Tuesday, May 20, 2014

England's Broken Sword

Among the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom is a broken sword. Its blade is missing about six inches at the business end. There are several legends, but no known facts, about where this came from and how it came to be this way. Today, it's known as the "Sword of Mercy," and used in coronations because it is symbolic of a monarch's need to be merciful.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Roland and the Death of Heroism

After failing to gain control of the Spanish city of Zaragoza, Charlemagne brought his troops back across the Pyrinees to France. As they crossed through the mountain pass at Roncesvalles, the rearguard was set upon by Basques (who likely mistook the army for an attack on their homeland), and many men died. Among them was Hruodland, prefect of the Breton marches.

This is history. These events are known to have happened. Hruodland died on the 15th of August, 778. The facts known to us from the early ninth century, as they appear in one of the first biographies of the emperor. Nothing else at all is known about Hruodland, and little about the battle in which he was killed (though Islamic sources preserve a great deal of information about why Charlemagne and his army were in Spain at that time in the first place). But the memory of the battle persisted oral lore, so that by the twelfth century it was an especially famous moment in the French national memory.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Three Matters of Medieval Literature

There are three subjects within the sphere of European history with which every educated High Medieval European reader could be expected to be familiar, for they serve to provide much of the content for a wealth of literature in the period: Classical Antiquity, Arthur's Britain, and Charlemagne's France. In no case was the expected knowledge terribly accurate (in fact it's probable one of the the three matters is a complete fabrication), but it's likely the stories were widely taken as, if not strictly factual, at least rooted in true history. And, tellingly, many of the later literary works dealing with these subjects assume the reader's familiarity with the material. The skill of the Medieval author lies in presenting a story well, with novel details and artful presentation, even more than in telling tales wholly unfamiliar to the audience.

These three subjects were recognized as important literary genres by the poet Jean Bodel (1165-1210), but continue to be prominent in literature up through the Early Modern Period. For example, there is an abundance of material on each subject in the Romancero Viejo tradition, though an even greater selection deals with the history of Spain. In each case, themes prevalent in the literature of the time and space in which the work is produced are introduced into the depiction of the past; much as, today, Robin Hood stories remain popular but the newest presentations of the material have come to be very different in character from the oldest, early modern Spanish presentations of Carolingian material will fairly consistently be spun in such a way as to attach glory to Spanish identity while also often showing a certain battle-weariness, whereas a Middle English retelling of a Classical myth will introduce anachronistic themes of knighthood, chivalry, and courtly love. These stories retained their prominence not because their themes were timeless and universal, but, on the contrary, because they could adapt to present themes that were especially weighty in the minds of their tellers. It takes a talented writer indeed to tell an old story known to the entire audience, while giving it a renewed significance that grants it an impact beyond any it may have had for them previously.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Liar's Dice

Oral lore among those who play has it that the Hispano-American game of Dudo (Sp., lit. "doubt" or "I doubt [it]", but also the word used to call a bluff made by the previous player) is the oldest of the games in the family collectively known as "liar's dice." The game is also called Perudo, after its supposed origins in Peru. (It's certainly known there, as well as in Spain.) The story goes that the game was brought back to Spain by the conquistadores, and all other variants flow from there; many people say specifically that the rules were taught to Francisco Pizarro by his prisoner, the Sapa Inca Atahuallpa.


There's no evidence for this origin, and plenty of reason to find it highly improbable. But the traditional game family is well worth playing, and the diversity of customs surrounding its play is worth a look.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Special Characters in Folk Festivals

Around the world, across many centuries, traditional festivals feature the portrayal of traditional characters unique to the occasion. Many of these have ancient roots, though every one can be seen to have changed over time. Such characters are, in general, anonymous (or at least able to step out of their performers' everyday selves), tied to the context in which they are seen, and consistent from one instance of the event to the next (even if the performers change as years go by); most are associated with dance or other performance.