Uther’s Christmas Knight (Thesis Thursday #2)

One difficulty in talking about what’s actually going on in Cleges stems from its limited survival.  There are only two extant manuscripts, neither derived from the other, both a couple of removes down the game of telephone from what must have been an earlier common source, and the two are different enough that many of the scenes play out slightly differently from one to the other.  For instance, as I already mentioned in a footnote,1 in only one of the two (the Advocates MS, also known as the A-text) does the harping minstrel identify Cleges in the song he sings. Moreover, the scribe of the A-text is in general less sympathetic toward the hero, often a word here or there changed that lessens the somewhat saintly aura the B-text (the Bodleian MS, originally called the Ashmole MS) seems to be trying to amp up. We know more about the scribe who produced the B-text because the manuscript he scribed was his personal commonplace book, a collection of stories, songs, recipes, lyrics, and whatever else seemed interesting enough for him to want to hold onto.2 We even know his name, William Rate, because he tacks an Amen quod Rate onto the end of one of the fragments he collected.3

All in all, William Rate was a peculiar fellow, and trying to figure out why he chose to copy a text and why to pair it with another he copied is often an exercise in free-association at best, but he seems to have several broadly defined interests, the most pertinent of which for Cleges was his love of romances featuring happy husbands and wives. Cleges falls squarely into that genre niche, certainly.

Further, because of his idiosyncratic copying habits, Rate also was somewhat hard on the texts he copied. If he accidentally wrote down the wrong word at the end of a line in a tail-rhyme romance, for instance, rather than going back and correcting his error, he would just change the end of the next line to rhyme with the word he accidentally wrote, even if it meant creating gibberish. And if there was something interesting coming up later in the story, particularly something like a dramatic reveal or surprise twist, he usually ended up spoiling it by mentioning it too early.

For example,4 there’s an interesting scene in Sir Orfeo, the medieval retelling of the Orpheus story, in which the disguised hero Orfeo returns to his kingdom and the steward he left in charge of it in disguised as a minstrel, to test the steward to see if he remained loyal to him while he was away saving his girl from the underworld.5 In the version Rate copied from, Orfeo cleverly works his own story into a performance for the steward; pretending he’s speaking hypothetically, he asks something like “What would you say if you were to meet your old king today?” Rate can’t stand the tension and just has the minstrel Orfeo spill the beans from the very beginning, turning the story into a simple admission, “Hey, it’s me, your old king, here’s what happened, now what do you want to say to me?”

Rate’s B-Text of Cleges is the more complete of the two, and thus the version most often used to create modern editions, but because of his habit of changing what he copied to spoil the future story and his general fondness for stories of happy husbands and wives, Rate seems to have inadvertently created a weird moment of dissonance in the story of Uther’s loyal knight. When Cleges brings the cherries to Uther, we’re told that

The king made a present of them
And sent it to a gentle lady
Who was born in Cornwall
She was a lady bright and radiant,
And after this, she became his own queen
Without fail.

The lady to whom the poet alludes is Igraine/Ygerne, who in the usual story will become the mother of King Arthur after Merlin grants Uther the likeness of her husband so that Uther may slip into the castle where she’s hidden away and commence the king-making. Rate knows that story pretty well, it seems likely, because he copied into his copy of Sir Orfeo the very few lines about happy wives and husbands that appear in a very long poem called Of Arthour and Merlin, a poem which details the bedroom fraud Uther gets up to in some detail. If he found those lines amidst all the unhappiness in Of Arthour, he must have gone over it with a pretty fine comb, so surely Rate knew the reason that Igraine was hidden away in the impregnable castle (in which she was nevertheless impregnated). She was there because her husband had to hide her to keep her away from the unseemly attentions of his liege, Uther.

As that story goes, Uther first spies Igraine when he’s holding court and is instantly smitten with her. Later at a banquet, he can’t help but embarrass himself fawning all over her, and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall takes notice and leaves in a huff with Igraine in tow. Uther orders his vassal to return, and when he doesn’t, declares war on him. The Duke, having only one impregnable castle, Tintagel, chooses to put his wife in it and go defend his other castle, which is more pregnable and thus more likely to be attacked by the lusty and warlike king.

I was purposefully evasive there at the beginning of the last paragraph with “that story,” because there are many versions of Uther’s courting of Igraine. The basic structure is always more or less the same, but events are stretched out or compressed depending on the needs of the story. And the amount of time between lust at first sight and Igraine’s secreting away at Tintagel is important if we were to try to line Uther’s actions in Rate’s version of Cleges up with it. In the historical tradition,6 there is barely any time at all between the two. Uther declares war almost immediately after the Duke takes Igraine away, and that flight happens the next day after their first meeting. If Cleges’s Uther is operating on that timetable, then the gift of the unseasonable fruit that he sends to Igraine must actually be sent to her while she’s staying at Tintagel. And that would seem to undercut somewhat one of the central themes of Cleges, the theme that probably attracted Rate to the story in the first place, his love of happily married couples like Cleges and Clarys. The casual aside to Uther’s plans for the cherries allows his less pleasant behavior elsewhere the chance to intrude upon and color the way we read Cleges.

If Rate were instead thinking of the story of Uther and Igraine as it tends to appear in the romance tradition, then there is ample time there for Uther to be sending Igraine a gift of cherries before it would be entirely inappropriate to do so. In Boron’s somewhat standard version, Uther sends Igraine many gifts after meeting her once while holding court, and he then has to sneakily arrange for the Duke and Igraine to be summoned to a subsequent court meeting where he can woo her. In that early period, he’s even careful not to draw attention to his generosity towards Igraine by making sure that he sends all the ladies in her area gifts that are just a slight bit fancier than the ones he sends to her.

It’s only after he finally gets her to his court at Carduel sometime later that Uther becomes openly inappropriate, giving her a very fancy golden cup at dinner that night and insisting she drink from it. If it’s this version Rate had in mind, the allusion to it in Rate’s Cleges is all the more sinister.  While Uther gets off the hook for sending a gift to a woman he’s openly destroying the fabric of his kingdom to woo, Uther’s ill-intended generosity with Igraine in the romance version of their romance implicates Cleges and his own lavish generosity as well as Uther’s own generosity toward Cleges. And worse, Uther in Cleges sends the lovely and loyal Clarys a golden cup, the very object that he uses in the original story when he finally goes too far. Even as the story of Cliges is trying to tie itself into a tidy little bow, Rate’s loose allusions are pulling at the ribbons.

If we look back at the A-Text’s version of the cherries-to-Igraine reference, we can see that, at least in one branch of the tradition, the reference to Igraine was originally more probably muted. In the other manuscript it reads:

The king made a present of them
And sent them to a gentle lady
Who was born in Cornwall.
She was a lady both radiant and shining
And as well lovely to look at,
Without any fault.

The reference to Igraine is still there, but made vague enough that the dissonant note it strikes cannot be so easily pinned down. There’s no explicit mention at all that Igraine will one day be Uther’s queen. And even the last stock line that the two versions share, “Without any fayle/Withouten any feyle” take on completely different meanings in context. In Rate’s version, it seems to suggest the inevitability of Igraine’s destiny to be Uther’s queen. In the A-Text, Igraine is apparently the one who has no failings. Rate is trying to push the happy couple together,7 rushing to the end of their story, but in focusing on the end product, he also ends up making Igraine complicit in the relationship before it has even begun.

In general, I much prefer the anonymous scribe’s version to Rate’s. The original8 references to Uther’s behavior elsewhere (the gifts for Igraine, the gift of the cup to Clarys) provide gentle, unobtrusive contrast to the story of Cleges and Clarys, thereby enhancing the importance the rest of the story demands we place on their relationship. Rate, by trying to give us yet another happy couple in this story of happy couples, and by jumping the gun on Uther’s marriage, accidentally indicts Cleges and Clarys’s happiness by invoking the least happy part of Arthur’s parents story.


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  1. And you all always read every footnote, yes? []
  2. Think Pininterest, but with fewer pictures of hairdos. []
  3. And because a scholar in the ’90’s tracked down all the Rates in the area the MS was from and figured William was the best bet. []
  4. An example not original to me. []
  5. The fact that both Orefeo and Cleges feature stewards, minstrels, and long-lost knights returning in disguise has also been noted. []
  6. Which Of Arthour and Merlin is fairly consistent with. []
  7. In almost every version of Uther and Igraine’s relationship, once the Duke of Cornwall is dead, we’re told she truly loves Uther, even in those stories where Uther later tells her about his deception that got him into her pants. []
  8. Since we do know Rate tends to alter things a good deal, I label the other MS the original, but it’s always possible that it, too, was edited by a mind more subtle than Rate’s into its present form. []

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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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