In preparation for the V International Congress of the John Gower Society in Scotland this summer, I’ve been exploring a twisted little tale from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis known as the “Tale of Albinus and Rosemund.” The story sees Albinus, the newly crowned king of Lombardy, married to Rosemund, daughter of the previous king whom Albinus has slain. Despite the couple’s love for each other, Albinus tricks his wife into drinking from a cup that has been fashioned from the skull of her late father.
Having been so elaborately adorned with precious stones atop a gold pedestal, the vessel no longer resembles a skull, and Albinus bids his bride, “Drink with thi father, Dame.” Rosemund drinks. Albinus then reveals his cruelty, and Rosemund proceeds to have him murdered.
The tale made me wonder about the extent to which skulls have been used as drinking cups and whether the practice existed in the medieval period, perhaps even in Britain. I wondered, too, whether any remnants remained, particularly any as dazzling as the one Albinus debuts to Rosemund’s horror.
Vikings might seem the likely culprits, but Vikings did not, it seems, drink from the skulls of their enemies despite how deeply ingrained the association has become in popular culture. That said, the Poetic Edda contains a reference to cups created from skulls in the story of Wayland the Smith, who seeks vengeance against the king for his violent imprisonment. In the Old Norse narrative, Wayland kills the king’s two young sons and gifts their silver-gilded skulls to him, their eyes gruesomely replaced with glittering jewels.
Early Britons, however, did use skulls as crockery.
In 1987, researchers discovered cups crafted from human skulls in a cave in Somerset, England. The three cups, made from the skulls of two adults and a three-year-old child, were re-examined in 2011 and dated to 14,700 BP. As reported in The Guardian, “Detailed examination of 37 skull fragments and four pieces of jaw using a 3D microscope revealed a common pattern of hard strikes followed by more finessed stone tool work that turned a freshly decapitated head into a functional cup or bowl.”
Markings on the bones suggest that the bodies were butchered for meat before the heads were severed, but there is no physical evidence to suggest that the skulls served as trophies for those who repurposed them. Rather than being enemies, they may have died of natural causes, and it’s possible those who survived them intentionally preserved their skulls as a way of honoring them in death. But it is also possible that the skulls belonged to enemies according to Dr. Bruno Boulestin, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, who stated that “in ‘nine out of 10’ societies known from historical or ethnographic records, skulls were removed as trophies for the purpose of humiliating the enemy.”
Whatever the circumstances, the cups were by no means haphazardly made, and the physical evidence, including engraving on the bones, appears to be ritualistic, rather than simply cannibalistic. Based on research by scientist Dr. Silvia Bello, the Natural History Museum in London explains, “The painstaking preparation of the skull-cups suggests that they were prepared for a special purpose rather than just for nutrition. After all, it would have been much quicker and easier to just smash the skull the access the fatty brain inside.” The craftmanship, therefore, is deliberate and thorough, even if the goblets themselves are not as glamorous as the one depicted in Gower’s tale.
At nearly 15,000 years old, the cups found in Gough’s Cave obviously predate the medieval period, but Wales, in fact, retains a skull cup originating in the Middle Ages, as it was made from the remains of a 6th-century monk and bishop known as Saint Teilo. Set in silver atop a silver stand, the cup now sealed behind glass at Llandaf Cathedral was once used for healing purposes, apparently as recently as the 1940s. The water from Saint Teilo’s well, also located in Wales, was said to be most effective against chest ailments, especially when drunk from Saint Teilo’s skull and even more so if distributed to the sick by the hands of the skull’s keeper. Like other saintly relics, the cup is attributed with healing properties, largely separating it from the gore associated with dismemberment.
Returning to the skull cup from which Rosemund drinks, I have yet to render my verdict on the vessel’s meaning but see it as a vehicle signifying both consumption and catharsis not unlike these others from early Britain. After drinking from the body of her father, Rosemund releases her rage in retaliation against her husband’s tyranny, embodying the conqueror and effectively ending Albinus’s reign.
Emily McLemore, Ph.D. Department of English University of Notre Dame
Film adaptions of SirGawain and the Green Knight have also emerged in modern times, including Steven Weeks’ two movies based on the medieval story: Gawain and the Green Knight (1973), and then about a decade later, The Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1984), which famously features Sir Sean Connery as the Green Knight. While Weeks draws primarily from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in his film adaptations of the medieval poem, he also borrows from other Arthurian legends, such as the tale of Sir Gareth in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and Yvain, the Knight of the Lion by Chrétien de Troyes.
Moreover, last year a new film adaption of the poem, titled The Green Knight (2021), directed, written, edited, and produced by David Lowery, was released in theaters. This recent movie adaption of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight drew both praise and opprobrium from critics, prompting me to view and write my own review of the film. The Green Knight stars Dev Patel as Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur in this adaptation, who embarks on an epic quest to test his chivalry and confront the Green Knight.
But today, as I previewed in my previous post on adaptations of Beowulf in modern cartoons, I want to discuss the introduction of a character adaptation of the Green Knight in the final season of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. The episode that features and centers the Green Knight is called “Seventeen” (Season 10 Episode 5), in which the plot borrows substantially from the medieval alliterative poem, despite significant redactions and reworking on certain characters and themes from the source text.
As in the Middle English romance, the episode begins with feasting and a celebration. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur and his court at Camelot are celebrating Christmas and Yuletide. In Adventure Time, the celebration centered on the 17th birthday of Finn the Human, who is also the main hero and one of the primary protagonists of the show, at Princess Bubblegum’s court in the Candy Kingdom. In both the medieval poem and modern cartoon series, the Green Knight rudely barges into court, unannounced, uninvited and riding on his green horse, before offering a green battle axe and proposing a dangerous challenge.
In “Seventeen” when the stranger enters, Finn exclaims “you’re green,” to which the guest responds “I’m the Green Knight.” Like in the medieval poem, Adventure Time‘s Green Knight is exceedingly green, from his armor and clothes, to his hands and face, and even his mount and weapon are all shades of green. The special attention the cartoon gives the green axe and green horse pays homage to the Middle English romance, which contains detailed descriptions of the green man, his green axe and his green steed.
In both the television series and Middle English poem, the Green Knight’s arrival is shrouded in anticipation and ladened with suspense. Just as in the original poem, the Green Knight in Adventure Time is a mystery knight, come to challenge the champion and test his opponent’s heroism and mettle. In keeping with its source, Adventure Time makes games central to the episode, beginning with the very game featured in the original poem.
In Adventure Time, since it is Finn the human’s 17th birthday party, when the Green Knight arrives at the court of Princess Bubblegum, he gifts his green axe to Finn for the occasion. The Green Knight greets Finn by saying: “And before you ask, of course I brought you a birthday present. It’s a battle axe.” The Green Knight follows up with a cryptic caveat “But only if you play me a game for it.” As Gawain does in the Middle English romance, Finn accepts the battle axe and the Green Knight’s challenge, deciding to game with the mysterious guest.
As in Sir Gawain and the Green Night, the first birthday contest in “Seventeen” is a weird beheading game. When Finn asks which game they will play, the Green Knight describes the game: “Oh this game is called all you have to do is strike me with it and it is yours.” Finn struggles with the idea of “axing a stranger” but soon has a revelation. Noting the absence of his partner, Finn assumes that the mysterious Green Knight is nothing more than a birthday prank orchestrated by his best friend Jake, so the hero plays along and is unfazed by the uncanny strangeness of the proposed game. Finn deals what appears to be a death-dealing blow to the neck, decapitating the Green Knight, much like Gawain does in the original poem.
Again, as in its source, the Green Knight in “Seventeen” proves to be some sort of undead being, able to simply pick up and replace his head after his beheading. It is at this point that Jake arrives, signaling that the Green Knight is not an elaborate birthday hoax by Jake, and what was planned as a fun birthday turns into a fight for his life. Citing fairness, the Green Knight isolates Finn from the rest of his friends so that they cannot aid him, or warn him of any foul play on the part of the Green Knight.
Unlike in the Middle English romance, in “Seventeen” Finn asks for alternative games rather than allowing the Green Knight to return an axe stroke to his neck. This marks the major point of divergence in what follows as a loose adaptation. The stakes are set: if Finn wins, the Green Knight will reveal the mystery of his identity and the Green Knight makes plain his reward, stating, “if I win, chop, chop.”
The Green Knight is able to win the first contest through deception and subterfuge, ideas central to the source text as well, and then the Green Knight allows Finn to win the second contest without competing at all, undercutting his heroism. This ultimately proves the only game in which Finn defeats his opponent. Again, the Green Knight has a trick up his sleeve, this time the plan is to allow Finn to expend his energy and strength, giving the Green Knight the upper hand in the decisive game between Bubblegum’s champion and the mysterious guest.
Finn recognizes the trick immediately, but Finn believes his “robot arm” will continue to provide him with an advantage in the final contest of strength: an arm wrestling match. While Finn is able to compete with the Green Knight until the first mystery is revealed, once the hero learns that the Green Knight is none other than Fern, his formerly deceased, plant-form doppelgänger, he becomes overwhelmed causing him to lose their last game. The surprise of the Green Knight’s identity disarms the hero and allows Fern to easily defeat Finn. Fern, in Green Knight form, smashes his enemy upon the table, breaking it, and leaving Finn on the floor, vulnerable and in shock, as the Green Knight approaches, axe raised and ready to deliver a fatal blow.
These additional games replace the hunting and bedroom games featured in the Middle English romance, but the narrative of “Seventeen” nevertheless realigns with the original plot as the hero ultimately fails and appears as if he is about to be beheaded by his opponent. In the medieval poem, the Green Knight is revealed to be Bertilak, the lord who houses Gawain and whose wife seduces him. But the double reveal includes the revelation the it was Morgana Le Fay (2446), a witch and King Arthur’s half sister, who sent the Green Knight to Camelot to test the Knights of the Round Table and frighten Queen Guenevere.
Similarly, in Adventure Time, the Green Knight is a servant of disgruntled, royal relatives. In “Seventeen,” the Green Knight is called off by his own steed, which is shown to be a mechanical horse in which three treacherous relations of Princess Bubblegum are hidden: Uncle Gumbald, Aunt Lolly and Cousin Chicle. The double mystery aspect of the cartoon mirrors the medieval poem’s dual reveal at the end of narrative, in both cases returning focus to intrafamily power struggles over the throne while simultaneously demonstrating the limitations of chivalry and the dangers of hubris. By the end, in both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and “Seventeen” the royal champions are bested by the Green Knight, although in Adventure Time, the Vampire Queen Marceline is there to step in and scare off the intruders, causing the Green Knight to retreat into the night.
The way in which Adventure Time creatively adapts and reinvents Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for a broad modern audience carries forward the medievalism from “The Wild Hunt” (Season 10 Episode 1). Although at times the episode deviates dramatically from its source, Adventure Time makes the complex (at times enigmatic) medieval story both accessible and comedic, while retaining some of the key aspects including the fraught presentation of chivalry and heroism, thereby helping to set the stage for future generations of medievalists.
Educational training was the cornerstone of ecclesiastical and monastic life in the early medieval period, with the aim of producing knowledgeable clergy, who might then serve as spiritual and intellectual shepherds for their population. However, as Kathryn Kerby-Fulton explains in her recent monograph, The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry, because universities in the late Middle Ages were turning out more clergy than the church could hire in beneficed positions, many found themselves experiencing a crisis of vocation. Kerby-Fulton argues that this crisis produces a “clerical proletariat” many of whom ultimately become civil servants, secretaries in great households, writing office clerks, or casual liturgical laborers, especially in London. She shows how this crisis of mass underemployment is further exacerbated by pluralism (the unethical practice of hogging multiple benefices).
Beneficed priests were in a privileged position: they received both income from parish holdings and wealth from the church. Although medieval universities were producing highly educated clergy, there were more qualified candidates than ever before, while at the same time, beneficed priests were sometimes acquiring multiple benefices and then outsourcing the work of delivering the mass and managing the church operations to poorer paid vicars, chaplains and lesser church officials, while pocketing most of the money themselves.
Kerby-Fulton argues that this sharp increase in qualified clergy and decrease in beneficed positions, resulted not only in a vocational crisis and the creations of a clerical proletariat, but ultimately in a resurgence in Middle English poetry, as this class of clerks saw more opportunities for writing English because they were working for the laity, though many still worked with Latin (or French) documents all day long. Figures like Thomas Hoccleve, a late medieval poet-clerk, comment regularly on the financial struggles and tenuous existences of the unbeneficed clerical proletariat, observable in his poem “The Complaint” which states:
I oones fro Westminstir cam, Vexid ful grevously with thoughtful hete, Thus thoughte I: ‘A greet fool I am This pavyment a-daies thus to bete And in and oute laboure faste and swete, Wondringe and hevinesse to purchace, Sithen I stonde out of al favour and grace.
“When once I came from Westminster, very bitterly troubled with burning anxiety, I thought like this: ‘I am a great fool to beat these streets like this every day and to work doggedly and sweat indoors and outdoors, in order to earn nothing but restlessness and misery, since I am fallen out of all good fortune and grace.’” (Jenni Nuttall, 183-189). In this passage, we learn how Hoccleve is very upset with his vocational prospects (184), and he deems himself a greet fool “great fool” (185) for working endless and performing in and oute laboure faste and swete “firm and sweaty labor, indoors and outdoors” (187) with nothing to show for it but wondringe and hevinesse “wandering and hardship” (188).
Similarly, in his poem, The Regiment of Princes, Hoccleve laments how he initially pursued the priesthood but ultimately forgoes these dreams and instead marries. Hoccleve describes his vocational rollercoaster, emphasizing that at first he sought Aftir sum benefice “after some benefice” but states that whan noon cam, / By procees I me weddid atte laste, “when none came, in time, I did wed at last” (1452-53). Moreover, Hoccleve stresses that his initial reluctance to marry is specifically because he long held hopes of a career as a beneficed priest, explaining that I whilom thoghte / Han been a preest “for a while I thought I would have been a priest” (1447-48). In both poems, Hoccleve expresses his frustration with the vocational crisis of underemployment which produces the clerical proletariat that Kerby-Fulton examines in her book.
Members of the clerical proletariat loom large in Middle English literary culture, and various characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, including the Clerk of Oxenford, the hapless lover and parish clerk, Absolon (in the “Miller’s Tale“), and the noble Parson, who is perhaps the most virtuous figure on the pilgrimage. Similarly, William Langland (the author of Piers Plowman) was such a clerk, and likely so were the authors of the Owl and Nightingale and Laȝamon’s Brut. The University of Pennsylvania Press notes that “Taking in proletarian themes, including class, meritocracy, the abuse of children (“Choristers’ Lament”), the gig economy, precarity, and the breaking of intellectual elites (Book of Margery Kempe), The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry speaks to both past and present employment urgencies.”
Indeed, many modern untenured scholars (including myself), who work three or more academic jobs to pay the bills, will surely identify with the position Hoccleve voices in his complaint. As Kerby-Fulton insightfully observes in her book, the circumstances outlined in this late Middle English poem closely resemble the current crisis of vocation within modern academia, where well-paying tenured faculty positions are disappearing as the universities seek to outsource more and more of the work of education to adjunct professors, the modern equivalent of the late medieval clerical proletariat. Meanwhile, universities continue to produce an endless stream of highly skilled and qualified professionals, many of whom will sadly face chronic underemployment and even possible unemployment as a result of over-qualification and unethical practices now embedded in our private university system that is seemingly more concerned with profits than with the future of the academy.
Richard Fahey PhD in English University of Notre Dame
Further Reading& Selected Bibliography
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Harvard University: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2021.