Academic journal article Arthuriana

Observations on Authority

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Observations on Authority

Article excerpt

This essay offers brief comments on four works (two of them Arthurian) that use different methods-from objects and symbols to sensory perception and finally to letter writing-of validating events or texts or establishing truth (though in some cases the result is instead serious misunderstanding). (NJL)

Authority, authenticity, validity, veracity: these loosely connected categories were of perennial interest to medieval authors and audiences.1 Paramount was the notion of auctoritas, which originally and most often referred to the weight of authority provided by an author's real or purported sources.2 It generally sufficed to cite a respected figure: a Church father, a philosopher, or another author-real or invented. That practice provided the underpinning of authority for the individual author or text. However, writers appear to have been scarcely less interested in exploring the authority attributed to their characters, the validity of the characters' acts, and the truth value of their statements, though it is not clear that a consensus emerged. In some instances, most notably the huge thirteenth-century French Vulgate Cycle, the text provides its own authority. Events are narrated and also recorded in writing, and that record constitutes the conte, the story that in a circular way authenticates those very events. That is to say that it authenticates itself.3

In the following remarks, I will briefly describe and define just what it is, in four selected texts, that establishes authority and the categories that it subsumes.4 I do not by any means contend that these few examples, drawn from different genres over two centuries, provide anything more than a very sparse sampling of possible approaches, and indeed, I give little more than passing mention to the first two texts in question. Nor do I wish to imply that these four works and their approaches represent even a developing trend, beyond an increasing emphasis on the senses and the written or spoken word, supplementing but not supplanting the reliance on objects that serve as symbols and signs.

It is tempting to generalize about the differences between veracity or authority established by symbols and that generated by spoken or written language. We might suppose that speech acts may be the less reliable, either because of intentional deception or because of the intrinsic ambiguity of language. A familiar example of the latter is Guenevere's referring to Lancelot as ami, which could mean either 'friend' or 'beloved.' Lancelot assumes that she is expressing affection or love for him, whereas she intended, as she informs him much later, only to address him as a friend.5

But symbols-objects-often present as much ambiguity as does language. For instance, the sword that Mark leaves between Tristran and Iseut in Béroul's Tristran is intended to indicate the king's belief in the lovers' innocence, but they take it to mean the exact opposite.6 Symbols and words are equally susceptible to misinterpretation-except in many examples from texts such as the Chanson de Roland.

The Oxford Roland is replete with divine signs and interventions. For present purposes, dealing with the authority in, rather than of, the work, it will suffice to mention briefly the glove and baton (or staff) that Charlemagne gives to Ganelon before the latter undertakes his traitorous mission to Marsile.7 The two items represent investiture for Ganelon's task; thus they serve metonymically as objective proof of imperial authority.8 Their possession has a signifying function, able to authenticate or validate Ganelon's task. Of course, the glove in particular is a multivalent sign, both establishing Ganelon unambiguously as Charlemagne's representative and, at the same time, portending inevitable tragedy when the future traitor carelessly drops it. However, his malevolent intent does not compromise his authority, for neither Charlemagne nor anyone else can alter the course of events: once conferred upon the traitor, authority remains with him. …

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