Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery Episode 29 - A New Conundrum


This is episode 29 of my exploration of the life, times and works of Sir Thomas Malory.  Episode 1 can be found here.

I still find myself musing about the consequences of the battle of Towton.  1 in 114 of the total population of England and Wales died that day.  Further, the composition of the armies suggests there may have been soldiers from nearly every county in England.  A contemporary comparison gives me pause, 1 in 318 of Japan’s population died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  How did the battle of Towton change England as it must have done?

Nevertheless, according to  “Leicester Medieval Pedigrees” (edited by G. Farnham), Malory followed the king, Warwick and Lord Fauconberg north to sieges at Alnwick, Bamburgh and Dunstaborough along with his old companions Sir Robert Harcourt and Sir John Astley, a formidable jouster.  All brought squires, archers and men-at-arms.  Malory was clearly in good odor with the government of Edward IV.  On New Years 1462, King Edward IV offered a general pardon, Malory took it to the King’s Bench and had the slate wiped clean of the charges against him.
He then returned to Warwickshire.  In September 1464 Malory witnessed the marriage settlement of John, son of William Feilding of Newnham Paddox in Warwickshire, and Helen, daughter and co-heiress of Thomas Walsh, esquire.  One can infer from William Dugdale’s drawing of the armorial window at Newbold-Revel that Malory was Helen’s uncle.  There are only three other references to Malory in the historical record, the last being the record of his death.  The epitaph on his tombstone read, “Thomas Mallere valens miles qui obit 14 die mensis marcii anno domini 1470 de parochial de monkenkyrkby in comitatu warwick..”,  “Thomas Malory, valiant knight who died 14, March, 1470 of Monkskirby Parish in the county of Warwick.”

To my knowledge, there are only two other explicit references in the historical record to Malory between 1464 and his death and they pose a new mystery about his life that is even more inscrutable than the events of 1450.

In the Spring of 1464 the Earl of Warwick and John Wenlock, 1st Baron Wenlock, joined secret negotiations with the French Court of Louis XI to arrange wedding the tall and dashing 22 year-old Edward IV to Louis’ sister-in-law, Lady Bona of Savoy.  The following September, Warwick attended a council meeting at Reading at which the king announced that he had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the twenty-seven year-old widow of a minor Lancastrian, Sir John Grey.  King Louis was blind-sided:  he first learned of it when subsequently Warwick and Wenlock didn’t appear at St. Omer to complete the Lady Bona marriage negotiations.

Edward’s decision is often portrayed as thoughtless and ill-considered.  Shakespeare, for example, cleverly telescopes events and places Warwick at the French court negotiating the Bona marriage with Louis when both are informed of Edward’s marriage.  But it could have been the opposite.  Edward could have been attempting to heal a fractured and decimated country and marriage to minor Lancastrian gentry may have played very well politically.  The records of the politics surrounding the various marriage negotiations for Elizabeth I one hundred years later show how well a native marriage could play.  It’s even possible Warwick was supportive as the relatively minor Woodville gentry hardly looked like a threat.

Nevertheless, Edward having planted them, labored to make them full of growing to use Duncan’s metaphor from “Macbeth.”  From 1464 to 1466 Edward continually increased their status, honours and most importantly, revenues.  From a certain point of view it was shrewd politics:  the Woodvilles were totally dependent upon and indebted to Edward for their rise and so were much more likely to be subordinate and loyal than the powerful existing magnates such as Warwick to whom Edward was indebted for his crown.  Indeed,  the governor of Abbeville had once written to Louis  XI of England, "They have but two rulers, M. de Warwick and another whose name I have forgotten."

In July 1465 Edward’s court received superlative news:  Henry VI was captured in Lancashire whilst attempting to cross the Ribble River at a place called Bungerly Hippinstones.  The aging son of Henry V was returned to “gentle,” or not so gentle, captivity in the Tower.  Unlike previous kings, Richard II and Edward II, he wasn’t killed which bespeaks an attempt at civility early in Edward’s reign.

In the Spring of 1466 Warwick was commissioned to seek a treaty with Burgundy.  Then in February of the next year he led an embassy to Louis XI for which he was well rewarded with custody of all royal forests north of the Trent.  Trusting Warwick with necessarily sensitive diplomatic missions to the two then adversaries dominating northern Europe can be interpreted as continuing proof of great trust.  But it is also just possible that Edward was testing his most powerful peer by having Warwick negotiate with both.  Indeed Edward then undermined Warwick’s attempt to ally with the French by entertaining Antoine, the Grand Batard of Burgundy at a great tournament in June of 1467.  During the tournament Antoine fought a two day duel with one of Edward’s champions, Anthony Woodville during which Woodville infamously and unchivalrously lanced the Batard’s horse.   It’s possible Malory echoed the incident in Le Mort d’Arthur.

Also, early that year, Edward declined to allow his 17 year-old brother George, Duke of Clarence to marry Warwick’s daughter Isabel.    In October, Edward concluded new treaties with Denmark, Castille and most importantly arranged for his sister Margaret to marry the new Duke of Burgundy, Charles and Warwick played an important role in the ceremonies leading up to the marriage.  In the procession to Margate, Warwick and Margaret rode the same horse, he before, she behind.  It’s an image worthy of Edward Burne-Jones and calls to mind N. C. Wyeth’s illustration of Guinevere and Lancelot escaping though the context was clearly different.

The Warkworth Chronicler believed Margaret’s marriage created the decisive breach between Warwick and the king.  And late in 1467, rumors emerged that Warwick was communicating with  Queen Margaret, her son Edward and her small court in exile who were living with her father’s small court at Kouer, 150 miles east of Paris.
Then, on July 14, 1468, Edward IV offered a second general pardon.  There were 15 exceptions. After Henry, Margaret, their son and followers and the Lancastrian rebels holding Harlech Castle, the second name of the remaining eleven was Sir Thomas Malory.

What had happened?  How had Malory so alienated the new king, whose party had freed him after ten years of prison and persecution, for whom he’d fought?  Given the terrible price he’d paid for opposing a royal magnate in the 1550s, what possibly could have induced him to do so again?  And how did that affect and inform his work on Le Mort d’Arthur?

As I said at the beginning, the direct historic record is scant, to  say the least.  Both Hardyment and Field provide possible explanations which merit a careful look; their work on such barren ground alludes to their excellent scholarship.  And then there is Field’s good advice, which is to look at Le Mort d’Arthur itself as an historical artifact.  So in future posts I will be looking carefully as what Malory’s emmendations and explicits tell us and suggest.
Episode 30 can be found here.

Monday, November 30, 2015

From Mornings in a Cabin in the La Sal Mountains


The La Sals are one of a set of compact mountain ranges in southeastern Utah.  I'd always thought they were named because some of the snow-covered, volcanic peaks looked like they'd been dusted with salt.  However, the Escalante Expedition named them for the salty springs they discovered at the base.  The mountains are high for this part of the world, Mount Peel is 12,721 feet and the range, though relatively small, is rich with surprising glens and juniper forest.  The mountains also support populations of cougars and black bears.  I've been in a cabin in one of the deeper glens the last few days which included a highly localized but relatively heavy snow storm.  In the evenings I had the opportunity to finish Keith Basso's Wisdom Sits in Places.  It's the kind of book that reads well in a high, remote place.  Much of it is formal anthropology and ethnography yet it's also the kind of book that implicitly asks you to look at your own life, culture and personal pursuits from a different kind of high and remote place.

As I first mentioned some months ago, Basso's narrative - I think I prefer the word "story" in this context and will use it in the sequel. One should not infer a loss of precision or objectivity from this choice of diction, quite the opposite - Basso's story, then, begins as a hunt to map Apache place names near Cibeque, Arizona, but becomes so much more, a cultural map of the creation and uses of stories in Apache culture and how they are associated with unique and particular places.  Hunting is a seminal metaphor for them.  Telling a story can be "shooting an arrow" at someone.  Places, (and implicitly the specific stories associated with them) can be said to be "stalking" someone.  Yet, for all that, their purpose is not aggressive, or antagonistic but rather to facilitate respectful communication, help the listener develop wisdom, weather a period of personal difficulty or develop perspective.  A place can become so identified with a story that it can serve as a short hand for telling the story.  In one remarkable section, Basso, formally reports the conversation of some Apache women, one of whom is distressed over the hospitalization of her brother, which, initially, is totally opaque.  The short conversation consists of each woman naming a particular place, followed by an appellation suggesting it's importance.  At first reading it seems like a nonsensical exchange of static non-sequiturs, something mischievously devised by a very dry-witted Apache Lewis Carroll.  However, it is nothing of the sort.  Each of the particular places mentioned has a story associated with it and by naming those places, each speaker is respectfully encouraging the distressed woman to call the story to her imagination and consider its pertinence to her particular situation.  As a result, she is comforted, strengthened and gains perspective.  Her short, apparently casual and mildly comic comment to a dog sitting in the sun nearby at the conclusion of the short conversation is validation that the conversation has been successful.  Such a short, formal exchange, is known as "speaking in places."

The book concludes with an exploration of the Apache concept of wisdom which is remarkably concrete and pragmatic.  One step in achieving it is schooling one’s intuition in the stories of such places.  At the heart of Basso’s book is the unspoken question of how our minds understand place and, perhaps, given the particular architecture of our intelligence, how our ability to associate story, emotion, perception with individual places can best be used for our and our culture’s greater good.

Modern life is flooded with narratives of all kinds.  Recent events in Paris are, among many other things, a grim reminder of how important it is to consciously and conscientiously make culture well.  The modern liberal tradition eschews canonical texts for all, yet the cruelty and alienation of the perpetrators of terrorism is nothing if not proof of the need for commonly known, life-shaping stories affirming basic values, such as respect for human life, independent of religion or creed and perhaps unchanging, physical reminders, i.e. natural places, bound to those stories.

One morning, after a snow storm that wasn’t forecast, our family descended to visit Arches and explore one of our favorite natural labyrinths, “The Fiery Furnace.”  As we were uncovering the cars, one of the members of our little expedition noted that “only fools forecast mountain weather.”  It’s an aphorism I quite like.  As for the Fiery Furnace itself, the snow had only dusted the high sandstone fins and narrow passages so that we had all the aesthetic benefits of snow with little additional danger or difficulty.  The walk and scramble through the maze was, perhaps, more fun than I remembered.  For decades it’s been a minor rite of passage in our family to learn the way through though it’s an accomplishment less appreciated these days.  No doubt there are numbers of photo documented maps instantly available on the web, though I haven’t looked.  I’m not in the least surprised that the Fiery Furnace Minotaur with his terrible sandstone colored bull’s head and hunger for sacrificial human flesh is, perhaps, glimpsed less often these days.

When I was a child my grandmother used to read the Greek myths to me as bedtime stories.  The mountain just east of where I lived was and still is named “Mount Olympus” and I naturally conflated it with the more famous promontory in Thessaly.  I completely believed the stories, in part because they were associated with a real place I could see.  Theseus and the Minotaur was a particular favorite, that, somewhat like the Fiery Furnace, has only improved with time.  The story of a hero who undertakes to fight a monstrous creature while lost in an unknowable maze with only his intelligence, a sword and a thread to guide him in order to save 12 innocents is, perhaps, one of those stories all should have at heart.

I feel like Basso’s book has given my intellect a good shaking and given me some new intellectual tools and perspectives.  As I return to Thomas Malory, I’m curious to see what effect it has on my view of Le Morte d’Arthur and the period of it’s probable composition.  Most certainly, I’ll be looking at Armstong and Hodges’ book Mapping Malory from a new critical perspective.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

New York - New York


Apologies to Betty Comden and Adolf Green,

New York, New York, a serendipitous town.
Cloisters are up but the Red Fish is way down.
So much now and so much past going around.

We’ve been in Manhattan this week to see some friends and do some favorite things:  see a lot of art, see some performance art/theatre, hear some live music in a Village club and walk.  It was darkly serendipitous as the recent attacks in Paris had just happened and whilst we were there the terrorist group ISIS publically threatened New York City as well.  I say serendipitous as the implicit response of New Yorkers was simply to carry on.  We happened to be having breakfast at Pain Quotidian off 5th when a fire alarm went off and everyone simply behaved rationally.  For a moment everyone was  particularly observant, the alarm stopped and everyone went on talking passionately, eating and laughing.  It’s a kind of sensible, implicit everyday bravery which goes with the territory of living there anyway.

Even without those events I would have found myself remembering flying on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent late December immediately after.  Early in the morning on a bitterly cold and windy day, Lynn and I took a cab downtown to see the World Trade Center site.  In the midst of the great makeshift memorial adjacent to St. Paul’s Chapel someone had posted a small Welsh flag, which was more than a welcome reminder not only of others’ compassion but the grace of gentler times.

This trip we made the essential pilgrimage to the 911 memorial.  It is devastating public art, almost too much too bear, which is sadly appropriate.  Next to one of the nearly 3,000 names was a small French flag.  Dark waters flow steadily into oblivion.

Our first morning we did our best to be among the first that day into the Picasso sculpture exhibition at the MOMA.  When I first read about it I thought it would be nice to see.  Having seen it, I now wonder how I could have lived without seeing it.  The older I get, the more I love Picasso’s work, the more immediate and visceral it seems and the more I find it full of ideas.  A modest wire-frame construction elegantly conveys the idea of interpolation between an ellipse and a rectangle and the pyramidal frame surmounting is an almost gothic commentary on the Pythagorean beauty of the idea.  It took me so far that I found myself musing about the related meaning of arches in gothic architecture and the interpolation of physical and social forces.  And that’s just one, relatively minor, though exquisite, piece.  Then there are his sculptures and portraits of women.  I deeply love how he uses dimension and perspective to discover character beyond the physical force of his portrayal of their physicality and sensuality.  You wouldn’t think it’s possible.

One evening we took in “Sleep No More,” a kind of asynchronous, mostly silent portrayal of Macbeth in a 1920’s hotel by the Punch Drunk theatre company.  We were with friends and the four of us are haunted house veterans so the immersive experience was less novel for us than it might be for others.   Nevertheless, I found myself particularly fond of angel statuary (which reminded me of the weeping angels in “Blink”) and the way Birnam wood came, in this case, to the ball room.  I also found myself naturally contrary to joining groups of spectators following the characters racing through the rooms and so missed a couple of major set pieces, such as the witches’ Sabbath.   In retrospect, I think it’s best described as a kind of literal jigsaw puzzle of the play.

The Cloisters, the Met’s small and curious museum of medieval art in upper Manhattan, is an old friend that is always better than I remember.  There is something about the quiet, suggestive architecture that enables you to engage personally with the art in a way you just can’t in a more traditional museum, like the Met itself. There were a couple of school groups and you could see that proven in the response of the kids and the looks on their faces.

Trixie Whitley at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village was particularly good fun.  I barely remember the last time I was at a rock concert in which the audience was more interested in listening than in screaming louder than the performers and/or dancing.  The civility of her audience was more than welcome.  Maybe it had something to do with chocolate chip cookies with mugs of cold milk that the club served.  Her music was raucous, focused and occasionally ironic.

We finished with a walk through a mostly empty central park on a blustery day and a visit to the Chelsea Market.  Automobile traffic in New York has grown ridiculous; I’m reminded of Paris in the 90’s.  When you consider the wicked cool engineering of the World One Trade Center, the weak engineering of the city’s transportation system seems silly.  The city, everyone in that great city, deserves better.

But I have to come back to Central Park.  A solitary saxophonist played as we walked along the nearly empty Mall just past the statues of literary figures.   The last of autumn was being blown from the trees by the unsettled weather.  I have so many memories of the city now: not just that bitter winter.  I walked in a shower of all my days remembering everything from meetings with venture capitalists in the Rockefeller Center to Ricky Jay’s performances of the miraculous in the exquisitely small and unassuming Second Stage Theater.

Another image from an old movie I first saw as a child came to mind, too:  a distant shot of fourteen year-old Tippy Walker walking alone through the same part of Central Park in the middle of winter.  In the movie her character is impetuous, intelligent, passionate and unique.  That image is my personal icon for the city.  One could do worse.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 28: Towton


Personal letters are extraordinary things.  Even just a few lines written from one person to another centuries ago can immerse you in his or her immediate needs, hopes, aspirations and, sometimes, terrors.  This is the 28th episode of my peripatetic exploration of the life, times and works of Sir Thomas Malory.  Episode 1 can be found here.

In my last post I discussed the dramatic event that concluded 1460:  the death of Richard, Duke of York, at the battle of Wakefield and his eldest son’s victory over Welsh Lancastrian forces early the following year whilst King Henry was held under virtual house arrest at the Palace of Westminster by the Earl of Warwick.  One letter in the Paston collection makes life in London and Norfolk at the time particularly visceral.  It was sent to John Paston, a 40 year-old Cambridge educated lawyer with property in Norfolk from his younger brother Clement, a 19 year-old law student then at the Inns of Court in London.  He writes with the news of three men lost or killed at Wakefield and then advises his brother to muster both footmen and horsemen because he has heard that the “further” lords, that is Queen Margaret’s army, will arrive in London sooner than people expect.  He then adds,

In this cwntre every man is well wyllyng to goo with my Lords here, and I hope God xall helpe hem, for the pepill in the northe robbe and styll, and ben apoyntyd to pill all thys cwntre, and gyffe a way menys goods and lufflods in all the sowthe cwntre, and that wyll ask a myscheffe.

No wonder everyone in the capital was willing to go north with the lords in London, particularly the Earl of Warwick.  In a few short weeks concerns over rights of royal inheritance had been supplanted with more immediate and physical concerns for the safety of person and property.  Clement finishes by saying that all this was “wrytyn … in haste, wan I was not well at hesse.”  No doubt Sir Thomas Malory had heard the same news and must have felt the same concern for his family and home in Warwickshire.

Early in February, Warwick left London, taking the king with him to march north to confront Queen Margaret’s forces.   There is no explicit evidence telling us whether Malory accompanied Warwick but in light of Malory’s lifelong loyalty to the earls of Warwick, his implicit personal danger and his willingness to take action at difficult times, I consider it most probable that he did.  The two armies met at St. Albans.  Warwick was outflanked and unable to properly marshal his forces for battle; he abandoned the field leaving the frail and confused king sitting beneath a tree where he was found by the Queen’s forces.

The abbot of the Benedictine monastery wrote that St. Albans, which fell to the pillage and rape of the northern army, had been invaded by rabid animals.

It’s no surprise then that the commons of London took matters into their own hands, barred the gates and refused the Queen’s forces entrance, fearing the same fate.  Negotiations failed and, as she had neither the equipment nor discipline for a siege she returned north, leaving only her army’s devastation behind.  Meanwhile, Edward, the Earl of March and what remained of Warwick’s forces reunited in the Cotswolds then marched on to London, where Edward was received as a savior.  “Let us walk in a new wineyard, and let us a gay garden in the month of March with this fair white rose and herb, the Earl of March,” went one song written for the occasion.  At Baynard’s castle Edward took counsel with his lords and decided to press his claim to the crown.  In the Court of Chancery he was sworn before the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chancellor and the assembled lords that he should truly and justly keep the realm and the laws thereof maintain as a true and a just king.  But he wasn’t crowned.  First, he would prove himself on the field of battle.

During March both Edward, the Earl of March, and Queen Margaret sent out royal commissions of array to increase their forces.   According to Yorkist paymasters several years later he may have raised as many as 48,000.  Margaret’s army may have had as many as 60,000.  Contemporary logistical capability meant that neither could maintain a force of that scale in the field for very long.  Conflict was imminent.

The first encounter took place on Saturday, March 28, at Ferrybridge in Yorkshire.   Forward units of Edward’s army under the Duke of Suffolk and Lord Fitzwalter were attempting to rebuild a broken bridge across the Aire when they were set upon by a detachment of horsemen under “Bloody” Lord Clifford.  Edward reinforced, the Lancanstrians fell back but were trapped:  in the meantime Edward had sent a second detachment of mounted archers under Lord Fauconberg to cross the river three miles upstream.  In the early evening they hunted Clifford and his men down and slaughtered them all.  Clifford himself, was killed by an arrow through the throat.  In light of Malory’s debt to Fauconberg and his demonstrated ability for quick action it’s more than possible that he took part in the action.

The great battle took place the next day at Towton.  The ferocity, cruelty, desperation and losses remind me of the worst battles of the American civil war, such as Shiloh and Antietam.  Both armies ordered that no quarter was to be given.  Lancaster had the great benefit of holding the heights and superior numbers.  Further, not all of the forces of the Earl of March had arrived:  the Duke of Norfolk was missing.

But York had the most important advantage:  the weather.  Lord Fauconberg initiated the battle with an archery exchange.  The strong winds from the south carried the Yorkist arrows into the Lancastrian ranks while Lancaster’s arrows and artillery fell short.  The battle lasted all day long and the outcome remained in doubt until Norfolk finally arrived.  Then the Lancastrian army collapsed.  28,000 men died in the fighting and the ensuing rout.  In some cases those fleeing the battle last had the best chance of survival as they were able to cross the rivers on the corpses of those who had died trying to cross before.  The rivers ran red for days.  It must have seemed like Armageddon.  It was Palm Sunday and so near the full moon.

This worst battle ever fought on English soil is echoed in Malory’s telling of the final conflict between Arthur and Mordred.  In all of Malory’s sources, save one, Arthur’s and Mordred’s forces fight on horseback.  In Le Morte d’Arthur they fight on foot as at Towton.  The night after the battle the bodies are despoiled.  Recent archaeological research at Towton confirms the theft and mutilation of the corpses at Towton.

We don’t know that Malory was there.  We do know he was physically capable as he participated in the sieges at Alnwick and Bamburgh shortly after.  Further, he was granted a new (and second) pardon for all previous offenses by the new king Edward IV in October of 1462, quite possibly as a result of service that terrible and apocalyptic day.

Episode 29 can be found here.