Saturday, April 11, 2009

Naked woman rides round city! (Shock! Horror! Sensation!)

If I read a newspaper from 1942 which says “’plane Crash in Laytown” chances are there was a plane crash in Laytown. I have no reason to doubt it. I know ‘planes crash, and they are dangerous both for their crews and the people on the ground. I know there is a Laytown (I’ve been there but even so, I can look it up on a map) and I suspect that there was a man called Sam Farrell and he died. I could import all the paraphernalia of the “Critical Literacy” I’m supposed to inflict on my students but the fact remains I have no reason to doubt that at 6.45 or thereabouts on Wednesday July 1st 1942 a ‘plane crashed in Laytown.
(And I did just check that July 1st was a wednesday in 1942

When I read..

Then the countess, beloved of God, accompanied by two soldiers, as it is said, mounting her horse naked, loosed her hair from its bands, so veiling the whole of her body, and thus passing through the market place she was seen by nobody (a nemine visa) except for her very white legs.

I immediately doubt the story.

But I do so because there was no academic discipline of history writing in the Middle Ages, and the chroniclers tend to record both what we might consider fact, and what we might think of as pure fantasy. By the time Lawman is translating Wace who was translating Geofrey the line between Romance and Chronicle is almost impossible to draw. But before we dismiss them as childish, there’s two things to keep in mind.

1) The writers lived in a world where miracles and wonders were everyday events. Miracles were the outward, public proof of an invisible reality. When Saint Augustine argues with the British Bishops over Easter, he proves his argument is better than theirs by performing a miracle. And when they refuse to change their practice, they are struck down as a sign of divine displeasure. Part of learning to be Christian and literate involved learning to “read” the world as a manifestation of divine love. To see through or beyond. One of the educational uses for Anglo-Saxon riddles. If you live in such a world, it’s difficult to switch off and say ”could never happen”.
2) Elvis isn’t dead. Lennon was assassinated by the CIA. The Twin Towers was a FBI plot. Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Christopher Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays. You’ve only got to scan the internet to see that a willingness to believe in the totally improbable is not confined to people leaving before 1499.

However, that doesn’t explain why this story. The idea, delivered ex cathedra at the book launch by someone I’d never met before, was that this is a folk tale tacked on to an historical personage. That doesn’t work because there’s no independent evidence for the folk tale, nor does it explain why that tale and this character? And the idea that it was a pagan ritual being performed by one of the country’s most visible women almost five hundred years after the conversion, seems equally unbelievable.
Roger of Wendover probably believed the story as he wrote it down. But I doubt he checked his sources. How or why it was initially generated remains an unknowable but entertaining question.

3 comments:

Carla said...

It's sometimes argued that Bede is a more reliable source than Historia Brittonum (HB) because HB describes magical and supernatural events (e.g. the story of the 'fatherless boy' Emrys and the fighting dragons). Yet Bede's narrative is equally full of supernatural events, it's just that his are called miracles. As you say, when dealing with a world in which events we would call 'supernatural' were regarded as real, we should be very cautious about projecting modern ideas back.

Not that this helps with your question about the origin of the Lady Godiva legend, which has puzzled me too. Once it got started I can see how it would last and last, because it's such a marvellous image. But where did it come from in the first place?

Liam Guilar said...

Although there are many other reasons for doubting the HB, the presence of the miraculous, as you say, shouldn't automatically disqualify anything.
It's easier to see how a story about an Arthur might develop out of little or nothing.

Suirdzign said...

Sam Farrell was my paternal great grandfather. I have been looking for details on his death. Do you have any more information?
Barry McCormick
Suirdzign@gmail.com