Saturday, 24 October 2015

‘Sua fele thar mellyt wer’: the ‘Douglas Larder’ and the Apparent Transgression of Moral Boundaries in Barbour’s Bruce

Callum Watson - PhD History

On Palm Sunday 1307 – according to John Barbour – James Douglas led an attack on the garrison of Douglas Castle while they were hearing Mass. Having taken the unarmed garrison captive, Douglas and his men took them back to the castle, slaughtered them in the cellar, plundered the castle’s stores, poisoned the well, and burned the entire structure to the ground. This act of brutality – subsequently known as the Douglas Larder – is extreme even by the often gory standards of medieval warfare. Its inclusion in a work like The Bruce – in which Douglas is portrayed as a paragon of chivalry, alongside the likes of Hector – is remarkable. My purpose here is to explore the ways in which Barbour attempts to justify Douglas’ actions with reference to his obligations as a loyal knight in the service of King Robert, and what this tells us about Barbour’s understanding of chivalry more broadly.

Image One: Harold swears an oath on holy relics (Bayeux Tapestry, ca. 1070. Tapestry. Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, Bayeux, France).

The first of these obligations results from an exchange between Douglas and the king, which takes place immediately before the events of the Douglas Larder. Douglas seeks permission from the king to visit his lands, which are currently occupied by the English. King Robert is initially unwilling to let Douglas go due to the danger involved, but responds:

“He said, ‘Schyr, nedways I will wend 
And tak that aventur will giff 
Quhether-sa it be to dey or lyff.’”
J. Barbour, The Bruce, Bk. 5, ll. 242-244

This declaration echoes a formula employed repeatedly in Barbour’s Bruce in which characters express the seriousness of their intentions by swearing to carry them out even at the cost of their life. Oath-making was a key part of political life in medieval Scotland, and thus was taken very seriously. Almost every social contract involved the exchange of oaths, and often this was done while touching the Gospels or other holy items. Thus, by having Douglas express himself in these terms, Barbour reinforces Douglas’ resolve.

Image Two: The Bute Mazer (c.1314-1318), a communal drinking vessel decorated with a lion – thought to represent King Robert himself – and the heraldic devices of six of his vassals from the Stewartry, reflecting some of the historical relationships explored in The Bruce. From left to right: Sir Walter Stewart (between the lion’s paws, reflecting his status as the king’s son-in-law), Menteith (a Stewart cadet branch), Susannah Crawford, an unknown FitzGilbert cadet, Sir Walter FitzGilbert of Hamilton, and Sir James Douglas himself.

However, King Robert not only gives Douglas permission to go, he also offers to assist Douglas in the recovery of his lands if Douglas should find anything ‘anoyis or scaithfull’ (distressful or hurtful, Bk. 5, ll. 249) there. This offer is a potentially huge concession on the king’s part, and can be best explained with the reference to the friendship between the two men. Bruce and Douglas’ friendship is the most important relationship in The Bruce (far more important than the one between Bruce and his poor wife, who only appears when she is captured by the English and again when she is released!). Friendship in the medieval period was a formal arrangement that placed specific responsibilities on the individuals involved – including the provision of mutual assistance in the settlement of disputes. Friendship with the king in particular also offered lucrative opportunities for patronage, as well as influence at a governmental level – as is seen repeatedly throughout The Bruce in Douglas’ influence on the king’s decisions, thanks to their closeness. It is Douglas’ friendship with King Robert that enables him to secure permission to visit his lands, but Bruce’s promise to fulfil his duties as Douglas' friend potentially jeopardise Bruce’s recovery of his own inheritance – which is no less than the entire kingdom. Douglas thus finds himself obliged to find a way to relieve the king of this burden, based on the same principle of mutual assistance that led to Bruce’s promise of aid.

Image Three: The Battle of Otterburn (1388) from a fifteenth-century manuscript of Froissart’s Chroniques (Bibliotheque Nationale MS Fr. 2645, fol. 351). Later Scottish chroniclers such as Andrew of Wyntoun blamed this defeat on a lack of prudence on the part of James, 2nd earl of Douglas – the Scottish commander.

Consequently, Douglas is forced to employ unorthodox tactics in order to achieve his ends. To do so, Douglas must apply to the situation what Barbour refers to as ‘worschip’. For Barbour, ‘worschip’ means using ‘wyt’ (intelligence) to govern one’s ‘hardyment’ (boldness), in order to find the most prudent course of action and make the best of the current circumstances. Barbour devotes considerable space in The Bruce to promoting this principle, elevating martial prudence to the level of a chivalric virtue. In an earlier part of the poem, Barbour places a speech in King Robert’s mouth in which he declares that a prudent knight should ‘ay thynk to cum to purpos’ (Bk. 3, ll. 263), meaning that he should always seek success in his military endeavours. It is this principle that guides Douglas’ behaviour while he is visiting his hereditary lands. Barbour even explains Douglas’ specific concerns when slighting the castle (Bk. 5, ll. 268-270, 415-428). On arriving in Douglasdale, he quickly realises that he cannot compete with the English in terms of manpower, so he resolves to combat them with guile. After taking the castle, Douglas recognises that he cannot garrison the castle and hold it himself, and so he destroys it as completely as he can – thereby denying the English the use of it in the future. Douglas thus ensures the best possible outcome, while putting himself and his men in as little danger as possible, and at the same time absolves the king of any obligation to intervene in the situation.

Image Four: Sir James Douglas’ tomb in St Bride’s Kirk, Douglas. This may very well have been the kirk in which Douglas found the English garrison on the day of the Douglas Larder!

In The Bruce, the Douglas Larder is not presented as a vicious act of sacrilege, nor is it presented as an unusually bloody incident in a wider campaign. Rather, Barbour presents it as the tale of a noble knight, alone in enemy territory, drawing on all of his personal resources to fulfil his obligations as a chivalric hero and achieve success in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.

Works Cited

J. Barbour, The Bruce, (A.A.M. Duncan ed. & trans.), (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1997).

S. Boardman, The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III 1371-1406, (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1996).

M. Brown, The Black Douglases: War and Lordship in Late Medieval Scotland, 1300-1455 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1998).

S. Cameron, ‘Chivalry and Warfare in Barbour’s Bruce’, in M. Strickland (ed.), Armies, Chivalry and Warfare in Medieval Britain and France: proceedings of the 1995 Harlaxton Symposium (Stamford: Paul Watkins Pub., 1998).

A. Classen, ‘Friendship – The Quest for a Human Ideal and Value from Antiquity to the Early Modern Time’, in A. Classen and M. Sandridge (eds.), Friendship in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: Explorations of a Fundamental Ethical Discourse, (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2010).

R. Hyatte, The Arts of Friendship: The Idealisation of Friendship in Medieval and Early Renaissance Literature, (Leiden/New York: Brill, 1994).

Monday, 12 October 2015

We Are What We Eat and We Eat What We Are – Cannibalism in John Mirk’s Festial; a Transgression against God vs. a Mystical Union with Christ

Joanna Witkowska - PhD Medieval Studies

Image One: A Jewish Woman Devouring Her Child during the Siege of Jerusalem, c. 1413-1415, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, MS. 63, fol. 241. (

There are three narratives in John Mirk’s Festial that can contribute to a discussion about cannibalism – one is about a cannibal mother, another presents a miracle of a bleeding host, and the third one is a story of a Jewish boy receiving the Eucharist from the Virgin Mary.
Unlike most of the other didactic stories of the Festial, the aim of the narrative involving the cannibal mother (Powell 2009, pp. 107-108, ll. 82-92; pp. 125-126, ll. 110-124) is ambiguous, as the narrative in question does not follow a simple 'sin-punishment' order. Hunger and cannibalism are the outcome, already a punishment for the shameful act of rejecting and killing Christ. This can be seen as a warning against committing similar mistakes, or enacting a similar rejection, which can apply to any nation or society. In the end, it may all be about the context, which for the Festial was the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), the fairly fresh memory of the Black Death (c. 1348-1350), the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and the vigorous activity of the Lollards, who questioned some dogmas of the church, including the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Cannibalism is universally considered to be a marker of ‘otherness’, which is reflected in the narrative – a Jewish woman committing an inhuman act is a representative of the nation she belongs to, as opposed to Christian society, where such an act would be unthinkable (Heng 1998, p. 110). However, despite Christianity’s condemnation of cannibalism, it is also a feature of Christian society. For example, some Christian knights participating in the First Crusade were allegedly quite barbaric: cannibalism reported at the siege of Ma’arra, among other locations, presents Christian inhumanity towards Saracen opponents (p. 103).

Which is then more barbaric – a Jewish mother eating her child, or a Christian Crusader eating bodies of his fallen enemies? It may be argued that the woman in the sermon is, in a way, more barbaric, because she kills her child specifically for the purpose of eating it. On the other hand, though the crusaders eat the bodies of their enemies to prevent their own starvation, hunger is not the reason for the killing. Objectively, both actions are equally barbaric, but not to the Medieval Christian audience. The inhumanity of eating a child clashes with the idea of eating those who are considered God’s enemies (Ambrisco 1999, p. 507).

In the Festial, Mirk’s narrative is not focused on the actions of the woman, but on God’s vengeance. It may be going too far to say that Mirk's anti-Lollard writing had anything to do with this story. However, Lollardy, and heresy in general, was considered a rejection of Christ, an attack on His Church, and a betrayal of the one true faith. If the fall of Jerusalem is an example of divine punishment – torment reserved for those who actively oppose Christ – then reform according to Lollard beliefs would qualify for a similar type of retribution.

Image Two: Bleeding Host of Dijon, Hours of Mary of Burgundy, c, 1470s. Vienna, National Library MS. 1857, folio 2v

Eucharistic cannibalism in Mirk’s Festial is best presented in a narrative about a baker, Lasyna, who does not believe in Transubstantiation because she bakes the host wafers and is certain that there is nothing extraordinary about them (Powell 2009, pp. 158-159, ll. 163-180). Gregory the Great and the whole community pray for a miracle and the Eucharist wafer turns into a piece of bleeding flesh, which is presented as proof of the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Here, cannibalism seems acceptable and no one is disturbed by it – it is God’s miracle. Clearly, even if one believes in the real presence of Christ’s flesh in the Eucharist, there is a significant difference between consuming raw human flesh and consuming it in the form of bread (Himmelman 1997, p. 187). However, Geraldine Heng argues that the underlying cannibalism of the Eucharist could have contributed to the reoccurring emergence of dissent groups denying the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament (Heng 1998, p.109).

Image Three: Desecration of the host, British Library MS. Harley 7026. Detail of a marginal painting of two men desecrating the host, in the lower margin of the folio. (

A story connected both to miracles of a bleeding host and to a narrative of a cannibal woman is a story about a Jewish boy receiving Eucharist from the Virgin Mary (Powell 2011, pp. 205-206, ll. 201-220). As Miri Rubin argues in her book Gentile Tales, the story was common and would usually be connected to stories of host desecration, blood drinking, and the kidnapping of Christian children by Jewish people (Rubin 1999, p. 122). These accusation stories seem to intensify, starting with episodes of stealing and desecrating host wafers, which were believed to be Christ’s flesh, and evolving into these kidnappings. The Jewish boy in the narrative receives Communion and his father tries to kill him for it. In the context of sacred cannibalism that takes place here, the boy becomes spiritually one with Christ – he is figuratively Christ – and the father’s attempt to kill his son metaphorically represents the situation of Christ’s Crucifixion. The father is a representative of the nation blamed for killing Jesus, just like the cannibal mother.

In conclusion, whether literal or figurative, cannibalism seems to cause unease. The disturbing nature of literal cannibalism is unquestionable, whether it is a mother killing her child to satiate hunger, or a hungry crusader knight desperately eating his enemies. It is therefore a perfect medium to convey otherness, either as a sign of the barbarity of the enemy, or as a statement of one’s own national identity. The figurative cannibalism involved in consuming the Eucharist is no less disturbing, especially if it resulted in dissent over the real presence of Christ’s flesh in the Sacrament. However, its cannibalistic nature is hidden and it is a more acceptable notion. After all, literal cannibalism often qualifies as divine punishment, in absolute contrast to the Eucharist, which is a blessing in disguise and a bodily and spiritual cure.

Works Cited

Ambrisco, Alan S. “Cannibalism and Cultural Encounters in Richard Coeur de Lion.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Duke University Press. Fall 1999, 29:3, pp. 499-528.

Heng, Geraldine. “Cannibalism, the First Crusade, and the Genesis of Medieval Romance. " Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. 10.1, 1998, pp. 98-174.

Himmelman, Kenneth P. “The Medicinal Body: An Analysis of Medicinal Cannibalism in Europe, 1300-1700.” Dialectical Anthropology. Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997, 22: pp. 183-203.

Powell, Susan, ed. A Critical Edition of John Mirk's ‘Festial’, edited from British Library MS Cotton Claudius A.II: Volume 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

---. A Critical Edition of John Mirk's ‘Festial’, edited from British Library MS Cotton Claudius A.II: Volume 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Rubenstein, Jay. “Cannibals and Crusaders.” French Historical Studies. Duke University Press. 22 Sep 2008, pp. 525-552.

Rubin, Miri. Gentile Tales: the Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews. London: Yale University Press, 1999.