Arthur to their own ends. Henry VII named his first son Arthur. Henry was Welsh and, like Mortimer, was claiming descent from King Arthur. He did this in order to legitimise not only his own reign, but that of his son. The use of Arthur as a name for the Prince of Wales is not limited to medieval times; the current Prince of Wales also has Arthur as one of his names, as does Prince William.

 

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The Black Death by Philip Ziegler: A Review

Philip Ziegler

All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried… At every church they dug deep pits down to the water-table; and thus those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shovelled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.

This graphic and harrowing image of the plague pits of Florence appears in Philip Ziegler’s book ‘The Black Death’. Although fairly outdated in terms of understanding the causes of the Black Death and how it spread, this is a good synthesis of research available at the end of the sixties.

Ziegler takes each major country in Europe (Italy where the Black Death was first encountered, France, Germany and England) in the order in which the plague reached them and looks at the impact of the plague on them. Italian literature has some poignant and eye-opening descriptions of the plague, which Ziegler quotes at length. Boccaccio’s Decameron is a collection of short stories supposedly told to one another by a group of people who escaped the plague in Florence by leaving for the countryside, but Boccaccio’s is one of the best descriptions of the signs and effects of the plague and portrays the horror of the Florentines as it took hold of their city. It’s too long to quote here, but worth looking at. Since France was the forerunner in medical achievement at the time, the chapter on France is mainly about the way in which doctors dealt with the plague and tried to understand it. The chapter on Germany examines the religious response (including the Flagellants, which I dealt with in an earlier post and persecution of the Jews).

The chapters on the British Isles are divided into counties for England, then Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Whilst you may think it’s because of cultural bias that he spends more than half the book on the British Isles, it’s simply because the records here are more extensive and more complete than anywhere else in Europe. Since most of the records are ecclesiastical, the most reliable information available relates to lands held by monasteries and abbeys and clergy deaths.

Useful and interesting though the book is, it is only in the final chapters that it comes to life. Ziegler describes two imagined communities, a village and a hamlet situated close to one another, and how they fare during and after the Black Death. Both lose a large number of inhabitants, but the village is ultimately stronger, as people move to it from the hamlet, and the hamlet is destroyed. This reflects the reality of the times and there was no way of predicting which way it might go for each town or village.

Ziegler succeeds in depicting the utter incomprehension with which the plague was greeted. It was unlike anything Europe had ever known, not just because of the numbers that died, but because of the speed with which it spread. Although news had come from the continent to England in advance of its arrival, few believed the stories and those that did assumed that the disease plague would not cross the Channel.

As many of the surviving manuscripts attest, those who lived in the plague’s path thought that the end of the world had come. Ziegler quotes from these eyewitnesses. There are two descriptions that always make me pause. One is the quotation at the top of the post, which comes from an unknown Florentine chronicler. Florence was one of the most populous cities in Europe in the 1340s and, like most large cities, such as London and Milan, it suffered greatly during the plague.  The other is the record of the monk John Clyn in Kilkenny. His situation was almost exactly opposite to that of the Florentines, as his monastery was fairly remote. He wrote “ So that notable deeds should not perish with time and be lost from the memory of future generations, I, seeing these many ills and that the whole world encompassed by evil, waiting among the dead for death to come, have committed to writing what I have truly heard and examined; and so that the writing does not perish with the writer, or the work fail with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future and any son of Adam can escape this pestilence and continue the work thus begun.” It is assumed that he died sometime in 1349, for someone else added later “Here it seems the author died.”

Like many writing about the Black Death, Ziegler contests the numbers of deaths given by the survivors, saying that our ancestors were prone to exaggeration. He suggests that a little over thirty per cent of the population died. I’m not sure that if thirty per cent of the people in my town died I would think it was the end of the world. I’d be worried, but I’d think the odds were on my side. If seventy per cent of them died, I’d be a lot more inclined to believe that the end of everything had arrived. There has been more research on medieval population sizes and death rates in the intervening years and I’m looking forward to what the book I’m currently reading has to say on the subject.

On the whole this is a good ‘introductory’ book. Ziegler’s intention was to gather as much as he could about was known about the Black Death into one place. There is no original research. Many find his style of writing dull, but I found the book easy enough to read and, as far as it’s possible to say this about a book written about such a terrible time, enjoyable.

For readers in the UK interested in plague, and who isn’t, there’s a programme on Channel 4 on Sunday 19th July at 8.00 p.m. (repeated on Thursday 23rd at 3.15 a.m. on 4seven) with the catchy title of ‘London’s Lost Graveyard: the Crossrail Discovery’. This is about the Great Plague of 1665 (amongst other causes of death), but it does promise to throw some light on the Black Death.

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