Leofric and Lady Godiva

The legend of Lady Godiva is based on real events, according to a startling new discovery — but the facts were distorted right from the start, during the heroine’s lifetime. Several months ago, a student found a medieval manuscript in a cellar beneath Queens’ College, Cambridge. It included a 14th Century copy of the 11th Century text below. Queens’ is my alma mater, so I was one of the first non-academics to receive this translation from the Latin. It will blow your mind. (And after all these years, it’s about time we heard the other side of the story: the legend of Lady Godiva from her husband’s point of view.)

Lady Godiva, Claxton painting
Marshall Claxton, Lady Godiva, 1850

I, Dunstan, priest, wrote this from the mouth of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, on the seventeenth day of July in the fifteenth year of the reign of our most gracious King Edward [1057 AD].

My wife’s Latin inscriptions call her Godiva, but in English her name is Godgifu, God’s gift. I will not offer the obvious play on words about whether the Lord actually meant her as a gift, and if so to whom. But I have my doubts. Certainly she was beautiful in her youth, but that fair quality brought me little joy. More often than not, when I knocked on her chamber door in the wee hours, she said her blood had come or she was fatigued. Yet those ailments interfered not at all when a handsomer, younger man knocked on Godgifu’s door. Of course, they all kept that from me, my loyal people. But I had my informants, for not all in an earl’s household fear his wrath. My truest spy was my housekeeper, Tydfil, who fears little and has more wisdom than any woman I know, or any man. Tydfil told me of all Godgifu’s lovers. Did you never wonder why so many handsome young men of Mercia found themselves fighting in distant Ireland or Scotia, rented as mercenaries to warring lords? But Godgifu had her revenge. Now I am old, and I can hear the rustling wings of the Angel of the Lord. So I need a son to follow me. Yet doubt plagues me. That warlike young man who waits so eager to take my place: is he my own getting or the son of some handsomer man? They say only a wise man knows his own child, and though sometimes even Tydfil praises my wit, I cannot tell my wife’s truths from her lies.

Lady Godiva & Leofric
John Clifton, Lady Godiva and Earl Leofric, 1848-1855

It is thus all the more galling to know how they sing of Godgifu’s humility and piety in these days, now that age has stilled the passion of her blood, or wrinkles and rotting teeth have driven off the young men who might put the lie to her tales of sanctity. I often wonder if she spreads her story herself, from her manor at Woolhope, where she went to live once I could no longer bear the sight of those blue eyes. It seems all the Midlands know the tale of Lady Godgifu. They say my taxes were high, and she asked me to relieve the burden on the poor people of Coventry. And I refused over and over until, finally, mocking her, I said I would do it if she would ride naked through the streets. And she called my bluff and mounted a horse, clothed only in her golden hair. And thus she rode through the streets of Coventry, after commanding that the townsfolk stay indoors, so that she might keep her modesty. And of course, I had no choice but to lower the tax, since I had given my word. Continue reading “Leofric and Lady Godiva”

“Thay”: Gender-Neutral Pronoun

Here’s a crazy idea that might work.

“They” has become the English language’s preferred third person singular pronoun, for gender-neutral use. But of course, we use the same pronoun for the third person plural. That creates confusion. Why not revise the pronoun’s spelling when it’s singular? Why not switch out the “e” for an “a”?

You’d need only a few words of explanation. “In this [article/book], I use ‘thay,’ ‘thair,’ and ‘tham’ as third person singular pronouns, equivalent to ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them.’ I use the latter three solely as third person plural pronouns. Continue reading ““Thay”: Gender-Neutral Pronoun”

This Week in History: Althing

This week in 930 CE, the chieftains of Iceland established the Althing, which remains the country’s parliament. It’s the world’s oldest surviving legislature. Northmen (sometimes called Vikings) had arrived on the island about 60 years before, and now they set about to govern themselves – meeting outdoors at a place called Thingvellir, which means “assembly fields,” near modern-day Reykjavik.

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This week in history: Kublai Khan

This week in 1260, Kublai Khan became ruler of the Mongol Empire. Grandson to the great Genghis Khan, the empire’s founder, Kublai was the fifth Khagan, or Great Khan. He succeeded to the throne after the death of his eldest brother, Mongke. The latter died in 1259 without naming a successor, and almost immediately Kublai’s younger brother, Ariq Boke, held a Mongol great council and had himself named Khagan. But Kublai then held his own great council, which declared him Khagan, and went to war against Ariq Boke. The Mongol civil war that lasted four years, and of course Kublai won. Continue reading “This week in history: Kublai Khan”

Coronavirus Would Not Have Disrupted Our Ancestors’ Lives

A virus circles the world, killing 1% of the population or more, particularly the elderly … and people just go about their business. Even in countries that understand contagion, no one healthy stops working, and neither do most of the sick. In fact, if you suggest staying home, most people think you’re crazy. Why manufacture an economic disaster? That’s how our ancestors would react to coronavirus, from the ancient world through early modern times. Their lives already involved a steady risk of death from acute, fast-acting disease, so this comparatively mild new illness would hardly set them back.

Europe's history of pandemic inspired Breugel's famous painting
The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. c. 1562. Click for a closer view of death’s regular assault on our ancestors.

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This week in history: Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia

This week in 537, eastern Roman emperor Justinian I finished construction of the Hagia Sophia: the great cathedral of his capital, Constantinople. Upon completion and for centuries thereafter, it was the largest building in the world. Justinian’s realm was the remainder of the Roman Empire: the original mega-state’s eastern half, which survived the fall of the West and which we call the Byzantine Empire. And the Hagia Sophia became the central cathedral of the eastern region of the Roman Christian Church, not to mention the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Eventually, the two great sections of the church broke into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church — the latter led by the Patriarch of Rome, a.k.a the Pope. The Hagia Sophia remained the central cathedral of the Eastern church and the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when Constantinople fell to Muslim invaders and became the capital of the Turks’ new Ottoman Empire. The conquerors turned the cathedral into a mosque and added its now-iconic minarets: the slender towers you see on many mosques, used for the call to prayer. In the 1930s, however, the new, secular state of Turkey closed the mosque and transformed it into the Ayasofya Muzesi, or the Museum of the Hagia Sophia. You can visit the museum to this day, in Istanbul: the Turkish name for Constantinople. Continue reading “This week in history: Hagia Sophia”