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Category Archives: Medieval Death Trip

Top Chef Medieval: Cannibalism for Kings

Fava beans...

Here’s another striking episode from late in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae:

Cadwallo was so filled with grief and anger at the loss of his comrades that he refused to take any food, lying ill instead in his bunk. At first light on the fourth day a great yearning seized him for some game to eat.

His nephew Brian was summoned and Cadwallo told him what he longed for. Brian took his bow and quiver and started off across the island. If only fate would bring some wild beast in his way, then he would take some of it to the King for food. He wandered all over the island [of Guernsey] without discovering what he was looking for. He was greatly concerned at not being able to gratify his master’s wish. He was afraid that Cadwallo’s illness might end in death, if he was not able to satisfy the King’s yearning. He therefore tried a new device. He opened up his own thigh and cut off a slice of the flesh. He made a spit, cooked the meat, and took it to the King, pretending that it was venison. The King accepted that it was game. He ate some of it and so restored his strength, wondering that he had never tasted such sweet-flavoured meat before. When his appetite was satisfied, he became more cheerful and brisk, and within three days he was quite well again. (271-72)

[from Lewis Thorpe’s 1966 Penguin translation, The History of the Kings of Britain.]

...and a nice chianti

It’s interesting to note that this taboo violation doesn’t appear to have any negative consequences: indeed, Cadwallo’s remarkable return to health seems to recommend the treatment. We might wonder if there is a link between this moment and Cadwallo’s later genocidal savagery in attempting to wipe the Angles from the face of Britain: “He was so determined to wipe out the entire race of Angles who were in the lands of Britain that he refused to spare the womenfolk or even their little ones of tender age. He inflicted hideous tortures on all whom he found” (277). However, Geoffrey certainly doesn’t draw out a connection here, and we seen plenty of other genocidal kings in the Historia (even Arthur), and this behavior is not presented as being nearly as monstrous as we would think of it today. So it’s very hard to argue that this episode of cannibalism has any tinges of the wendigo-like taint that is found in many cultures.

I don’t have much more to say about this episode, but those interested in the topic might enjoy this essay by Karl Steele on the motif of human flesh being the sweetest meat.

Naming Our Gear

So, I was reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae and came across this passage:

Arthur himself put on a leather jerkin worthy of so great a king. On his head he placed a golden helmet, with a crest carved in the shape of a dragon; and across his shoulders a circular shield called Pridwen, on which there was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced him to be thinking perpetually of her. He girded on his peerless sword, called Caliburn, which was forged in the Isle of Avalon. A spear called Ron graced his right hand: long, broad in the blade and thirsty for slaughter.

[from Lewis Thorpe’s 1966 Penguin translation, p. 217]

Firstly: a spear called Ron? What’s next? “And then Arthur put on his noble boots, Bob and Terry.”

Secondly: I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the tradition of giving weapons personal names, so frequently seen in chivalric romances and Norse sagas. Someday I’d like to do some actual research into the topic, but in the meantime I wonder what the state of this custom is today. Do soldiers name their weapons? I know of artillery pieces that have names, but I don’t know about rifles and sidearms.

On the civilian side, I know plenty of people who name their cars, and some who name their houses. Some musicians name their instruments (though it seems a honor accorded only to certain types of instruments — guitars, certainly, but pianos… less commonly). What else do we name?

Well, computers and “smart” electronics — usually because we’re asked to. Your iPod prompts you to give it a name (mine: “Trumpy,” after the alien in the movie Pod People of MST3K fame). For networking reasons, you have to give your computers names (mine: various Flannery O’Connor characters). So we might expect to see this trend continue even beyond devices that require you to register them with a name. Will we be naming our smart phones? How many people already refer to their devices by their “name,” rather than saying “my iPod” or “my laptop”? I don’t know any, myself, but I’m sure they’re out there.

Anyway, this might be yet another element that blends geek cultures. An old classmate of mine once critiqued another’s choice of network password — the name of an obscure Lord of the Rings character (and this was in the days before the movies) — by saying “Any hacker worth his salt will know a great deal about Tolkien.” It’s fascinating to me that there is this strange confluence of tech culture and medievalesque culture. Bestowing totemic names upon our most valuable tools is just one more example of that cross-over.

La Psychanalyse D’Arthur

Here’s a lovely little episode of giant-killing from Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur which is so straightforwardly Freudian it almost defeats actual analysis.

And so he ascended up into that hill till he came to a great fire, and there he found a careful widow wringing her hands and making great sorrow, sitting by a grave new made. And then King Arthur saluted her, and demanded of her wherefore she made such lamentation, to whom she answered and said, Sir knight, speak soft, for yonder is a devil, if he hear thee speak he will come and destroy thee; I hold thee unhappy; what dost thou here in this mountain? for if ye were such fifty as ye be, ye were not able to make resistance against this devil: here lieth a duchess dead, the which was the fairest of all the world, wife to Sir Howell, Duke of Brittany, he hath murdered her in forcing her, and hath slit her unto the navel. Dame, said the king, I come from the noble conqueror King Arthur, for to treat with that tyrant for his liege people. Fie on such treaties, said she, he setteth not by the king nor by no man else; but an if thou have brought Arthur’s wife, dame Gwenever, he shall be gladder than thou hadst given to him half France. Beware, approach him not too nigh, for he hath vanquished fifteen kings, and hath made him a coat full of precious stones enbroidered with their beards, which they sent him to have his love for salvation of their people at this last Christmas. And if thou wilt, speak with him at yonder great fire at supper. Well, said Arthur, I will accomplish my message for all your fearful words; and went forth by the crest of that hill, and saw where he sat at supper gnawing on a limb of a man, baking his broad limbs by the fire, and breechless, and three fair damosels turning three broaches whereon were broached twelve young children late born, like young birds. When King Arthur beheld that piteous sight he had great compassion on them, so that his heart bled for sorrow, and hailed him saying in this wise: He that all the world wieldeth give thee short life and shameful death; and the devil have thy soul; why hast thou murdered these young innocent children, and murdered this duchess ? Therefore, arise and dress thee, thou glutton, for this day shall thou die of my hand. Then the glutton anon started up, and took a great club in his hand, and smote at the king that his coronal fell to the earth. And the king hit him again that he carve his belly and cut off his genytours, that his guts and his entrails fell down to the ground. Then the giant threw away his club, and caught the king in his arms that he crushed his ribs. Then the three maidens kneeled down and called to Christ for help and comfort of Arthur. And then Arthur weltered and wrung, that he was other while under and another time above. And so weltering and wallowing they rolled down the hill till they came to the sea mark, and ever as they so weltered Arthur smote him with his dagger. And it fortuned they came to the place whereas the two knights were and kept Arthur’s horse; then when they saw the king fast in the giant’s arms they came and loosed him. And then the king commanded Sir Kay to smite off the giant’s head, and to set it upon a truncheon of a spear, and bear it to Sir Howell, and tell him that his enemy was slain; and after let this head be bounden to a barbican that all the people may see and behold it; and go ye two up to the mountain, and fetch me my shield, my sword, and the club of iron; and as for the treasure, take ye it, for ye shall find there goods out of number; so I have the kirtle and the club I desire no more. This was the fiercest giant that ever I met with, save one in the mount of Araby, which I overcame, but this was greater and fiercer. Then the knights fetched the club and the kirtle, and some of the treasure they took to themselves, and returned again to the host.

[From Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Book V, Chapter V.]

Death by Toad Poison

This is the inaugural entry in what I hope will be a long series I’m calling Medieval Death Trip, a collection of miscellaneous grotesque, peculiar, or curious episodes from medieval texts. It is inspired by Michael Lesy’s cult-sensation doctoral thesis Wisconsin Death Trip. The following little narrative is from uThomas of Monmoth’s Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich.

There was, then, a woman of Brandney called Wimarc, who in the time of king Stephen, when the days were evil, was given as a hostage at Gainsborough for her husband who had been taken by pirates. In his stead she was committed to prison with three other women and one man, and there she remained for long. These people, after long enduring miserably cold, hunger, stench, and attacks of toads, began to plan in concert the death of their gaoler, believing that were he dead they would be free, while, as long as he lived, they were in danger. And, inasmuch as the keeper of the prison, who was the gaoler, was accustomed to drink with them when their beer was brought to them, they took a toad (of which, as I said, there were many in the prison) and mixed its poison with the drink when it was brought as usual, and invited the gaoler to drink, handing him at one moment the cup and death. But he, whether because God’s providence would preserve him, or because he had some touch of suspicion, bade them first taste what they had offered him. Whereat, their craft being discovered, they grew red with confusion, and pale with fear and stiff with terror. The gaoler at the sight perceived that these signs pointed to some wicked intention, and turning the tables upon them forced them all to drink the draught. Compelled whether they would or no to do this, they became compassers of their own death, after contriving the death of another. Immediately the venom crept through the limbs of each, and all of them swelled up in so wonderful and horrid a manner that any man who saw them would be convinced that their skin must break. What more? The poison saturated them through and through, and their life was brought to the doors of death. The rest died; Wimarck alone survived. The others were buried as dead; she was released as being thought to be at the point to die: but her life was spared, whether because she had taken less of the poison than the rest, or because the mercy of God was decreeing her salvation. In so far as she had escaped death, she was happy, but wretched in that for seven years’ space she was not rid of the monstrous swelling. All her limbs were inflated to an incredible extent, so that one would discern in her not so much the figure of a human being as the portentous form of some new monster. Her body consequently presented a hideous appearance to the beholder: and one looking at her would wonder that the skin so forcibly distended did not break. In this wretched plight the poor woman, seeing that the swelling did not subside, repaired to doctors, and spent on them whatever she had. But the labour was lost and the money wasted, though ultimately she was accounted worthy to find healing, when she betook herself to the refuge of the divine pity. For when she perceived that she had been mocked and left destitute by the doctors, she thought she must consult the saints and visit their shrines. She accordingly visited many, and at length came to Norwich, and there determined to remain for some time and wait for the divine mercy to be procured by the intercession of the merits of the holy martyr William. After she had now spent some days there, on a solemn feast-day, when according to custom a great throng of people had assembled at the blessed martyr’s tomb, and she among them, she came forth from the throng and approached the holy and venerable sepulchre, and she obtained a speedy healing. For when she had kneeled down and uttered a short prayer, she pressed her lips on the tomb, and forthwith vomited all that poisonous discharge on the pavement. I can only describe it by saying that it was horrible — nay, unbearable, that there was enough of it to fill a vessel of the largest size, that the bystanders were constrained to leave the place, and the sacrists to cleanse the spot and strew it with fragrant herbs. The poor woman left the church in haste and got rid of all that was left of the poison. The result was that in one hour’s time, she who, as I have said, had been swollen to an incredible size, now appeared as slim and healthy as if she had never suffered from a swelling at all. Being thus cured, she gave thanks to God and St William, and betook herself to Rome, where she told Pope Adrian what bad happened to her; and returning whole she remained long in life to bear witness to the miracle.

[From The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich (Jessopp and James 1896), Book 6, Chap. 13. pp. 246–250.]