Entertainment for Kings

Entertainment for Kings

Entertainment for Kings

Plantagenets- Richard Lionheart and John Lackland in Disney’s adaptation of the legend of Robin Hood (1973)
Plantagenets- Richard Lionheart and John Lackland in Disney’s adaptation of the legend of Robin Hood (1973)

Medieval kings would, in times of boredom, help themselves to wine and immerse in the more interesting works of literature that their court writers would compile for them. Should you believe that medieval literature is limited to transcripts from the Bible and sermons of the church fathers, you are terribly wrong. Medieval literature is replete with stories about vampires, werewolves, fantastic creatures and faraway lands full of various wonders. Like a true royal highness, I bear with the isolation by reading medieval fiction, together with barbaric wine drinking. I say barbaric because drinking pure wine, which is not watered down, was to a medieval mind an indecent, barbaric way of consuming it. So, if I start running out of it, I will have to resort to the medieval methods. 

In the Middle Ages, they had a saying that an uneducated king was like a crowned donkey. Wisdom was perceived as a “friendship with the Divinity … From it are born truth of speculation, and of thought, and holy and pure chastity of action”(Quote from Hugh of Saint Victor’s philosophical-theological work Didascalion). Knowledge brings us back to the original state of human soul’s purity, it can elevate the soul to the divine semblance, and literature is the road to that advancement. 

How do werewolves, vampires, fairies, lamias and monstrous men with the head of a dog fit into the road to self-improvement? Gervase of Tilbury, the court writer of Henry II Plantagenet, was of the opinion that there was more to our world than our philosophy. In other words, we know that we know nothing. The medieval man, upon discovering other lands and cultures, realized that his knowledge was more than restricted, and that wisdom is attainable only with our imperfect, earthly senses: “It appears that the man exists solely to learn and discover, observe and listen to this world’s marvels, until in so doing, he finds the most glorious God, sublime and magnificent creator of the world, who should be revered by praise and respect”(a quote from the introduction to the first encyclopaedia in common, vulgar Latin Composizione del mondo by Ristoro d’Arezzo, 1282, translated by Milena Kaličanin). 

In line with the notion that God can only be found with our imperfect senses, in the times when it was quite impossible to do it even that way because of the physical limitations to travel, what was unavailable to human senses became the subject of fantasy. It is not by chance that when the Plantagenets returned home with their tail between legs after the First Crusade failure, their court writers began a fruitful literary activity dedicated especially to the unexplored realms of world wonders and the unnatural. De nugis curialium (The Courtiers’ Trifles) by Walter Map, Otia imperialia (Recreation for An Emperor) by Gervase of Tilbury, and Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Irland) by Gerald of Wales, are books rife with depictions of monstrous creatures and landscapes. Gerald of Wales in his Topographia Hibernica, has a chapter tilteld “A comparison of the east and west; and that in the east all the elements are pestiferous, and of the malignity of poison there”. There, he writes: „What wealth then can Eastern lands boast which is comparable to these advantages? They possess, indeed, those silken fabrics, the produce of a little worm, which glow with colours of various dyes. They have the precious metals, and sparkling gems, and odoriferous trees. But what are these, procured at the cost of life and health? Are they not attended with the presence of a familiar enemy – the air the Orientals breathe, and which constantly surrounds them?” (Translated by Thomas Forester)Sour grapes…

The works of medieval fiction are nothing else than forefathers and precursors of fairy tales belonging to various traditions. Story “The Dark Vilayet”, recorded by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, is actually the oral interpretation of a tale found in the Serbian version of the popular medieval novel about Alexander the Great. This novel, known as Aleksandrida was a favourite among the readings of Serbian rulers from which they learned about warfare. In the manuscript of Aleksandrida, Alexander the Great takes his army to a dark vilayet (vilayet is an Ottoman term for province or district) and orders the soldiers to bring something from that land back with them – wood, stone, leaves, whatever they may find. Those who obeyed were rewarded, and those who ridiculed him, regretted. When they came out of the vilayet, everything they took turned into gold, pearls and gemstones. The moral of the medieval tale is that disobeying orders has consequences, and the need for including a moral in the writing is a commonplace in medieval literary genres. Vuk’s version is far more interesting because it contains an unnatural element – the voice of unknown origin, which addresses the soldiers with the following words: “Whosoever should take these stones shall regret it, and whosoever does not, shall regret it, too” (translated by Milena Kaličanin).

The motif of an army wandering away to the other side is rather frequent in medieval fiction. Walter Map has a very amusing and dark story about a Breton king Herla, who encounters a pigmy emperor that invites him as a guest to his wedding. Herla goes with his convoy to the pigmy kingdom in a deep cave, where they spend three days at the festive wedding banquet. Upon return, the pigmies bestow upon the king a small hound, warning him that nobody is to get off the horse before the dog wishes to jump from his arms. The army then leave the cave and meet a peasant, whom the king asks after his queen. The baffled peasant, being a Saxon himself, hardly understood the question: three days spent in the cave were actually two hundred years, during which the Saxons banished the Bretons. Hearing this, some of the soldiers jumped from their horses, but turned into dust the moment they touched the ground. Herla, according to Map, still wanders the earth searching for his army of ‘undead’, because the puppy hasn’t decided to jump from his arms yet. 

A venture to the other side in medieval fiction always brings some gifts, even if they are pernicious like Herla’s dog. From psychological aspect, these tales can be interpreted in various ways. The story from Aleksandrida, where roaming the other side brings riches, could be seen as correlating to the benefits of psychoanalysis, and we can observe that relativity of the time flow in the story of Herla is congruent with the dreamer’s perception of time. Since I’m not a psychologist and don’t wish to enter the unknown territories, I will refer you to the work of James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, that examines mythical stories and fairy tales from the perspective of contemporary psychology. 

Just like the tale “Dark Vilayet”, fairy tales that are rooted in medieval novels and collections about unnatural occurrences get different epilogues in different European peoples’ traditions, corresponding to their mindset. Once again, I have to refer to Vuk Stefanović Karadzić, whose work was equivalent to that of the medieval fiction compilers. Vuk’s compiling work did not result from drinking coffee with Serbian peasants who would then tell him fairy tales and folklore; he would rather systematically visit monasteries and churches, engaging himself in industrious transcription. Vuk was also buying manuscripts and had an ample collection that, when struck with poverty, he was forced to sell. Today, it is in parts: in Vienna, Berlin and Saint Petersburg.

Ilustracija: Bosiljka Kićevac, „Nemušti jezik“

Ilustracija: Bosiljka Kićevac, „Nemušti jezik“

Recorded stories sometimes come in two versions – shorter, originating from the manuscripts and longer, adorned with the folk fancy. 

“The Silent Language”I, illustrated by Bosiljka Kićevac 

One of the most brilliant stories published by Vuk is “The Silent Language”. It has all features of a successful fairy tale – moral virtues, the unnatural element, crossing to the other side – spiced up with peculiar motifs that make it a typical Serbian tale. The digest version of the tale follows: A peasant takes his sheep to graze and finds a helpless snake surrounded by fire. Feeling sorry for it, he helps it escape by lending a wooden stick for it to climb. The snake thanks him and says it wishes to bring the man to its father, the snake king, who will then offer him various riches for his noble deed. However, it advises him to reject the gifts and asks only for the “silent language.” Here begins the peasant’s journey to the other side, with the snake as a guide to its father’s palace (I feel like I need to make an important digression here, emphasizing that snake in this region has been an attribute of chthonic deities – deities of the underworld – since ancient history. As such, we find it in the cult of Zeus Sbelsurd, a deity worshiped among the local Thracian people. In this story, it takes up the antique role of a psychopomp, the soul’s guide through the underworld). So, the snake takes the man before its father, the man asks for the “silent language”, and after a short dispute and snake king’s reluctance to give the man what he asked, we come to a picturesque description of the snake king spitting in the man’s mouth, thus giving him what he wanted, and warns him not to tell anyone of this gift, because If he does, he will instantly die. Upon leaving the snake king’s realm, the man realizes that he can understand the language of animals. We also find the story of the silent language in Italian folk literature, recorded and published by Italo Calvino in the 1950s. The Italian version does not contain the detail of the snake’s wet gift, and the peasant uses it to become the wisest man in the west-European religious culture – the pontiff. Our Serbian peasant uses his gift to get what an average Serb finds the most important: wealth and a pretty wife. Both Italian and our story of the silent language, have their roots in older medieval fiction. This is also supported by the fact that structure of the Serbian tale, where forbiddance to reveal the unnatural encounter is accentuated, equals that of the medieval classics. And just like in medieval classics, Vuk’s tale has an important moral in the end. 

Instead of resolving it with the peasant becoming rich and happily wedded, Vuk gives us the ending that reveals the true charm of our mentality: one day, the peasant laughs when he hears his horse and mare talking about how his wife is pregnant. Curious wife asks him why he is laughing, and he replies that he cannot tell. But the more he resists, the more persistent she is. Then they come home and he orders a coffin and lies in it, ready to reveal his unearthly gift. He then hears his faithful dog and a rooster talking. The roster says: “I have a hundred wives and I lure them all with one corn kernel, and when they come, I eat it. If any of them starts to grumble, I immediately peck her on the head. And my master, he cannot handle this one wife he has” (translated by Milena Kaličanin). When the man hears it, he gets up from the coffin, takes a wooden stick and calls his (pregnant) wife: “Come, wife, come to hear why I laughed” and he starts beating her. “This is why! This is why!” So the woman quiets down and never asks him why he laughed ever again. 

A Serbian tale with a Serbian moral. 

If you think this is beyond the pale, wait until I tell you about the fate of the Serbian fairy Ravijojla…

To be continued… 


AA.VV., La pensée encyclopedique au moyen âge, Neuchàtel, 1966

AA.VV. L’Enciclopedismo medievale, a c. di M. Picone,  Ravenna, 1994

Gervasio di Tilbury, Otia imperialia -libro III le meraviglie del mondo, a cura di Fortunata Latella, Carocci editore, 2010.

Giraldo Cabernense, Agli estremi confini d’Occidente, a cura di Melita Cataldi, Strenna Utet, 2002.

Dimitrije Bogdanović, Istorija stare srpske književnosti, Srpska književna zadruga, 1991., str. 6

Žak Le Gof, Srednjovekovno imaginarno, Izdavačka knjižarnica Zorana Stojanovića Sremski Karlovci, 1999., str 52.

Jacqueline Hamesse, II modello della lettura nell ‘eta della scolastica”, in Storia della lettura nel mondo occidentale, ed. C. Cavallo and R. Chartier, Roma,1995, pp. 91-115.

Michelangelo Picone (a cura di), L’Enciclopedismo medievale, Ravenna, 1994.

Rastislav Marić, Antički kultovi u našoj zemlji,Beograd, 1933., str. 19.

Ristoro D’Arezzo, La Composizione del mondo di R. d’A., a c. di E.. Narducci, Roma 1859 (Milano 1864)

Roman o Troji/ Roman o Aleksandru, priredila prof. Dr Radmila Marinkovič, Prosveta, Beograd, 1986., str 129.

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