Sunday, 14 June 2015

a souffte amblynge pace

Sir Thomas Malory wrote ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ – the core compilation and central text of the British Arthurian mythos. The speech in this section appears nowhere in Malorys source texts, suggesting it’s probably something he invented and inserted himself.

(All of this is from the Norton Critical edition, edited by Stephen H. A. Shepherd. The line breaks, punctuation, spelling and fonts are as close to that book as I can get them.)

Now turne we to Sir Launcelot that rode with the damsel in a fayre hygheway. “Sir,” seyde the damesall, “here by this way hauntys a knight that dystressis all ladyes and jantylwomen, and at the leste he robbyth them other lyeth by hem.”
“What?” seyde Sir Launcelot, “is he a theff and a knight and a ravyssher of women? He doth shame unto the order of knyghthode, and contrary unto his oth. Hit is pyte that he lyvyth:
“But, fayre damsel, ye shall ryde on before, yourself, and I woll kepe myself in covert; and yf that he trowble yow other dystresse you, I shall be your rescowe and lerne hym to be ruled as a knight.” So thys mayde rode on by the way a souffte amblynge pace –
And within a whyle com oute a knight on horseback owte of the woode, and his page with hym; and there he put the damesell frome hir horse – and than she cryed.
With that com Sir Launcelot as faste as he might tyll he com to the knight sayng, “A, false knight and traytoure unto knyghthode, who dud lerne the to distresse ladyes, damesels and jantyllwomen?”
Whan the knight sy Sir Launcelot thus rebukynge hym, he answered nat but drew his swerde and rode unto Sir Launcelot. And Sir Launcelot threw his spere frome hym and drew his swerde, and strake hym suche a buffette on the helmette that he claffe his hede and necke unto the throte.
“Now haste thou thy payment that longe thou haste deserved!” “That is trouth,” seyde the damesell-
“For lyke as Terquyn wacched to dystresse good knyghtes, so dud this knight attende to destroy and dystresse ladyes, damesels, and jantyllwomen – and his name was Sir Perys de Forest Savage.” “Now, damesell,” seyde Sir Launcelot “woll ye ony more servyse of me?”
“Nay, sir,” she seyde, “at thys tyme, but allmyghty Jesu preserve you wheresomever ye ryde or goo, for the curteyst knight thou arte – and mekyste unto all ladyes and jantylwomen – that now lyvyth:
“But one thing, sir knight, methynkes ye lak-
“Ye that ar a knight wyveles, that ye woll nat love som mayden other jantylwoman. For I cowed never here sey that ever ye loved ony of no maner of degree, and that is grete pyte:
“But hit is noysed that ye love Queue Gwenyvere, and that she hath ordeyned by enchauntemente that ye shall never love none other but hir, nother none other damesall ne lady shall rejoice you – wherefore there be many in this londe, of hyghe astate and lowe, that make grete sorrow.”
“Fayre damesell,” seyde Sir Launcelot, “I may not warne peple to speke of me what hit pleasyth hem. But for to be a weddyd man, I thynke hit nat, for than I muste couche with hir and leve armys and turnamentis, batellys and adventures. And as for to sey to take my pleasaunce with paramours, that woll I refuse – in prencipall for drede of God, for knyghtes that bene adventures sholde nat be advoutrers nothir lecherous, for than they be nat happy nother fortunate unto the werrys; for other they shall be overcome with a sympler knight than they be himself, other ellys they shall sle by unhappe and hir cursednesse bettir men than they be himself:
And so who that usyth paramours shall be unhappy, and all thynge unhappy that is aboute them.”

[I feel I should translate, even a little, the final paragraph because even for people who might actively enjoy reading old English text it might be difficult to the point of annoyance. My translation is inaccurate as to the exact meaning, as all translations must be:

“Fair damsel,” said Sir Launcelot, “I may not forbid people to speak of me what they please. But for me to be a wedded man, I think it not, for then I must to-bed with and leave arms and tournaments, battles and adventures. And as for to say to take my pleasure with paramours, that well I refuse – in principal for dread of God, for a knight that takes adventures should not be adulterer nor lecherous, for then he be not lucky nor fortunate unto the wars; for either he shall be overcome by a lesser knight than he be, other else he shall slay by mischance and his cursedness better men than he be himself:
And so who that uses paramours shall be unhappy, and all things unhappy that is about them.”]

Malory wrote this in prison. This is what he was in for, again, quotes from the Norton Critical Edition:

“Aug. 23, 1451 Malory is charged at Nuneaton, Warwickshire, in the presence of Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, with the following crimes:

·         Attempted murder of the Duke of Buckingham, by ambush with twenty-six other men, in the Abbot’s woods at Combe, Warwickshire, Jan 4, 1450.
·         “Rape” (raptus) of Joan Smith, at Coventry, May 23, 1450.
·         Extortion of money from two monks of Monks Kirby, Warwickshire, May 31, 1450.
·         Second “rape” of Joan Smith, and theft of £40’s worth of goods from her husband, Aug.6 1450.
·         Extortion of money from another monk of Monks Kirby, Aug. 31 1450.
·         Theft of seven cows, two calves, 335 sheep, and a cart worth £22 at Cosford, Warwickshire, June 4, 1451.
·         Theft of six does and infliction of £500’s worth of damage in the duke of Buckingham’s deer park at Cauldron, Warwickshire, July 20, 1451.
·         Escaping imprisonment at the house of Sheriff Sir William Montford at Coleshill, Warwickshire (Malory swims the moat at night), July 27, 1451.
·         Robbery, with ten accomplices, of £46 in money and £40’s worth of ornaments from Combe Abbey, July 28, 1451.
·         Further robbery at Combe Abbey, with one hundred accomplices, of £40 in money and five rings, a small psalter, two silver bells, three rosaries, and two bows, and three sheaves of arrows.

By Jan. 27, 1452, and until July 1460. Held at various prisons in London (Ludgate, King’s Bench, the Tower of London, and Newgate) awaiting a trial that never happened. During this period Malory is released on bail several times; during two of these periods of temporary freedom he is implicated in further crimes:

·         Theft of four oxen from Lady Katherine Peyton at Sibbertoft, Nottinghamshire.
·         Harbouring another alleged criminal, his servant John, and attempting with him to steal horses in the environs of Great Easton, Essex.

For the latter he is jailed at Colchester, Essex, from whence he escapes, Oct. 30, 1454. He is recaptured and returned to prison in London. Not long after the seizure of London by Yorkist forces in July 1460, Malory is probably freed from prison.”

But he ends up back there, and probably dies there.

This is probably the most interesting thing about heroic fiction I have ever read. The Arthurian Myth is a deep dream of harmonious order, written in prison in a time of chaos by a man who was effectively an agent of chaos. A man who was effectively a D&D murder-hobo.

I am only about a third of the way in and this man astonishes me. He feels like a fulcrum at the heart of British, and English identity, this passionate, insanely romantic, violent, dreamy man who was effectively a son of a bitch. Not one but two counts of rape and an attempted assassination.

This, to me, is the most psychologically interesting writer in the English tongue.  


  1. The numbers involved suggest that he wasn't just some rowdy dude, and the dates indicate that this was possibly tied up with the lead-in to the War of the Roses?

    So maybe this doesn't so much mean he was a murderhobo so much as some guy doing things Westerosi-style.

    (That doesn't make it any less fascinating, though.)

    1. Yeah there are strong suggestions of political involvement, especially him going in and out of prison as different factions gain or lose in strength.

  2. It's a pretty "cold case", but I have to wonder whether those "rapes" were actually consentual liaisons, claimed as rapes to spare poor Mrs. Smith the likely harsh consequences of an adultery charge.

    1. Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, says at the time "rape" could also mean (consensual) sex with a married woman if the husband didn't consent. It's even got a citation.

      I think you could see Malory as somebody who had lived the life of a rogue and then regretted it afterwards. These sorts of people are always fascinating. I think King David fits into the same model. He wrote all these beautiful psalms but there's a pattern of him being a murderous adulterer who regrets it later on.

    2. 'To rape' means 'to abduct' or 'to carry off' as late as the eighteenth century. (You know, like hawks and other 'raptors' do to their prey.) That's why you'll see writers on the Trojan war writing about 'The Rape of Helen' even if, in their version, she eloped with Paris willingly: he carried her off from the house of her husband, ergo it was a rape. Note that Malory himself uses a different word - 'ravish' - to refer specifically to forced, non-consensual sex.

      So, basically, Malory's robbed Mr Smith twice. The first time he took his wife; the second time he took his wife AND his money. What Joan thought of all this - whether she was a willing accomplice, unwilling victim, or somewhere in between - is anyone's guess.

      Great blog, by the way. Currently reading through the whole archive...!