Uther’s Christmas Knight (Thesis Thursday #2)

Each Thursday, I’ll be stringing together some of the disconnected thoughts I’ve had about the subject of my dissertation in a feature I call Thesis Thursday.  Today’s entry doesn’t quite build on the last, and would appear much later in my project, but it is the week of Christmas, and part of the story of Arthur’s father Uther has a legitimate connection to the season, so here are with some thoughts on Uther’s Christmas Knight. Since the summary takes so long, and since most of my thoughts aren’t actually Christmas related, this week’s post is also mostly just a funny little story.  More real thinking next Thursday, I promise.

Image credit http://arctangent.smugmug.com/keyword/cherry/1/431672798_hwysj#431679629_DroEx

Have you ever heard the tale of Sir Cleges?1 It’d probably help if you had. So here goes:

It was Christmastime, back in the good old days when Uther Pendragon reigned, but in the home of a certain knight, Sir Cleges, all was not well. He was deeply in debt, with only one small hovel to call his own, and so overextended to his many creditors that he could not afford to keep that running much longer, either.

The reason for the dire situation was this: each Christmas for many years Cleges had thrown a lavish party, hiring the realm’s best minstrels and musicians and inviting all who could come, rich and poor alike, into his home for a feast that put even the king’s table to shame. But minstrels and mutton legs do not come cheap, and after ten or twelve years of parties he and his wife, the lovely and well-mannered Dame Clarys, had found they could no longer afford the tradition. Rather than stop, they simply leased out his many other estates, for he was a powerful knight with many lands to his name, and when the money from rents was not enough he sold them, and when that was spent he took out many loans, all so that the parties could continue.

But now there was nothing left. There would be no feast, for Cleges only had just enough to feed his wife and his two children. After much despair over what he had given away so easily, Cleges prayed to God to provide so that once again he could give freely to all who needed it, rich and poor alike. Later that night, on the way back from midnight mass, Cleges’s wife gently reminds him “You know, you probably should pray for me and the children, too.” He does, and she prays for him in turn. Every base covered, Clarys takes the children home, Cleges to follow, only he stops first to pray one last time2 falling to his knees in a garden he happens upon along the way. When Cleges reaches up to grab a branch to help himself up from his knees, his fingers find fruit: cherries growing in the dead of winter. A sign. But more than a sign. An opportunity!

Clarys realizes this immediately and bids Cleges fill a basket with the fruit and take it to the king. “Surely,” she says, pushing him out the door, “a king would pay good money for some of this miraculous fruit you found.”3 Cleges agrees and takes his son along for the trip, both clad in beggars’ array and on foot, for the horses had all been sold, too.

When the two arrive at King Uther’s castle, the porter will not let them in, thinking them just two paupers come to beg. When Cleges shows him the cherries, the porter changes his tune, but adds, “If you want to see the king, you’ll have to promise to give me a third of whatever he gives you.” They reluctantly agree, only to find they must make the same promise to the king’s usher and to the king’s steward, so that no matter what Uther gives them, they will leave with nothing, having promised a third part two three different royal hangers on.

Finally, Cleges and his son present the cherries to Uther, who is so pleased he offers them whatever their hearts desire. Cleges asks the king give him twelve hard strokes from a rod.4 Uther begs him to choose some other gift, but Cleges is firm, and once it’s granted, he goes off and beats the holy hell out of the porter, the usher, and the steward in turn, giving them each a third of the promised twelve blows.

While Cleges is off terrorizing the king’s staff, Uther falls into a brown study and urges his minstrel, “Play something pretty, to help me shake this mood.” The harpist plays a story in song, the story of Sir Cleges,5 a popular tune among the minstrels of the realm, the story of the most generous knight in all of Christendom, who always paid the minstrels well when they played his parties, which were the grandest anyone could ever remember. Uther curiously asks the harpist if he knows the name of the poor man who earlier gave him the cherries, and the harpist replies, “Oh, that was Sir Cleges. I thought you’d remember him. Wasn’t he was one of your greatest and best knights, before he lost all his money?”

Uther is flabbergasted. “Cleges? Didn’t he die or something years ago?” About that time Cleges returns from distributing his reward, and Uther asks him what he was up to. Cleges explains about the whole third part bribe thing, and they all have a good laugh. Uther thinks it’s such a funny joke, the steward is summoned so that they can laugh at how grumpy getting beaten with a stick has made him. When the laughter dies down, Uther remembers he never asked the poor beggar his name,6 and when he does, Cleges reveals himself. Uther is so happy to have his best knight back that he gives Cleges Cardiff castle, makes him his new steward, and sends him home with bags of gold and a special golden cup for Clarys.

And they all lived happily ever after, until they died and went to heaven (where they were even happier).7

So what does all this have to do with my thesis? Though clever, it must be admitted that the story has on face very little to do with Uther Pendragon, even though it’s set in his reign.  Nearly any king could sub in for him if he were to come down with a winter cold and it wouldn’t have much effect on Cleges’ story.  Frankly, that’s not too different from the sort of situation Uther finds himself in a lot in the medieval sources.  He’s just not all that vital to what’s going on.

But there are, however, a couple of moments that crop up in Sir Cleges that become weirder when you consider the things Uther gets up to elsewhere, and I’m not entirely convinced that the weirdness isn’t intentional on the part of one of the scribes or the distant author of the tale. In this post, I’ll limit myself to just one bit of weirdness, and save the rest for another day.

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  1. Not Cliges, that’s a totally different dude. []
  2. This is a medieval tale, you remember. Praying was big then. []
  3. Again, it’s the Middle Ages. The king couldn’t pop into Whole Foods for some cherries flown in from Venezuala–or wherever it is Whole Foods gets them this time of year. []
  4. He doesn’t specify the weapon that will deliver the blows, and one scribe instead calls them “dents,” which is a nice way of putting it, I think, even if the word didn’t quite have the same meaning then as now. []
  5. Only one scribe mentions the song’s subject. []
  6. Apparently forgetting he asked the minstrel that same question only moments before. []
  7. Medieval stories often end with a notice of the deaths of those involved. Weird, I know. []

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  • stu

    It’s a fun story, but it’s also an interesting demonstration of the layers of informal patronage and largess that went along with the more formal kind through medieval society. You have the reinforcement of the idea that it’s okay to go bankrupt showing largess to others, the notion of it being a kingly duty to be generous to followers (which even quite obvious ‘baddies’ in medieval literature such as Louis in the Raul de Cambrai, and indeed R de C himself were), but also some interesting commentary on the extent to which this only applied to some individuals, and how attempting to force such generosity would still be wrong.

    It also put me in mind of the importance of a broader mix of formal and informal duties than some analyses of medieval society put forward. It’s at this point that I must inevitably recommend David Crouch’s work as a good thing to look at for this more informal side (his work on William Marshall is a good one for noble/knightly classes, but the same concerns, and his concept of the ‘affinity’ as a replacement for more formal constructions of homage kind of flow through most of it).

    Um, it occurs to me at this point that when I did my PhD, the majority of comments pointing me towards things weren’t that much help. So apologies if that’s the case here. The trouble is, I can also think of a couple of times when things were a lot more useful than they initially seemed, so now I can’t very well delete all this either.  

  • Steve Muhlberger

    At my house on Christmas Eve you have to sing or play or recite before you can get your first gift. This story will be my recitation tonight. So appropriate, a story about Christmas giving.

    • http://www.gotmedieval.com Got Medieval

      You do Christmas in the Arthurian manner, then. No dining until word of some new adventure! A word of advice: if ever a man with a skin color usually found in a pack of Skittles comes to Christmas and offers a bargain that seems to be weighted towards your end to an absurd degree, it’s probably best not to take it.  These things never go well.

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