Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Life and Death, Reader and Page: Mirrors of Mortality in English Manuscripts

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Life and Death, Reader and Page: Mirrors of Mortality in English Manuscripts

Article excerpt

The Three Living and the Three Dead, a mediaeval icon of the macabre, survives in English manuscripts in only five illuminations (two with English verses) and an alliterative poem. The motif works as multiple speculum, its six haunted figures engaged in a reciprocal specular encounter, while it beckons a reader to take his or her place in its temporal hall of mirrors.


Without warning, three wayfarers meet three animated corpses, likenesses of themselves as they shall be, a Doppelganger of stark, macabre immediacy. Though primarily a visual icon, the mediaeval Three Living and Three Dead also survives in purely verbal renditions in French, Latin, Italian, and German, with at least one version having circulated in England in Anglo-Norman and French variants (Glixelli; Rotzler; Tristram 162-66; Binski 134-40). In searching through mediaeval English records, scholars usually cite only one verse occurrence, the densely alliterative The Three Dead Kings, also known by its Latin incipit De tribus regibus mortuis (Woolf 346; Tristram 165; Turville-Petre, Alliterative 149). Here a slim narrative fleshes out the memento mori sign: three crowned kings who have embarked upon a hunt meet the surreal dead, who grotesquely enact gestures and responses similar to their own but transmuted by death. In the English poem, the Dead explain to the Living that they are their own royal fathers, and, by this, a generational bridge spans the temporal divide. Glimmers of this folkloric motif can be detected in Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale, but there it is dramatized obliquely and without the kinship tie, as three wastrels heedlessly dismiss three monitory mirror-like figures who speak for three ages in succession (Fein, "Other" 341-47). Shakespeare comes closer to imitating the classic spectral encounter when the ghost of Hamlet's father accosts his son and seeks "remembrance," a scene discussed recently by Stephen Greenblatt, who detects its purgatorial undertones but not its strong evocation of this primal motif.

The Three Dead Kings belongs to a small, interesting body of hybrid verse that combines the meter of alliterative unrhymed poetry (as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Piers Plowman) with rhymed strophes, a mixed type that intrigues scholars (see, for example: Turville-Petre, "Summer"; Lawton 143 -72; Hanna 494-97; Fein, "Early"). Its place in the canon of Middle English has been largely metrical, but its narration of the spectral motif deserves sustained attention as well. The poem appears in the Audelay Manuscript, a book containing the works of a fifteenth-century chaplain named John Audelay, apparently compiled at Haughmond Abbey, Shropshire, about 1426 (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 302). The consensus is that Audelay did not compose the poem, and, to judge from its ornate style, it was likely created earlier, in the fourteenth century (Whiting xiv-xxviii, 217-23; Turville-Petre, Alliterative 148-57; Fein, "Thirteen-Line").

As the last overt expression of the Three Living and the Three Dead to appear in an English manuscript, The Three Dead Kings stands as the final member of a select lineage. Its anonymous poet comprehended well the raw power by which the visual icon coerces readers to experience their own temporal state. A close examination of the tradition as revealed in English mediaeval books affords us a glimpse into how mediaeval reading practices--honed for meditative and often devotional ends--expected an absorbed engagement quite unlike the more rapid, passive methods that we adopt today automatically. It is also evident that the The Three Dead Kings poet wanted to exploit such extra"-literate operations even though he used narrative rather than visual means to do so.

In mediaeval art, the spectral motif follows, especially in its earliest forms, a simple iconography of placement: Three Living on the left, Three Dead on the right, an open gulf between them. …

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