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The Game of Death in Chivalric Culture

Death is a fact humans must deal with throughout their lives. Past cultures imbued the final act of existence with meanings of their own. In this paper, Victoria Cirlot explores what death may have meant for a medieval knight, drawing examples from the rich written tradition on the subject and revealing deep-seated connections between chivalry and death. The samurai trained daily for the moment death would stare him in the face; the chivalric knight lived alongside death from day to day, readying himself to accept his fate gladly: knights and samurai alike believed in an afterlife.

In the course of life, death shows itself often and in widely different ways. Death cannot be a shared experience, because, once it occurs, one cannot speak of it; yet the idea of death is a considerable concern during our lives.[1] The idea of death is entertained so intensely, in fact, that facing death can even be the preoccupation of a lifetime. Death viewed as an event that will inescapably arise in the future inspires fear, a fear that must somehow be put to one side if life is to continue. But death is more than an ineluctable event standing at the end of the road: any genuinely lived life implies death at every turn of its winding path. Death haunts our every step, every act of giving something up, every loss, every departure, although on the other side of each of these milestones of life a new beginning comes into view.

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Life, death, and rebirth weave the life tapestry or biography of each individual, whose fate is being-toward-death.[2] Awareness of this life tapestry is embedded in the structure of the human brain and comes to the fore in our preparing for death as a final event.[3] Awareness of death is a biographical experience: it emerges suddenly; it was buried and hidden from view, and now it rises up shockingly naked before our gaze. Awareness of death frames the threshold of maturity, and its effect is so powerful that it often brings about profound change, such as religious conversion.[4] And death in life-death to life-was a radical ascetic decision enacted in symbolic rituals, funeral liturgies signaling that an individual had died to the world.

Faith in one’s birth to a new life-a foretaste in this world of eternal life in the next-precludes any nihilistic construction that might otherwise be placed on this act; and it is that faith that distinguishes mystical death from erotic death. In the myth of Tristram and Yseult, the lovers accept even a “second death” in exchange for melding their bodies and souls, but with no implication of transcendence; by contrast, a mystic such as Mechthild of Magdeburg intones a joyful song of her descent, her death, putting her faith in eternal life.[5]

In historical studies, the theme of death has been approached from diverse specific perspectives: from the analysis of mortuary practices to readings of texts and visual arts in an attempt to imagine what death once signified in the collective mind.[6] Different historical cultures attached different meanings to death, yet this does not obscure the fact that even within one and the same milieu-such as medieval Europe-distinct models coexisted, each positing a different way of experiencing death and the idea of it. Leaving aside religion, asceticism, and mysticism, one might turn to the several new ways developed in the late Middle Ages to create an “art of dying.”[7] Among them, the Arthurian mythos contains a symbolic meditation on the idea of death and guidance on how one’s fear of death can be surmounted. Arthurian legend retains, in petrified form, ancient pagan rituals, most probably Celtic in origin, by which the warrior is taught to live alongside death.

Those ancient rites and myths, refashioned in the modernity of the twelfth century, portray the individual facing death and use a symbolic, iconic language to reveal to the audience of chivalric courtly society the reality of death, and how it is to be dealt with. It is to this symbolic language that I shall refer in an attempt to show how Arthurian romance, as a reflection on existence, implied ethics that impregnated secular life and provided a model of conduct that crystallized in chivalric practice. The mimesis attending the reception of the mythos went beyond the surface of apparel and fashion; its message, expressed in symbolic form, may have initiated European chivalric society in the mystery of death.[8]

There are perhaps few images as truthful in their representation of the human as the image of the medieval knight. The combination of horse and rider to create a single being satisfies the requirement for a visual depiction of individual totality: animal and human, body and spirit, instinct and soul. The concealing of the body and face under a suit of armor hides identity like a mask.[9] This mask is enhanced by a crest atop the iron helm, suggesting animal forms; when the knight comes onto the field of battle he is recognized by this animal, which confers a name on him as if it were a primitive totem, and so reminds him of his origins, his forebears.

The sword held high bespeaks a warlike attitude, a constant willingness to fight in a war that is less outward than inward, a war fought both on the borders of Christendom and in the abysses of the soul. The vigil in which the knight lives out his life is the watchfulness that life itself demands, for at every step and in every corner of the forest a peril lies in wait that only a stout heart is able to withstand. This is one of the fundamental teachings of the Arthurian mythos, and it is for its unfolding of a path full of trials to be overcome that the mythos has been characterized as an initiation: initiation to life, initiation to death.

In the imagery of romance, death is green in color. This is a surprising color for death to have-as it does in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a late fourteenth-century Arthurian romance written in alliterative lines of unequal lengths, in the dialect of southeast Cheshire or northeast Staffordshire-because this color-association does not seem to be Celtic in origin and offers a striking parallel with the paintings of Tibetan Buddhism.[10] The fact remains that the unknown knight who arrives at King Arthur’s court on New Year’s Day to challenge those gathered there to a macabre game is startlingly green. The minutely detailed description of the knight especially insists on the green color of his attire:

… another sound, a new sound, suddenly drew near, which might signal the king to sample his supper, for barely had the horns finished blowing their breath and with starters just spooned to the seated guests, a fearful form appeared, framed in the door: a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, a hulk of a human from head to hips, so long and thick in his loins and his limbs I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant, or the most massive man, the mightiest of mortals. But handsome too, like any horseman worth his horse, for despite the bulk and brawn of his body his stomach and waist were slender and sleek. In fact, in all features, he was finely formed it seemed.

Amazement seized their minds, no soul had ever seen a knight of such a kind-entirely emerald green. And his gear and garments were green as well: a tight-fitting tunic, tailored to his torso, and a cloak to cover him, the cloth fully lined with smoothly shorn fur clearly showing, and faced with all-white ermine, as was the hood, worn shawled on his shoulders, shucked from his head.

On his lower limbs, his leggings were also green, wrapped closely around his calves, and his sparkling spurs were green-gold, strapped with stripy silk, and were set on his stockings, for this stranger was shoeless. In all vestments, he revealed himself veritably verdant! From his belt-hooks and buckle to the baubles and gems arrayed so richly around his costume and adorning the saddle, stitched onto silk. All the details of his dress are difficult to describe, embroidered as it was with butterflies and birds, green beads emblazoned on a background of gold. All the horse’s tack-harness-strap, hind-strap, the eye of the bit, each alloy and enamel and the stirrups he stood in-were similarly tinted, and the same with the cantle and the skirts of the saddle, all glimmering and glinting with the greenest jewels.[11]

The game is as follows: the knight offers to be beheaded, on condition that one year hence the man accepting the challenge should offer his own head.[12] The game is not “original” or exclusive to this romance; this same motif, identical in its internal structure and varying only so far as to fit in with different plot lines, is present in other romances such as Perlesvaus, or The High History of the Holy Graal, an early thirteenth-century anonymous prose novel of seemingly indisputable Celtic origin.[13] The challenge whereby a knight must within a fixed span of time offer himself to be beheaded would seem to reflect a world in which a severed head carried special meaning.

The Celtic cult of the severed head, of which little is known, became an ingredient of the universe of the romance and served to create terrifying scenarios.[14] Erec, the hero of the first Arthurian narrative of the courtly and chivalric tradition, written by Chrétien de Troyes circa 1170, in his final adventure enters a domain marked out by heads impaled on stakes. One stake is still bare, in wait for his own head if he is defeated by the keeper of this place, guarding a damsel seated on a couch.[15] The Fair Stranger, in the eponymous late twelfth-century verse romance, arrives at the central setting of the piece, the Golden Isle, and crosses a threshold reminiscent of that witnessed by Erec: heads impaled on stakes, a premonition of the duel the hero must fight before gaining entry to the island of the Damsel of the White Hands.[16]

The primitive warrior rite of severed heads impaled on stakes was combined in courtly culture with the presence of an enigmatic damsel.[17] Severed heads, damsel, and keeper: these motifs come together and beckon the knight to a rendezvous with death, an appointment he has no choice but to keep. Erec, on defeating the keeper, breaks the spell of the enchanted place, and so puts an end to the practice of the severed heads; the Fair Stranger crosses the perilous threshold and so gains access to the damsel of the Golden Isle. In both cases, the adventure featuring severed heads on stakes is thrust upon them, unbidden and by surprise. Gawain, however, knowingly accepts the challenge thrown down by the Green Knight. Everyone at Arthur’s court holds his silence on hearing the terms of the test, except the king himself, and then his nephew, who begs that the king allow him to take up the ordeal in his place. The king and his court acquiesce, and Gawain strikes the axe blow to the Green Knight’s neck. Then the unexpected occurs.

The severed head rolls, “blood gutters brightly against his green gown,” but the gigantic knight picks himself up as if nothing much has happened, carries off his own head by the hair, and, with sparkling eyes and in front of a dumbstruck court, tells Gawain that he awaits him in a year’s time, at the Green Chapel. Finally, he slips out of sight; eventually, perhaps, out of mind. The other knights possibly forget about the affair, but not Gawain. A month before the year is up-on All Saints’ Day-he readies himself to set out from the court and so honor his undertaking to continue the game. All the other knights bid him farewell with words of comfort, but he cheerfully retorts “Why should I shy away? If fate is a kind or cruel man still must try.”[18] Which way to the Green Chapel? This is a question no one can answer. Wandering the forests of the North, finally, Gawain comes to a great castle and is taken in as a guest.

The master of the castle promises to tell Gawain the way to the Green Chapel on New Year’s Day itself, provided Gawain stays on as a guest. And at the castle a new adventure is placed in Gawain’s way: while the lord of the manor is away hunting, his beautiful wife offers herself to Gawain. Against his usual practice, Gawain refuses, passing up the chance to make love to the lady, but accepting a gift from her: a girdle of embroidered green silk endowed with the power to protect its wearer. Heinrich Zimmer construes Gawain’s abstinence on his journey to the Green Chapel in the following way: “In this charming and entertaining pictograph, the conquest of womankind represents, and is represented as, the fulfillment of the task of life. The male hero’s compassing of the feminine principle (aloof, and contrary to manhood) by recognizing and acquiescing to its intrinsic features, signifies a reconciliation and union in him of opposites; and this eventuates in his release from every onesidedness, as well as from all the consequent fears and desires.

The victory amounts to an accession to the wholeness of human consciousness, the winning of a maturity that balances the terms of life-death, male-female, and the other contrarieties that split our common expression and experience of the single reality that is life. The very virtues that have here enabled Gawain to redeem woman from the spell of her own nature – patience, constancy, intrepidity, self-abnegation – lead also to the sanctuary of death, unbolt its gate, and open its treasury of enlightenment. They are the keys to the wisdom beyond the terminals of temporal life and death, keys to the understanding of life eternal.”[19] When Gawain finally gets to the Green Chapel, he meets the Green Knight, ready to strike his return blow. It is now time to bring the game to its conclusion and reciprocate the Green Knight’s original act at Arthur’s court.

Gawain bares his neck for the Green Knight to cut off his head. His fear causes him to flinch away in anticipation of the blow, and this earns him the Green Knight’s reproof. But at the second attempt, Gawain keeps his head still, patiently awaiting the terrible ax. However, the Green Knight does not strike. And, at a third attempt, the ax blade lightly wounds Gawain’s neck. Gawain then springs to his feet in readiness to fight and reminds the Green Knight it was only one ax blow he had to sustain. The Green Knight laughs and reveals the hidden meaning of the game: the three strokes of the ax corresponded to the three temptations Gawain had successfully resisted in the Castle.

The final, wounding hit was the answer to Gawain’s having accepted the girdle from the lady-who is none other than the wife of the Green Knight himself, and the Green Knight is the lord of the castle. The story ends on a light note, with Gawain being teased at the court of King Arthur for the scratch on his neck, betokening his fear. A powerful sense of levity imbues the end of the story, confirming the whole affair has been no more than a game. But there also remains a deep echo of tragedy: the sense of tragedy that haunted us throughout Gawain’s wanderings in the green forests of the North; the wanderings of a man going to meet his fate, which is none other than death.

Gawain-or Gauvain-is also the hero of L’Âtre périlleux (The Perilous Graveyard), a French romance of the mid-thirteenth century, predating Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here again, Gawain comes face to face with death. The events of the story are baffling to the hero and audience alike: the work appears to be an amalgam of remote antecedents and traditions, each with a different meaning and design, which perhaps had by then become unintelligible to the anonymous French author-the ultimate effect is accordingly rather strange. Nevertheless, the piece contains interesting symbols that again bring chivalry into contention with the game of death.

Wandering through the forest, Gawain meets three weeping damsels. He asks for the cause of their sorrow, and one of them replies that they weep the death of the finest of all knights, “Gawain.”[20] Gawain tries to put this notion out of their minds, assuring them that King Arthur’s nephew is alive and well. At this point, a blind boy in the damsels’ company says there can be no question Gawain is dead, for he himself has witnessed his killing; he knew Gawain well, and saw a terrible, unfair battle in which Gawain was assaulted and finally cut to pieces by several knights.

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The boy himself had his eyes plucked out for coming to Gawain’s aid.[21] Gawain feels there is little he can say to counter this tale told with such conviction, so he bids adieu to the damsels and the boy and continues on his way. But now he is unsure which of two adventures he ought to pursue: the adventure that originally prompted his departure from Arthur’s court, or this new adventure that has been thrown in his way. One thing only is certain-Gawain must keep his identity hidden, because the world believes he is dead. This means a radical change in his behavior, for Gawain, unlike other knights of the Arthurian world, is never shy to give his name.

This particular work, The Perilous Graveyard, is embedded in the wider genre of Arthurian romance and the sub-genre of postclassical romances, the shared characteristic of which is that the hero is Gawain. His behavior acquires meaning by its marked contrast with the backdrop, so bearing out the truth of the adage that “a romance is never read on its own.”[22] Now we are suddenly presented with a new, different Gawain who must perform a radical alteration: to conceal his identity because everyone thinks he is dead. And so Gawain continues his journey in a realm in which he is assumed no longer to exist. It is in this assumption that the game lies, and the initiation takes root. From now on, Gawain must live “as if” he had died. The three damsels lamenting his death appear to herald his fate like three Fates. In fact, Gawain experiences a symbolic death: he is robbed of his name, and then of his horse, Gringalet, one of his fundamental attributes. This loss/theft is the prelude to Gawain’s gaining awareness of his death, for he suddenly understands why it is he must conceal his identity:

Je ne vous puis le mien non dire
Fait Gavains, que je l’ai perdu
Si ne sai que le m’a tolu.

(“I cannot tell you my name,” Gawain answered, “for I have lost it, and I do not know who has taken it from me.”)[23]

These words can have no banal meaning, at least not within the rules of the genre, which dictate that a name is one and the same with the person, making him or her real. The most powerful image in the romance is provided by the eponymous adventure of The Perilous Graveyard: Gawain is seated on a gravestone of gray marble, and it begins to move. Gripped by fear, Gawain steps away, and then sees how the grave opens up, and from it emerges a beautiful maiden clothed in two pieces of silk sewn together, one green, the other crimson.

It is on behalf of this damsel that Gawain duels with the Devil-who imprisoned her in the grave-and it is thanks to the damsel that Gawain successfully concludes his first adventure, defeating Escanor. The damsel of the grave, who seems oddly to be apprised of Gawain’s whole life, discloses that Escanor is the only man whom Gawain needs have fear. Escanor, his mortal enemy, in some respects strikingly resembles Gawain. Like Gawain-according to the romances featuring him as the hero-Escanor’s strength is increased by sunlight, and, like Gawain, he can be defeated only when the sun has set. So the battle between Gawain and Escanor appears to instantiate the myth of twins, in which one twin must kill the other.[24] Gawain is presented with a whole game of mirrors; he is faced with a twin; he learns he had a double, who was killed when mistaken for Gawain himself.

Magic and spells supply a happy ending: the young man who was wrongly thought to be Gawain is magically reconstituted from his scattered members, and the blind boy Gawain met with the three damsels regains his sight. The anonymous author leaves this case of mistaken identity somewhat unexplained, however. We are tacitly invited to assume the double’s resemblance to Gawain was strong enough for everyone to get them mixed up.[25] But was there really a mistake at all? The old literary motif of fake death, like Erec’s, or Lancelot’s in The Knight of the Cart,[26] which in both cases is the device enabling the lovers to be reconciled, may simply be a further instance of the game of death-like the fictional commonplace whereby a character acquires a fresh perspective after being driven to the limit. A symbolic reading of the images in the story would have us see Gawain descend to the realm of the dead in search of his feminine and instinctive side, the Damsel of the Grave, to fight psychological aspects of his own being-Escanor, or the dismembered man-in a battle that is in itself a form of death. The dismemberment of Gawain seems to contain the remnants of the ancient myths of the dismemberment of a god, and the reconstitution of the young man can only mean the rebirth that follows death in some belief systems.

The story would thus depict, in its images, that unseen span of time between death and rebirth, in a sequence of adventures that are steps or stages in a path that leads to a purpose and an end. This idea of life as the time that is measurable in distinct stages, grades, and rungs on a ladder necessarily contradicts the notion of undifferentiated time; it is animated by the concept of qualitatively distinct times. This surely has its origin in the rites of passage marking the transition to a new stage of being. Transformation is posited as of the essence of the way life unfolds, and transformation entails that the old individual must die so that he can be reborn and become what he must be.

Life, as a ceaseless movement, is made up of necessary deaths that bury the past and open up the future, for only in this way can life itself continues to live. The name changes undergone by the characters of Arthurian romance signal these constant transformations: the eponymous hero of The Knight of the Two Swords changes his name five times over the course of the story.[27] The acquisition of a new name as a single event in accordance with the classical model of the romance-as in the case of Lancelot, who is suddenly renamed The Knight of the Cart, or Yvain, who after the adventure of the lion and the serpent gets the new name of Knight of the Lion, or Percival, who after the adventure of the Grail “guesses” his name, ceases to be named Good Son, and becomes Percival-shows that there is a crowning moment in life, a change privileged above the rest in the hierarchy of changes: like a knife-edge, it slices a lifetime into a before and an after.

Similarly, there is a single and decisive act that reveals all the mysteries of death: raising a gravestone so that one may gaze upon what lies inside the grave. For instance, in The Knight of the Cart by Chrétien de Troyes, a gravestone cannot be shifted. The knight able to raise it has not been born-until the arrival of Lancelot, who in this adventure conceals his identity behind the mask of the Knight of the Cart. In the graveyard, the abbey monk explains that nobody has been able to lift the gravestone, but, even to his own amazement, Lancelot raises it effortlessly.[28] The inside of the grave is not described, in the same way that the secrets and marvels seen by Galahad in the Grail are left unspecified. Yet the immense difficulty of raising the gravestone-in the form of its extreme weight-stands in for the immense difficulty of the essence of this adventure, which is none other than looking death in the eye. It is only after this adventure that Lancelot is able to reach the kingdom of Gore, where his beloved, the Queen, has been taken. Lancelot’s reaching the realm of the dead shows that he has left death behind: death is behind, not ahead. This relocation of death in time-it lies in the past, not the future-constitutes the principal victory in life, and of life.

The player has achieved a wonderful acrobatic leap, and his bodily upending has succeeded in switching around the natural order of things.[29] Raising the gravestone is a symbolic act signifying that Lancelot has passed through death and is ready for the great descent that is to lead him to his beloved. Adventures double up and even multiply within a single work, and are always to be seen as embedded within the great Arthurian corpus. In their multiple forms, adventures are not identical to one another, but similar; they are variants the repeated instantiation of which shows that passage through a similar place can happen over and again. Elsewhere, in Chrétien’s romances especially, the use of single instantiations of an adventure makes it a distinct exemplar: the undergrowth is cleared away to uncover a visible path.

It seems to me implausible that this whole system of literary imagery lacks the specific, educational purpose of initiation. It has been insistently said that medieval literature as a whole is didactic, and this would be consistent with a theory of art appropriate to traditional cultures, whereby all forms of art are directed to aiding understanding, as expressed in the famous adage Ars sine scientia nihil. The iconic language, the symbolic discourse, must have provided in the Middle Ages a form of education, particularly for social groups that were unacquainted with the abstract thought that was emerging in the schools, but were conversant with the value of gestures and ceremonial rites.[30] The lay nobility-the patrons and intended audience of the works-lived in the company of these images, and had to return to them again and again to unpick their rich symbolic content; images and their symbolism came to their aid at the crossroads of their lives.

As against Johan Huizinga’s vision of autumnal, waning chivalry in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Michel Stanesco sought to understand this period through its liking for games and play, and found its creative force in its real-life enactment of literary models.[31] The liberalization of life by autumnal chivalry need not be viewed as a turning away from reality or an empty aestheticism: it may also have entailed a particular understanding of some of the questions posed by existence, such as the question of death, and how one is to shape one’s life in accordance with the answers found in chivalric literature. Whereas the European West has not passed down to us any code of the knightly class of the kind that warrior cultures are known for-such as Japan up to the eighteenth century[32]-it has nonetheless left us a legacy of a mass of narrative-lives and prose narratives, courtly lays and chivalric romances-the significance of which as models and exemplars is beyond doubt. These narratives contain genuine ethics, a code of honor, and of love. But they may have been more than that; it is likely that the symbolism condensed in the imagery conveyed a specific understanding of life and death.

Chivalry coexisted with death. In fact, in the Middle Ages death was a part of everyday life, a natural event that formed part of daily business. Funeral rites gave society succor from its helplessness in the face of high mortality: many children never reached adolescence; many women and men died in their youth.[33] The constant presence of death and its intrusion into daily life neither prevented or even mitigated the fear of death. This was an emotion which must have been stronger still in the knightly class, which confronted death constantly, insofar as equestrian combat was its distinctive way of life. The simulacrum of war (simulacrum proelii, as it was termed by Geoffrey of Monmouth) was an exercise that emerged precisely at the time that the knightly class adopted a technique of combat that was distinctly its own.[34] Tourneys, jousts and other chivalric games were designed to configure a chivalric way of life: they offered training in the use of arms and entertainment in peacetime, aided the rise of knights born to the lower reaches of the nobility, and enabled penniless gentlefolk to improve their lot with prize-money. And games also taught how to overcome the fear of death, to make death a game.

Wargames were not in principle designed to bring a knight close to death. He came onto the field of play equipped with offensive and defensive arms of a kind unlike the gear he would carry in war. Armor provided double protection, while offensive weapons had blunted edges. A clear difference soon emerged between jousting gear and the gear of war: the former was for games, the latter for real combat. But games opened up a wide field of freedom. Each game could vary in accordance with the rules set for it at the given time, and it might be agreed to play a game while outfitted with the gear of real warfare.[35] The chronicles of chivalric pastimes-those of the fifteenth century, for example, an age abundant in the testimony of these practices-give the impression that participants’ choice of the mode of combat was dependent on weapon type, and their choice defined the degree of closeness to death, and how death was to be dealt with, visited, played with.[36] The choice of arms was the guiding theme of “letters of battle.” The chivalric challenge, the invitation to a duel for whatever reason, came after an often quite lengthy correspondence in which the knights had to agree on the precise form of the forthcoming encounter. Often no battle took place at all, because the would-be combatants arrived at settlement-the letters of battle had nonetheless fulfilled their purpose in this, too. Writing had opened up a space for thought, for imagining the way in which one might meet one’s death.

These experts of war had to visualize, when deciding on one set of arms in preference to another, how an iron point would more easily penetrate a specific part of their body-particularly when they calmly proposed to do without some specific item of armor.[37] Many knights took part in chivalric games without a given item of armor-the arm guard, for instance, which often received the shock of the lance.[38] Conceit and swagger are common attitudes among those whose calling is war, and vainglory has been credited as the motive animating the proposed or actual suppression of an item of gear in a chivalric game.[39] But there is more to it than that. A challenge in the form of words, be it by word of mouth or in writing, though it generally entailed a boast, was in fact a preparation for the real challenge.

Whether or not the real challenge ever came about is beside the point, which is this: it was a necessity to think on death every day to overcome the fear of it, or, as mandated in the Japanese Hagakure, “If a samurai accustoms his soul day after day to the idea of death, he will, when the time comes, be able to die in tranquillity.”[40] By enabling one to place oneself at risk of death, chivalric games enabled the martial nobility to live “with a view to death,” this being a state that, according to Max Scheler, is closely tied to belief in an afterlife. Affirmation of death-as opposed to the denial of death that prevails in our modern world-is linked to the notion of survival or immortality, which of course did not mean one’s deep fear of the transition had disappeared.[41] But perhaps only a culture that believes in immortality is able to play with death, embed it within life and become inured to it. Perhaps it is only in play that one may gain experience of death. The “as if” that brings together play and fiction opens up a field where the path of death can be imagined and practiced. Perhaps this practice was integrated with the chivalric way of life with the aid of the message conveyed by the symbolic images of Arthurian romance, which taught the essence of death.


[1] Alois M. Haas, Todesbilder im Mittelalter. Fakten und Hindweise in der deutschen Literatur (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1989), in particular, the theoretical reflections in the first section, “1. Prolegomena zur Problematik des Todes”, 1-22: “… vom Tode, haben wir gar keine Erfahrhung, obwohl ein unbestimmtes Gefühl…”./…/ “Im Grunde ist der Tod eine Idee…,” and 2, “Aber trotz allem, die Fremdheit des Todes bleibt: der Tod ist keine Erfahrhung, sondern ein Wissen, das als eine Quasi-Erfahrhung mein Leben bestimmt.”

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[2] The phrase Sein zum Tode is Martin Heidegger’s, in Sein und Zeit (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1979, 15th edition), 266: “Die Charakteristik des existenzial entworfenen eigentliuchen Seins zum Tode lässt sich dergestalt zusmmanfassen: Das Vorlaufen enthüllt dem Dasein die Verlorenheit in das Man-selbst und bringt es vor die Möglichkeit, auf die besorgende Fürsorge primär ungestützt, es selbst zu sein, selbst aber in der leidenschaftlichen, von den Illussionen des Man gelösten, faktischen, ihrer selbst gewissen und sich ängstenden Freiheit zum Tode.”

[3] Carl Gustav Jung, Obra completa, volume 10, Civilización en transición (Madrid: Trotta, 1982 [Spanish translation of Collected Works, vol. 10, Civilization in Transition]), 9: “Creative fantasy has nothing to do with this history; it springs only from an immensely ancient, natural history, handed down in living form from time immemorial: the structure of the brain. Brain structure tells its own story, which is the history of humanity, the unending myth of death and rebirth in the multiple forms that inhabit this mystery.” (“On the Unconscious,” 1918.)

[4] Henry Corbin, Avicena y el relato visionario (Barcelona: Paidós, 1995 [1st ed. Paris, 1954), 94: “On the contrary, for the gnostics, it was mainly from the age of forty years onward, when bodily activity begins to diminish, that a spiritual state can develop to which the change attending death can cause no deprivation or harm. As we progress within this perspective, which calls for the circumstances and the sense of the individual person and personal super-existence, it would seem we become increasingly distanced from the circumstances under which the soul might owe its individuality to its union with a material body.” This same relationship of age, awareness of death and spiritual awakening may have held in medieval mysticism, cf. Victoria Cirlot, Blanca Garí, La mirada interior. Escrituras místicas y visionarias en la Edad Media (Barcelona: Martínez Roca, 1999), in particular, 35-36.

[5] Mors erotica and mors mystica are compared in Alois M. Haas, Todesbilder, op. cit., 148-168, “VII. Mystik oder Erotik? Dialektik von Tod und Leben in Gottfrieds ‘Tristan'”, and 169-173, “VIII. Mors mystica.”

[6] Ranging from Philippe Ariès, El hombre ante la muerte (Madrid: Taurus, 1983 [1st ed. Paris, 1977]) to, for example, Paul Binksi, Medieval Death, Ritual and Representation (London: The British Museum Press, 1996).

[7] Alberto Tenenti, Il senso della morte e l’amore della vita nel Rinascimento (Turin: Einaudi, 1957), located in the oeuvre of the Dominican mystic Heinrich Seuse the shift in the concept of death, and the way in which the approach to death of earlier centuries changed. It is here that there first appears the notion of the “science” of death, death as the subject matter of learning, 32: “Credo che non sia possibile trovar prima di Suso una formulazione netta della nuova centralità della morte. L’autore, che la confida nel capitolo XXI del suo libro dell’Eterna Sapienza, se ne è d’altronde reso ben conto come appare dal modo in cui introduce l’argomento. /…/La Sapienza precisa allora il suo pensiero: la dottrina che sta per esporre non dovrà essere applicata alla fine della vita, anzi il suo carattere preciso è di fare nemmeno la definizione che gli veniva data: “imparare a morire”. Ma l’originalità di Suso consiteva nell’affermare che il credente doveva agire sempre come se dovesse abbandonare la terra il giorno stesso o al più tardi entro una settimana.” Seuse marked the opening of a new development in the way one prepared for death, which was to crystallize in various types of ars moriendi, 81: “Nel secolo che intercorre tra il 1350 e il 1450 sorgono, dunque, e spesso si incrociano almeno cinque tipi differenti di ars moriendi che per brevità si possono riportare ai nomi di Suso, Petrarca, Gerson, Rickel, oltre dall’ideatore sconosciuto dell’Ars illustrata.” Ars moriendi, the title of an illustrated, anonymous pious book, was widely circulated in the second half of the fifteenth century. The main consequence of the spread of this work was the rise of an “art of the good life in the light of the good death,” a concept that formed part of the new European sensibility of the Renaissance (p. 62).

[8] The claim advanced in this paper was suggested to me some years ago by the reading of the Castilian chronicles of the fifteenth century, on which I spoke at a conference in Narni on chivalric tourneys: Victoria Cirlot, “El juego de la muerte. La elección de las armas en las fiestas caballerescas de la España del siglo XV”, in La civiltà del torneo (sec. XII-XVII). Giostre e tornei tra medioevo ed età moderna, Atti del VII Convengo di studio, Narni 14-15-16 ottobre 1988, Narni 1990, 55-78. I shall later state some of the points of that paper in summarized form. The idea that the matter of Britain has its roots not only in Celtic mythology but also in ancient rites is set out in Mircea Eliade, Naissances Mystiques. Essai sur quelques types d’initiation (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), albeit with a number of caveats, 257: “En quelle mesure cette Matière de Bretagne contenait-elle non seulement des restes de la mythologie celtique, mais aussi le souvenir des rites réels, il est difficile d’en decider. On peut déchiffrer dans les règles d’admission dans le groupe guerrier conduit par Arthur, certaines épreuves d’entrée dans une société secrete de type Männerbund. Mais, pour notre propos, c’est la prolifération des symboles et motifs initiatiques dans les romans arthuriens qui est significative.” The initiatic aspect of the romance is a particular concern of A. Fierz-Monnier, Initiation und Wandlung. Zur Geschichte des altfranzösischen Romans in XII Jahrhundert, Studiorum Romanorum, vol. V, Berne, 1951. The initiatic character of chivalrous games is dealt with in Jean-Claude Schmitt, “Jeunes et danse de chevaux de bois” (1976), in Le corps, les rites, les rêves, le temps. Essai d’anthropologie médiévale (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), 170-1: “Était-il parlé de la mort pour préparer le nouveau chevalier à un destin peut-être fatal? Je pense plutôt que cette évocation de la mort était inseparable de la fonction même de l’adoubement, rite d’initiation, c’est-à-dire mort symbolique de l’enfant indispensable à la naissance d’un homme nouveau.” Regarding “literary behavior” in the Middle Ages as essentially distinct from modern behavior, cf. Michel Stanesco, “Sous le masque de Lancelot,” Poétique (1985), 23-33: “La critique traditionelle du comportement romanesque tendait implicitement à renfermer le roman sur lui-même. Au contraire, pour nous, ce comportement est la finalité externe de l’accueil du roman, tout comme la catharsis l’était pour la tragédie. Il est, essentiellement, la “reconstitution en attitude” (Wolf-Dieter Stempel) du roman et il naît à l’intersection du texte avec son public. C’este grâce à la fusion de ces deux horizons différents que le comportement romanesque est reconnu, accepté, estimé au Moyen Âge. Loin d’être condamné à “imiter le pathos d’autres”, il tient de l’ethos des peuples d’Occident, parce que’il participe à la fondation et à l’institution, par la poésie et l’action, de l’être-là historial d’une civilisation.” See also Stanesco, Jeux d’errance du chevalier medieval. Aspects ludiques de la fonction guerrière dans la littérature de Moyen Âge flamboyant (Leiden: Brill, 1988).

[9] J.C. Schmitt, “Les masques, le diable, les morts,” (1986), in Le corps, op.cit., 236: “… il me semble que le heaume du chevalier qui, en lice ou sur le champ de bataille, joue avec la mort, est une manière de masque: au-delà de sa fonction de protection, le heaume, comme le masque, dissimule le visage du guerrier et, surtout, à l’instar des masques du folklore, il se couvre d’un cimier où s’accumulent plumes, fourrures, gueules et becs monstrueux.” See also Victoria Cirlot, “Il cimiero come maschera cavalleresca,” in L’immagine riflessa, XII, 1989, 109-120.

[10] Heinrich Zimmer, Il re e il cadavere. Storie della vittoria dell’anima sul male (Milan: Adelphi, 1983 [1st ed. New York, 1957]), 95: “Il verde pallido, inoltre, è il colore dei cadaveri illividiti: le pitture dell’arte buddhista del Tibet, che si adeguano nel simbolismo dei colori a una tradizione prescritta con grande esattezza, usano un verde simile per indicare tutto ciò che appartiene al regno di Re Morte.” Roger S. Loomis thought the color green may have been the upshot of a mistaken translation of the Irish Gaelic word glas, which can denote either gray or green (Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1927), 59).

[11] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated into modern English by Simon Armitage (London: Faber & Faber, 2007), 11-12. The description does not end here; it turns to the horse, then revisits the horseman, the green color of his twig of holly, “of all the evergreens the greenest ever,” and the ax he bears in his other hand: “from stock to neck, where it stopped with a knot, a lace was looped the length of the haft, trimmed with tassels and tails of string fastened firmly in place by forest-green buttons.” The story continues with the reaction of the Green Knight’s audience: “The guests looked on. They gaped and they gawked and were mute with amazement: what did it mean that human and horse could develop this hue, should grow to be grass-green or greener still, like green enamel emboldened by bright gold? Some stood and stared then stepped a little closer, drawn near to the knight to know his next move; they’d seen some sights, but this was something special, a miracle or magic, or so they imagined.” The text does not expressly point to the Green Knight’s link with death, but he is clearly regarded as a being from the Other World.

[12] The Green Knight puts it this way: “But it’s Yuletide-a time of youthfulness, yes? So at Christmas in this court I lay down a challenge: if a person here present, within these premises, is big or bold or red-blooded enough to strike me one stroke and be struck in return, I shall give him as a gift this gigantic cleaver and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes. I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock. So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts? Who will spring from his seat and snatch this weapon? I offer the axe-who’ll have it as his own? I’ll afford one free hit from which I won’t flinch, and promise that twelve months will pass in peace, then claim the duty I deserve in one year and one day.” Sir Gawain, op. cit.

[13] The “Green Knight game” is encountered by Lancelot at the end of Branch VI of Perlesvaus. Lancelot comes to a deserted city. A great duel takes place in a palace. A knight marches down the hall, richly attired in a red tunic and holding a great axe, which he proffers to Lancelot with an invitation to cut off his head: otherwise, the knight will behead Lancelot. Baffled, Lancelot agrees to the easier option. The unknown knight warns that within a year Lancelot must offer his own head in that same place, without a struggle. Lancelot agrees, and decapitates the knight with a single blow. “The Knight fell to the ground when his head was cut off, and Lancelot flung down the axe, and thinketh that he will make but an ill stay there for himself. He cometh to his horse, and taketh his arms and mounteth and looketh behind him, but seeth neither the body of the Knight nor the head, neither knoweth he what hath become of them all, save only that he heard much dole and a great cry far off in the city of knights and ladies, saying that he shall be avenged, please God, at the term set, or before. Lancelot hath heard and understood all that the knights say and the ladies, and issueth forth of the city.” The High History of the Holy Graal, Anon., translated by Sebastian Evans (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1910). Lancelot does return to the waste city after a year. From the palace there emerges a knight carrying a sharp ax; he bids Lancelot offer his head for decapitation. “The knight lifteth up the axe. Lancelot heareth the blow coming, boweth his head and the axe misseth him.”  The knight upbraids Lancelot for flinching, readies himself to strike again; and then a damsel’s voice is heard, commanding the knight to free Lancelot, on pain of forfeiting her love. The knight falls at Lancelot’s feet, begging mercy. The damsel says Lancelot has been the only knight to have honored his word; all earlier participants cut off heads but never came back (Branch IX, 262-264). The “beheading game” first appears in an Irish tale, Fled Bricrend (The Feast of Bricriu) (circa 1100), in which the hero, Cuchulainn, beheads a giant and, the following day, makes ready to receive the same treatment himself. The beheading game also features in the “First Continuation” of Le Livre de Caradoc, with some variants: the weapon is not an axe but a sword, and the interval between the first and second rounds is one year. Both La Mule sans fríen by Paien de Maisières and Diu Crône by Heinrich von dem Türlin tell a similar version of the story, again with Gawain as the hero (cf. The Arthurian Encyclopedia, ed. Norris J. Lacy, (New York/London: Garland, 1986) 508-9). See also the classic paper by George Lyman Kittredge, A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight (London: Oxford University Press, 1910), which examines the beheading motif in its Irish, French and Anglo-Norman versions. The main novelty of Sir Gawain, according to Kittredge, is the coupling of the beheading motif with the temptation motif. The mythological meaning is considered in Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Indra and Namuci,” Speculum, XIX, 1944, 104-125: “We have realized already that the decapitation is a disenchantment of the victim, a liberation of the sun from the darkness by which he had been obscured and eclipsed. But the sacrificial death is also a making many from one, in which sense the dismemberment is a consummation desired by the victim himself…”

[14] Besides the common practices of beheading and of keeping the skulls of dead enemies and even family members in niches (as shown by the third- or fourth-century BC Celtic-Ligurian portico of La Roquepertuse, Bouches-du-Rhône), a highly characteristic artifact was the stone head, like the group of four stone heads of the Celtic-Ligurian temple of Entremont, Bouches-du-Rhône. “On reencontre partout l’idée que la tête a une valeur de talisman, car c’est cette partie du corps qui contient le plus de mana. Certes, la tête est la principale partie de l’homme; c’est elle qui exprime sa personnalité. Le souvenir d’un défunt est avant tout le souvenir de son visage. Rien d’étonnant, donc, à ce qu’on ait cru pouvoir entrer en relation avec le mort par l’intermédiaire de sa tête.” (J. De Vries, La religión des celtes. Paris: Payot, 1963. 261 et seq).

[15] On his way to the site of the adventure of the Joy of the Court, everyone he meets is in mourning, because, they say: Mes ta mort et ton duel vas querre (line 5704), “You seek your death and your own harm.” Once there: Mes une grant mervoille voit/Qui poïst faire grant peor/Au plus riche conbateor/…/Car devant ax sor pex aguz/Avoit hiaumes luisanz et clers,/Et voit de desoz les cerclers/Paroir testes desoz chascun. /Mes au chief des pex an voit un/ Ou il n’avoit neant ancor,/Fors que tant solemant un cor (lines 5770-5782), “But he sees a great marvel that would terrify the bravest warrior/…/For on sharp pikes there were fine, burnished helms, and he saw on display beneath the rims of the helms the heads of each one; but on the last pike there was a helm containing nothing yet but a hunting horn.” Inside the enclosure: Et cil s’an vet tote une sante,/Seus, sanz conpaignie de gent/Tant qu’il trova un lit d’argent/Covert d’un drap brosdé a or/ Desoz l’onbre d’un siquamor,/Et sor le lit une pucele,/Gente de cors et de vis bele/De totes biautez a devise (lines 5874-5881), “And he went off alone down a path, without companion of any sort, until he came to a silver couch with a cover of gold-embroidered cloth, beneath the shade of a sycamore; and on the bed a maiden of comely body and lovely face, completely endowed with all beauty, was seated all alone.” Érec et Énide, edited by Peter F. Dembowski, in Chrétien de Troyes, Oeuvres complètes, edited by Daniel Poirion (Paris: Gallimard, 1994).

[16] Li pavillions au cief avoit/Molt bien faites de pels agus,/Aiguisiés desos et desus./En cascun piel ficie avoit/Une teste c’armee estoit:/Cascune avoit l’elme lacié/Qui ens el pel estoit ficié;/De chevaliers tot li cief sont (lines 1955-1963): “The pavilion was at the start of the road, and before it stood the lists, which were finely made, with stakes sharpened at top and bottom. On each stake was impaled an armored head; all heads bore helms, and all were of knights.” Renaut de Beaujeu, Le bel inconnu, ed. G. Perrie Williams. Paris: Champion, 1978.

[17] Alain Guerreau, “Renaud de Bagé: Le bel inconnu. Structure symbolique et signification sociale”, Romania 81, 1983, 28-82, interpreted the episode not as a modified description of a rite but as a variant of the great chivalric rite of investiture. He perceives the characteristic elements of the beheading game, which, according to Guerreau, is a narrative used as “the etiological model of the colée, the most important ritual gesture of investiture. The variant of the beheading game appearing in this romance “suggère sans ambigüité une suite de décapitations avec inversión des rôles; le texte souligne également la valeur clairement sociale de ces combats, puisqu’il précise que les cent quarante trois têtes chasquees étaient toutes celles de fils de comtes ou des rois.”

See also  1920s American History Essay

[18] Sir Gawain, op. cit., 31.

[19] Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil. New York: Pantheon, 1948.

[20] One of the damsel’s laments is: “Lasse, font el, que porrons faire?/Ahí! Mors, tant par es avere!/ Nous n’avions fors cestui frere,/Et si avons cestui perdu./A! Mors dolente, que fais tu,/Quant orendroit ne nous ocis? C’est ta costume de toudis/Qu’a celui qui ta vebue aime,/Et a son besoig te reclainme,/Ne veus secorre ne aidier./Tu as mort le bon chevalier,/Dont tox li mons sera en paine. /Ahí! Mor, tant par es vilaine,/Qi les bons prens tout a eslais,/Et laisces vivre les mauvais:/En toi n’a raison ne mesure./De ces trois lasses n’as tu cure/Qui lor vie ont en grant despit?”(lines 580-597), “Alas, what can we do? O, how greedy you are, death! He was our only brother and now we have lost him. O, cruel death, why do you not kill us now too! It is always your way to do nothing for those who look forward to your arrival and bid you come to them out of need. You have killed the good knight, and now all the world will suffer. O, death, how great is your villainy, for you carry off the good and let the wicked live! There is no reason or temperance in you. Do you care nothing for these three unhappy damsels who feel great despair for their lives?” L’Atre périlleux, ed. Brian Woledge, Les Classiques Français du Moyen Âge. Paris: Champion, 1936.

[21] Gawain’s death and dismemberment is described on three occasions. First, the events are recounted by one of the damsels, who also tells of the fate that befalls the boy: Wi erroit trestous desarmés/Par ceste forest en deduit,/Sans conpaignie et sans conduit,/Il n’avoit arme o lui portee,/Fors lance et escu et espee,/Et si erroit sans conpiagnie./ Troi chevalier qui Dex maudie,/Qui de viés l’avoient haï,/L’orent desque ci parsivi./Quant il fu isçus de ce val,/Li uns lait corre le ceval/Et vint poignant desi a lui;/Enbuscié se furent li dui,/Et li tires a lui se mesla. /Tant longement l’estors dura/Que Gavains en vint el desus;/Li doi nel peurent soufrir plus/Que cil avoit el bos laiscié,/Ains i vinrent tout eslaiscié/Por aidier a lor conpaignon./Gavain misent en tel randon/Qu’il ne se peut desfendre d’ex,/Qu’il erent trois et il ert sex,/Et s’estoit cascuns bien armés./Cil vaslés qui vous la veés,/Qui de grant hardement ert plain,/I point por aidier a Gavain;/Son pooir fist de lui aidier,/Mais de li peut avoir mestier,/Car cil erent et grant et fort;/A ex valut peu sen esfort,/Car il estoit tous desarmés./Au vallet ont les ex crevés,/Et Gavain ont tout detrencié. (lines 538-571), “He [Gawain] was wandering through the forest unarmed, alone and without his followers. He had no weapons with him except his lance, his shield and his sword, and wandered on his own. Three knights-may God damn them-who had hated him betimes, pursued him hither. As he emerged from the valley, one of them spurred his horse to a gallop. The other two hid in the forest. The fight was long and Gawain was winning. The other two could bear it no longer and came at full gallop to aid their companion. They attacked Gawain so fiercely that he could not defend himself, for they were three, and heavily armed, while he was alone. This boy you see here, full of valor, fought for Gawain. He did all he could to help, but they were big and strong. Little did his effort avail him, for he was entirely unarmed. They put out the boy’s eyes, and cut Gawain into pieces.” The second account is given by the blind boy in response to Gawain’s request that he be shown the body (lines 616-621): Sire, fait il, cil sont ja fors/De la forest qui l’ont ocis./Quant il en orent le cief pris,/Trestox les membres li cauperent; Laidement le desfigurerent,/Qu’il n’i remest ne pié ne poing. “Sir, those who killed him have departed this forest. After cutting off his head, they cut off all his limbs. They mangled him horribly, and he was left without fist or foot. They took the body to their own country, and they must now be three leagues away from here.” Much later, towards the end of the romance, Sir Tristan gives the fullest testimony of the event, including the men’s motive for the murder. He also tells of how after dismembering Gawain they arrived at their castle (lines 5048-5052): Lors vint çaiens a tout un cors/Uns des chevaliers qui sivoit;/Li autres, qui aprés venoit,/Portoit les menbres et le teste,/Si en demenoit moult grant feste/…/ “Later, one of the knights following him arrived with a body. The other knight brought up the rear carrying the limbs and head, and showing great joy.” L’Atre périlleux, op. cit.

[22] On “postclassical aesthetics,” cf. Walter Haug, “Paradigmatische Poesie. Der spätere Artusroman auf dem Weg zu einer nachklassischen Aesthetik”, in Deutsche Vierteljahrschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, 56, 1980, 204-231. I applied Haug’s thesis to French romance in Victoria Cirlot, “La estética postclásica en los romans artúricos en verso del siglo XIII”, in Studia in honorem prof. M. De Riquer, IV (Barcelona: Quaderns Crema, 1991), 381-400.

[23] Op. cit., lines 450-2. Alexandre Micha, in “Le roman en vers en France au XIIIe siècle”, Grundriss der romanischen Literatur, IV/1 (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1978), 380-399, noted that these lines divide the novel into two symmetrical parts (385). After these lines, Gawain becomes Cil sans non (“the nameless”) until the adventure in which he retrieves his name.

[24] The Damsel of the Grave says (lines 1560-1598): Il a dusqu’a none de jor/La force de trois chevaliers,/Les plus hardis et les plus fiers/Que on puist en nul liu trover;/Quant le soleil doit decliner,/Des qu’il est none et en avant,/Va un petit afebloiant. Petit et petit afoiblie/Desi a l’ore de complie,/Mais tox jors est fors et hardis./Ja ne sera si afoiblie/Desi a l’ore de complie,/Mais tox jors est fors et hardis./Ja ne sera si afoiblis,/Ce saciés vous veraiement,/Que il n’ait force et hardement/Contre le mellor chevalier/Que ost vers lui armes baillier./Une autre cose vous en di, /Si sabes bien si est ensi./ Vostre mere si fu moult sage,/Auques vous dist de son corage;/Je sai bien qu’ele fue faee,/Si vous dist vostre destinee,/Et vous acointa sans mentir/Quanques vous devoit avenir./Moult vous proia que prex fuissiés,/Que ja nul jor ne vesquissiés/Ne seriiés vencus ne mors/Par nul home qui tant fust fors,/Ne mais que vous dist de cestui/Que vous gardisciés de lui,/Car el ne doutoit se lui non./Si porrés mix per çou savoir/Si je vous di mencongne u voir./Je sai bien qu’ele vous nouma,/Et si vous dist et devisa/Qu’il n’avoit si fel chevalier,/Si outrequidié ne si fier,/Ne plus fort en toute Bretaigne:/C’est Escanors de la Montaigne. “Until the ninth hour he has the strength of three knights, the boldest and fiercest there could ever be. When the sun sets, from the ninth hour onward, he weakens little by little, until midnight. But despite everything, he is never so weak that he lacks strength and valor to fight the finest knight who dares bear arms against him. I wish to tell you something else, and you must know that things are as I say. Your mother, who was so prudent, told you something of his valor. I know well that she was an enchantress and told your fate, and without lying foretold all that was to befall you. She begged you to be brave, for, as long as you lived, you would not be defeated or killed by any man, however strong. But she warned that you be wary of this man, for she feared him alone. And now I am to tell you his name, and you will know whether I speak truly or falsely. I know well that she named him to you and told you there was no knight so wicked, so proud, so fierce or so strong in all of Britain: Escanor of the Mountain.” L’Âtre, op.cit. In Arthurian tradition, it is Gawain himself who has this attribute. Therefore, Jessie Weston, in The Legend of Sir Gawain: Studies upon its Original Scope and Significance (London: Nutt, 1987), 117 et seq., construes the figure of Gawain as a sun god. The damsel’s words warn that this is Gawain’s key adversary. This character, whose strength increases in the light of the sun, also bears red armor (“…et l’escu/ qui ert d’une color vermel”, line 1516) and is large in size. R.S. Loomis says that in Celtic mythology red is the solar color, and the sun is the god of death (Arthurian Tradition in Chrétien de Troyes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 165 et seq.).

[25] The character who is mistaken for Gawain and dismembered-and later reconstituted by the Faé Orgueilleux (the same man who cut him into pieces to begin with)-calls himself Cortois de Huberlant, and does not appear in any other romance (cf. L’Âtre, line 6402). Dismemberment and reconstitution run through the work as a shamanic initiatic ceremony involving master and disciple, as described by Mircea Eliade, Le chamanisme et les techniques archaïques de l’extase (Paris: Payot, 1968), 61.

[26] Et chiet pasmez con s’il fust morz (line 4607), “And he fainted as if dead”, Erec, op. cit., lines 4596-4931; Novele qui tost vole et cort/Vient au roi que ses genz ont pris/Lancelot et si l’ont ocis. /…/ A Lancelot vient la novele/Que morte est sa dame et s’amie (lines 4148-4258-4409), Lancelot ou Le chevalier de la charrette, ed. Daniel Poirion, in Chrétien de Troyes, Oeuvres, op. cit.

[27] Li chevaliers as deus espees, ed. W. Foerster (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1966 [1st ed. Halle, 1877]). Cf. V. Cirlot, “La estética, cit.”, 387. For the meaning of name acquisition, cf. Reto R. Bezzola, Le sens de l’aventure et de l’amour (Chrétien de Troyes) (Paris: Champion, 1968).

[28] This is to be Lancelot’s own grave, as disclosed by the monk, cf. Le chevalier de la charrete, op. cit., lines 1939-1942. The image of Lancelot raising a gravestone (his ancestor’s in this case) illustrates a passage in the prose Lancelot in a manuscript dated 1274-1330, fol. 161v, Yates Thompson MS, reproduced in Roger Sherman Loomis and Laura Hibbard Loomis, Arthurian Legends in Medieval Art (New York: Kraus reprint, 1975 [first edition, 1938]), 98 et seq., figure 250.

[29] Might this not be the “forerunning” (vorlaufen) of death discussed by Martin Heidegger? Does the character not become a being-toward-death (Sein zum Tode)? Cf. note 2.

[30] The concept of traditional culture is drawn from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, 1 Selected Papers: Traditional Art and Symbolism, edited by Roger Lipsey, Bollingen Series LXXXIX, Princeton University Press, 1977, 189-233, 323-331, as applied to the Western Middle Ages.

[31] Michel Stanesco, Jeux d’errance, op. cit.

[32] For instance, the Hagakuré  of 1710-1717, a text written by Yamamoto for the samurai class. In French translation: Jocho Yamamoto, Hagakure. Le livre secret des Samouraïs, Paris: Guy Trédaniel, 1999.

[33] Alois M. Haas, Todesbilder, op. cit., especially 50 et seq.: “Das mittelalterliche Sterbebrauchtum.”

[34] By comparing Catalan records (especially iconography) and European documentation, I estimated 1130 as the approximate earliest date of the use of the lance as a shock weapon, cf. Victoria Cirlot, “Techniques guèrrieres en Catalogne féodale: le maniement de la lance,” in Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, XXVIIIe Année, nº1 janvier-mars 1985, 35-43; cf. Jean Flori, Caballeros y caballerías en la Edad Media (Barcelona: Paidós, 2001 [1st ed. 1998]), 99 et seq., quoting his own reply to my article, likewise published in Cahiers, 31, 1988, 3, 213-240, a reply to which I did not respond, for the iconographic examples provided in support of a shock function for the lance predating 1130 seemed to me to have little weight (as I said in my article, martial shock calls for a whole complex of gestures; it is not enough to see an extended lance for shock contact to be reasonably inferred-a clash necessitates two knights, among other things-and, of course, the Bayeux Tapestry has never seemed to me to be evidence of the shock purpose of the lance: one knight is holding a lance under his arm, but he is thrusting it into a foot soldier; what is more, virtually all the other horsemen in the tapestry are throwing their spears or performing other actions).

[35] I drew the conclusion that choice of arms was the decisive point in Victoria Cirlot, El juego de la muerte, op. cit., 56. For example, in the account of the tourney held at Escalona in 1448: “He ordered some of them to prepare a mounted tourney and another contest on foot, and appointed captains for each, and chose the number of people on each side, and arranged with them how they were to come out in arms and armor.” (Crónica de Álvaro de Luna, ed. De J. De Mata Carriazo, Madrid, 1940, 217, quoted in my article at 57.)

[36] I have discerned four degrees of intensity: 1. combat using jousting gear; 2. combat using the weapons of war; 3. use of war gear, but with armor suppressed; and 4. conscious and willing renunciation of the improved protection offered by the armorial innovations of the fifteenth century, such as full plate armor, and use of the defensive modes of earlier periods, cf. El juego de la muerte, op. cit., 58.

[37] An example that cannot be improved upon is the letter of battle written by Lope de Estúñiga to Johan Fabra in 1435: “In this letter, Lope de Estúñiga decides on the weapons to be wielded. The description is amazing. The combatants could use spears, swords, daggers, provided there was no engaño (deceit) in them. Defensive armor included cotas e jesarantes weighing no more than thirty pounds, i.e., coats of chain mail. The head was to be covered with a celada (helmet), but without baveras or gorgales, i.e., without the plates protecting the neck, and without the visor, so leaving the face uncovered from forehead to mouth. The arms were to be clad in brazales and manoplas, and the legs with arnés de piernas. Leaving aside the limb protection, we see that Lope is describing a form of armor that afforded no greater safety than that of the twelfth century. Johan Fabre expressed his surprise with the following laconic statement: nos devisau armes entre cavallers no acostumades. Lope replied with three arguments: first, since the contest is a trance fenecido, it is only fair to seek out the quickest death; secondly, the greater the danger, the higher the honor; and thirdly, as it is commonplace for potentates and judges to prevent the battle from being fought to its conclusion, it is best to assure an outcome by keeping the duel short. Finally, he mentions that he likes to fight in the manner of the knights of old.” (cf. V. Cirlot, El juego de la muerte, op. cit., 70).

[38] For example, at the Passo Honroso jousts hosted by Suero de Quiñónes at Puente de Orbigo in 1434, a knight named Bueso de Solís removed his guardabraço derecho, while another knight, Gómez de Villacorta, on seeing this, did likewise: “The right arm-guard of rigid metal covered the right arm from elbow to shoulder, this being the arm holding the lance. This plate was vital, because the opponent’s lance often landed on it. The jury immediately stopped the joust and ordered the contestants to put on their armor again.” (V. Cirlot, El juego de la muerte, op. cit., 67.)

[39] This was the central thesis of the beautiful book by Mario Vargas Llosa and Martín de Riquer, El combate imaginario. Las cartas de batalla de Joanot Martorell. Barcelona, 1972.

[40] Hagakure, op. cit., 37.

[41] Max Scheler, Muerte y supervivencia, translated by Xavier Zubiri. Madrid: Ediciones Encuentro, 2001 [1st ed. 1933]; Schriften aus dem Nachlass, vol. I. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 1986, 9-64.

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The Game of Death in Chivalric Culture. (2021, Mar 29). Retrieved March 24, 2023, from