Omnibus - Episode 1
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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Chivalry. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep.


I was walking down to the House of Lords a couple of days ago and above that grand building – officially the Palace of Westminster – there curved a double rainbow. I can’t think when last I saw a double rainbow, if ever. And, of course, up pops Wordsworth: “My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky:/So was it when my life began;/So is it now I am a man;/So be it when I shall grow old,/Or let me die!” And so into a very powerful debate across the spectrum on immigration.

London ought to be a washout but it isn’t. People stoically bend their heads into the howling winds. Water sluices everywhere, but people still make every effort to get into work, despite rather powerful obstacles – only one of them, the Tube strike – being put in their way. The sky is playing peculiar tricks which would have driven Constable mad. Heavy, very laden rain clouds outpouring their matter, and then, literally a few minutes later, as blue as a Provencal summer day and quite warm with it.

After the programme one of the contributors listened intently to her mobile and announced: “My Pilates teacher thought it was very good”.

Laura Ashe pointed out that the constant injunctions to the chivalric knights not to rape women meant, in her view, that raping women was what they got up to too often, which is why the injunction was repeated so often.

I was keen to bring in the idea that these great codes might be taken notice of more in the breach than the observance. It was not only the Black Prince who killed prisoners, and Henry V, but the great warrior of them all in the 13th century, King Edward III, who raised the dragon’s flag which signalled that all prisoners should be killed.

I think it was Matthew Strickland who pointed out that although courtly love tended to be extramarital, and the general pattern seems to have been that you loved somebody who was already married (see Arthurian legends), nevertheless an adulterous relationship in the 11th century could lead to quite a nasty conclusion.  Philip of Flanders, for instance, caught a man who was at his wife, and after the man was beaten he was suspended over a privy until the smell drugged him to death. Another adulterer was impaled rather nastily, even beyond the dreams of The Wolf of Wall Street.

By the way, the word ‘chivalry’ comes from the French word ‘chevalier’ (meaning knight) and ‘chevalerie’ (knightly behaviour) and ‘cheval’, of course, means a horse. Which brings us to the hackney cab.  In another of my rare outings with the hackney, I this time came across a man who had relatives in the Thames Valley, and he put forward the proposition that instead of giving 13 billion pounds to persons overseas, we should give it to persons in the Thames Valley, the Somerset Levels and everywhere else beaten by storms – as the good ship Britain is rocked with a fury which would have led the Old Testament prophets to accuse the whole nation of having committed terrible sins, to have such retribution visited on them.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


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  • Comment number 2. Posted by John Thompson

    on 14 Feb 2014 17:41

    About the word ‘chivalry’ coming from the French word ‘chevalier’ (meaning knight and ‘chevalerie’ (knightly behaviour) and ‘cheval’, of course, means a horse.We also
    have words like ‘cavalier’(meaning a horseman,knight or gentleman) or ‘caballero’,‘cavalry’, embodying ideal forms of behaviour like valour,courtesy,generosity.The ‘Cavalier Poets’ (Lovelace,Suckling,Carew et al.)were courtiers who wrote about love and loyalty to the monarch in complementary poems or light-hearted lyrics.But this aside ,the lyric expression of courtly love,is about the adoration of unattainable ladies, a form of aristocratic game,where the lord is away and many young knights are garrisoned with the lady at the court,in a system of veneration and service,love is an educative and ennobling experience,the source of prowess and refinement.Often thelady,who is dominant, woos,as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

    I liked Miri Rubin’s point,how mystics use terms of courtly love when they desire the love of Christ.This form of address stretched right up into the 19th century.Look at GM Hopkins's marvellous poem The Windhover (‘To Christ our Lord’):-

    I caught this morning morning’s minion,king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin,dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon,in his riding
    of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there,how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing……

    Brute beauty and valour and act,oh,air,pride,plume,here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then,a billion
    Times told lovelier,more dangerous, O my chevalier!

    The splendours of flight of the ‘dauphin’ falcon,though he may conquer the wind,he himself is drawn out by the dawn,where Christ the King is the sunrise itself.(‘Rung’is a technical term ,said of a horse that circles at the end of a long rein held by trainer).The flash of divine beauty from natural physical grace.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by John Thompson

    on 14 Feb 2014 17:37

    As it’s Valentines Day,I thought this appropriate: Many waters cannot quench love,neither can the floods drown it.(Seems to fit in with the subject matter).

    Loved this jam-packed episode.All speakers were firing on all guns(or lances). To take up Laura Ashley’s point, that the courtly love code often was written into stories as an ironic reprimand. Marie de France(1150-1216) showed a sexual honesty about how people really behaved in her Lais.Marie is very formal about the way her hero visits the wayward princess he is in love with: he does not crash into her rooms,he has himself properly announced.This is a conventional show of courtly etiquette,but it is also a dry aside,plainly telling the gentlemen of Henry II’s court that you do not barge in on your lady friends without giving them warning.The knight Eliduc of Brittany in disfavour with the king goes into exile in England,promising his wife he’ll remain true to her.In England he fights as a mercenary for an old king whose daughter,Guiliadaun, falls in love with him.She has her page take to Eliduc her belt and gold ring,hoping that the way he receives these gifts will offer some sign of whether he loves her in return.These are from Celtic folk-tales(Tristan and Yseult & Arthur).

    Stories like this were told against 3 real-life systems:i) the feudal,which laid a vital importance on promises sworn between vassal and lord(the power structure rested on a man’s word); ii) the Christian(responsible for the ending of Eliduc-but Marie is more interested in the human heart than the immortal soul);iii) courtly love,where the same stress on keeping faith was applied to sexual relations. Amour courtois was a desperate attempt to bring more civilization into a brutal society,and all civilization is based on agreed codes and symbols of mutual trust.

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