Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Mad, Witty, Terrible Weekend at Clouds Hill


There’s a play I want to see which hasn’t been written.  Scary words.  The last time I wrote a sentence like that - well I’m still adventuring through the consequences of that statement.  Nevertheless, there is a play I badly want to see which hasn’t been written.

Just over a week ago we had the great good fortune to see the NTLive broadcast of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman with Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes directed by Simon Godwin.  It’s my favorite Shaw play, I consider it his best, and I’ve only seen it performed once before, (an exquisite production years ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts.)  It’s rarely staged in it’s entirely both because of its length and, more importantly, the immense technical challenge it poses for the actors.  If King Lear is an Everest, Man and Superman is a K2.


Then, there were the terrorist attacks in Tunisia and France this week.  The personal tragedies of the victims and the sorrow and uncertainty their families are enduring brought me back to the immediacy of what has been an historical week in so many ways.  When I ruminate about the Middle East, I always come back to T. E. Lawrence who accomplished his ambition to make history and chronicle it and thence foresaw the anguish the region would endure.  I would argue that Seven Pillars of Wisdom generally, but accurately prophesied the future of the region up through the 1990s.  I wonder what he would make of it now.

Shaw and Lawrence knew each other in the 1920s.  Lawrence was in his early thirties, wrestling with the legacy of historical achievement and his wild, brilliant lion of a memoir, grieving over fundamental issues like style and length.  Shaw was in his sixties, lionized, married to a woman who was also a formidable literary companion and feminist activist, Charlotte Payne-Townsend.

Jeremy Wilson, in his seminal biography of Lawrence, writes of his state of mind at the time,

                …The romantic Victorian concepts that he had so willingly adopted in his youth were one by one falling away.  His evangelical Christianity had faded before the war; at Uxbridge he had written: ‘Hungry time has taken from me year by year more of the Creed’s clauses, till now only the first four words remain.  Them I say defiantly, hoping that reason may be stung into new activity when it hears there’s yet a part of me which escapes its rule.’  The vision of the ‘noble savage,’ which had been a guiding principle during his Carchemish years, had crumbled during the Arab Revolt…He had abandoned one of the fundamental tenets of his Victorian upbringing:  belief in the progress of mankind, and now he had concluded that romantic love, a concept he had been brought up to revere, was nothing more than animal lust.

In contrast, consider the implicit optimism in this short excerpt from Man and Superman in which Jack Tanner is trying to discover the fundamental principles of male and female psychology,

                …the artist’s work is to show us ourselves as we really are.  Our minds are nothing but this knowledge of ourselves; and he who adds a jot to such knowledge creates new mind as surely as any woman creates new men.

Lawrence was imprisoned by experience and values in a dark world view, whereas, Shaw, against such odds, was working to discover and define an optimistic vision of human purpose.

And that is the play I want to see:  a portrayal of one of their weekends together at Lawrence’s cottage at Clouds  Hill.  The play is not simple, nor is everyone whom they first appear to be.  After all, it was Shaw’s terrible and self-serving guidance to Lawrence about the publication of Seven Pillars that forced Lawrence to remain in the military when he might have found a more rewarding and optimistic life outside.

The challenge is immense.  Imagine trying to channel and imagine new Shavian wit and Lawrence’s erudition while making it dramatically compelling.  How about giving it a go Peter Morgan?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery - Episode 19: Malory Answers the Charges Against Him


This is episode 19 of my investigation into the life and works of Sir Thomas Malory.  Episode 1 can be found here.

In September of 1451, King Henry VI and Queen Margaret arrived in Warwickshire “to judge noble peacebreakers” in Coventry.  One month earlier, on August 23, 1451, the special court at the Priory of Nuneaton, led by the Duke of Buckingham, had indicted Sir Thomas Malory with a specific list of curious but very serious charges, most notably the “trespass” of the attempted assassination of Buckingham himself and the felonious rape of Joan Smyth on two occasions. Of course, Malory’s case, as he was one of only 18 knighted gentlemen in the county of 30,000, was heard.

Marshalsea Prison, Southwark

Except it wasn’t.  Instead, on October 5th, a “writ certiori” was issued transferring the case to the Court of King’s Bench in London.  This had two effects.  First, and most obviously, it removed jurisdiction from a locality where Malory enjoyed significant popular support as demonstrated by the number of people who came to his aid in the raid on Coombe Abbey.  Second, the Court of King’s Bench had perhaps the highest profile of any court and was used as such by both the gentry and nobility.  Malory’s case would receive great attention and because of the nature of the charges it might well serve to isolate him from his peers as well as intimidate others who might fall afoul of the Duke of Buckingham, such as the Ferrers.  Seven days later Hugh Smyth appeared at the bar and personally appealed Malory for rape as well.  Obviously, the legal forces arrayed against Malory were well coordinated.

Malory failed to appear in person the next day, as ordered by the second warrant, though he was required to do so as a result of Hugh Smyth’s personal appeal.  (Otherwise, appearance by his attorneys would have sufficed.)  Obviously, given the timing it’s more than possible that Malory was unaware of Smyth’s appeal.  Hardyment speculates that he was still in Warwickshire restructuring his property and wealth to insulate his finances from legal recourse, a definite possibility in light of the sequel.  The judge ordered Malory and his co-defendents attached, arrested and brought to court on the “octave of Hilary, circa January 20th, 1452.

This time he did respond and he appeared before the court on January 27th, 1452.

Sir Thomas Malory answered the charges by stating that he was “in no wise guilty” and “for good or ill” put himself “upon his country.”

According to Hardyment, “to put yourself upon your country was every Englishman’s right:  it meant trial by jurymen from your own neighborhood.”  He was remanded into the custody of the sheriffs, which probably meant lodging in one of the sheriff’s homes or in Ludgate prison, until all accusations could be collected and a jury summoned.

The experience of prison in the 15th century differed dramatically depending on the wealth and situation of the prisoner.  Nor was it uncommon for members of the nobility and gentry to find themselves in that situation as the Paston letters, amongst much other evidence, show.  Given Malory’s social position I consider it most likely he was lodged comfortably, at least at first, probably with recourse to books and occasional accompanied sojourns outside to Mass or a market to purchase goods.

Then, only four days later, he was brought before attorneys for the Duke of Buckingham, John Stafford, Archbishop of Canterbury (and a kinsman of Buckingham) as well as the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk who preferred new charges against him:  it was alleged he had broken into Caluden deer park, owned by the Duke of Norfolk, on July 25th, 1451, stealing 6 does and doing £ 500 of damage  (£ 327,000.00 in 2011 using retail prices for comparison).

This was no minor crime as the amount indicates.  Further, poaching was an irreplegiable offense:  bail was precluded.  One week later, on February 9th he was brought to court.  No jurors appeared and the case was deferred until April.  This time he was remanded to the Marshal of the King’s Bench and incarcerated in Marshalsea Prison in Southwark.  The period of his formal imprisonment had begun.

In this series of accusations I detect a theme:  the legal team prosecuting Malory was having difficulty finding charges for which they could obtain a conviction or at least ensure a long period of incarceration.  As a result, they engineered a change of venue or simply preferred new charges.  Hugh Smyth’s appeal disappears from the record after this and the assassination attempt was only a trespass.  So it’s quite possible that Malory was about to procure bail, possibly through the support of the Duke of Norfolk as Newbold Revel was probably under the feudal jurisdiction of either Norfolk or York at this stage.  (Norfolk was supporting York and Malory had been linked to York as MP for the pocket district of Wareham in Dorset.)  At this same period the Queen’s party was beginning to oppress many of York’s followers in the tensions which would lead to the first armed conflict of the Wars of the Roses.  Consequently, the new charges served both to persecute one of York’s possible followers and/or alienate him from the support of the other magnate most likely to lend him support.

Malory had entered the labyrinth of the 15th century English legal system and would find an archetypical means to transcend it.
 Episode 20 can be found here.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 18: Entrances


This is episode 18 of my investigation into the life and works of Sir Thomas Malory.  Episode 1 can be found here.
“Perhaps, if you happen not to have lived in the Old England of the twelfth century, or whenever it was, and in a remote castle on the borders of the Marches at that, you will find it difficult to imagine the wonders of their journey.”

This is T. H. White trying to help his reader engage imaginatively with his particular vision of Malory’s world, a quirky, archetypical place.  Whilst I’ve been investigating Malory’s life I’ve also been reading Le Morte d’Arthur, as I’ve stated before.  One of the things that strikes me is how much more pleasurable reading it this time is than when I first read it years ago.  Like many readers, I expect, I believe in the primacy of an imaginative reading by which I mean working to experience the narrative with as much imagined imagery, detail, perception, deduction and, yes, emotional engagement as possible.  Analysis, textual, linguistic  etc., come second, most often in a very different additional reading which, nevertheless, is directed in part by the experience of the first.  This time through, I’ve felt like my imagination is in high gear and hyperactive.  Even single words unravel into tapestries of detail and allusion.  (Oddly, I find myself thinking of how a single mathematical equation can blossom into a family of higher dimensional equations and the additional structure and information gained thereby.)  I think I know why.

It’s a consequence of studying his life.  I am literally schooling my imagination in unexpected ways with surprising results.  For example, even statistical information plays a role.  Correlating the data provided by Christine Carpenter and Stephen Broadbury (Episode 14), particularly the relative numbers of the commons, gentry and nobility and the scale of the population elaborates into a new perception of 15th century English culture for me.  Even Carpenter’s discussion of Warwickshire geography causes me to see Malory’s landscapes in a new way.  Then there are the family histories and church window imagery in Dugdale (Episode 2) which have given me a new sense of the role of family and affinity in law, commerce and conflict.  Perhaps, most importantly, is the sense I have of the contemporary political landscape I’ve acquired from Hardyment (Episode 5) who makes the Wars of the Roses, (not to mention Malory’s life) immediate as few others have.  Then there’s my personal experience of England.  When I read Le Morte d’Arthur the first time I’d only visited Warwickshire once and hadn't yet seen Scotland, the Orkneys, the Borders, the Marches, or Wales.  

I didn’t read Malory at school or university; my academic preparation leapt from Chaucer to the Elizabethans and I was left to discover Malory on my own.  That may have been a very good thing.  We need entrances to literature, Malory particularly benefits from context, the study of his life is just one of many ways to develop it.  But my recommendation to anyone teaching Le Morte d’Arthur, particularly to undergraduates, would be to work hard and carefully to develop an imaginative context first.  Readers don’t need to know a lot stuff; they need to naturally imagine a lot of stuff.

For me, now, Le Morte d’Arthur doesn’t take place “in the twelfth century, or whenever it was,” as The Once and Future King does.  It takes place in a very specific and real early fifteenth century and is a kind of alternate history of that age.

When T. E. Lawrence was 21 and an undergraduate, he undertook a 1,000 mile walk alone through Syria and Palestine to visit the Crusader Castles to research his undergraduate thesis.  Malory was one of the few books he took with him.  Occasionally, I imagine him camped on a remote desert hill reading Malory by fire light or the sunset.  What an interesting context he must have brought to the labor of the 15th century knight.
Episode 19 can be found here.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 17: Distance and Context


This is the 17th  episode in my investigation of the discordant life of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur.  Episode 1 can be found here.

An American criminal court is a particularly terrible kind of public theatre for a juror.  You sit with a group of strangers a short distance from someone accused of crimes which can be terrible.  You watch and listen as the prosecution and defense carefully construct damning and exonerating narratives.  The prospect of deciding between the two “concentrates the mind wonderfully” to appropriate Johnson’s observation about the prospect of being hanged.  During the last weeks whilst I’ve studied the accusations of rape against Sir Thomas Malory, I found myself recalling my own experience as a juror and falling into the same frame of mind.   I’ve read and reread and studied, working to be honest, objective, and uncertain, to see how the evidence fits together, but not force it to do so.

To complete my investigation of this difficult and controversial aspect of Malory’s life, I decided to take a step back, to verify and improve my overall knowledge of the crime of rape in 15th century England.  To that end, I’ve been carefully studying Caroline S. Dunn’s 2007 Ph.D. dissertation Damsels in Distress or Partners in Crime?  The Abduction of Women in Medieval England to see what extent it contradicted or corroborated my earlier research and to see if the context of her incisive and comprehensive study illuminated Malory’s case further.  I also decided to look again at the closest thing to recent writers for the  prosecution, Catherine Batt’s paper “Malory and Rape” and Jonathan Hughes Arthurian Myths and Alchemy:  the Kingship of Edward IV as well as Edward Hicks 1970 biography Sir Thomas Malory His Turbulent Career which details the discovery of the Nuneaton indictment.

Dunn searched every volume of the patent roles from the early 1200’s to the year 1500, both the records of the King’s Bench and the Gaol Delivery in order to cast her net as widely as possible.  She was able to classify 821 of 1,283 cases as abduction (730) or rape (90) or kidnapping followed by rape (37).  Further, she was able to identify motive in 344 cases.  Sexual assault and violent abduction could be detailed in both appeals and indictments, and she uses such ancillary information for her classification.   This corroborates Hardyment’s observation that the absence of such details in the accusations against Malory, both in the Nuneaton indictment and Hugh Smyth’s subsequent appeal at Westminster, argues the possibility that if there was sexual relationship between Malory and Joan Smyth, it was consensual.  Indeed, according to Dunn, over half the instance of wife abduction were women going willingly with a lover.

Henry Ansgar Kelly suggests the severe legislative act of 1382 which enables family members, not just the victim, to appeal the crime whilst precluding trial by combat supersedes the earlier acts, particularly Westminster I and II.  Dunn argues, persuasively, that instead, the latter act supplemented the earlier legislation.  In particular, her examination of the evidence shows that whilst women could not appeal their husbands of rape, they could appeal others after 1382.  Hence, Joan Smyth could have appealed Malory, contrary to the assertion made by Catherine Batt.  Further, statistics show and it was known to the legal community at the time that appeals by the victim were more successful than those made by others. Indeed, prosecution under all the acts was possible, not just the act of 1382.  Obviously, there are many reasons Joan Smyth may not have chosen to do so.  But that both Buckingham at Nuneaton and Smyth at Westminster chose to accuse Malory only under the 1382 act  further corroborates Kelly’s assessment that the decision  was an admission that any relationship between Malory and Joan Smyth was consensual.

Hardyment disputes there was any sexual relationship at all and I was skeptical of her argument.  However, I now consider it the most probable of the possibilities for the following reasons.  First, surprisingly, the accusation of the attempted assassination of the Duke of Buckingham was classified in the indictment as a trespass, not as a felony, possibly because no one was injured in the incident and the ambiguity of the events.  The specific addition of the accusation of a sexual relationship, consensual or not, to the accusation of abduction with theft of property meant it merited classification as a felony, justifying arrest and imprisonment.  Second, and more importantly, there is the curious collection of companions included with Malory in the appeal:  Adam Brown, a Coventry weaver, Thomas Potter, a small farmer, and William Weston, gentleman.  None of the three served Malory directly or were members of his family, as is often the case in other cases of rape and abduction in which groups are involved.  Hardyment suspects Joan Smyth may have originally been Joan Weston, William Weston’s sister, and that Malory may have been helping Weston rescue his sister from an unwanted marriage.  Third, Malory was never tried for any of the accusations.  However, in subsequent negotiations for bail and comprehensive pardon, the accusation of felonious rape, the most notorious charge, is never mentioned.  It’s a particularly telling clue in evaluating the charge’s merit.

For all these reasons, and my earlier discussions on the topic, my verdict is that Malory was most probably innocent of sexual assault (and definitely was never explicitly charged with such.)

In closing I want to note that the literary arguments of both Catherine Batt and Jonathan Hughes focus more on the Le Morte d’Arthur itself rather than the events of Malory’s life and deserve more careful consideration in that context.  Batt, in particular, states that Malory’s portrayal of rape is not “incompatible with the perspective of an apparent rapist” which logically begs the difficult, possibly unanswerable question is there any literary work that definitively is?  The fact remains that the Pentecostal Oath, which Malory invented for the Round Table Knights, specifically proscribed sexual violence and that he portrayed rape as horrific and terrible as in the incident with the Duchess of Britany.  To my mind, Batt is working her way to a very different question anyway:  is Malory’s code of Chivalry inherently sexist?  It’s a viable and important question that I’ve added to my list of topics for a future post.

Episode 18 can be found here.

Monday, June 8, 2015

You will Cross Water to Dance in Blood; You will Tread the Maze Through Fire


I want to begin with a quote describing the sacrifice of a horse to the Greek god Poseidon, “even now, I still remember.  How he reared up like a tower, feeling his death, dragging the men like children; the scarlet cleft in the white throat, the rank hot smell; the ruin of beauty, the fall of strength, the ebb of valor; and the grief, the burning pity as he sank upon his knees and laid his bright head in the dust.  That blood seemed to tear the soul out of my breast, as if my own heart had shed it.”

It’s from The King Must Die by Mary Renault, published in 1958.  In the 57 years since it was published the world has never quite known what to make of Renault’s Euhemeristic telling of the story of Theseus; my informal survey of what’s been written recently suggests that’s still the case.  When it first appeared, it was conveniently and patronizingly boxed as excellent adventure fiction:  interesting, fun perhaps not that important.  I consider it so much more.  A more apt comparison is Gustave Flaubert’s “The Tale of St. Julian Hospitator.”  The King Must Die’s relatively short 332 pages is a tour-de-force of profound and elegant world-building, original character creation and dramatic story telling.  Rightly considered it is a fantasy classic as innovative and original as the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, her tutor at Oxford, or T. H. White or Lewis Carroll.

The novel develops over 26 different characters with such immediacy and deftness that the scale of that achievement often goes unnoticed.  Then there is Renault's depiction of Mycenaean/Minoan Greece.  It is visceral and sensual:  replete with colors, sounds, smells and tastes yet her prose is so efficient that the force of the drama is never hindered.  More deeply, she creates cultures, patriarchal and matriarchal societies in conflict, immersing the reader to the extent that you not only understand them but empathize with the faith and personal passions driving them both.  The supernatural world is immediate but ambiguous ironically making her creation even more tangible and credible.

The engine for this magnum opus is her prose.  Look back at the quote at the beginning.  Note how concrete and physical details, Hemingwegian in their spareness, develop into a severe lyricism recalling the great Romantic poet, Percy Byshhe Shelley then finishing in terrible, personal emotion.  It works and works brilliantly only because of how carefully and logically and rhythmically all three are wrought.  Every subordinate phrase is earned and justified.  Such skill was hard earned.  Her descriptions of combat and death are among the most powerful I’ve read and I’ve always felt that came in part from her personal experience as a nurse during World War II as well as her classical education at Oxford.

Because the book is an adventure it’s rarely examined philosophically, yet it has much to offer about the nature of gender, sexuality and political leadership, topics of particular pertinence to our time.  Renault’s Theseus, tough, sexual, ambitious, is a hero who thinks.  And sees.

I’ve just read it again, (between long and careful sessions with Caroline S. Dunn’s dissertation for my Malory research) and found it as compelling as I did the summer I was fourteen and read it for the first time.  Theseus and the Minotaur is one of the greatest tales of western culture; The King Must Die is perhaps its greatest telling.  Here’s one last quote, the witch Medea whispering prophesy into Theseus’ ear,

“Theseus of Athens.  You will cross water to dance in blood.  You will be king of the victims.  You will tread the maze through fire and you will tread it through darkness.  Three bulls are waiting for you, son of Aigeus.  The Earth Bull, the Man Bull and the Bull from the Sea.”