Demons, Cannibals, and Courtesy: Richard Coer de Lyon and Inventing Modern English Mythology  

Incredible as he is inept
Whenever the history books are kept,
They’ll call him the Phony King of England!
Robin Hood (1973)

Every five to ten years since the invention of film at the turn of the twentieth century, Hollywood has forced another movie in the Robin Hood mythos on us—whether, as noted by far more competent film scholars than me, we want them or not.  Some of this is likely because it, along with the Arthurian stories, are Anglo-Saxon folks’ cultural mythology and therefore serve the ethnic elite. The rest is no doubt because it’s a cheap, public domain story. While these movies run a considerable gamut on tone, style, and even species, the basic framework is roughly the same, thanks to the 19th century popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819/20). Robin Hood and his band of outlaws are good, the regent Prince John is bad, and King Richard is a heroic crusader who would set things right if he were there. It’s a great story, but one that has only tenuous ties to hard history, let alone strict reality.

This version of Richard I as the righteous, chivalrous monarch who represents everything that is good and noble about England was cemented in the modern mind by Scott, but the literary tradition the Scottish novelist was pulling from began back in the king’s own time and was firmly established within a century or so of his abrupt death in 1199 CE. Almost from the get-go, Richard has enjoyed perhaps the most superlatively rehabilitated reputation in Western civilization since the Gospels turned Pontius Pilate from a callous antisemite so ruthless he made other Romans uncomfortable into a nuanced quasi-Christian antihero. Meanwhile, the historical Richard was a French-born king who may have not even been able to speak English; who may have spent as little as six months of his ten-year reign in England; who failed in his royal duty to produce an heir for the realm because he was phenomenally indifferent to his wife; and whose astronomical expenses for his crusade in the Holy Land and his endless wars on the continent were the source of the ruinous taxation for which his younger brother would be left holding the literary bag. It’s a testament to how unsuccessful his younger brother John’s reign was in the English psyche that the kingdom became so attached to the memory of a lord they had barely known long enough to miss so fervently. And maybe that’s the key to some of Richard’s otherwise inexplicably enduring popularity—he wasn’t present enough to make real enemies and was a tabula rasa on which England could project its greatest hopes and desires.

The other part of Richard’s posthumous success probably derives from his perception as an effective warlord, which would have been crucial to any portrait of a good ruler during his time and the following several centuries from which his legendary status was created. And admittedly, this is the part of Richard’s literary portraiture that is the closest to historically accurate. While not quite as indefatigable on the battlefield as would later be claimed, he was generally more victorious than not and held his own against both the premier foreign warrior of the age to Christian eyes, Salah al-Din, but against the machinations of the hated king of France, Philip II Augustus. Whatever gains he made against these two foes, who would have loomed large in the English imagination of the time, Richard’s record would be no doubt bolstered later by John’s disastrous wars against France that would lead to the loss of all of England’s continental landholdings save for the port of Calais, as well as Europe’s loss of Acre, the last of the Frankish crusader cities within a century of Richard’s death.

As I probably gave away in my flavor text and the pictures I’m using, I think the best Robin Hood film adaption remains Disney’s 1973 animated version (fight me, Men in Tights fans). What might surprise you is, rather than this being in spite of its place as the most outlandish take on the mythos, that I also think it might be the most faithful to the spirit of the earliest Robin Hood/Richard stories. Because making all of the characters animals having wacky adventures is a lot closer than Ivanhoe is to Richard Coer De Lyon, a 14th century Middle English biographical poem about Richard and one of the earliest extent examples of the Ricardian genre that we have. The anonymous poem is thought to have been based on a lost Anglo-Norman romance from the mid-13th century, which would have been written fifty-odd years after the king’s death. Both are in the general style of the French chanson de geste (“song of heroic deeds”) popular in Europe since the 11th century; The Song of Roland (mid-11th century) probably being the most famous.

The chansons are basically what you’re thinking of when you think of “medieval literature”: knights, ladies, battles, magic, etc. They started out as paeans to real, historical events to which the more fantastical elements were added as audience tastes changed over time. Some of this change resulted from European contact with Arabic and Jewish culture in Palestine and Spain, but it also came from the dissemination of Greek and Roman literature that we’ve been following in multiple entries here which brought Ovid and classical mythology into the medieval consciousness. Though the wide knowledge of equally miraculous biblical episodes in the culture at large made the literary adaptation of these foreign stories less jarring than one might think on first glance. Richard is no exception to the conventions of the chanson genre, with its multiple manuscripts whose plots range from a heroically embellished, yet somewhat grounded retelling of Richard’s life to ones with demon brides, magic rings, and casual cannibalism. And these are the good guys… so let’s take a closer look at this singularly bizarre take on England’s favorite king. Because, let’s be clear, Richard is meant to complimentary to its subject and that in of itself is fascinating given how he is portrayed in the poem.

Though some of the poem’s fictionalizing of Richard’s life makes perfect sense. As a childless (save perhaps one natural son, Philip of Cognac—Shakespeare’s Philip the Bastard) monarch whose sexual identity has been a matter of academic debate for almost millennium, the Richard of the poem is bedding every available noble maiden between London and Jerusalem and is most definitely not homosexual or bisexual, thank you very much. As a presumably English poet writing in Middle English for an English audience, Richard’s lack of familiarity with the mother tongue is also quickly whitewashed and the king is a dyed-in-the-wool Englishman who uses English vernacular insults of the time like “taylardes” (tailed ones—an interesting reference to a legend that while trying to convert the English, St. Augustine made nonbelievers sprout tails) and speaks derisively of the martial prowess of Frenchmen, “Griffons” (Greeks), and Saracens (Muslims) when compared to the red-blooded Englishmen. This is partially how the extremely French and sexually fluid Richard is forged into a straight English hero whom his adopted homeland can really latch onto.

[Unlike other Phony Kings of England we could name…]

Richard also does the king a solid by not only confirming the contemporary belief in Richard’s almost-singlehanded retaking of Acre during the Third Crusade (1189-1192 CE) in spite of Philip Augustus rather than with his help, but also manages to massage out the most embarrassing aspects of his capture and imprisonment by Leopold of Austria on his way home from the adventure. This is done in a twofold way, the principal of which is by shifting this captivity episode to before Richard goes on crusade against Salah al-Din, so as not to kill the momentum of his triumphs in the Holy Land. Instead, Richard and a couple of handpicked bros go on a covert romp to Palestine before the Third Crusade for some brief daring-do and are rudely taken prisoner by the king of Almayn (Germany). But the imprisonment isn’t too bad because the king’s daughter Margery of course falls in love with Richard and is constantly sneaking him out of his cell for trysts in her bedroom. Eventually, the king finds out and tries to execute Richard by having him fight a lion. Richard instead kills the animal with his bare hands and eats its heart in front of a shocked German court; this being how he supposedly earns the sobriquet “Coer de Lyon” (Lionhearted), rather than as a personality trait. The German king concedes defeat and not only gives Richard his daughter in marriage, but also two magic rings from India that can protect the wearer from drowning or fire respectively. Compare all of this with Richard’s actual captivity in Austria, where he writes sad-boy poetry and supposedly the only reason anyone even finds out where he’s being held is because a minstrel overhears him singing. Not exactly the manliest circumstances by medieval standards.

The second prong of erasing the post-Third Crusade capture by the poem is achieved by moving Richard’s unexpected and somewhat perfunctory death in France after the crusade to Austria and blaming the treachery of Duke Leopold for it, rather than some no-name French soldier. Instead of capturing Richard, Leopold invites him to his castle and ambushes him. This explains why Richard isn’t wearing his helmet when he is killed and how he could have been outmatched by “mere” Austrians. This gives the situation the added benefit of making Leopold look even worse for violating the coteiseement of hospitality in the bargain.

Obviously aside from some script doctoring to make Richard an appropriately English hero, much of the poem is concerned with showing its audience the king’s famous martial prowess, be it in the elaborate tournament jousts early on in the poem or when he’s sawing through Cypriot Greeks and Syrian Muslims in the east. Perhaps betraying some latent Scandinavian saga roots in this English work in addition to the plenty violent chansons (cf. the flying eyeballs and disembowelments we saw in the last post about the Roman de Troie), Richard cuts his enemies in twain and gives no quarter to infidels of any stripe, including women and children. What’s a bit more unusual for the genre is his choice of weapon; the poem describing how he arrives in the Holy Land chiefly armed with an enormous axe that he had forged specifically to “breke therwith the Sarasyn bones” (line 2212), rather than a knight’s sword. And believe me, once the image of Richard running around Palestine like Gimli from Lord of the Rings has lodged itself in your brain, it is difficult to remove.

[“Your murdering axe, my liege.”]

So what gives with this decidedly unchivalric Richard, who is a conscious-free axe murderer who does even take a break from slaughtering non-combatants to fall in love (and convert) a beautiful Muslim sultana (a popular trope in the chansons)? Well, the poet seems to chalk this, and the weirder stuff about the king we’re about to get into, up to Richard’s gene pool and specifically that of his mother. Back in the real world, Richard’s mother was the beautiful and controversial Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122-1204 CE), whose passionate personality and political acumen won her plenty of detractors, as is so often the case with powerful women. What’s interesting is that the Richard poet chose to double down on this maternal notoriety and turns his protagonist’s mother into a literal demon.

Rather than marrying a French heiress, in the poem, Richard’s father Henry II sends out envoys to find him a queen and ends up choosing a princess named Cassodorien, daughter of the “king of Antioch.” This might be a garbled reference to the fact that Eleanor’s uncle, Raymond of Poitiers (c. 1105-1149 CE) was the ruler of the Latin principality of Antioch from 1136 until his death, and the persistent rumor that he and his niece had engaged in an incestuous liaison while Eleanor was in Palestine with her then-husband Louis VII during the Second Crusade. Either way, this has the added benefit of giving Richard a hereditary claim to land in Palestine in the narrative, turning him from a mere crusader into a prince merely taking back what is rightfully “his” from a bunch of Muslim “interlopers” in the Holy Land.

But something is off about Cassodorien from the beginning; she’s very beautiful, but she is reluctant to attend mass and the first time she sees a priest bring out the Eucharist, she faints and has to be removed from the church. As this is a pretty concerning quality in the queen of a medieval European realm, the lords convince Henry that he has to get his wife to go to church by force if necessary. Cassodorien is therefore dragged into the cathedral and held down by several men during the service. But when the Eucharist is lifted up by the priest, she breaks free with a howl and flies out of an open window dragging her two youngest children, a daughter named Topyas and Richard’s younger brother John, with her (lines 227-234), presumably not daring to take Richard the heir. In the confusion, John falls from his mother’s grip and is therefore returned to his father (though he breaks his leg in the process, lines 231-2), but Cassodorien and Topyas are never seen again. A heartbroken Henry abdicates in favor of fifteen year old Richard and dies shortly after—which is perhaps a kinder death for the older king who instead died of an exhausted, broken heart fighting his rebellious sons, chiefly Richard. And although not specifically said of her in the poem, a medieval audience would have recognized Cassodorien’s inability to look at the body of Christ as the telltale mark of a demon, even if she hadn’t flown out a window. This part of the poem also recalls the common folklore trope of the Demon Wife, who can usually coexist in the human world until her true form is somehow accidentally revealed, after which she vanishes. The folktale of Mélusine, a lamia or water fairy with the lower body of a serpent or fish, can live with her human husband until he sees her monstrous lower half in the bath, is similar to this and would likely have been familiar to the Richard poet.

Richard’s demon mom is never mentioned again in the poem, but it’s her influence that gives Richard his “unsafe edge” in the narrative and sets him up as almost godlike in a world of mere mortals. A sort of “if he’s not quite like other Englishmen, it’s not because he’s French or something… it’s because he’s part demon,” if you will. But it should be noted that the poem never implies this keeps Richard from being a good Christian; the demon ancestry is to explain why he can speak to angels and has unusual abilities, not to suggest he’s evil. Not even when he starts eating people.

[Wait, what?…]

There is a whole intendant academic field dedicated to cannibalism in medieval European literature, but the short version is that Europe had a lot of trouble psychologically unpacking the Crusades. Aside from the cultural broadening and fallout of the first major “clash of civilizations” between the East and West since the fall of Rome, the First Crusade (1096-1099 CE), while achieving its ultimate goal of recapturing the city of Jerusalem (and then some), was a monumentally traumatic sociological event the whole way around for the Europeans touched by it. The battles and sieges required to gain any territory in Palestine were brutal even by the standards of the period and even more than usual, victories and defeats were seen as directly sanctioned by God. So it should probably come as no surprise that one of the most horrific episodes (notwithstanding the absolute abattoir the crusaders made of Jerusalem’s native population after they took the city) involved the protracted siege and countersiege of—where else?—Antioch.

As my readers are aware, despite some appearances to the contrary, Antioch is a nightmare to defend from invasion. So while the crusaders struggled to take it from its Muslim rulers because of their small numbers, the difficulty of taking the city would end up paling in comparison to their efforts to keep it once the enemy forces they’d just kicked out returned with backup. What exactly happened during the grueling countersiege has long been obscured by the overall mythos of the First Crusade, but all of the stories that made it back to Europe were epic in their terror and savagery. Disease ran rampant through the city as the crusading army quickly ran out of food and water while the lords in charge pointed fingers at each other for the blame. The situation became so dire that it was said that these Christian knights on a holy mission from God were reduced to eating the dead in order to stave off total annihilation and this is where the connection between crusading and cannibalism was born.

Miraculously (almost literally—victory is hung on the supposed finding of the Holy Lance that pierced Christ’s side on the cross in Antioch that rallies the dying Christian forces), the crusaders finally managed to beat back the Turko-Syrian reinforcements, but the damage was done. Cannibalism was, and arguably remains, the deepest taboo in Western culture and medieval Europeans couldn’t stop thinking about what had allegedly happened in Antioch. After the First Crusade, cannibalism became a fixture in medieval literature—to a baffling extent if one is unaware of this historical connection. But these roots show in who is doing the people-eating in these stories, because more often than not, it isn’t the otherwise freely demonized Muslims. It’s the Christians. This might have been medieval writers trying to wrap their minds around the apparent contradiction between the cannibalism and the results. I.e., cannibalism is such a depraved sin it usually goes without mention because of course you’re not supposed to eat people, but God let the crusaders not only win Antioch, but Jerusalem itself after they engaged in it. Does that mean God sanctioned the cannibalism? And if that’s so, what the heck does that imply? Perhaps fortunately for the Richard poet, by the early 14th century, much of the existential angst over Christian cannibalism in the east had largely dissipated and it became just one of many fantastical chanson tropes to draw from for a good story. He (probably a “he”) takes his Richard’s connections to Antioch and its “exotic blood,” runs it through the ol’ folklore mixer and comes out with the just bonkers idea that Richard not only engages in cannibalism, he enjoys it.

[Oh god… What’s in the pies, Trigger??]

In the first instance of it in the poem (beginning at line 3027), Richard has understandably come down with one of the legion of diseases Europeans were immunologically unprepared for in Palestine and is wasting away because he can’t stomach all the weird foreign food available to him. Like a proper Englishman, he raves for a good pork loin, but in the largely halal Middle East, this is a tall order and his liege lords are unable to find a single pig in all the Holy Land. In fear for the king’s life, an old knight (with implied experience in this part of the world) quietly suggests finding a young Saracen and serving him up to Richard. He gives a macabre description of how the cook should go about it that is supposed to be a parody of culinary verses in other poems and the cook reluctantly agrees. To everyone’s surprise, Richard relishes the “pork” and immediately regains his health. The truth is discovered when later Richard demands an encore of the delicious meal and under threat of torture, the cook admits to what he actually ate by showing the king the head of the Saracen. But rather than being upset, Richard laughs and announces that since he is so good at killing Muslims in battle, at least he’ll never go hungry during the crusade.

Okay, so at least the first time is a kind of “shame on me” situation. Where things really go off the rails is when Richard starts deploying cannibalism as a negotiation tactic (lines 3410-3485). One of the few contemporary criticisms of Richard’s crusading record, besides not ultimately retaking Jerusalem, is an episode where he was supposed to release several thousand Muslim prisoners taken at Acre to Salah al-Din in exchange for the return of the relic of the True Cross which the sultan’s forces had captured at the battle of Hattin in 1187. For unknown reasons, there was a minor delay in compliance by the sultan (who had reason to suspect Richard was playing him) and as a result Richard viciously executed all two thousand-some prisoners in response. Even fellow Christians found this to be rather bad form, all things considered, but like he did with Richard’s untraditional mother, the Richard poet chooses to double down on this behavior rather than making excuses for it. He does this by having Richard eat some of the dead prisoners in front of the delegation Salah al-Din has sent to talk with him. The emirs are understandably horrified as they’re force to watch Richard gleefully munch on the soldiers they’re supposed to be ransoming while he lobs threats that he’ll do the same to them if he feels like it. The latter turns out to be a joke and he laughingly sends them on their way with facetious platitudes about his commitment to the rules of hospitality and safe conduct to messengers. Like many Muslims will throughout the course of the crusade, the delegation is left gobsmacked and mutters weakly about how Richard must be a demon. The joke, the poet explains, being that he is. Something that had once shook Europe to its core becomes nothing more than a gross prank pulled on enemies too cowardly to measure up to Richard’s superhuman status. And you thought Disney making him a literal lion was as weird as things could get…

[“Hahaha! I will eat you all!]
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