‘That ay is hende is not to hide’: Torture and Revelation in Arthurian Tradition

Ricardian Register: Journal of the Richard III Society 43.4 (Dec. 2012): 18–22.

By Larissa Tracy

(This article was originally delivered at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Western Michigan, Kalamazoo, May 2012).

One of the most pervasive modern assumptions about the Middle Ages is the proliferation of interrogatory torture carried out in secret—deep in dark dungeons stocked with cruel instruments. Critics and historians have argued that torture was a common occurrence in the medieval world, and that medieval people became immune to the more violent tenor of daily life. However, some secular literary texts only include torture as a motif to criticize its use in medieval jurisprudence (particularly in France). In the few Arthurian texts where it appears, like many medieval literary texts, torture is portrayed as a tool of the barbarian Other—employed only by those who do not live by either civilized or chivalric ethos. In the French Arthurian text, Cligès, Chretien de Troyes briefly engages in the discourse of interrogatory torture, soundly condemning it when the torturers are defenestrated by the infuriated women of the court. In texts like the fourteenth-century Anglo-Latin Arthur and Gorlagon, King Arthur encounters foreign powers who do resort to torture, and they are demonized and reviled as corrupt authorities who operate outside the laws and mores of Arthur’s native England. This aversion to torture is tied to a nascent sense of national identity where evolving nations place themselves in opposition to the powers that rely on it as a means of legal ‘discovery.’ Most texts of the Arthurian tradition do not cross that boundary at all. While martial violence is a systematic trait in the majority of Arthuriana, that violence never exceeds a certain level. This reveals a distaste for excessive and illegitimate brutality in the romance tradition, particularly in those texts concerned with the reign of Arthur. His court (with all its flaws) is still a model of correct and legitimate justice that does not need to resort to torture to find truth. This resistance to torture and judicial brutality is particularly evident in Middle English texts like the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Malory’s Morte Darthur which involve a great deal of legitimated martial violence, but maintain the English legal aversion to judicial torture and preserve a sense of English identity.