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Chapter One Introduction
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Chapter One

By the end of the sixteenth century, there had emerged in northern Europe a notion of custom in some obvious sense related to the modern conception of custom as tradition or, as we now tend to say, cultural practice. This is the idea of custom Montaigne has in mind in the Essays , when, noting that Pindar had called her Queen and Empress of the world, he quite seriously remarks that "there is nothing that custom will not or cannot do," for "there falls into man's imagination no fantasy so wild that it does not match the example of some public practice."[1] As a sort of parable, Montaigne tells the story of a man who, asked why he is beating his father, answers that "it was the custom of his house: that his father had beaten his grandfather thus, his grandfather his great-grand-father; and, pointing to his son: 'And this one will beat me when he has come to my present age.'"

To call this a mad fantasy seems to invite a modern view of such behavior as, at worst, pathological, at best difficult to justify on grounds of nature or reason. Yet Montaigne's account, though it in one sense points in that direction, is attentive as well to an opposing logic operating beneath the surface of events, an older understanding in which custom or consuetudo exists in a complex relation to what we should now call justice or jurisprudence, and ultimately, to more primal notions of right and


wrong. Thus, for instance, the son dragging his father through the street is commanded by the old man "to stop at a certain door, for he had dragged his own father only that far." And the son obeys, leading Montaigne to conclude that "the laws of conscience, which we say are born of nature, are born of custom," that in any human community the sense of right and wrong may be seen to proceed in large measure from nothing more than an "inward veneration" of "the opinions approved, and customs received" ("les opinions et moeurs approuvées") among other members of the community.[2]

In purely rational terms, the danger posed by such a notion of custom is that, in providing a virtually automatic justification for behavior, it seems to take away all other grounds on which an action might be judged right or wrong: from parricide to torture to ritual murder, anything might be justified on the grounds that the community has done things this way from time immemorial. It is just such a rational or philosophical scrutiny that lies in the immediate background of Montaigne's discussion, for his citation of Pindar on the power of custom as "Queen and Empress of the world" has been taken from a translation of Plato's Gorgias , in which Socrates' interlocutor Callicles advances the proto-Nietzschean doctrine that the sovereign law (Pindar's nomos basileus panton ) is the natural superiority of the superior and stronger over the inferior and weaker.[3] Against this Socrates maintains not simply the salutary status of custom or convention as sources of genuine morality, but, famously, the paradox that no one does injustice willingly.

This is the paradox, I shall argue in the following chapters, lying at the heart of chivalric romance as it registers the dissolution of an older moral and theological order, "romance" as it renews Socrates' search into the bases of moral knowledge in narrative rather than dialectical or philosophical terms. For the crucial point, posed now in terms of quest and combat and chivalric honor, will always be that moral duty presents itself as a problem of adequate knowledge, of adjudicating among the competing and very often bewildering claims of nature and reason and custom. This is the context in which the "custom of the castle," the


rituals and traditions of the community of strangers into which the knight errant is received at one or another stage of his chivalric quest, comes to operate as an archetype of the problem of moral uncertainty, one that continues to exert its force, as we shall see, up to the moment Spenser's knights find uneasy entertainment in the allegorical castles of The Faerie Queene , Hamlet wonders whether to believe his father's ghost on the battlement, Lear's elder daughters oppose the bolt against their father, and Macbeth finds his own castles haunted.

Let us look at an episode in Chrétien's twelfth-century tale of Yvain , where the hero arrives at the Castle of Most Ill Adventure (Pesme Aventure), a workhouse where three hundred maidens weave silk under the command of two demi-goblins, beings born of an incubus demon and a mortal woman. By the time Yvain arrives he has the aura of a Christian deliverer because he is traveling with a tame lion and a young woman who has been disinherited by her elder sister. The foul custom of Pesme Aventure operates figuratively to shadow the struggle of the New Testament (the disinherited sister) as it replaces the Old Law. (In Christian typology, the marriage of Jacob to Leah represented fidelity to the synagogue; his marriage to her sister Rachel represented the transition to the Church.)[4] Yvain receives an inhospitable reception at Pesme Aventure because the town's rulers have imposed a "foul custom" (costume, Y 5146) on the inhabitants, requiring them to harass strangers. Despite the opposition, Yvain persists in entering the castle because his heart draws him there ("mes fins cuers leanz me tire," Y 5170). His attraction signals the allegorical nature of Pesme Aventure, since earlier in Yvain Calogrenant cautions his listeners to understand with their hearts, "For words are lost completely unless they are understood by the heart" ("car parole est tote perdue/s'ele n'est de cuer entandue," Y 151-152).[5]

Besides recalling the conflict between the old law and the new, Pesme Aventure creates an allegory of marriage, for another custom of the castle—"This is an established custom and rule" ("ce est costume et rante asise," Y 5496)—requires that Yvain must fight the demi-devils: if he


wins, the local lord will give him his castle, his lands, and his daughter. Elsewhere in Chrétien's works and later romances, strange customs figure a similar historical reality, as when Clamadeu besieges Blancheflor in her castle of Beaurepaire to win her and her property in Chrétien's Perceval .[6] Moral allegories often veil all-too-evident concerns.[7]

The social practice that gives us pause at Pesme Aventure concerns not religion or the details of customary arrangements of marriage, class, and property but a form of legal habit: Yvain's blind acceptance of the terms of combat with the two demons he must defeat. The two half-devils insist that Yvain's lion may not help him: "You have to be alone and we two together," they announce. "If the lion joined you to fight us, then you would not be alone, and it would be two against two" (Y 5550-5554). For no obvious reason except adherence to the custom of the castle, Yvain agrees to put the animal in a small room.[8] The custom, even of a social Other, has a powerful hold on Yvain. He agrees to its terms, although no one but the proprietors of the castle announce those terms, and by participating he helps maintain them. That the lion eventually claws its way under the threshold and helps defeat the pair does not alter the attitude toward custom this moment illustrates.

Chrétien is typically enigmatic in not providing sources for the customs of combat and behavior that guide his characters. Once or twice he traces them to King Arthur's father Utherpendragon, as in the first verses of Erec and Enide , where Arthur defends the Custom of the White Stag on the grounds that his father maintained it.[9] But these few references suffice to establish an "anterior order" that allows Chrétien's knights to presume that customs coincide with natural law until there is evidence to counter that presumption.[10] Social customs acted as a channel for natural law by partaking of the theological idea of an eternal and imprescriptible law. Later writers, who lived in different legal cultures, lost this regard for the past and felt the constraint of customs for other reasons. Sir Thomas Malory, however, who wrote during the fifteenth century, values the past so strongly that his work may be considered properly in the context of medieval French culture.


In the French model, customs guide knights through the moral uncertainties created by the strange situations they encounter, and in this way they function as a form of natural law. But Chrétien's topos becomes problematic because any identification of customary law with nature must be founded on a denial of either social change or social relativity. Philosophically, custom need not imply change over time; it may be considered as a fixed part of a static social order that has no history. In practice, as Arthur Ferguson points out, it must at some time have adapted to local conditions. Insofar as customs express "the character peculiar to a people," they stand in opposition to natural law, even if the moment of adaptation is pushed "back beyond historical memory."[11] The only way medieval and Renaissance thinkers could logically reconcile nature and custom was by following a Thomist-Aristotelian tradition of expanding natural law. It is the kind of broad argument Shakespeare's Polixenes makes to Perdita when he claims that there is no art that is not also part of nature. His logic does and does not persuade Perdita, since she refuses to cross-breed flowers (a form of miscegenation that she finds unnatural) at the same time that she is not sure that it is unnatural, although not customary, for her as a shepherdess to marry Prince Florizel (The Winter's Tale 4.4.71-108).

The conflict between natural law and customary law was better reconciled by history in the form of a narrative than by logic. Dispute resolution in English property law exemplifies this approach. In Malory's century, for example, the prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, asserted that rights to a certain water mill belonged to his convent and its predecessors "from the time that no mind is of," as proved by an award and judgment from the chief justice of the Common Pleas. The city denied the claim, asserting that it was seized of the property "at all times since the time that no man is of." Although judgment was given to the prior, both sides appealed to the past, not to equity.[12] The case shows how customary law conforms to changing circumstances (whatever precipitated the dispute) by narrative, conjuring a distant past "to which the memory of man stretcheth not."


Social relativity was handled the same way as social change. When people felt customs conflict with rather than transmit higher law, they told of an even deeper past.[13] The power of this appeal to the distant past explains why the thirteenth-century prose Tristan posits a set of earlier events, alleged to have occurred during the Christianization of England, in order to explain the origin and function of the customs of the Castle of Tears. No medieval romance projects an earlier moment than the origin of the "Chastel de Plors" in the days of Joseph of Arimathea, who converted all of England except for the Isle of the Giant. The lord of the island, named Dialetes, is wounded and unable to resist Joseph's missionaries when they land, but later he struggles to restore paganism. In doing so, he kills his twelve sons, who had converted. Driven almost mad by his deed, Dialetes founds a castle on the spot where the missionaries landed to commemorate his sons and to remind him of his hatred for those who drove him to murder his children. After he lays the foundation, he spills the blood of all the island's Christians by cutting off their heads on the spot and then throws their bodies into the sea. In this story, he literally founds his castle on religious difference ("En tel maniere fu cil chastiax fondez en sanc de Crestiens," T 456.17).

The prose Tristan therefore offers a more practical explanation for the power of custom than anything in Chrétien's stories. It says that Dialetes founded the custom of the castle both as a matter of revenge and as an attempt to control his legacy in the future, of which he is highly conscious because he has lost his children. Cursing all strangers because strangers cost him his sons, Dialetes decrees that arriving travelers can never leave but will be imprisoned in his new castle. His dungeon alone would justify the name of the Castle of Tears, but there is another reason too, as Dialetes perpetuates his sense of otherness by ensuring that his tradition will continue into the future. The narrator emphasizes this evil legacy by pointing out that the castle was called "Chastiax de Plor" (the spelling varies) because "without doubt this custom that the giant established was held for a long period of time."[14]


The foul custom of the Castle of Tears is sustained over time because Dialetes devises a scheme whose parts so appeal to the islanders that the people themselves ensure its perpetuation. He announces that he will stay in the tower of his own castle, called "le Chastel de la Roche au Jaiant" (T 458.4) and keep with him the island's most beautiful lady. He will issue forth from his tower only to defend the island (T 456.34). His custom will be to cut off his lady's head if a fairer lady appears, and if a better knight defeats him, that stranger will take over the castle and the lady. In this way, the island will always have the very best lord, as well as the honor of containing a lady of incomparable beauty. Dialetes makes a speech to the islanders to convince them to enforce the custom:

And do you know why I have thus established this custom? Because I wish that you, from this time forward, have as your lord the best knight who can be found, and that your lady be the most beautiful whom fortune sends.[15]

The custom devised by Dialetes plays on the vanity of the islanders because Dialetes offers them what they think they want, while ignoring right and wrong. The story suggests that the islanders sustain the tradition because of the attraction of good government and competent succession but also because the local inhabitants "can always boast of good knights and beautiful ladies" ("toz jorz venter de tres bons chevaliers et de tres beles dames," T 456.56-57). Dialetes succeeds in founding a custom, said to have lasted from the time of Joseph of Arimathea until the era of King Arthur ("Cele costume dura des le tens Joseph d'Abarimathie dusques au tens le roi Artus," T 457.3-4), because he perceives his people's nature.

If the power of Dialetes' customary law depends on the will of the people who maintain it, the story of Dialetes is plainly told to show that the custom of the Chastel de Plors belongs to an ethical world that has somehow gone wrong. Dialetes' joust and beauty contest enact an impersonal ritual of domination that we would classify as psychotic if these


foul customs did not have a larger purpose. Since even bad customs affirm the power of the past, the rest of the story (the part Malory kept) goes on to resolve the problem that a system based on the rightness of what time has approved is able to absorb the charge that the behavior it authorizes conflicts with a higher morality.

As the romance convention passed along a historical continuum from medieval France to Renaissance Italy and England, it told different stories about time, reflecting changes in the function of custom and the authority of the past. These changing perceptions may be explained, in part, by two related factors: first, the transmutation of oral law into written law, and second, the transition from a French culture of customs to one which followed Roman or civil law and then on to England, a common law country. The moral problem posed by the custom of the castle stays the same, since the elements of the topos—the keeper of the custom, the knight errant, the castle, and the foul custom itself—stay the same. But an increasingly ambiguous attitude toward the past in both law and literature encouraged a shift in emphasis from the individual who represented but was also controlled by institutional authority to one who both gained and lost self-identity in a civilizing process that required social conformity.

It is arguable that the topos "contained" these issues of justice, order, and civility all along and that they can be found in nuce in the work of Chrétien de Troyes. Donald Maddox's recent study of Chrétien's romances is subtitled "Once and Future Fictions" to stress that Chrétien's romances consider not just the foundations of social justice in the past but the problems of living in the present and structuring patterns of behavior for the future. This argument actually reinforces the development of the topos over the centuries by revealing the way the narrative convention raises ethical concerns. Although it is possible to slip into the state of mind illustrated by Callicles in Plato's Gorgias and really believe in the moral superiority of the strong, or to think for a moment that a medieval aristocrat married strictly for beauty without also weighing money and power, the realization that Chrétien created images able to


receive various interpretations suddenly reveals that what might have been mistaken for some kind of social reality (knights are strong, ladies fair) instead functions as a way of exploring moral issues. That is, we realize the symbolic nature of the sometimes deadly jousts and beauty contests that play so large a role in chivalric romance. The narrative structure that I call "the custom of the castle" allows us to glimpse a time when routinely accepted social conventions were still fresh and puzzling.

Amid the welter of moral bewilderments that are given fantastic or marvelous form in chivalric romance (giants, dragons, sorcerers, love, illusions, and apparitions), one motif emerges as normative: the custom of the castle—in purely narrative terms, the moment when a knight comes upon a castle and confronts a ritual or tradition or institutional control presided over by some villain—which may be read as a meditation on the weight of custom or local practice in resolving problems of moral knowledge. Foul customs raise the problem of a knight's need to know what is morally correct before he can act in a way that is right. But, as Fredric Jameson remarks, the traditional heroes of Western romance "show a naiveté and bewilderment" that makes them marginal to the ethical conflicts that romances seek to resolve.[16] Romance knights do not typically act in the moral sense; they react .

The conflict created by a "vile custom," then, is the specific form in which romance poses its problem of knowledge, providing a strong generic continuity from Chrétien to Malory and Shakespeare. The problem as it occurs in narrative terms is a variant of the same problem addressed by Socrates in the Gorgias and by Montaigne. First, in any human community, great weight must be given to custom and tradition in deciding matters of right and wrong, even when these may seem pointless on "rational" grounds. But second, to defer to the past is to admit the possibility that various kinds of behavior recognized to be wrong or repugnant by other canons of moral judgment (religion, reason, nature) may be sanctioned by the custom of some community.

When Montaigne sighs that "there is nothing that custom can or cannot do," he seems to express a longing to break free of the tyranny of


the past. During the sixteenth century, thinkers increasingly questioned the validity of customs as a source of values. Machiavelli noted that where ancient usage has no force, the relations between fortuna and virtù become crucial.[17] More's Utopia exposes the rhetorical force of custom when Raphael Hythloday complains that courtiers can defeat proposals for change, when other arguments fail, with "some remark like this: 'The way we're doing it is the way we've always done it, this custom was good enough for our fathers, and I only hope we're as wise as they were.'"[18] Thomas Wilson, an early Reformation English Protestant, who included withering attacks on Catholic ritual in his Rule of Reason (1551), wrote in that book that "custome is the mother, and the suckegever unto al erroure."[19] The Protestant martyr Peter Ramus said, "I pursue the fundament of truth, not the error of custom."[20] In the preface to Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar ; the commentator E.K. writes that following custom is like walking in the sun: you get sunburned. For Pascal and Milton, custom operated unnaturally. Pascal found the "force of custom" so great that it makes men masons, soldiers, slaters. . . . [Custom] constrains nature."[21] Milton lamented that "custom countenances error" as he argued for divorce on the basis of natural law.[22]

If fifteenth- and sixteenth-century thinkers recognized the instability of an argument based on custom, the same issue arose during English debates over such matters as enclosures, the common law, the balance of power between sovereign and Parliament, and religion. Thomas Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique (1553), for example, exposes the elements of custom to support his attack on Catholic rituals.[23] Deliberately modifying Cicero's definition of consuetudo as that which time and "the common consent of all without the sanction of statute" have approved,[24] Wilson, who sets his definition amid a general analysis of the virtue of justice, substitutes nature and reason for "common consent": "That is right by custome, which long tyme hath confirmed, beying partly grounded upon nature, and partly upon reason."[25] He can then argue that the customs of Rome are unnatural ("turning natures light into blind custome") and unreasonable ("devised only by the phantasie of man"), even


though time has long confirmed them. But a treatise on rhetoric serves both sides of any argument, and Wilson's opponents could easily turn around his arguments from nature and reason.

During Shakespeare's working years, custom provided those of the Parliamentary party with a convenient fiction that law was the immemorial inheritance of the people "in the full sense of 'traceable to no original act of foundation.'"[26] Nonetheless, as Alan Harding points out in his Social History of English Law , "The custom which was being praised so highly in politics was being relegated to a minor position in law. The landlords who were irked by its restrictions within the manor, and the Renaissance humanists harking back to the order and rationality (to their ideas) of classical Roman law, combined to depreciate custom." The lawyers required proof of the immemorial quality of a law—"a thing not easily done."[27]

Customs formed a privileged subject for narrative because the concept was part of a shared code that permitted "opposing discourses" to struggle for supremacy.[28] Thinkers like Machiavelli, Calvin, Montaigne, Marlowe, and Bacon recognized that rulers consolidated power by conspiring to produce systems of belief that would mystify the ruled. They regarded customs as both social practices and a means for the upper class to control society. Bacon's essay "Of Custom and Education" observes that customs move men as forcibly as wheels move engines, and his idols of the theater deceive those who too readily follow tradition.[29] Pascal follows the same line of thought when he laments, "How few things can be demonstrated! Proofs only convince the mind; habit provides the strongest proofs and those that are most believed. . . . Who ever proved that it will dawn tomorrow, and that we shall die? And what is more widely believed? It is, then, habit that convinces us."[30] That same Pascal who noted the unseemly power of custom to determine "the most important affair in life, the choice of a calling," also admired the efficacy of custom, in combination with reason and inspiration, to confirm belief in religion. Samuel Daniel justified the practice of rhyming in English poetry by linking it to "custom that is before all law,


nature that is above all art."[31] And Shakespeare's plots often rely on customs justified by time, not reason. In A Midsummer Night's Dream , Duke Theseus maintains Hermia's duty to obey her father according to the ancient law of Athens, even though Egeus is obviously wrong in his choice of husband for his daughter. In Romeo and Juliet the custom of Verona ordains that a dead person should be dressed in fine clothes and lie uncovered on a bier, a custom that Friar Lawrence and Juliet exploit despite Juliet's fears of suffocation or madness. What is important here is not to argue whether there was transition between France—or the Italian peninsula—and Renaissance England but to see how the antagonism revealed by these debates created a need for a narrative solution to the epistemological dilemmas they raised.

Narrative episodes structured by marvelous but credible "customs" derived from a tradition of rhetorical invention that stretched from Plato and Aristotle to the sixteenth century. This tradition, which Wesley Trimpi traces, bridges the gap between the narrative and dramatic use of customs that will be important in considering Shakespeare's plays. According to Trimpi, declamatory exercises in the schools stressed the invention of fictional resolutions to initial premises of law. The premises might be "specific leges or regulae " or, if unexpressed, then "'natural laws,' expressing the universal intentions of justice which the writer shares with his readers."[32] Their model derived from Aristotle's explanation of the procedures for converting a plot into a play. In the Poetics , Aristotle explains that the mythos of Iphigenia consists of a stipulated custom and the action of characters: Iphigenia is spirited to a "country where the custom is to sacrifice all foreigners to the goddess" (a practice that resembles the "foul custom" of a castle in romances). She becomes a priestess. When her brother arrives, he recognizes her, and she saves him. At this point, says Aristotle, one may add names and expand the play with "other scenes."[33]

The same function was served pedagogically by "the brief setting forth of the fictional circumstances and the legal conditions."[34] Instead of inventing episodes, the student argued for probable or necessary con-


clusions, but both processes depended on the "powerful deductive movement of fiction."[35] If an ethical poetics posits an "exemplary" custom, the tradition of declamatory invention Trimpi has identified takes custom not as a goal but as a premise. Trimpi argues that the love debates of Andreas Capellanus and the novellas of Boccaccio (obvious sources for chivalric romances) correspond to the declamatory tradition that stressed the invention of fictional resolutions to initial premises. As a narrative episode, the custom of the castle should also exhibit an artistic consistency that connects the initial premises to probable or necessary conclusions. At the same time, the custom of the castle developed its own tradition of ethical allegory.

From medieval France to Renaissance Italy and England, writers of chivalric romances constructed narrative episodes from elements that included a knight errant, a castle, a custom of dubious merit, and a person or group who oversees and maintains the custom. As each writer varied the work of his predecessors, he tried to make sense of the narrative conventions he found. The concept of knighthood shifted, losing its primary meaning of reference to a class of military guardians; knighthood became instead merely a sign of social rank. Castles similarly lost their strong meaning. Although the word had cognates in all three languages, the chastel, castello , and castle of France, Italy, and England conjured different images for different authors and audiences. Castles in the work of Chrétien de Troyes, for example, are usually towns with streets and churches and towered keeps within fortress walls. For Italian authors like Boiardo and Ariosto, a castle is often a single edifice, like a large urban palace. Spenser pictures castles as rural manors, the kind of isolated edifices he knew in Ireland, and refers to them as houses.[36]

The legal meaning of custom , a word which also occurs in similar form in all three languages, also changed. Chrétien wrote during the twelfth century in Champagne and perhaps Flanders. The original center of chivalry followed oral law, making custom a key legal concept. The Italians, coming later and living in an area governed by written law, made something quite different of scenes involving a costuma ria (foul


custom), even as they imitated Old French romance. At the end of the tradition the English again stress custom for legal purposes and for a different legal system.

The moral issues of justice, order, and civility stay the same during the lifetime of the topos, which continues to show the same elements of knight, castle, custom, and keeper; yet the problem of moral knowledge altered as new groups adopted the traditional narrative forms. By the time we get to The Faerie Queene the old moral code of chivalry based on individual prowess—where doing the right thing sufficed in the absence of knowledge—has shifted to a code where a man's knowing right from wrong excuses his inevitable inability to escape calumny. This inability to perform includes the writing of Spenser's poem, which ends with the triumph of the Blattant Beast, an image of the troubled reception of Spenser's own elitist experiment in anachronism.

The chapters that follow trace the way a changing perception of the past produced a shift in the moral problems raised by the custom of the castle. Malory's Morte Darthur follows the French tradition by looking to the past to explain social change. This process finds expression at the Weeping Castle in Tristram's need to "fordo" the foul custom, a word that captures Tristram's need both to maintain the custom and somehow overcome it. The Italians, by contrast, look to the present. For Boiardo and Ariosto, if something is wrong with the social system, you outwit it (though not without a display of force, greater in Boiardo, less in Ariosto).

Where the Italians developed a notion of civility to counteract a rigid social system increasingly dominated by foreigners during the sixteenth century, English authors went a step further and weighed the anxiety produced by excessive attention to social manners. The early Spenser venerates the past as a source of social values, but his later work responds to this anxiety by reformulating customs as guides to future behavior. The legend of courtesy in The Faerie Queene rewrites the old romance motifs in a way that mirrors a similar development in the English law, where customs were used as a legal fiction to shape social behavior.


Spenser's narrative inquiry into the role of customs exemplifies the development of a system of literary signs that Shakespeare's drama draws on to pose moral questions, as in Hamlet . In Macbeth Shakespeare shaped the concept of custom to coincide with a social vision of the future, a vision that the literary castle had come to symbolize. After Shakespeare, the custom of the caste becomes the manners of the sometimes haunted country house, and the story of this romance convention becomes the history of the novel.

As a first step in this literary history, the following chapter considers Malory's richest example of the custom of the castle. The Weeping Caste begins as a love allegory, as does Chrétien's Caste of Most Ill Adventure (although the Morte Darthur's subject is adultery, not marriage and property). The story soon turns into a marvelously complex moral encounter between Tristram and local custom.


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