Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 3: 1401

There is a lesson I’ve learned at least twice:  first, when I was first doing Mathematics seriously and again when I returned to fencing.  The lesson is to be particularly wary of what you want to be true.  In Maths, you’ll have an algorithm or a strategy for proving a theorem that seems so good, so natural, so clever, it has to work.  But it doesn’t and it can keep  you for days or months from seeing the less attractive or essentially more complicated route which is necessary to solve the problem.  In fencing, beware the opponent who makes that one perfect, subtle mistake which happens to fit your best attack.  It’s a bait, not a mistake and he’ll kill you with it.

This is the third episode reporting on my personal quest to make sense of the eccentric and dramatic life of Sir Thomas Malory and his great work Le Morte d’Arthur.  The immediate question I’m facing is whether he was born in 1415 (Field 1993) or 1401 (Hardyment 2004).  The particular evidence in question, referenced by both, is William Dugdale’s assertion in his 1656 history of Warwickshire that Malory served in the retinue of the Earl of Warwick at the siege of Calais in King Henry V’s time.

More than one Thomas Malory is mentioned in the extant early 15th century records.  Field’s careful, detailed chapter summarizes all ten references and offers a self-acknowledged “risky” hypothesis that they refer to 3 different men.  Most importantly, he notes that with the exception of the siege of Calais reference, none specifically refer to Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, the author.  Field then turns to demographic evidence.  Malory’s father was born in 1385, his mother about 1380, making them 15 and 20 respectively when Thomas was born.  Further, in 1437, Malory’s mother is formally named executrix of Malory’s father from which Field infers that Sir Thomas was a still a minor and hence couldn’t have been born in 1401.  If Malory, was born in 1401 he would have written Le Morte d’Arthur in his sixties.  On that point Field quotes George Lyman Kittredge, “Nothing is impossible but…recalling the vitality, energy and even occasional gaiety of Le Morte Darthur and the long, persistent labor that it represents, one needs hardly to be skeptical to doubt that the work was written by an ancient of seventy-five.”  Field’s solution:  throw out Dugdale’s controversial evidence. The Thomas Malory in the muster roll was a different Thomas Malory.  Dugdale wasn’t as careful an historian as he should have been.

Convinced?  Ready to make that lunge to the exposed shoulder?

Hardyment disagrees.  She accepts that Dugdale was referring to the right Sir Thomas Malory, argues convincingly that a timeline commencing with a birth in 1401 is far from the realm of possibility and, indeed that some of the later events make better sense in the context of the earlier date.  She writes,

“…(Field’s) book makes Malory’s life more, not less mystifying.  It does not explain the emergence of a clever, forceful writer who evidently had ideals for which he was willing to risk his life, a man whom the Lancastrian King Henry VI feared enough to imprison without trial for almost a decade, and who was one of a tiny handful of men excluded from pardon by Henry’s usurping Yorkist successor, Edward IV.  To achieve this, Malory’s birth needs to be returned to around 1400.”

Convinced?  Ready to make that lunge to the exposed shoulder?

Actually, I am, with qualifications, but I wouldn’t expect you to be:  these are imperfect summaries of the authors’ arguments, not the arguments themselves.  But here’s my view.  Field’s chapter on Malory’s birth does good service in presenting the details of the contemporary references.  But they are insufficient and not all pertinent for deciding Dugdale’s Calais siege reference is to someone other than Sir Thomas Malory, the author.  The most compelling aspects of Field’s argument, the absence of other specific references to Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell in 1400-1415 and his mother’s acting as executrix in 1437 for his father can be rationalized as easily as Field rationalizes his alternative timeline.

William Dugdale’s book is remarkably carefully written and illustrated.  He documents the lost church windows of All Saints Grendon which depicted Sir Thomas Malory’s parents, for example.  He may even have seen parish records, now lost, documenting Malory’s birth though he doesn’t say so.  Field’s assertion that Dugdale incorrectly attributed the Calais siege reference to Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell requires stronger justification.  At the worst, Field is editing his data to fit his hypothesis.

So, I’m going with 1401 as Malory’s birth year whilst keeping an eye out for further evidence supporting or contradicting it.  (For example, a larkish superficial search of Newgate prison records turned up nothing.)

A few final comments, the longer and more carefully I read Hardyment, the more impressed I am with her biography at multiple levels and would highly recommend it  which means of course I’ll be reading her with continued care and skepticism as I continue.  And, I must express appreciation to the Dugdale Society of Stratford-upon-Avon for their assistance in deciphering dates and genealogical tables in his book.

The fine and terrible mystery continues, of course.  I have a yellow legal pad filling with scrawled questions, such as why wasn’t Sir Thomas included in the windows of All Saints Grendon?  Why didn’t William Dugdale note that Sir Thomas was the author of Le Morte d’Arthur?

In As a Black Prince on Bloody Fields I made use of my favorite quote of Henry of Grosmont, the 1st Duke of Lancaster and his words come back to me now.  He wrote in his memoir Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines:  “All of us only want three things in life: to be praised, then loved, then lost."

Episode 4 is here 

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