Saving London with Skill: Yvain’s Fighting Knowledge in ‘Off Arthour and of Merlin

Introduction

The Middle English romance Off Arthour and of Merlin (AM) has been somewhat overlooked in terms of narrative because the main story consists of a sequence of battles considered repetitive and therefore boring.[1] Although it is true that the outcome of the battles is predictable (King Arthur and his knights will prevail), the text includes detailed descriptions and specific word choices of how this happens: Arthurian knights win because they have excellent fighting knowledge. Among them, Ywain, fighting to free London from the Saracens, demonstrates mastery of the blade from various binds (the time and position where opposing weapons are engaged). His skill is confirmed by the importance given to the topic in fight books.

Fig. 1.: Yvain Fighting. Detail of Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Français 1433, L’Atre périllieux et Yvain, le chevalier au lion, fol. 55 r , 1301-1350,
<https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b105096493/f119.image.r=Yvain> [accessed 21 September 2020]. Image in the public domain.

The Manuscript

A unique copy of the romance AM is preserved in the Auchileck Manuscript at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh under the signature Advocates’ MS 19. 2. 1. Written exclusively in English,[2] it is of paramount importance for the history of English literature and literary taste in the first half of the fourteenth century. The manuscript is a miscellany of 44 secular and religious texts; among the former, there are eighteen romances. Linguistic, palaeographical, and internal evidence point to the origin of the manuscript being in London in the 1330s, where a rich merchant probably commissioned it.[3]

Although in its current state the Auchinleck MS comprises 331 leaves of 250×190 mm, codicological studies of both the manuscript and fragments thereof have revealed that it originally contained at least 386 leaves of 264×203 mm. The manuscript was compiled on vellum by five or six scribes in 48 quires of eight leaves each (with the exception of one gathering of ten).[4] Scribe α acted as the “editor” of the manuscript and wrote most of it. He also copied AM.[5]

Fig. 2.: A battle and a banquet. Detail of Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Français 1433, L’Atre périllieux et Yvain, le chevalier au lion, fol. B r , 1301-1350,
<https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b105096493/f9.item.r=Yvain.zoom> [accessed 21 September 2020]. Image in the public domain.

The Romance

Although only surviving in the Auchinleck ms (fols 201rb-256vb), AM originates in late-thirteenth century London. The text, written in rhyming couplets and 9938 lines long, was introduced by an illumination, which has unfortunately been cut out (like many from the same manuscript). As a result, ten lines on the other side of the folio have been lost. A further 200 lines towards the end have also been lost due to a missing leaf; the text is otherwise intact and clearly readable.

The first third of the romance is concerned with the antecedents to Arthur’s reign and it is a close translation of the French Lestoire de Merlin.[6] The remaining two thirds are more autonomous and describe Arthur’s early reign as a sequence of protracted battle scenes, starting with kings of various territories in Great Britain (whose leader is Lot) rebelling to Arthur’s right to rule. Although Arthur wins two battles, the Rebel Kings still refuse to recognise him as their leader. However, the British internal fights must cease when each king, Arthur as well, must fight separate battles against external invading forces: Danes, Irish, Saxons and Angles, who in the text are typically collectively named ‘Saracens’.[7] The text focuses on two armies: one led by Arthur and the other by Gawain. Despite being Lot’s son, Gawain recognises Arthur legitimacy to rule. While Arthur is fighting in Leodegan’s lands (Leodegan is Guinevere’s father), Gawain, together with his brothers Gueheres, Agrevein, Gaheriet, and with his cousins Galathin and Yvain, leads an army in Arthur’s name to protect London. The romance ends with Arthur and Gawain being successful in freeing those key territories.

Fig. 3.: Gawain and his brothers at the gates of a castle. Detail of Paris, Bibliothèque
Nationale de France, Français 122, Lancelot Graal, fol. 184 r , 1344-1345,
<https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10533299h/f377.item.r=Lancelot%20Graal.zoom> [accessed 29 September 2020]. Image in the public domain.

London

London is prominent in the romance. However, it is not described in detail and its political relevance is only inferred. Arthur holds court there for important and lavish occasions: he gives a feast ‘ƿat last ful fourten niȝt’ (l. 3582)[8] and a tournament in honour of Ban and Bohort (two of his late father’s allies) joining his legitimacy cause; it is also there that he celebrates his second victory against the Rebel Kings with another 14-days long feast. Furthermore, London is where he prepares against the Saracens’ invasion by ordering that every town should be supplied with food and by appointing a constable for each of them; Arthur focuses on London first, choosing Sir Do, an earl who already has experience in running a town, to administer it, rather than a knight who had distinguished himself in battle.

The text also offers some clues on the considerable size and cultural aspects of the town. The number of pack-horses (700), of carts (700), and of wagons (500) that were meant to supply London with food (but were robbed by Saracens instead) speaks of a large population. As a big city, London has a lot to offer, which is why Gawain, his brothers, and cousins decide to reside there for months after the first battle.

The population itself, and perhaps a glimpse of its political structure, only makes an appearance during the first battle for London. Seeing that Gawain and his army are bravely fighting against the Saracens but that they are greatly disadvantaged in numbers (1200 against 7000), Sir Do gathers the aldermen at the assembly point at Aldgate and quickly convinces them to raise their banners and go in support of Gawain with an army of 5000 men in total (both citizens and knights) ‘[f]or alle chaunce Londen to kepe’ (l. 5126).[9] Conversely, neither Sir Do nor the aldermen are mentioned as leaders of a London contingent in Gawain’s army in the second battle outside the town. The focus there is solely on Arthurian knights and their skills.

Fig. 4.: Yvain Fighting. Detail of Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Français 1433, L’Atre périllieux et Yvain, le chevalier au lion, fol. B r , 1301-1350,
<https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b105096493/f9.item.r=Yvain.zoom> [accessed 21 September 2020]. Image in the public domain.

The Combat

Unsurprisingly, Arthur, Gawain, and the other Arthurian knights win against the invaders. However, the text does not assume that they are better a priori: it demonstrates it by employing specific choices in vocabulary and fight descriptions. King Arthur and his knights are very skilled fighters and they have a deep knowledge of fighting practices.

During the final battle for the control over London, Gawain admires Yvain’s fighting skill: ‘He [Gawain] hadde wonder of his [Yvain’s] pruesse | Þat so leyd doun hard and nesse’ (ll. 8165-66).[10] ‘Hard and nesse’ is interpreted by Macre-Gibson as ‘every sort of adversary’,[11] meaning both strong and weak ones (‘nesse’ means ‘weak’, ‘pliant or yelding’).[12] However, it is improbable that Gawain would commend Yvain for killing weak opponents; instead, it is much more likely that this sentence refers to Yvain’s ability to work from strong and weak binds. Simply put, depending on the circumstances, when two swords clash, the opponent can put a lot of pressure on the bind (i.e. a strong bind) or very little (i.e. a weak bind).[13] A follow-up attack from a specific bind will not necessarily have a positive outcome if executed from a different one. Immediately performing a successful attack depending on the type of bind is not easy; it requires understanding of blade mechanics and training. In the late-fourteenth century glosses to Liechtenauer’s verses, the anonymous author of Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, ms 3227a writes that knowing how to act according to the situation (whether it is a weak or a strong bind) is essential.

Vor, noch, swach, stark, indes: an den selben woerten leit alle kunst meister lichtnawers und sint dy gruntfeste und der kern alles fechtens […] Dy weile her denne ieme noch an syme swerte ist, […] zo sal her gar eben fuelen und merken ab iener […] an syme swerte weich ader hert, swach ader stark sey.[14]

[Before, after, weak, strong, indes: on these words lay master Liechtenauer’s entire art and they are the basis and core of all fencing […] While he [the fighter] is still on [the opponent’s] sword, […] he shall quite precisely feel and note whether the other is soft or hard, weak or strong on his sword.][15]

Fig. 5.: Detail of Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, ms 3227a, fol. 20r, late fourteenth- century, <http://dlib.gnm.de/item/Hs3227a/45> [accessed 18 July 2020].
Image permitted to be copied, modified, and used for non-commercial purposes (cf.
<https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/de/>).

Just a couple of lines before Gawain’s assessment of his cousin’s fighting skill, the audience is told that Yvain kills many enemies in various ways:  he cuts two enemies at the waist, decapitates other two, and inflicts fatal wounds to a fifth.[16] This demonstrates that Yvain is able to employ different and successful techniques depending on the circumstances. By mentioning that he can use to his advantage both strong and weak binds and that he kills all his enemies, Yvain’s fighting skills are emphasised: he clearly knows what he is doing.

Conclusion

In Off Arthour and of Merlin, Arthurian knights save London from the invaders not because they are implicitly better fighters, but because they demonstrate better fighting skills and knowledge. This is achieved through the choice of specific vocabulary that finds parallels in fight books, and therefore by creating links and associations between two literary genres that approached martial culture from a different perspective. For Yvain, this is expressed through his mastery of the bind.

Cite this article as: Laura Bernardazzi, "Saving London with Skill: Yvain’s Fighting Knowledge in ‘Off Arthour and of Merlin," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 30/09/2020, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1082.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Macrae-Gibson, O. D., ed., Of Arthour and of Merlin, 2 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1979)

Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalbibliothek, ms 3227a <http://dlib.gnm.de/item/Hs3227a> [accessed 18 August 2020]

Secondary Sources

Bliss, Alan Joseph, ed., Sir Orfeo (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966)

Byrne, Aisling, ‘West and East: The Irish Saracens in Of Arthur and of Merlin’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 55 (2011), 217-229

Hanna, Ralph, ‘Auchinleck ‘Scribe 6’ and Some Corollary Issues’, in The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives, ed. by Susanna Fein (York: York Medieval Press, 2016), pp. 209-221

Liedholm, Astri, A Phonological Study of the Middle English Romance Arthour and Merlin (Ms Auchinleck) (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1941)

Loomis, Laura Hibbard, ‘The Auchinleck Manuscript and a Possible London Bookshop of 1330-1340’, in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 75: 3 (1942), 595-627

‘nesse’, in Middle English Dictionary [online], <https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary/MED29350/track?counter=1&search_id=4141698> [accessed 18 August 2020]

Pearsall, Derek, and Cunningham, I. C. (eds), The Auchinleck Manuscript: National Library of Scotland Advocates’ MS 19.2.1 (London: Scholar Press, 1977)

Ramey, Lynn Tarte, Christians, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature (New York and London: Routledge, 2001)

Sklar, Elizabeth, ‘Arthour and Merlin: The Englishing of Arthur’, Michigan Academician: Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, 8: 1 (1975), 49-57

Schmidt, Herbert, Sword Fighting: An Introduction to Handling a Long Sword, trans. by David Johnston (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing)


[1] O. D. Macrae-Gibson, ed., Of Arthour and of Merlin, 2 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1979), II, p. 9; Astri Liedholm, A Phonological Study of the Middle English Romance Arthour and Merlin (Ms Auchinleck) (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1941), p. xxi.

[2] In The Sayings of the Four Philosophers there are ‘Anglo-Norman macaronics’ and Latin insertions are present in The Harrowing of Hell, Speculum Gy de Warewke, and David þe King (Derek Pearsall, and I. C.  Cunningham (eds), The Auchinleck Manuscript: National Library of Scotland Advocates’ MS 19.2.1 (London: Scholar Press, 1977), p. viii).

[3] Alan Joseph Bliss, ed., Sir Orfeo (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), pp. ix-x; Laura Hibbard Loomis, ‘The Auchinleck Manuscript and a Possible London Bookshop of 1330-1340’, in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 75: 3 (1942), 595-627, p. 601; 627; Macrae-Gibson, II, p. 62; Pearsall and Cunningham, p. vii.

[4] A recent study proposes that the writing hand identified as the sixth actually should be understood as a second moment in scribe α’s writing (Ralph Hanna, ‘Auchinleck ‘Scribe 6’ and Some Corollary Issues’, in The Auchinleck Manuscript: New Perspectives, ed. by Susanna Fein (York: York Medieval Press, 2016), pp. 209-221).

[5] Pearsall and Cunningham, pp. vii-xvi.

[6] Elizabeth Sklar, ‘Arthour and Merlin: The Englishing of Arthur’, Michigan Academician: Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, 8: 1 (1975), 49-57 (pp. 52-54).

[7] In high and late medieval literature, it is not unusual to find that the term ‘Saracens’ designates any type of foreigners, rather than a specific group of people from the Near East. In AM, this idea of otherness is strongly connected to the emerging sense of a national language and identity present both in other parts of the romance (cf. ll. 21-22: ‘Riȝt is ƿat Inglische vnderstond | ƿat was born in Inglond’; Macrae-Gibson, I, pp. 3-5) and in other Middle English texts of the same period: ‘Saracen’ means ‘the Other’, ‘the non-British’ (Aisling Byrne, ‘West and East: The Irish Saracens in Of Arthur and of Merlin’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 55 (2011), 217-229 (pp. 218-19); Lynn Tarte Ramey, Christians, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature (New York and London: Routledge, 2001), p. 8).

[8] Macrae-Gibson, I, p. 205.

[9] Macrae-Gibson, I, p. 246.

[10] Macrae-Gibson, I, p. 325.

[11] Macrae-Gibson, II, p. 193.

[12] ‘nesse’, in Middle English Dictionary [online], <https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary/MED29350/track?counter=1&search_id=4141698> [accessed 18 August 2020]).

[13] Herbert Schmidt, Sword Fighting: An Introduction to Handling a Long Sword, trans. by David Johnston (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing), pp. 30; 132.

[14] Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalbibliothek, ms 3227a, fol. 20r-v.

[15] Transcription and translation are mine. The editorial principles are the following: abbreviations have been silently expanded, the letters u and v have been modified according to modern standards, and the punctuation has been made in accordance with the translation.

[16] ll. 8153-58 (Macrae Gibson, I, pp. 324-25).

‘Falsely Accused by the Villain’?: A Fishy Trial by Combat in Fifteenth-Century London

Image of two men in fifteenth-century armour fighting on foot with pollaxes. Leeds, Royal Armouries, MS PHIL 1, fol. 1r.

Introduction

One of the more iconic images of the Middle Ages, common in numerous aspects of popular culture, is that of two knightly champions engaged in the judicial combat of a trial by battle.[1] There is a particular example, however, from the middle of the fifteenth century, that can offer some insights into various aspects of martial culture and preparation for judicial combats in late medieval English urban centres.[2] In London, during the autumn of 1446, a dispute arose not between two men at arms or knights, but rather an armourer’s apprentice, John Davy, and his master, William Catour. Davy had accused his master of ‘treson ymagined and doon ayenste’ King Henry VI, and as the truth of the matter could not be determined by conventional legal means, it was decided that it would be resolved in a trial by combat.[3] What would go on to happen in the fight was so unusual that it would even be recounted in William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2.

Preparations for the Combat

A particular aspect which separates this instance of trial by combat from others is in the details surrounding the preparations for the fight, such as those relating to some of the individuals appointed to train the appellant and defendant. Privy council records indicate that Philip Treher, Master Hugh Payne, and John Latimer were hired for the purpose of ‘teching certain pointes of armis’ to Davy and Catour (Treher was appointed to Davy, whilst the other two taught Catour). Whilst the names mean little by themselves, a particularly striking detail is that Treher – appointed by the crown to prepare a man to defend his own life – is described not as a professional master of arms, but as ‘Philip Treher fyshmonger’.[4] The answers as to where, when, and how Philip Treher acquired his skill at arms remain unknowable, but there is plenty of evidence demonstrating a widespread practice of martial arts amongst the lower classes in late medieval and Renaissance London from coroners’ rolls, legal statutes, and even the records of the sixteenth-century fencing organisation the Company of Masters of Defence.[5] Whilst no account of how Davy was trained by Treher, the 1448 Fechtbuch of a German fencing master, Hans Talhoffer, prescribes that combatants involved in a judicial duel should train by means of physical activities (he mentions stone and javelin throwing), ritualised processes (regular shaving, praying, and anointing), and engaging in pleasant pursuits (for example listening to music, bathing, and hunting). Talhoffer further states that the combatant should train, in secret, for two hours in the morning and two after noon.[6]

Trial by Battle

On the morning of the combat, both men donned their armour, made their peace with God, and prepared to fight for their lives. There was, however, one crucial difference in their final preparations which would have a dramatic impact on the outcome. In order to calm Catour’s (understandably) nervous disposition, his friends had plied him with ‘so moch wyne and good ale, that he was therwith distemperyd’.[7] Having imbibed too much alcohol he was soon in no condition to produce a competent defence. Whilst there is no detailed narrative of the fight, there are other examples of judicial duels fought in the same location, Smithfield, for which descriptions survive that can show what such combats were like.[8] For example, one fight between John Annesley and Thomas Catteron in 1380 finished with Catterton unable to continue the fight (and summarily executed) as a result of the heat, weight of his harness, and energy he had expended whilst wrestling on the ground.[9] An even more gruesome end punctuated the resolution of a desperate encounter between Thomas Whytehorne and James Fyscher. This fight, which happened almost a decade after the one between Davy and Catour, witnessed how Whytehorne ‘caste that meke innocent (Fyscher) downe to the grownde and bote hym by the membrys’, that is to say his genitalia. Fyscher responded by biting his opponent’s nose and gouging out his eyes.[10] Given the bloody nature of these fights, it is not difficult to envision how horribly Catour must have been ‘ouercomyn and slayne’ by his former apprentice.[11] His loss in the combat proved the truth of the case, and it was thus determined that he was the traitor that he had been accused of being. The chronicler William Gregory relates that ‘the mayster was slayne and dyspoylde owte of hys harnys, and lay stylle in the fylde alle that day and that nyght next folowynge. And thenne afty[r]ward, by the kyngys commaundement, he was d[r]awyn, hanggyde, and be-heddyde, and hys hedde sette on London Brygge, and the body hynggyng a-bove erthe be-syde the towre’.[12]

As for Philip Treher, the fishmonger and part-time fencing master who had educated the victorious Davy, he was clearly considered to be an instructor of some ability: he had already been employed in 1446 on the same grounds to teach Thomas fitz-Thomas, the Hospitaller prior of Kilmainham Abbey, pertaining to a suit he had brought against the Earl of Ormonde, and was hired again in 1453 for a case involving John Lyalton and Robert Norreys.[13] These other cases allow us to build a more complete image of Treher as a fencer: Lyalton and Norreys, for example, were to fight with glaives, short swords, daggers, and axes (instead of longswords), indicating some of the weapons with which Treher was likely proficient.[14] Nor was Treher paid poorly for this work: he was compensated with £20 for teaching Davy and the prior, approximately the equivalent value of either fifty cows, six hundred and sixty six days of wages for a skilled labourer, or £12,488.10 in today’s terms.[15]

Conclusion

Ultimately, the story of Davy and Catour offers a small but valuable insight into late medieval urban martial culture in England. It is a valuable reminder that judicial combats (and martial prowess), despite their modern chivalric depictions, were not solely within the purview of knighthood and the nobility. Given the limited details available for fencing masters known to have existed in fifteenth-century England, it also serves as an important insight as to what their careers could look like and how they could expect to be paid, although a contact with the crown was likely much more financially rewarding than a fencing master could expect from clients.

A final word, however, should be given to events which took place some time after the execution of William Catour. Although found guilty in the trial, two later sources – Fabyan’s chronicle, and the later retelling of the narrative by Shakespeare – both imply that Catour was innocent, and had been accused maliciously. In Henry VI. Part 2 his character (renamed to Thomas Horner), exclaims that he is ‘falsely accused by the villain’ as revenge for striking him.[16] Given the fate of Davy, this may have been true. This judicial combat was not to be John Davy’s final run in with the law: he himself was eventually sentenced to death by hanging for committing an unnamed felony, raising all sorts of questions about the veracity of the claims that he had brought against the man who had one been his own master and teacher.[17]

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Dr Karen Watts and Messrs Samuel Bradley and Iain Dyson for their thoughts.

Cite this article as: jacobhenrydeacon, "‘Falsely Accused by the Villain’?: A Fishy Trial by Combat in Fifteenth-Century London," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 20/11/2019, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/404.

[1] For an overview of single combat in modern media and its link to historical sources, see Jacob Henry Deacon, ‘La Posta di Falcone and La Porta di Ferro: Depictions of Combat in Medieval and Modern Media’, in The Middle Ages in Modern Culture: History and Authenticity in Contemporary Medievalism, ed. by Robert Houghton and Karl Alvestad (London: I. B Taurus, forthcoming).

[2] For trial by combat in late medieval England see Ariella Elema, ‘Trial by Battle in France and England’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Toronto, 2012).

[3] Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, Volume 6, ed. by Harris Nicolas (London: G. Eyre and A. Spottiswoode, 1837), p. 56.

[4] Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, Volume 6, p. 59.

[5] For the records of the Company of Masters, see London, British Library, MS Sloane 2530. A transcription of the manuscript has been published, see Herbert Berry, The Noble Science: A Study and Transcription of Sloane Ms. 2530, Papers of the Masters of Defence of London, Temp. Henry VIII to 1590 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991).

[6] For an analysis of Talhoffer’s approach to trial by combat, see Daniel Jaquet, ‘Six Weeks to Prepare for Combat: Instruction and Practices from the Fight Books at the End of the Middle Ages, a Note on Ritualised Single Combats’, in Killing and Being Killed: Bodies in Battle. Perspectives on Fighters in the Middle Ages, ed. by Jörg Rogge (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2017), pp. 131-64.

[7] Robert Fabyan, The New Chronicles of England and France, ed. by Henry Ellis (London: F. C. & J. Rivington, 1811) p. 618.

[8] Smithfield was one of the most important centres of martial activity in medieval England. It was used not only for staging judicial combats, but also jousts and other tournament activity. For a summary of such formal combats see Rachel Whitbread, ‘Tournaments, Jousts and Duels: Formal Combats in England and France, circa 1380-1440’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of York, 2013).

[9] Thomas Walsingham, The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, 1376-1422, trans. by David Preest (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005), pp. 105-06.

[10] The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century, ed. by James Gairdner (London: Camden Society, 1876) pp. 199-202.

[11] Fabyan, The New Chronicles, p. 618.

[12] The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London, p. 187.

[13] Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, Volume 6, pp. 57-59 and p. 129.

[14] Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, Volume 6, p. 129.

[15] Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, Volume 6; Figures calculated with The National Archives’ currency converter, online: <http: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter> (accessed 03/09/2019).

[16] William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, 1.3.192-94.

[17] Fabyan, The New Chronicles of England and France, p. 618.