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The Worthies

by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the December 2002, A.S. XXXVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

One of the lesser known motifs of the Middle Ages is the one known as the Nine Worthies in English or Les Neuf Preux in French. They became the role models that knights aspired to. Though originally intended to be only an illustrative secondary theme, they seized the imagination and soon could be found throughout Europe. What is most amazing is that they remained true to the original source throughout their popularity. It only ended with the end of the Middle Ages.

Unlike most things medieval, the origins of the Nine Worthies are fairly clear. They first appear in the poem “Voeux du paon” (Vows of the Peacock) by Jacques du Longuyon written around 1310. Beside the Nine Worthies, this poem introduces several other literary motifs that were quite popular. In fact, two sequels to this poem were written, though neither continues the Nine Worthies motif. They make their English appearance in the poem “The Parlement of the Thre Ages” written by an unknown author prior to 1370. Lessor known, though better done, is a section in the poem known as the Alliterative Morte Arthur, written around the same time.

The Nine Worthies were broken into three triads (originally a Welsh conception) of Pagan, Jewish, and Christian personages. The first consisted of Hector of the Iliad, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. The second set was Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus. The last set was Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey Bouillon. The main consideration in choosing these nine was that great deeds, usually against great odds, had been by legend been attached to their names. This was because the main theme of “Voeux” was the vowing of doing great deeds, with the Nine Worthies being exemplars. This marks the first extensive use of literary allusion.

The Nine Worthies mentioned in “Voeux” pretty much remained the standard set though out the period, with only the occasional substitution or addition. In Scotland, Robert the Bruce was added as a tenth worthy. In France it was Bertrand du Guesclin who, as Marshal of France, confounded the English during the Hundred Years War. The English substituted Guy of Warwick for Godfrey of Bouillon.

The only noteworthy exception found was in an English poem by Jakoloces Ryman date either 1342 or 1492. Eight of the Nine Worthies named are: Solomon, Samson, Charlemagne, Arthur, Dives, David, Saul, and Jonathan. However, this poem was in the tradition known as “ubi sunt”, or where are they now? This is a very old tradition that illuminates the transitory nature of power and fame by noting the departed legacies of famous names of the past. Thus the above list owns as much to that tradition as to the Nine Worthies motif.

One noteworthy variation is found in an untitled ballade that was written either by Jean de la Mote around 1360 or by Eustache Deschamps around 1400. This provides a list of nine female worthies. They are: Lampedo, Semiramis, Teuta, Deipyle, Thamyris, Sinope, Hippolyta, Menalippe, and Penthesilea. These ladies came out of ancient legends. Semiramis, Lampedo, Teuta, and Thamyris were Assyrian, Seleucis, Illyrian, and Scythrian queens respectively. Deipyle was a mythical princess of Argos connected to legends about Thebes. The rest are Amazon queens and warriors who were overcome by various Greek heroes.

The idea of the Nine Worthies quickly caught on and as early as 1336 a pageant involving them occurred in Arras. Their images appeared on enameled cups, playing cards, stain glass windows, woodcuts, engravings, and tapestries. In 1387, statues of them could be seen in the hall of Coucy castle to at least 1451. The Coventry Leet Books records an entertainment for Queen Margaret in 1455 in which the worthies give welcoming speeches. Other examples of such presentation could be found.

The end of the fascination for the worthies could be seen in 1590 when Shakespeare wrote “Love’s Labor’s Lost”. In Act V there is a masque of the Nine Worthies, though alone six make an appearance. The six were Hector, Alexander, Joshua, Judas Maccabeus, Hercules, and Pompey the Great. The last two are Shakespeare’s own addition. What is notable here is that the whole thing is a farce with the worthies mocked as much as the characters playing them.

Like most things chivalric, with the coming of the Baroque period, the Nine Worthies fell out of fashion. New sensibilities now disdained all things medieval and were set aside, the worthies were no different. New role models were found and emulated. Such are the fates of fortune.



Evans, G. Blakemore ed.The Riverside Shakespeare, pg. 174-216, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1974

Lindahl, Carl & John McNamara, John Lindow, eds.Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara CA, 2000

Loomis, Roger Sherman ed.Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History, Oxford University Press, 1959

Loomis, Roger Sherman. ‘Verses on the Nine Worthies’, Modern Philology, vol. Xv (1917), pg. 211-9

Offord, M.Y. ed.The Parlement of the Thre Ages, Oxford University Press, 1959

Schofield, William HenryEnglish Literature: From the Norman Conquest to Chaucer, Greenwood Press, Westport CT, 1970

Wimsatt, James I.Chaucer and His French Contemporaries: Natural Music in the Fourteenth Century, University of Toronto Press, 1993

Modern Language Notes, vol. viii, pg. 65


Copyright © 2002 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.


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