Wounded Bodies: Kingship, National Identity, and Illegitimate Torture in the English Arthurian Tradition

Arthurian Literature 32 (2015): 1–29.

By Larissa Tracy

One of the most pervasive modern assumptions about the Middle Ages is that there was a proliferation of interrogatory torture carried out in secret—deep in dark dungeons stocked with cruel instruments. Barbara W. Tuchman and Johan Huizinga were instrumental in constructing a narrative of medieval brutality that persists in the modern imagination.[i] The idea of torture and brutality being synonymous with the term ‘medieval’ is a prominent myth echoed in modern media and popular culture.[ii] But there is ample evidence that torture as medieval society understood it—the infliction of pain in a legal interrogation as means of extracting a confession, the ‘Queen of Proofs’[iii]—was not universally a staple of medieval justice. Interrogatory torture was illegal (except in rare cases) in England until the early modern period and several other communities resisted its use. Yet the modern misconception holds, reinforced in some ways by the graphic depictions of torture in medieval hagiography; however, it is a relatively unusual occurrence in secular literature, especially Arthurian texts. Where it does occur, as in Cligés (5889–91, 5904–8, 5917–33) and the Roman van Walewein (7822–34, 7962–4), it is portrayed as a tool of the barbarian Other—employed only by those who do not live by either civilized or chivalric ethos.[iv] The English legal aversion to torture is reinforced by historical episodes of resistance; treatises decrying torture echo the sentiments of secular literature in which brief references to characters being ‘put to the question’ or ‘put to pain’ appear to denounce its application and question the justice of those who resort to it. Particularly in the fourteenth century, torture is an intertextual motif of poor governance. Several English Arthurian romances written during the tumultuous fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Hundred Years War, Richard II’s fraught reign and the Wars of the Roses criticize the instability caused by weak kingship and betrayal that results in the use of torture, if only for a moment.

Martial violence is systematic in the majority of Arthuriana, but Arthur’s court (with all its flaws) is a model of correct and legitimate justice that does not need to resort to torture to find truth. Arthur, (re)claimed by English authors in the fourteenth century as a distinctly English king, represents a sense of English identity based on justice and law.[v] In the fourteenth century, English identity was culturally and linguistically divergent from the continental roots of the Anglo-Norman ruling class, grounded in a reverence for Anglo-Saxon heritage, as in the thirteenth-century Havelok the Dane. The Stanzaic Morte Arthur (late-fourteenth century–c. 1400) and the contemporary Alliterative Morte Arthure (c. 1400) struggle with conceptions of just kingship and English identity amidst the desires of imperialism. Both derive from a long tradition that variously casts Arthur as a valiant warrior, a foolish lover, a weak king, or a tragic figure caught up in and constrained by his own devotion to justice.[vi] The Alliterative Morte Arthure (hereafter Alliterative) harks back to the legendary histories, emphasizing Arthur’s imperial endeavors rather than the illicit love of Lancelot and Guenevere. The Stanzaic Morte Arthur (hereafter Stanzaic) focuses on the ill-fated affair, its discovery and the dire consequences for the Round Table and the realm. Both texts were likely written at a time of crisis in England, when the monarchy was threatened by the plots of disgruntled nobles against an immature, reactionary king: Richard II. Though the crises concerning Richard did not center on the use of torture, there is a moment when he appears to sanction it at least once and that incident is used as a further indictment of his rule.

[i] B. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (New York, 1978) and J. Huizinga, Waning of the Middle Ages (London, 1924; reprinted 1990).

[ii] For a detailed discussion of this association, see: Tracy, Torture and Brutality, pp. 1–2.

[iii] E. Peters, Torture (Philadelphia, 1985), p. 7. Peters further points out that to the medieval mind, torture meant something very specific—judicial torture was the only kind of torture, however it was administered, and any other form of punishment not designed to elicit a confession should not be called torture (p. 7). Canon law required at least two ‘half-proofs’ before the accused could be subjected to torture to obtain the ‘Queen of Proofs’—the confession. Between 1150–1250, jurists raised confession of the accused up as the most valuable proof, with other proofs arranged in a hierarchy below it—a hierarchy that provided the essential background for the use of torture, especially in capital crimes (p. 46).

[iv] For a fuller discussion on the appearance of torture in Roman van Walewein, see: Tracy, Torture and Brutality, pp. 70–107. For the text, see: Penninc and Pieter Vostaert, Roman van Walewein, ed. and trans. D. F. Johnson (New York, 1992).

[v] In his study of a historical sociology of national identity, Anthony Smith provides a model for understanding constructions of nationalism in the pre-modern world. He writes: ‘The most salient political function of national identity is its legitimation of common legal rights and duties of legal institutions, which define the peculiar values and character of the nation and reflect age-old customs and mores of the people.’ National Identity (Reno, 1991), p. 16.

[vi] Donald Maddox cautions against generalizing about the figure of Arthur: ‘There was no consistently held, canonically “medieval” attitude toward the Arthurian story and its regal protagonist. During the Middle Ages, the Arthurian matter proved itself adaptable to a wide array of positive and negative schemes.’ The Arthurian Romances of Chrétien de Troyes: Once and Future Fictions (Cambridge, 1991), p. 3.