Arthurian classes and roles

Children | Clerks | Dwarves | Giants | Hermits | Messengers Pursuivants | Minstrels | Sorcerers | Squires | Surgeons | Varlets | Vavasours | Women

Guenevere was once reduced to using a child of her chamber as a messenger. The child, probably a page, was in her Maying party when it was ambushed and captured by Meliagrant and his men. Guenevere called the child, who was "swiftly horsed", and slipped him her ring and a message for Lancelot. Escaping from the group even while Meliagrant was getting it back to his castle, the child proved himself a very reliabel and competent messenger.

This is about the only thing I have found relative to children in general, at least older than infancy. There is, of course, the episode of the May babies, the tale of Arthur's own birth, and incidents in the childhood years of certain characters, like Bors and Lionel, who came to prominence as adults. There is the evidence that a number of characters - Merlin, Percivale, Galahad, Viviane, Elaine of Astolat, Arthur himself - became prominent in their early teens, only a few years removed from the age we consider childhood. It may be worth nothing that our sentimental emphasis on childhoos as semi-sacred state of being and children as innocent little angels to be coddled and envied seems to be a much later development, perhaps largely a product of this and the last century. Arthurian children may well have been treated with more practical regard for their capabilities, given responsiblity earlier, and less carefully shielded from "sex and violence" - and this may have led to their seeming invisibility in the romances.

At the same time, some careers seem to have lasted much longer in the romances than we might think likely, with our common idea that medieval people were considered aged by fifty. For instance, think of the Vulgate's testimony that Mador de la Porte had served Arthur forty-five years and was still hale and hearty enough to give Lancelot a good fight in Guenevere's trial by combat. Contrary to the popular modern picture, the testimony of Malory and the Vulgate indicates that Guenevere must have been somewhat older than Lancelot - sort of an Elizabeth-Essex love, in a way; Morgawse must have been considerably older than her lover Lamorak. Literary convention may have expanded these great character's ages and youths, of course. Also, I have long believed that we commonly misinterpret the statistics of "average life expectancy" in other centuries - I suspect that life expectancy was short because a person was "old" at age thirty - that a member of the upper classes, with a reasonably good diet and a reasonably good balance of work, exercise, and rest, could look forward to a strong and sound a "three-score and ten" or longer as we moderns, barring plague and accident. Whatever the historical truth, however, the impresseion I draw from the medieval Arthurian romances is of a society in which age differences and generation gaps were not nearly so important as we have made them today.

I confess I do not know whether to classify clerks as holy folk, magicians, neither, or both. Clerks were very likely clerics or clergy, but this does not necessarily imply personal holiness. In historical times, a man's entering the lower orders of the clergy did not preclude his later taking a wife. Possibly Arthurian clerks included persons who were not officially clergy but who specialized in reading and writing. Notice, however, that the knights and ladies of Arthurian romance are frequently, perhaps generally, literate; it comes as a shock to learn that King Claudas cannot read. Nevertheless, several different manuscript styles had developed, each with specified official uses - writers and polished calligraphers being different entities, clerks therefore would fill important roles at even generally literature courts in the days before printing.

As well as keeping written records, clerks seem to have made sure that etiquette was upheld. They also conducted investigations into the future by searching dreams and visions.

Dwarves appear everywhere, usually as servants. They often seem to fill a role similar to that of squires, but, presumably, with no chance of becoming knights. Occasionally, as in the Vulgate, we read of the daughter or niece of a dwarf becoming the lover of a knight. I theorize that dwarves may have been members of an earlier, conquered race, the folk who are supposed to have gone into the caves and burrows as their land was engulfed by successive waves of Celts, Angles, and so on, the Sutcliff's "little dark people." There are also tales, however, of traders called Comprachicos or Comprapequeños who bought children and surgically made them into misshapen dwarves, apparently for resale.

An indication of one dwarf's size is found in Malory VII, 19:

And then when (Sir Gringamore) saw Sir Beaumains fast asleep, he came stilly stalking behind the dwarf, and plucked him fast under his arm, and so he rode away with him as fast as ever he might unto his own castle.

A dwarf of Morgan's is described as having "a great mouth and a flat nose". I wonder if the term "dwarf" might not have become at least partially synonymous with a certain type of servant, so that not all "dwarves" were actually members of a dwarvish race or mutilated children.

Whether a dwarf could serve as a physical bodyguard is doubtful, but dwarves may show considerable intelligence and resourcefulness. Dame Elyzabel once traveled from Britain to Gaul on a fairly dangerous mission with a squire and a dwarf as - seemingly - her only companion.

As an example of master-dwarf relationships, Gareth and his damsel came to a pavilion. The master was gone, but the dwarf was ready to welcome them provisionally on his master's permission. When the master came back, however, he began beating his dwarf for extending even this much courtesy unauthorized. Gareth trashed the master and made him beg his dwarf's pardon. The dwarf forgave his master on condition he would never lay hands on him again and would bear him no grudge.

For all their importance as a class, I do not remember one dwarf who is given a name. The only one I have included is Gareth's dwarf.

The size of giants varies. The Giant of Saint Michael's Mount was probably the biggest, if we take the fact that he split Hoel's wife to navel while forcing her as indicative of his size - a regular ogre of the "Jack the Giant Killer" tradition. Hargodabrans, the Saxon, was fifteen feet tall. Galapas' size may perhaps be judged by Arthur's remark after cutting of his legs to the knees: "Now art thou better of a size to deal with than thou were." Some giants were small enough to ride horseback, like Nabon le Noire and Taulas. Taulas' brother Taulurd, however, was too big for any horse.

Carados of the Dolorous Tower is said to have been "made like a giant"; this may mean simply that he was an especially large man. If it means that he was in every sence a "giant", then the same should be said of his brother Sir Turquine. Lucius' bodyguard was fifty giants reputedly engendered of fiends. Chances seem good that the giants were considered a race apart; the smaller ones at least, though seem to have been capable of interbreeding with humans. Duke Galeholt was said to be the son of a beautiful giantess. (Of course, Galeholt is also the reputed son of the wicked Sir Breunor of Castle Pluere.)

There may, perhaps, have been more than one speciet of giant. It is even possible that at one time the giants had been equated with the Saxons, though I would not care to make too much of that theory at this time. As the Bible says somewhere, "There were giants in the earth in those days..."

Hermits, Monks, Nuns
We read of "white monks", "black monks", and so on. Since no Rome-authorized orders were yet established, the older British Christianity must have had its own traditions and garb.

As terms, "friar" and "monk" are not interchangeable. Monks settle down in a monastic community - geographical stability is a condition of their "contemplative" vocation. Friars travel about imparting the Gospel - they have "active" vocations. Friars, like the Crusaders ar an Arthurian anachronism, for the preaching orders of friars developed much later than the earlier monastic orders. A "convent" applies to houses of monks or nuns.

Hermits are distinct from friars and monks. The image of hermits, living alone and in poverty, does not seem incompatible with Arthurian tradition, but Malory states a different picture:

For in those days it was not the guise of hermits as is nowadays, for there were none hermits [then] but that they had been men of worship and of prowess; and those hermits held great household, and refreshed people ... in distress.

Maybe anyone could become a hermit without even leaving home, by devoting himself or herself to prayers, piety, and hospitality. An old, retired knight might be both a vavasour and a hermit at once; many anchorites might not have bothered to obtain special authorization from the British Church.

At the end of Lancelot's career, he says

I will take me to penance, and pray while my life lasteth, if I may find any hermit, either gray or white, that will recieve me.

There was and is a type of religious settlement in which the members, instead of living the common life of monastery, come together for Mass and some of their prayers, and otherwise live alone in their separate little dwellings. I would guess that the hermitage of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, where Lancelot and so many of his former brothers of the Round Table ended up, became a settlement of this type.

Messengers, Pursuivants

And ... Tristram met with pursuivants, and they told him that there was made a great cry of tournament between King Carados of Scotland and the King of North Wales, and either should joust against other at the Castle of Maidens; and these pursuivants sought all the country after the good knights, and in especial King Carados let make seeking for Sir Launcelot du Lake, and the King of Northgalis let seek after Sir Tristram de Liones.

For less official messengers, almost anyone can be used - damsels, dwarves, clerks, squires, minstrels, even, at need, children. Hermits and monks, of course, would have been exempt from being pressed into messenger service except in the very gravest emergency. I do not recall one knight ever using another knight for the mere and sole purpose of a messenger, but knights did give each other messages and news to take back to court. Kings could surely have used knights for messengers; likely, however, a non-combatant would have had a certain ambassadorial immunity as messenger which a knight would not want to have.

Ambassadorial immunity did not always work. At the advice of Nimue, Arthur made Morgan's damsel wear a cloak that Morgan had sent as a gift to Arthur; the cloak burned the messenger to coals - Nimue must have suspected some such outcome when she made her suggestion. When Guenevere sent her cousin Dame Elyzabel to France to summon Viviane, Claudas held Elyzabel, her squire, and her dwarf in prison until Guenevere realized the errand was taking far too long; eventually, Arthur had to go to war against Claudas to gain Elyzabel's release.


When the harper [Eliot] had sung his song [Dinadan's lay against Mark] to the end King Mark was wonderly wroth, and said: Thou harper, how durst thou be so bold on thy head to sing this song afore me. Sir, said Eliot, wit you well I am a minstrel, and I must do as I am commanded of these lords that I bear the arms of. And sir, wit you well that Sir Dinadan, a knight of the Table Round, made this song, and made me to sing it afore you. Thou sayest well, said King Mark, and because thou art a minstrel thou shalt go quit, but I charge thee hie thee fast out of my sight.

Sorcerers, Necromancers, Enchantresses
Probably people who simply knew the natural properties of various herbs were considered sorcerors and sorceresses, as well as folk who knew the more "supernatural" branches of necromancy. The Latin veneficium means both "poisoning" and "sorcery".

Any woman, or at least any beautiful woman, like Guenevere or Isoud la Blanche Mains, might have a touch of the enchantress about her. Possibly the twelve damsels of the tower, who had such mutual animosity for Sir Marhaus and whom he characterized as "sorceress and enchanters many of them", come under this classification - though Marhaus claimed that they could make a knight, be he ever so good of body and full of prowess, "a stark coward to have the better of him", they certainly are not shown doing anything to justify this supposed power; Marhaus' distinction between them and "good ladies and gentlewomen" may be merely the distinction between amorous temptresses and modest dames.

We notice two types of squires: young men completing their education, for whom squirehood is a step to knighthood, and older men who have apparently made squiring their lifetime career. One example of an older squire who seems to have no intention of ever advancing to knighthood is Tristram's gentleman tutor and servant Gouvernail. Sir Gawaine's Eliezer (Eliezier) seems to me another example. Beric, Prince Valiant's squire in the early years of Hal Foster's strip, appears to be a faithful modern interpretation of this type of squire. Such squires were much more than servants to their knights - they were also friends, battle companions at need, sometimes even mentors.

Generally, in the Arthurian romances, squires accompany their knights or ladies; we seldom see squires striking out on their own until after they are dubbed knights. The dubbing, however, can be performed by a squire's own knight or any other knight on very short notice and anywhere, even the battlefield.

Vulgate III says that "a squire must not strike a knight". Nevertheless, "gentlemen and yeomen" could help knights attack other knights. Intermediary ground appears between temporary squires and lifelong squires - men who, for some reason, delayed being knighted. Quite possibly whether or not a squire was allowed to strike a knight depended on the squire's birth and degree of nobility and also on the circumstances of the fight. At least one squire, Helain de Taningues, became lord of a castle before being dubbed. True, his folk did not much like it, but he had promised his mother not to let anyone dub him except Sir Gawaine.

Venturing outside the Arthurian romances for further examples, in Charles Kingsley's novel "Hereward the Wake", Hereward, a contemporary of William the Conqueror, remained a squire for a long while, but attached himself to no knight and fought as freely, in tournament and elsewhere, as a knight - he remarked that he wanted to show the world that an English squire was as good as a Norman knight. Suffolk, the English commander at Orleans when Joan of Arc raised the siege of that city, is said to have dubbed the French squire Guillaume Regnault a knight before surrendering to him, refusing to be captured by anyone under the rank of knight.

Surgeons, Leeches
There do seem to have been males who made a definite profession and livelihood of the healing arts. Women and hermits could be and frequently were surgeons and healers also, sometimes notable ones, like both the Isouds and the Lady Leech of Cornwall. I doubt, however, that a woman, unless she was a village herbwoman or wise woman of the peasantry, could have made a profession of it in the sense of earning her livelihood thereby; and a hermit should not have needed to heal for material payment. The opinion of a good female healer seems nevertheless to have been considered as good as the opinion of a professional male medic. Doubtless it would have been, if not necessary, at least very, very handy for women - indeed, for anyone - to have some knowledge of healing and nursing, as well as of first aid. One never knew when the need might arise. For instance, Lancelot fell sick one time of drinking from a fountain that had been infected by poisonous serpents; Amable used a combination of medicine and sweating therapy to cure him.

And them that were hurt [Arthur] let the surgoeons do search their hurts and wounds and commanded to spare no salves nor medicines till they were whole. [Malory V]

And when [Marhaus'] head was searched a piece of Sir Tristram's sword was found therein, and might never be had out of his head for no surgeons, and so he died of Sir Tristram's sword; and that piece of the sword the queen, his sister, kept it for ever with her, for she thought to be revenged as she might. [Malory VIII]

Then the king for great favour made Tristram to be put in his daughter's [La Beale Isoud's] ward and keeping, because she was a noble surgeon. And when she had searched him she found in the bottom of his wound that therein was poison, and so she healed him within a while. [Malory VIII]

So upon a day, by the assent of Sir Launcelot, Sir Bors, and Sir Lavaine, they made the hermit to seek in woods for divers herbs, and so Sir Launcelot made fair Elaine to gather herbs for him to make him a bain [bath]. In the meanwhile Sir Launcelot made him to arm him at all pieces ... and... strained himself so straitly... that the button of his wound brast both within and without; and therewithal the blood came out so fiercely that... he fell down on the one side [of his horse] to the earth like a dead corpse ...

With this came the holy hermit, Sir Baudwin of Brittany, and when he found Sir Launcelot in that plight he said but little, but wit ye well he was wroth; and then he bade them: Let us have him in. And so they all bare him unto the hermitage, and unarmed him, and laid him in his bed; and evermore his wound bled piteously, but he stirred no limb of him. Then the knight-hermit put a thing in his nose and a little deal of water in his mouth. And then Sir Launcelot waked of his swoon, and then the hermit staunched his bleeding.

There came to be a difference between doctors and surgeons; in "Gil Blas", Le Sage displays mistrust, not to say contempt, for doctors, but respect for surgeons. I do not sense such a clear distinction in the Arthurian romances, but possibly the beginnings of the division may be visible in the two types of treatment: cleaning and bandaging, and using herbs and other medicinal preparations. The latter type of treatment would have required the same type of knowledge as that needed by a poisoner, so that healing may have been considered akin to sorcery when practiced by anyone other than surgeons and holy hermits.

A varleet was a man or boy acting as a servant, a groom, or as other attendant to a military leader. By extension the word came to mean anyone of knavish or rascally disposition. Though varlet seems a popular insult word in today's pseudoarcaic dialouge, the first definition is the one we want in reading such passages as this:

So Sir Tristram had three squires, and La Beale Isoud had three gentlewomen, and both the queen and they were richly apparelled; and other people had they none ... but varlets to bear their shields and their spears.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a feudal tenant ranking immediately below a baron. According to D.D.R. Owen's glossary to his translation of Chrétien de Troyes (1987), a lesser vassal or the vassal of another vassal. Vavasours turn up frequently in the romances, usually as older, possibly impoverished, but very respectable knights with beautiful daughters, eager and ambitious sons, or both. One gets the impression that the two most popular roles for knights who survived to a ripe old retirement age were hermit and vavasour.

The Arthurian milieu is predominantly a man's world, yet the picture I draw from Malory and the Vulgate is considerably better for women than most modern interpretations and impressions seem to credit it for being - and I do not mean in regard to chivalrous courtesy and the Round Table aim of succoring all ladies and damsels. The touchstone is whether the authors treat their female characters as intelligent and responsible adults. I find that Malory is fair to his women in this regard, the Vulgate even fairer. This attitude carries over into the fictional setting, so that women have much more freedom over movement and right to property than we usually think of when we picture the High Middle Ages.

Women, it has been conjectured, made up the bulk of the readership for these romances, and this may account for the place they hold therein as characters. It may also account in part for the rarity with which female characters are given names - perhaps the female readers, or the authors who wrote for them, may have felt it easier for real people to identify with nameless than with named characters.

When the knights of the Leprous Lady wished to bleed Percivale's sister, Percivale protested that "a maid in what[ever] place she cometh is free". This was clearly the ideal rather than the general rule, even in the context of Malory's romance; in the context of the real world of Malory's time it may have been mere wishful thinking, the literary daydreams of female readers. Nevertheless, in the romances themselves, we often meet female characters riding the countryside as freely as knights - sometimes, despite their lack of arms and armor to defend themselves, the ladies even ride with very few attendants. Thus Guenevere's cousin Elyzabel sets off with a squire and a dwarf to carry a message from Arthur's court to the French Damsel of the Lake across the Channel - and would probably complete her mission, despite the perils of the road, had it not been for King Claudas' suspicious nature when she stops at his court.

The Damsel of La Beale Regard demonstrates some skill in the donning of armor and use of weapons. Sommer remarks in a footnote in Vulgate VIII that a certain passage implies that the ladies traveling with Sir Griflet assist him [maybe to cross a lake]. They next appear to give material aid in rescuing a knight, though after he is mounted they then seem to stand back and simply watch. In Vulgate IV, when Lancelot sits down to watch a tournament between the Castle aux Dames (Castle of Ladies) and the Castle aux Pucelles (Castle of Maidens), a damsel comes by and asks for his shield, since he obviously has no use for it. The evidence of Sir Griflet's ladies is textually dubious, and that of the damsel asking for Lancelot's shield seems to be a broad hint that he should get into the fight rather than a suggestion that she will if he will not. Nevertheless, the total impression created by these and similar instances is a doubt as to whether the women of the romances were really as unfamiliar with weapons as are the standard "damsels in distress" of our much later tales.

When Arthur and his party chanced upon Morgan's castle in the woods around Tauroc and learned that the porter must speak with his mistress about whether to admit them, Sir Sagramore "wondered that there was no master". Although we meet an occasional example in the Vulgate of a castle which cannot be inherited by the lord's daughter, we find many more castles and even small countries which appear to be under the governance of ladies rather than knights. In view of this pattern, Sagramore's surprise seems strange. Perhaps the fact that Sagramore had come from the East had something to do with his surprise.

It was customary for high-born damsels to wait on their parents' guests at table. In the light of the cases of young knights, high court officials, and even of kings serving at table, I interpret the maidens' duty of serving not as a sign of female subservience, but as a courtly means of finishing their education while including them, to some measure, in society and giving them a chance to hear the guests' news.

The Damsel of Hongrefort bore responsibility for her own actions and for seeking penance and forgiveness. King Agrippe's daughter made a vow and embarked on a quest at least as painful as any knight's. Women appear as skillful surgeons, wise and holy hermitesses, and messengers, as well as highly competent [if evil] enchantresses. They are clever, resourceful, capable of handling livestock and serving as squires. In sum, the women of the medieval romances - whether these were colored by memories of woman's place in old Celtic society or by the wishes of female readers - are very far from retiring, stay-at-home, rather helpless creatures who appear to have become popular in Victorian retellings.