Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Legend begins

The VCH states that the earliest surviving version of the story of the ride occurs in the Chronicle of Roger of Wendover (who died in 1237).

It’s written in Latin, by a Monk, and the time lapse is important. Because it’s written in Latin, I have to rely on someone else’s translation. So this is taken from the VCH Warwickshire which I compared with Donoghue, who quotes other early versions.

If you compare these with Tennyson’s 1842 poem, then there are some significant differences. There is no Peeping Tom and far from doing a deal with the Townspeople to stay indoors, Leofric stipulates that she has to ride “through the market place of the town, from one side right to the other while the people are congregated and when you return you shall gain what you desire.”

Accompanied by two “soldiers” “the Countess mounted her horse naked, loosed her hair from its bands, so veiled the whole of her body except for her brilliantly white legs, passed through the market place unseen by anybody.”

The key to the whole story, I think, is not the fact that her name has been Latinized, or she’s been given a title, or the impracticalities of covering yourself with hair while riding a horse (on a day when obviously there was no wind).

It’s the assumptions that Wendover and Tennyson share that are revealing. In six hundred years, what doesn’t change in the story is the power imbalance between Godiva and Leofric.

She has none, except her ability to nag him, while he has the right to impose or to remit taxes and tolls on the people of Coventry.

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