There is a temporary sale on the ebook version of Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett. This is the first volume of her six-part historical novel series The Lymond Chronicles, for a mere $1.99.
The Lymond Chronicles (or The Chronicles of Lymond) are set during the late 1500s, overlapping the end of the reign of Queen Mary, and the start of Queen Elizabeth I. The locations range from Scotland, Ireland and England to Turkey, France and Russia. The books feature a complicated swashbuckling hero, Lymond, or more specifically Francis Crawford of Lymond. He’s complex, erudite and sometimes, a right bastard. The Lymond Chronicles also feature a number of other fascinating characters, real and fictitious, and some beautifully written women. The prose is lovely, and the story is funny, tragic and gripping by turns. You can read a short excerpt of The Game of Kings on the publisher’s site.
I love these books so very much. If you haven’t met them yet, the first book, The Game of Kings, is currently on sale in ebook form for $1.99 from Amazon (for Kindle) and from Apple’s iBooks.
Go. Now. While it’s on sale. Or got to your local library or bookshop, but do read them. This summer is a great time to start reading all six books (they are better read in order, but I confess I skipped a couple the first time, because I couldn’t find them all).
Knight vs. Snail Goreleston Psalter” credit=”British Library
Recently in the British Library’s excellent Medieval Manuscripts blog a curator mentioned a post medieval colleague noticing a marginal illustration showing a knight engaging in combat with a snail. This is not a rare motif in medieval mss. The Medieval Manuscripts post covers the bibliography regarding the motif, including a blog post by Carl Pyrdum on What’s So Funny about Knights and Snails?
Various reasons for the popularity are proposed, but none are really convincing. I am therefore willing to propose another reason: Psalm 58. Here’s Psalm 58 in the Wycliffe translation. This is a psalm about divine vengeance, and the section I’m most interested in is this bit in verses 6–7:
6 God shall all-break the teeth of them in their mouth; the Lord shall break (al)together the great teeth of lions. (O God, break all the teeth in their mouths; O Lord, break all in pieces the great teeth of these lions.) 7 They shall come to nought, as water running away; he bent his bow, till they be made sick. (They shall come to nothing, like water running forth; and when they go to bend their bows, they shall be made feeble, or weak.) 8 As wax that floateth away, they shall be taken away; fire fell above, and they saw not the sun. (Like a snail that melteth away into slime, they shall be taken away; like a dead-born child, they shall not see the sun.)
I think the armored snail fighting the armored knight is a reminder of the inevitability of death; the knight, like the snail, will ultimately “melteth away into slime.”
6 The teeth O Lord, which fast are set
in their mouth round about,
The lions’ teeth that are so great,
do thou, O Lord, break out.
7 Let them consume away and waste,
as water runs forth right;
The shafts that they do shoot in haste,
let them be broke in flight:8 As snails do waste within the shell,
and unto slime do run,
As one before his time that fell,
and never saw the sun.
A few days ago Metafilter had an interesting link to this site about the Cantigas de Santa Maria. The Cantigas de Santa Maria represent one of the largest collections of solo songs from the middle ages. The manuscripts were written during the reign of King Alfonso X “El Sabio” (1221-1284), though probably not actually by him, all attributions aside. The Cantigas, 420 narrative and lyric poems in praise of the Virgin Mary, are preserved in four manscripts, all closely related, and include the music (with duration and timing information). The lyrics of the Cantigas are in Galician-Portuguese, the literary language of thirteenth century Castile. Two of the manuscripts are illuminated, with images closely related to the lyrics of the songs. The illustrations are not only charming works of art in their own right, they’re highly regarded by music historians for the information they provide about early music performance and instruments.
The Cantigas Database project, directed by Dr Stephen Parkinson, is assembling data about the cantigas, including possible sources of the texts, classifying and organizing them in terms of content and type, with plans to analyze the texts and their illustrations.
Somewhat surprisingly, I first learned of the Cantigas, not from one of the early music classes I took as an undergraduate, but from a passing reference in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. In II 2 of The Game of Kings the always allusive Lymond Crawford writes in a letter to Christian Stewart, delivered via the inadvertent services of Agnes Herries:
Rosa das rosas e Fror das frores
Dona das donas, Sennor das sennores
Those are lines from Cantiga 10; you can see the accompanying illumination here from Cantigas de Santa Maria: Spain, ca. 1280, Codex Ms. T. I. 1 (Cantigas [Canticles] de S. Maria). Done under Alfonso X. Madrid, El Escorial.
The iTunes music store has a couple of albums containing selections from the Cantigas, including one from the Unicorn Ensemble, featuring “Rosa das Rosa.” You can hear it here . In addition to the melodic tonalities we associate with Western European medieval music, you can also hear the influence of medieval Arabic classical music.