Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why did the other knights suspect Sir Balin of Witchcraft? (1485)

In days of old, when knights were bold, and the Round Table had just been invented ....

This post focuses on a story found in the first two sections of Malory's "The Book of Sir Balin" (first published in 1485, but probably written a decade of more previously). Therein is told the tale of the "poor knight" who succeeded where all of Arthur's other knights, and even Arthur himself, had failed.

The task that Balin, the poor knight, alone had managed to complete, had to do with a newly arrived "damsel, the which was sent on message from great Lady Lylle of Avelion." When the damsel presented herself to Arthur, the King noted that she was "girt with a noble sword, whereof the king had marvel," and further noted that, at least in his opinion, the bearing of such a weapon did not "beseemeth" the damsel, who in response explained that she very much wished to be relieved of the sword, but that, alas, in order for that to happen she would first have to find "a passing good man of his hands, and of his deeds, and without villany or treachery and without treason," for only such a knight would be able to draw the sword from the scabbard with which she was "girt". After first Arthur, and then all of the other knights in his court, tried without success to withdraw the sword, Sir Balin finally stepped forward "and drew it out easily."

But then an odd thing happened. Or possibly not so odd, depending on one's estimation of humanity. The other knights immediately began to harbor a "great despite" toward this Balin fellow, for he had committed the grave sin of making them all look like chumps. Of course these good knights did not wish to frame their base envy in honest terms, which would force them to admit that they were angry at having been bested by one who was their better in virtue. Instead they preferred to imagine that Balin must have cheated by employing some form of supernatural assistance: "the most part of the knights of the Round Table said that Balin did not this adventure all only by might, but by witchcraft."

The other knights do not suspect that Sir Balin has committed any sort of maleficium. That is, there is not the slightest hint that Balin has used magic to cause harm to anyone. Nor is Balin hated by all of the other knights, but only by "the most of them," and, in particular, and precisely because he has succeeded in this "adventure", and, thereby, proven that he is "without villany or treachery and without treason," which, apparently, was not the case with his other knights, King Arthur, who until recently had had Balin incarcerated, now takes quite a liking to Balin, and promises to make things right.

There is much more to the story of Sir Balin. But as far as the accusation of Witchcraft against him goes, the case is very straightforward. He was not suspected of maleficium, nor was he universally hated. And, in fact, it is made plain that those who did hate him did so only out of simple envy, not because they genuinely believed him to be an evil man, nor that he had done anything evil. Indeed, this story well illustrates what Edward Phillips wrote in his General Dictionary (published in 1658), namely that Witchcraft is the capacity whereby "Wonders may be wrought, which exceed the common Apprehension of Men."

Here is the relevant passsage from Malory taken from the 1904 Houghton Mifflin edition edited by Clarence Griffin Child.

I. After the death of King Uther Pendragon reigned Arthur his son, the which had great wars in his days, for to get all England into his hand; for there were many kings within the realm of England, and in Wales, Scotland, and in Cornwall. So it be- fell on a time, when King Arthur was at London, there came a knight and told the king tidings how that the king Rions of North Wales had reared a great number of people, and were entered into the land, and burnt and slew the king's true liege people. "If this be true," said Arthur, "it were great shame unto mine estate, but that he were mightily withstood. " "It is truth," said the knight, "for I saw the host myself." "Well," said the king, "let make a cry: " that all the lords, knights, and gentlemen of arms, should draw unto a castle, called Camelot in those days, and there the king would let make a council general, and a great joust.

So when the king was come thither, with all his baronage, and lodged as they seemed best, there was come a damsel, the which was sent on message from the great Lady Lylle of Avelion; and, when she came before King Arthur, she told from whom she came, and how she was sent on message unto him for these causes. Then she let her mantle fall, that was richly furred, and then was she girt with a noble sword, whereof the king had marvel, and said, " Damsel, for what cause are ye girt with that sword ? It beseemeth you not." "Now shall I tell you," said the damsel; "this sword, that I am girt withal, doth me great sorrow and cumbrance, for I may not be delivered of this sword but by a knight, but he must be a passing good man of his hands, and of his deeds, and without villany or treachery and without treason. If I may find such a knight that hath all these virtues, he may draw out this sword out of the sheath. For I have been at King Rions; it was told me, there were passing good knights, and he and all his knights have assayed it, and none can speed."

"This is a great marvel," said Arthur, "if this be sooth. I will myself assay to draw out the sword, not presuming upon myself that I am the best knight, but that I will begin to draw at your sword, in giving ex- ample to all the barons, that they shall assay every one after other, when I have assayed it." Then Ar- thur took the sword by the sheath and by the girdle, and pulled at it eagerly, but the sword would not out. "Sir," said the damsel, "ye need not to pull half so hard; for he that shall pull it out shall do it with little might." "Ye say well," said Arthur; "now assa} r ye, all my barons; but beware ye be not defiled with shame, treachery, nor guile." "Then it will not avail," said the damsel; "for he must be a clean knight, without villany, and of a gentle strene of fa- ther's side and mother's side." Most of all the bar- ons of the Round Table, that were there at that time, assayed all by rowe, but there might none speed. Wherefore the damsel made great sorrow out of mea- sure, and said, "Alas! I weened in this court had been the best knights, without treachery or treason."

"By my faith," said Arthur, "here are good knights as I deem as any be in the world; but their grace is not to help you, wherefore I am displeased."

II. Then fell it so, that time, that there was a poor knight with King Arthur, that had been prisoner with him half a year and more for slaying of a knight, the which was cousin to King Arthur. The name of this knight was called Balin, and by good means of the barons he was delivered out of prison; for he was a good man named of his body, and he was born in Northumberland. And so he went privily into the court and saw this adventure, whereof it raised his heart, and would assay it as other knights did; but for he was poor, and poorly arrayed, he put him not far in press. But in his heart he was fully assured to do as well, if his grace happed him, as any knight that there was. And, as the damsel took her leave of Arthur and all the barons, so departing, this knight, Balin, called unto her, and said, "Damsel, I pray you, of your courtesy, suffer me as well to assay as these lords; though that I be so poorly clothed, in my heart me seemeth I am fully assured as some of these other, and me seemeth in my heart to speed right well." The damsel beheld the poor knight, and saw he was a likely man ; but, for his poor arrayment, she thought he should be of no worship without villany or treachery. And then she said unto the knight, "Sir, it needeth not to put me to more pain or labour, for it seemeth not you to speed, thereas other have failed." "Ah! fair damsel," said Balin, "worthiness and good tatches and good deeds are not only in arrayment, but man- hood and worship is hid within man's person; and many a worshipful knight is not known unto all peo- ple ; and therefore worship and hardiness is not in arrayment." "By God!" said the damsel, "ye say sooth; therefore ye shall assay to do what ye may."

Then Balin took the sword by the girdle and sheath, and drew it out easily; and when he looked on the sword, it pleased him much. Then had the king and all the barons great marvel, that Balin had done that adventure; many knights had great despite of Balin. "Certes," said the damsel, "this is a passing good knight, and the best that ever I found, and most of worship, without treason, treachery, or villany, and many marvels shall he do. Now, gentle and courteous knight, give me the sword again." "Nay," said Balin, "for this sword will I keep, but it be taken from me with force." "Well," said the damsel, "ye are not wise to keep the sword from me, for ye shall slay with the sword the best friend that ye have, and the man that ye most love in the world, and the sword shall be your destruction." "I shall take the adventure," said Balin, "that God will or- dain me, but the sword ye shall not have at this time, by the faith of my body." "Ye shall repent it within short time," said the damsel, "for I would have the sword more for your avail than for mine, for I am passing heavy for your sake ; for ye will not believe that sword shall be your destruction, and that is great pity." With that the damsel departed, making great sorrow.

Anon, after, Balin sent for his horse and armor, and so would depart from the court, and took his leave of King Arthur. "Nay," said the king, "I suppose ye will not depart so lightly from this fellowship. I suppose ye are displeased, that I have showed you unkindness; blame me the less, for I was misin- formed against you. But I weened ye had not been such a knight as ye are of worship and prowess; and if ye will abide in this court among my fellowship I shall so advance you, as ye shall be pleased." "God thank your highness," said Balin; "your bounty and highness may no man praise half to the value; but at this time I must needs depart, beseeching you al- way of your good grace." "Truly," said the king, "I am right wroth for your departing; I pray you, fair knight, that ye tarry not long, and ye shall be right welcome to me and to my barons, and 1 shall amend all amiss that I have done against you. " " God thank your great lordship," said Balin, and therewith made him ready to depart. Then the most part of the knights of the Round Table said that Balin did not this adventure all only by might, but by witchcraft.