Friday, January 19, 2018

The Bare Facts About Lady Godiva

I'm back on a cleaning binge, attempting to make more than a half-hearted effort to discard the the rats nest of junk that's crowding the crannies of my office and garage. The idea of cleaning is always easier than the actual doing. Nevertheless, I will persist, and hopefully make greater progress this year than last.

So earlier this week while rummaging through items to part with I grabbed volume 16 of the Book of Knowledge and opened it to a random page which turned out to be the story of Lady Godiva. When I read the account of Lady Godiva's historic ride, I learned that there was more to the story than just a woman riding naked through an English village. I mean, every good story has conflict, so there had to be more than one character. And there has to be motivation, right? A woman rides naked through town on a horse is not a story. It's an incident. Or a scene. (It would make a scene if it occurred today.) There would have to have been more, and I found the answers in the Book of Knowledge.

The title of the piece is How Lady Godiva Helped Her People. It begins: "When Leofric the Dane was Lord of Coventry, in the year 1040, he heavily increased his taxes on the townsfolk. The people met together ad sent their chief men to implore his wife, the Lady Godiva, who was greatly beloved by them for her many gracious acts to the sick and poor, to plead with her lord to remit some of the heavy taxes." 

In the space of two sentences the author has packed a lot of information. The time period is the Middle Ages. The location of the town or village is specified. Lady Godiva's husband is a Lord of Coventry, which is located in the middle of England, and roughly 40 miles from the Forest of Nottingham where the tale of Robin Hood took place about 500 years later and 17 miles from Birmingham where Bob Dylan was famously booed when he went electric 926 years later.

These two sentences lay out the backstory as well. Lord Leofric had placed a heavy burden on the lives of these people he ruled, and it must have been more than they could bear because it motived them to meet to discuss their options. Because Lady Godiva had a generous spirit and was well-known to be an advocate for the sick and the poor, the townsfolk had a basis for hope and they sent a small contingent to meet with her.

"Accordingly Lady Godiva pleaded with her lord on their behalf, but he roughly refused, saying, 'Shameless are you to plead for these base, whining serfs.'"

Here we have the setup.

"Shameless am I? Then shameless will I be indeed, an we shall see whether these serfs be base or honorable," replied she with spirit. "For I will ride through this town, clad in nought but my long tresses, if I can thus turn you from your cruel purpose."

That seems like quite a bargain, and Leofric went for it.

Lady Godiva notified the townsfolk about the deal and the following day they all remained indoors as she rode naked from one end of the town to the other on her horse. Leofric kept his word and the burden was removed, hence "to this day the citizens of Coventry delight to do honor to the memory of Lady Godiva."

* * * *

When I turned to Google for further details I found this story, and a more graphic illustration, at the History Channel's website.

Who Was Lady Godiva
You might associate the name “Godiva” with a brand of Belgian chocolates, but it was first popularized as part of a 900-year-old English legend. The original Lady Godiva was an 11th century noblewoman married to Leofric, the powerful Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry. As the story goes, Godiva was troubled by the crippling taxes Leofric had levied on the citizens of Coventry. After she repeatedly asked him to lessen the burden, Leofric quipped that he would lower taxes only if she rode naked on horseback through the center of town. Determined to help the public, Godiva stripped off her clothes, climbed on her horse and galloped through the market square with only her long flowing hair to cover herself. Before leaving, she ordered the people of Coventry to remain inside their homes and not peek, but one man, named Tom, couldn’t resist opening his window to get an eyeful. Upon doing so, this “Peeping Tom” was struck blind. After finishing her naked ride, Godiva confronted her husband and demanded that he hold up his end of the bargain. True to his word, Leofric reduced the people’s debts.

While most historians consider her nude horseback ride a myth, Lady Godiva—or “Godgifu” as some sources call her—was indeed a real person from the 11th century. The historical Godiva was known for her generosity to the church, and along with Leofric, she helped found a Benedictine monastery in Coventry. Contemporary accounts of her life note that “Godgifu” was one of only a few female landowners in England in the 1000s, but they make no mention of a clothes-free horseback ride. That story appears to have first cropped up some 100 years after her death in a book by the English monk Roger of Wendover, who was known for stretching the truth in his writings. The legend of “Peeping Tom,” meanwhile, didn’t become a part of the tale until the 16th century. The Godiva myth was later popularized in songs and in verse by the likes of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote a famous poem called “Godiva” in 1840.

* * * *
What do you think? Was the nude horseback ride a legend? A fable? Fake news? The "Peeping Tom" story certainly feels like an add-on. I almost added it to the first account myself just for the fun of it. Then I discovered that had already been done centuries ago.

Related Reading:
Godiva, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Naked Economics, by Charles Wheelan

Meantime, life goes on... Stay warm.


Linda Lyons said...

In myth's there is truth :)

Ed Newman said...

Thanks, Linda.
Well said.