August 15, 2011

Illuminations: Let God Sort Them Out


Lancelot of the Grail defending Guinevere, from a French illuminated manuscript produced in 1440.

With the release of The Duel x5, Melville House is launching a new digital innovation, HybridBooks, which combines the concept of a digitally enhanced eBook with the printed book. For more information on HybridBooks please click here.

Throughout August we will be posting samples from the Illuminations — additional material that will appear exclusively in the first releases in our Hybrid Books series. So sharpen your sword, keep your powder dry and get ready for a month of dueling history, lore and technique. That’s right. Dueling technique…

The world of Heinrich von Kleist‘s The Duel is fascinating for several reasons. For one there is a revelation to be made about the inner beliefs of the author, a topic that can be somewhat inscrutable when assessing his chaotic biography. Then there is the entire concept of the Christian trial by combat, where reason and logic fall by the wayside for the sake of absolute faith.

As outlined in a previous post on the Viking Holmganga, trial by combat was for the most part an invention from the Nordic/Germanic traditions. It was however, given its most officious air by Christians and reached it’s height in the medieval court, where tournaments and judicial combats were equally enjoyed for their spectacle as their ability to “resolve” legal conflict.

The introduction of judicial combat into the Christian tradition goes all the way back to the Lombard invasion of Italy, which started in the 560s and lasted until Charlemagne conquered its remnants along with the rest of Italy in the 770s. The Germanic Lombards, also known as the Longobards, had a long tradition of formalized combat trials, which were then adapted by those they conquered and in turn by those who eventually conquered them. Within the Illuminations for Kelist’s narrative of divinely ordained trial by combat, there is a selection of readings from Paul the Deacon, who wrote the earliest history of the influential yet brutal Lombard Kingdom. Among these stories, there exists a tale that closely resembles the one Kleist tells.

Rodoald then received the kingdom of the Langobards after the death of his father, and united with himself in marriage Gundiperga the daughter of Agilulf and Theudelinda. This Gundiperga in imitation of her mother, just as the latter had done in Modicia (Monza), so the former within the city of Ticinum (Pavia) built a church in honor of St. John the Baptist, which she decorated wonderfully with gold and silver and draperies and enriched bountifully with particular articles, and in it her body lies buried. And when she had been accused by her husband of the crime of adultery, her own slave, Carellus by name, besought the king that he might fight in single combat for the honor of his mistress, with him who had imputed the crime to the queen. And when he had gone into single combat with that accuser he overcame him in the presence of the whole people. The queen indeed after this was done, returned to her former dignity.

In J.G. Millingen‘s wonderful The History of Duelling he too accounts for this tale, though with a somewhat more elaborate description:

A curious trial by battle took place in 626. Queen Gundeberge, the consort of Rharvald King of Lombardy, as much admired for her beauty and talents as her unimpeachable virtue, had thought it expedient to drive from her court a certain gossiping slanderous fellow of the name of Adalulf, who, it appears, had presumed to make some base proposal to her majesty. Adalulf forthwith, in a fit of revenge, hastened to the King, and informed him that the sharer of his bed had entered into a plot to poison him, and to marry the Duke Tason – her paramour. The indignant Rharvald, without further inquiry, banishes the accused from his presence, and immures her in a castle, although she was nearly related to the Kings of the Francs. An emissary of Clotaire, however, indignant at the usage the Queen had received, urged the monarch to order a judicial contest; and Adalulf was therefore commanded to prepare himself to meet a cousin of the unfortunate Queen, of the name of Pithon, who having cut Adalulf’s throat, the innocence of Gundeberge was made manifest, to the entire satisfaction not only of her royal husband, but of all the gossips of the court of Burgundy. It was in consequence of this favorable and satisfactory result, that Grunvalt, in 668, made some alteration in the laws, by which it was enacted that ladies placed in a similar situation should enjoy the faculty of selecting their own champions.

Among the many historical trials, the Illuminations also contain some of the most celebrated fictive ones as well. For instance there is the celebrated judicial duels fought by Ivanhoe and Lancelot. In Walter Scott‘s seminal work of romanticism Ivanhoe champions an innocent Jewish girl who has been accused of witchcraft, and despite his having recently fought in a lengthy battle, and therefore he and his horse are wounded and weak, Ivanhoe emerges inexplicably the champion as “god saw fit”. Lancelot’s most famous duel is of course against Sir Meliagraunce, who has accused Queen Guenevere of lewd behavior. Sir Lancelot of course dispatches his foe with extreme ease and as the story goes, ironically inspires the Queen to a few deviant thoughts.

All this lore is entertaining, and certainly revealing of a barbaric and absurd ideal that once reigned among the powerful and learned. It is also the core of Kleist’s writing, as Kleist himself once wrote that the virtues he could name were: “Generosity, patience, humility, modesty, justice, tolerance, moderation, contentment, truthfulness, unselfishness.” These of course are the core values in nearly all chivalric codes. Taking this list in mind and comparing The Duel with the brutal quest for justice in his Michael Kolhaas and you find revealed a writer who believed in the tenants of chivalry, in all their charming absurdity.

The problem, and the marvel of it all, is that it is an impossibly tragic ideal, which Kleist himself may well have been aware of and suffered over. It was Millingen in his history of dueling who observed the instution most accurately when he wrote:

Nothing can be more absurd than the regret for the “glorious days of Chivalry!” It is very true, that nothing could be more beautiful and praiseworthy than the theory on which it was grounded; but a legislature might just as wisely sit down and embody an Utopian code of laws as to expect that a soldier will only draw his sword in the defence of innocence, — it is too absurd a dream to be entertained even in romance.

In the Kleist novella, we find reminder once again that the obviously absurd can yet be charming.