The vows of the peacock

Privat vs. Margue on the significance of the peacock in a 14thC poem.

Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 97v
Peacock in bestiary (Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 97v)

I recently wrote a short review of Chazan and Regaldo’s edited volume on the Tournoi de Chauvency (‘The Tournament at Chauvency’) in the manuscript Douce 308 for French Studies. The review had a limit of 500 words, so I didn’t have room to do more than describe the contents of such a large and varied conference proceedings volume. Given my earlier work on music and birdsong I was struck by a difference of opinion between the two essays in the volume that focus not on the Tournoi de Chauvency itself, but on one of the other long narrative poems that the manuscript contains, Jacques du Longuyon’s Voeux du Paon (‘The Vows of the Peacock’). These two essays, by Michel Margue and Jean-Marie Privat respectively, disagree as to the interpretation of the peacock on whose body the vows of the title are sworn: Margue reads it as the image of vanity and pride, a negative symbol which functions as a warning from the poem’s patron to the target of the narrative; Privat says it is a symbol of Christ, specifically of the immortality of the flesh, for which the peacock is renowned in bestiaries and goes on to read the moment as a piece of courtly canivalesque play with sacred themes.

I should add that although The Vows of the Peacock seems quite obscure now, it was very widely copied and was part of a much larger network of medieval romances about Alexander the Great. In this particular part of that tradition, Alexander is advised by the Cassamus; the Douce 308 MS even calls the poem the ‘Romance of Cassamus’.

Margue’s reading

Margue’s essay (‘Vows of the Peacock and Vows of the Sparrow Hawk: the Emperor and his “best knights” in courtly culture between Metz, Bar, and Luxembourg (early 14thC)’) considers the context of the Vows of the Peacock as a poem composed for a specific patron with a certain kind of purpose. Although little is known about the author beyond his name, the patron of the work is Thibaut de Bar, bishop of Liège, brother of the bishop of Metz (Raynaud de Bar) and with his brother, the supporter of Emperor Henri VII of the house of Luxembourg. Margue starts from the intertextual relation betwen the Vows of the Peacock and the Voeux de l’espervier (‘Vows of the Sparrow Hawk’), which rather than being about Alexander, has a near-contemporary topic: the Italian expedition of Henri VII as he travelled through Metz, with Raynaud, to Rome to be crowned; both Henri and Bishop Raynaud died in the course of the this campaign and the Vows of the Sparrow Hawk ends with a lament for Henri’s death, which compares him to Alexander.

Although the Vows of the Sparrow Hawk was not widely transmitted, Margue uses it as a key to reading the much more popular Vows of the Peacock, seeing Alexander standing for Henri VII and Cassamus for the poem’s patron, Thibaut de Bar. The poem then represents Thibaut’s admontio to Henri, warning him against being too proud in his pursuit of the Italian campaign.

Margue is concerned with the interactions of specific, major political figures and the role of vowing ceremoies, at the intersection of fiction and reality. As he points out, Thibaut attended Edward I’s ‘Vows of the Swan’, a real-life ceremony, not only described in literature but also possessing mundane record in medieval court financial account books, These ceremonies, he argues, gave a space in which to argue for military or political restraint. Margue’s reading is similar to how the interpolated Roman de Fauvel, from a similar date but pertaining instead to the French court, has been read by a wide variety of scholars. (See, for example, the many essays in this book — sadly no preview available on Google!).

Privat’s reading

Privat has a rather different focus, preferring to offer a close reading of the central section of the poem depicting the vowing ceremony itself (lines 3812-4357). He points out the blending of courtliness and violence in this scene: the beautiful peacock is bloodily slain; the courtliness of the feast has the bird’s corpse at its centre; and the highly courtly vows are promises of knightly violence. Privat’s reading of this is inflected significantly by Bakhtin’s idea of carnival: he views the vowing ceremony as a parodia sacra, reading the imagery of the source as deliberately reminiscent of the Last Supper. For Privat, the dead bird functions according to its bestiary moralization as a symbol of true immortality, its flesh undecaying, and thus as a symbol of Christ.

Privat doesn’t read the poem as religious, however, merely as playing with religious cultural symbolism. He views the vows as one of a number of carnivalesque acts that together create a festive, folkloric, utopian and polyphonic point of view on the world and give form and meaning to ludic play which keeps a playful and parodic distance from the eternally serious, official, religious, and monologic world of the Lenten church (p.148-9).

Sacred and secular

Although ultimately they both share a courtly reading of the poem, these two authors differ in how they read the central symbol of the peacock. Who is right? Is the bird a symbol of vanity or of Christ? Addressing this question involves noting the different methodological perspectives of Margue and Privat and also addressing the problematic multi-valent nature of medieval bird symbolism.

I’ve noted elsewhere that medieval scholarship has its own history of either Christianizing or secularizing the past. When the issue is the mixture of liturgical, devotional, religious, chivalric, courtly, political, violent, and erotic elements, the modern historiography forms an interference pattern that is hard to unpick, especially when it is ignored. Scholars rarely state their own religious convictions and even it they did, their personal beliefs would have to be offset against their methodological preferences and national traditions of scholarship, and against religious norms of their formative and host cultures. Scholarship generally finds it difficult to tackle this issue because it seems crass to say, X is a believing Catholic so of course they see the Middle Ages as the age of faith in which nothing was untouched by Christian belief; or Y is a card-carrying atheist, so of course they will minimize Christian elements and focus on secular concerns, which they presume to be a sign of progress towards an enlightened future. This difficulty arises because the contemporary West sees religion as a private, personal matter and scholarship as public and objective. (Lots of reviewers were at least slightly upset with me raising this issue in chapter 5 of my Machaut book — something I might blog about another time).

Here, both scholars actually share a basic orientation: courtly literature is about courtly and political things. Privat notes its engagement parodically with ecclesiastical culture, but only as a way of achieving a carnivalesque form of ludic play.

I don’t at all want to argue that a plurality of understandings didn’t exist in the Middle Ages, too, even for individuals, but certainly for mixed audiences. But for me the basic problem here is our present misunderstanding of the imbrication of elements that only we — post-Enlightenment — would radically separate as sacred and secular. Thibaut, the commissioning patron the poem, is a prince-bishop, but he doesn’t have a prince’s body for days when he’s being temporal and a bishop’s body for days when he’s being ecclesiastical. The best way forward might be to combine the readings in Margue and Privat’s chapters as indicative both of the importance of Christian ceremonial — serious, monologic, official — in political life and also of the ability of medieval literature to create rich, complex, polyvalent narratives that are meaningful multiply to their audiences, from patron to attendant court functionary.

Bestiaries are actually a really useful and indicative locus for what sacred-secular imbrication might look like in the Middle Ages. And a ‘both X and Y’ reading actually makes sense of the polyvalent nature of bird symbolism, and reads The Vows of the Peacock using reading skills that bestiaries taught: multiple and paradoxical readings, pointing to a single truth.

When I’ve taught ‘Music and Birdsong’ courses, students are often baffled by the conflicting and contradictory nature of ethical valence of symbolism in bestiaries. How can the same creature (the dog) symbolize disgusting servility and self-less loyalty? How can the same bird (the peacock) symbolize proud vanity and the sacrifice of Christ for humanity? But  bestiaries offered ways of interpreting the world — scientific, natural, non-human — as a hidden reflection of human-divine relations and ultimately of divine truth. In order for the non-linguistic natural world to reveal divine truth, the world must be read allegorically, which actually means that it can BOTH something AND something else, rather than having to be either/or. This both/and reading is typical of Christianizing moralization: how else could Orpheus both be excoriated as a sodomite (for renouncing relations with women) AND praised as a type for Christ (for going down to Hell to rescue the dead)? I am quite content, therefore, that the peacock should mediate Thibaut’s caution to Henri about the sins of pride and vanity at the same time that it reminds him of Christ’s sacrifice (and by extension of the ecclesiastical power of Thibaut the prince-bishop). Perhaps Henri is meant to think that this non-ecclesiastical, courtly version of the Last Supper confirms that his potential self-sacrifice in the Italian campaign will not save humanity but merely punish his own vanity.

Regardless of all this, as I did manage the say in my commissioned review, the book in which these two essay appear is a wonderfully thought-provoking collection.


  1. d says:

    Liz, I was completely unaware of this! Thank goodness for your blog. I have been working on the Paon ‘Cycle’ poems for as long as I have the Machaut mss. My book “Images, Texts, and Marginalia in a VdPaon ms (PML MS G24) – w/ full catalogue and concordance” will be published by Brill around September. I look forward to reading the comments you’ve written above and only wish I’d been able to do so before the publication process had begun.

    1. Very excited by news of your forthcoming book — I look forward to reading it!

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