David Scott-McNabb, Chaucer, and the concept of a half-alien culture

This post has been a long time coming – first because I wanted to do some background reading on it, and then because it took quite some time to get the background reading and my notes from Scott-McNabb’s paper in the same place – an oddly difficult task. My modus operandi for the last… while has been to move both notebook and photocopied chapter back and forth between uni and home, neatly making sure that one of them was always on hand whenever I thought of this post, but never both.

HOWEVER. Let that not deter us! On the 25th of August, David Scott-McNabb, of the University of Johannesburg, on the topic of The Jokes of a Half-Alien Culture: The Case of Chaucer’s ‘Tale of Sir Thopas’. This paper delivered two things: an intriguing re-reading of the humour  in Sir Thopas, and many provoking thoughts on the nature of reading at several century’s distance.

First: Sir Thopas

Scott-McNabb gave us a concise introduction to the humour of Sir Thopas: for instance, the combination of dissonant elements in conventional description. The description of Thopas’ physical form, for instance, is structured conventionally, but contains the rather unimpressive comparison of the hero’s complexion to ‘pandemayn’ (white bread).

Monty Python's knights, singingSir Thopas has been assumed to satirise Flemish knighthood (since Thopas hails from Flanders). One set of readings argues that Thopas is inherently ridiculous, and incapable of doing, wearing, saying or appreciating anything which is not ridiculous.

With this in mind, Scott-McNabb turned to the Lancegay which Thopas bears when setting out. He noted the mixture of convention and dissonance: you expect a knight to set out, but you expect him to be fully armed, not carrying a Lancegay. Because Thopas is read as a bit ridiculous, the Lancegay is usually assumed to be an ineffective, perhaps even effete, sort of weapon.

BUT WAIT, says David Scott-McNabb. What is a Lancegay? First he went around asking weapons curators, and no one has a Lancegay or even a picture of a Lancegay. No dice there.  Next he looked in the literary canon: Lancegays appear in one other source, also from the early 1390s, Gower’s Confessio Amantis, where the God of Love carries a fiery lancegay.

So, what sort of weapon is it? Scott-McNabb gave us a French source, Guillame de Saint André, of the 14th century, who credited the Bretons to be skilled with the use of dardes, gavelots, et lancegaies. All of these were thrown down from the ramparts at the attacking French, so evidently, a lancegaie is a missile weapon. A deadly missile weapon at that – an English record from 1450 says that Isobel Thresham’s husband was murdered by being impaled with a lancegay.

Who owned lancegays? David Scott-McNabb found records of lancegays in the inventories of the armouries of Thomas of Woodstock and the Earl of Arundel, when they were inventoried by  Richard II in 1397. He also found – apparently previously uncited – records of  lancegays in Bolingbroke’s wardrobe accounts for the late 1380s.

Who cares about lancegays? Richard II, Henry VI and Edward IV, Scott-McNabb told us, all tried to prohibit the carrying of lancegays specifically as well as making more general prohibitions on armed men wandering about the countryside. In Richard’s case, the clause in question was issued twice – once in 1983 (7 Richard II 1383 cp. 13) and again in 1397.

These records confirm the French evidence that a lancegay is a missile weapon, but it seems more versatile: a light, short spear, which could be carried by a lightly armed warrior in peacetime, be he on horse or afoot. It seems to be useful for stabbing, thrusting, charging, and throwing. And it’s sufficiently menacing that a king feeling a bit wary doesn’t want people wandering about brandishing them all over the countryside.

A chap with a lancegay, David Scott-McNabb concluded, is not ridiculous, or ‘cute’, as some have called Thopas.

But a lancegay is funny, in the hands of Sir Thopas. Why? It’s that bucking-expectations thing: you expect a knight to be fully armed for jousting, if he’s in a romance (illustrations to medieval texts, as well as literary depictions, shape that expectation). Thopas’ lancegay is funny, not because it’s a a wussy weapon, but because it’s too modern and too realisitic. It’s something one might carry in real!England, but inappropriate for romance!land: Thopas has to go home and fetch a lance as soon as he encounters a stranger in the forest who wants to joust against him.

So what?

Medieval: a woman readingI’m going to expand on this in another post, I think. But David Scott-McNabb was using this to demonstrate that, when we go along with what looks funny enough to us, we can easily miss what was intended to be funny about the text.

It was an interesting paper, and the Great Quest To Find Out About Lancegays made for entertaining listening. I also found it a pleasing discrete example of the nifty things you can do with a combination of literary close reading and detailed historical research: I know the student who asks me most often how to do a close reading showed up to hear this paper; I’m hoping it helped them, as well as pleasing me.


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