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Arthurian Bourdes: Introduction

1 For instances of the hat, and instances of medieval uses of the hood, see Williams, Dictionary of Sexual Language, under cap.

2 “How Candalus kyng of Lide was made Cokewold and aftir slayn,” Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, ed. Bergen, part 1, book 2, lines 3358–67.

3 Edited by Salisbury in Trials and Joys of Marriage, lines 85–87.

4 Erickson’s introduction, p. 2; for “Annot and Johon” see Brown, English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century , p. 138.
Both Sir Corneus and The Boy and the Mantle take a very cynical view of King Arthur’s court and its sexual honor, seeing adulterous love at court as laughable, widespread, and embarrassing rather than rare and elevating.

Sir Corneus, called in some previous editions The Cokwolds Dance, tells of King Arthur’s humiliation of the cuckolds at his court, and the consequences when a magic drinking horn reveals to him for the first time that he is one of their number. It is a transition text in the symbolizing of cuckoldry in English culture. In England medieval cuckolds were given a hood by their wives, as putting a hood on someone was symbolic of any sort of trickery; Renaissance cuckolds notoriously had horns or perhaps wore willow garlands or hats. A willow garland was symbolic of forsaken love, as in John Heywood’s “Ballad of the Green Willow” (published with his works in 1562) or Desdemona’s song in Othello, 4.3.1 Lydgate’s phrasing in his translation of Boccaccio’s Fall of Princes in the mid-fifteenth century suggests that the horned cuckold was still a foreign concept at the time:
a certeyn knyht
Giges callid, thyng shamful to be told,
To speke pleyn Inglissh, made hym a cokold.

Alas I was nat auysid weel beforn,
On-cunnyngli to speke such language;
I sholde ha said, how that he hadde an horn,
Or souht sum teerme with a fair visage
Texcuse my rudnesse off this gret outrage,
As in sum land Cornodo men them call,
And summe afferme how such folk haue no gall.2
And in his Payne and Sorowe of Evyll Maryage, Lydgate combines both old and new symbols of cuckoldry:
And yf so be he be no spereman good,
Hit may well hap he shall have an horn,
A large bone to stuff wythall his hood.3
In our poem cuckolds wear garlands of willow on their heads at King Arthur’s behest; at line 186 they rejoice that now King Arthur will have to wear a “cokwoldes hate”; and the poem is named Sir Corneus after its pretended author, a knight who served at Arthur’s court (see lines 244–49). The Latin adjective corneus means “of horn.” And of course the magical object that diagnoses cuckoldry in the poem is itself a horn, taken from the head of a wild ox and used for drinking, though that is true in much earlier analogues of this story without any suggestion that the horn drinking vessel has any relation to the figurative cuckold’s horn.

The most familiar story of the chastity-testing horn for a late fifteenth-century reader­ship in England would have been the story in book 8, chapter 34 of Caxton’s edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (1485), where Morgan le Faye spitefully sends a magic drinking horn to King Arthur’s court, but the knight carrying it is intercepted by Sir Lamerok and made to carry it to King Mark of Cornwall’s court instead. King Mark makes his queen, Isolde, drink from the horn, and a hundred other ladies of the court as well. Those who have been false to their husbands cannot drink from the horn without spilling. Only four succeed in drinking (Isolde is of course not among them, because of her love of the king’s nephew, Sir Tristram). King Mark wants to burn the guilty women to death, but his barons object that they will not have their ladies burned for a horn made by sorcery. King Arthur’s court is never tested by this horn, but the fidelity rate at King Mark’s court is comically low, and the noblemen (who presumably are themselves participants in this busy extramarital sexual interchange) are determined to leave well enough alone and to close their eyes to any indication that their wives are unfaithful to them. The comedy and cynicism of the passage are uncharacteristic of Malory’s depiction of adultery at King Arthur’s court, where it is instead serious and elevated. Sir Corneus trains the cynicism and comedy directly at Arthur.

Like Sir Corneus, The Boy and the Mantle is the story of a chastity test at Arthur’s court that produces embarrassing results. Or rather The Boy and the Mantle is a series of three chastity tests involving three magic objects — mantle, knife, and drinking horn — instead of the one object of Sir Corneus. But The Boy and the Mantle is more thoroughly Arthurian: the naming of Guenever herself as well as Kay and Craddock links the poem more specifi­cally to the romances of Arthurian tradition. Whereas the queen is the only female character of Sir Corneus and she barely appears there, there are other women tested in The Boy and the Mantle. Nevertheless it is clear in The Boy and the Mantle, as it is in Sir Corneus, that humiliation is being visited on the men of Arthur’s court as well as their women. The tests of the knife and the horn are tests that the men take. Craddock wins by passing the tests, though his winning is dependent on his wife’s behavior. In other words, in medieval fashion, a man’s honor is dependent on his wife’s sexual honor.

Various features of The Boy and the Mantle are found, some in one analogue and some in another, but no analogue includes all these features. It is possible that there was an original version of the tale combining these features, now lost. For The Boy and the Mantle, the most detailed tracing of analogues in print is still the introduction to the poem in Francis Child’s English and Scottish Ballads, vol. 1.2 (1884), # 29. Child’s work was originally published as ten volumes in five (Houghton, Mifflin, 1882–98) and continues to be readily available as a reprint (Dover Publications). Naturally there have since appeared more modern editions of the various analogues that he describes.

The closest of the analogues for Sir Corneus is the Anglo-Norman Robert Biket’s late twelfth-century Lai du cor: see The Anglo-Norman Text of “Le Lai du cor,” ed. C. T. Erickson. Erickson’s introduction contains a clear and systematic comparison of the various early versions of the Arthurian chastity-test stories involving both horns and mantles: the Old French Livre de Carados in the First Continuation of Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval (Conte de Graal), Heinrich von dem Türlin’s Middle High German Diu Krône (The Crown), the Old French Prose Tristan, a French text that is the source of the same scene in Malory’s Morte Darthur (all the preceding for horn stories); the Middle High German Lanzelet by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven; the Old French Le Mantel mautaillié; and the Middle High German Der Mantel, also thought to be by Heinrich von dem Türlin. A recent edition of both Le Lai du cor and Le Mantel mautaillié is to be found, together with translations into modern French and a commentary in French, in “Le Lai du cor” et “Le Manteau mal taillé,” Les dessous de la Table Ronde, ed. Nathalie Koble. The more problematic question of the priority and relation of Welsh analogous stories of Caradog and his beloved Tegau has yet to be resolved: Welsh allusions to the mantle story, discussed by Jane Cartwright in “Virginity and Chastity Tests,” are all late, no earlier than the fifteenth century. But as Erickson points out, Tegeu or Tegau is named earlier in an English poem as connected with Cradoc; in the thirteenth-century “Annot and Johon” the beloved is “Trewe as Tegeu in tour” and a few lines later “Cuð ase Cradoc in court carf þe brede,” as well known as Cradoc who carved the roasted flesh at court.4 These lines imply the presence of the story in England in the thirteenth century from a Welsh source because of the name Tegau (as opposed, for example, to the Guignier of the First Continuation of Perceval or the nameless heroine of The Boy and the Mantle). And they add the notion of carving, the third chastity test incorporated into the ballad.

Relatively little besides the tracing of their analogues and potential sources is to be found specifically on the English texts of The Boy and the Mantle and Sir Corneus, but for The Boy and the Mantle, Gwendolyn A. Morgan, Medieval Balladry and the Courtly Tradition, argues that the ballad “presents the commoner’s prosaic perception of the Arthur myth” (p. 61). George Shuffelton’s Explanatory Notes for Sir Corneus in his edition of Codex Ashmole 61 are very useful (see his notes, pp. 481–84). Readers interested in analysis of gender politics of the two tales should consider, with due attention to the differences between the poems and their analogues, Peggy McCracken on the Old French analogues in her Romance of Adultery, especially pp. 52–83, and R. Howard Bloch on the genre of the Arthurian fabliau in Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love, especially pp. 94–97. An analysis of analogous Arthurian chastity tests in various languages including Robert Biket’s Lai du cor and Malory’s Morte Darthur as well as the Italian Tristan and the German Diu Crône is to be found in Kathleen Coyne Kelly’s Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity.

Go To Sir Corneus: Introduction
Go To Sir Corneus
Go To The Boy and the Mantle: Introduction
Go To The Boy and the Mantle