Thursday, May 28, 2009

Princesses from far-away lands

How I was reminded of the reason why Amadis and Oriana must proceed with total secrecy.

[Political map of Europe in 1346, just before the arrival of the Black Death, created and copyright © 2003 Melissa Snell, at Medieval History.]


At first, it struck me as almost an authorial convenience that Amadis and Oriana have to go through such enormous efforts to make sure that no one discovers their passion for each other. Then, earlier this month, I was in Barcelona and visited a museum exhibit that reminded me of a fact that would have been obvious to medieval and Renaissance readers: theirs is a forbidden, impossible love.

I visited "Princesses from far-away lands: Catalonia and Hungary in the Middle Ages" (Princeses de terres llunyanes: Catalunya i Hongria a l'edat mitjana) at the Museu d'Història de Catalunya. It describes the four attempts between the 12th and 16th centuries to use royal marriages to forge alliances between the Kingdom of Aragón in Spain and the Kingdom of Hungary.

More than 200 artifacts from museums and collections across Europe and the United States magnificently illustrate the environments surrounding these princesses. They were married off in their teens to men they had never seen, but they seemed to accept their destiny, and in fact they often proved as tough, shrewd, and capable of governing a kingdom as the men in their lives.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, every royal household in Europe was doing business in the marriage market. The family trees displayed in the exhibit look more like labyrinths than dendroids.

In our novel, King Lisuarte of Great Britain is naturally looking for the best bargain he can get for Princess Oriana, and everyone knows it. Although Amadis is a prince, Gaul doesn't seem to be important enough to merit consideration. Our hero's only hope is to become the world's best knight. In the meantime, if anyone learns of their love, Amadis and Oriana will face catastrophe.

So Amadis will fight any foe, attempt any noble deed, and strive to gain all the honor he can, whatever the peril, to prove himself worthy her hand. He and Oriana face a long, hard struggle, as ye shall see.


Another historical tidbit: Ye have heard how King Lisuarte had the tombs for Dardan and his beloved placed over carved stone lions. This was the custom in the 13th century: the stone sepulchers had lion-headed stone support beams set crosswise at their ends, which held the tombs off the ground, but which also served a symbolic purpose. The lions represented the death that devours all life, and they guarded the tombs against those who would despoil them.

Still, most of the sculptors probably never saw a real lion. I've seen such tombs, and I think the lions usually look more like hairy-headed, toothy, pug-nosed dogs. But it's the thought that counts.


  1. I suspect that it's not the fact that Gaul isn't important that makes Amadis a problem as a suitor, but his illegitimacy. Although he's the first-born, he's a "natural son", (since his parents were single and not barred from marrying each other, and only enjoyed a "marital affection"). Therefore, though he might have been legitimated by his parents' subsequent marriage and might even inherit some property if his father wished to bestow it on him, he would still be barred from the throne. (English law was far harsher concerning bastards and property.)

    In fact, he might even be viewed as a destabilizing danger to his brother; a faction championing Amadis for king could easily arise, leading to civil war. Any parents of a princess would have to realize that by allowing their daughter to marry the natural son of a king rather than a legitimate prince, they would effectively be taking a political and military stand against the legal heir.

    Nor would that be the only problem. Bastards were viewed by the clergy and by canon law as being spiritually defective, since they were born not only bearing the burden of original sin but also bearing the stain of their parents' sin as well. Bastards were widely viewed as inherently greedy, selfish, cowardly and bold (in the sense of possessing chutzpah). Amadis's involvement with Oriana would only prove to the people of his time that he was a bastard by nature as well as by law.

    And then, of course, there's the issue of betrothals. A standing betrothal would have been regarded as having virtually the force of marriage. So if Oriana was betrothed, Amadis would have been regarded as leading her into the commission of breaking her vows to her intended husband. In effect, adultery. Which was seen by the church as a sin--the kind that got you sent to hell for all eternity.

    So as you said, this is a hugely forbidden love. Not only are they risking political havoc but they're putting their souls on the line. For the sake of true love.

    Really, how could anyone not root for them?

  2. Thanks! I had forgotten that our hero was born of a secret midnight tryst. Medieval Spain (and many other nations) suffered endless civil wars over royal succession among legitimate heirs with the occasional natural son or daughter as an additional complication, so the political implications would have been obvious to medieval and Renaissance readers.

    Poor Amadis, poor Oriana, captives of fate.

  3. If Amadis is trying to gain enough honor to be worthy of marrying Oriana, I don't understand his almost excessive modesty. He often seems reluctant to accept credit for his deeds, when when directly asked his name by the people he benefits.

    I understand the distinction between "fame" and "honor", but isn't his shyness counterproductive if he's trying to be such a great knight he's worth marrying?

  4. Humility was considered a great virtue at the time, and of course Amadis is more virtuous than almost everyone in everything, since he was the paragon of knighthood. He is humble even when doing the virtuous thing isn't in his personal best interest. This just shows how sincere his humility is.

    But notice how his attempts at avoiding fame for his deeds never work anyway.