Lecture: “Kings and Cripples: The Absent Monarch in the Lancelot Prose Cycle”
Christopher Baswell (Columbia)
The 2019 Brian Merrilees Lecture
The demographic reality of medieval disability was largely a spectacle of poverty, disease, begging, and dependence. And depending on the nature and timing of disability, body difference could bar a person from being a legal subject or, in cases of adult madness, from managing property. At first glance, this is a world away from aristocratic culture and such aristocratic pursuits as battle or courtly practice. Yet in the cultural imagination of the high and later Middle Ages, there is at some points an intriguing convergence between disabled and aristocratic, even royal bodies, especially in scenes of largesse and miracle cure. At the same time, medievalists have tended not to register the frequency with which chivalric knights suffer temporary disabilities from battle, even moving about in litters. This is especially true in the Lancelot Prose Cycle. And at certain moments of cultural extremity, there is a conjuncture of ruling and disabled bodies, both historical (the leper King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the blind Enrico Dandalo doge of Venice, blind King John of Bohemia) and fictional. No king is at once so disabled and so central as the Rich Fisher King in the prose cycle. And yet, he is both strangely absent and constantly sought, in the narrative and the manuscript illustrations. This lecture explores the prevalence of aristocratic disability in the Lancelot Prose Cycle, and the simultaneous evocative force and general absence of the Rich Fisher King.
Christopher Baswell holds degrees in Classics and English from Oberlin College and Yale University. He also studied at Oxford University and the Warburg Institute, University of London. He has taught at the Université de Genève, Barnard College, UCLA, York University (UK), and Columbia University; and has held fellowships from the NEH, the National Humanities Center, and the Institute for Advanced Study. He is currently Anne Whitney Olin Chair of English at Barnard, and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. He has published widely on classical tradition in medieval literature and pedagogy, and currently on medieval cultures of disability.