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  • Michael Smith, printmaker, Mythical Britain

The Age of Chivalry - Inspiring my Books and Prints

One of my favourite periods of history is the fourteenth century. It inspires me in the linocut prints I produce and also features strongly in my translations of Middle English poetry for my books.

It seems to mark an aesthetic change in mediaeval fashion (secular and military) and also in architectural aesthetics. Knights of this period hold a real fascination for me; it evokes the Age of Chivalry right across the board!

Much of my recent printmaking work mirrors this period; as many of my followers will know, this is also reflected in my recent translation – and forthcoming publication – of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

I am now also working on a translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death), which is a wonderful evocation of the age of Edward III and Richard II.

Both these poems, products of the alliterative revival of the fourteenth century have provided me with huge inspiration for my work.

The poems are not flights of fancy or pure literary creations, they indeed reflect the times in which they were written. If we read their words carefully, we realise that they describe an actual, ritualistic world, the significance of which may be lost to us unless we take time to pause and think about what the poets are describing - and why!

An example of this is a feature common to both poems, the ritualistic arming of a mediaeval knight in preparation for battle.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (lines 568-639) contains a famous description, some of which is highlighted below:

Then they set the sabatons on that sire’s feet,

His legs lapped in steel with lovely greaves

And poleyns pitched thereto and polished full clean

About his knees, knitted with knots of gold;

The cuisses then, which cleverly closed

His thick thighs thwart with thongs so attached;

Then a byrnie, embroidered of bright steel rings,

Enwrapped in that way upon worthy stuff,

And well-burnished braces upon both his arms,

With good couters gay and gauntlets of plate,

And all the goodly gear to gain him on

his ride;

With rich coat armour,

And gold spurs hitched with pride,

He was girded with a sword full sure

On a silk belt round his side.

We are not being told of armour for armour's sake, we are being told of a ritualistic dressing for battle. This compares well with the arming of King Arthur for his battle against the giant in the Alliterative Morte Arthure:

He puts on a bascinet burnished with bright silver,

The best made in Basle, bordered most richly;

The crest and the circlet decorated that helm

Clasped in clear gold graced with clusters of stones;

The visor, the aventail, were enamelled so fine,

As to be void of defect, with eye-slits of silver;

His gloves were gilt gaily and engraved at the hems

With seed pearls and jewels of glorious hews...

It is clear from both these descriptions that the preparation for war, irrespective of its brutality and uncertain outcome, had an almost religious connotation.

It is also clear that the chivalric element to preparation was an important part of the process, especially so when much of the armour in this period still permitted (via clothes such as the jupon) the outer presentation of the knight’s heraldic devices.

Gawain's arming has an even greater significance because he is prepared for his journey on a carpet made of the finest work. He is, in fact, being prepared for Paradise if he should fail on his mission.

It is this element which I have tried to capture in my work. Not only in my printmaking but also in my illustrative work for my two translations.

My work is a reflection of the near-religious approach to warfare and battle which was essential in an age without proper medicine and in which wounds were often best treated by swift, and kind, dispatch at the end of a battle.

The Age of Chivalry was a panoply of colour. It was also a brutal battleground of horror.

For more information about my new translation of King Arthur’s Death and to pledge towards a collector’s limited edition, please click here.

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