Remember Me: Memorializing Complex Events on Tombstones in Malory

As I read the section in Morte Darthur titled “The Poisoned Apple” in Book VII, The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere, I was surprised at the lengthy description of the text written on Sir Patryse’s tomb:

Than was sir Patryse buryed in the chirche of Westemynster in a twombe, and thereuppon was wrytten: Here lyeth sir Patryse of Irelonde, slayne by sir Pynell le Saveaige that enpoysynde appelis to have slayne sir Gawayne, and by myssefortune sir Patryse ete one of the applis, and than suddeynly he braste. Also there was wrytyn uppon the tombe that quene Gwenyvere was appeled of treson of the deth of sir Patryse by sir Madore de la Porte, and there was made the mencion how sir Launcelot fought with hym for quene Gwenyvere and overcom hym in playne batayle. All thys was wretyn uppon the tombe of sir Patryse in excusyng of the quene.

My first thought was: wow, that must have been a pretty big tombstone.

But then I thought how interesting it is that on this man’s tomb (which is probably a lot larger than the gravestone I originally imagined), the main part of the story memorialized here has nothing to do with him. He is an unfortunate casualty of a plot to kill and blame others, and in fact the point of the text, as Malory writes at the end, was “in excusyng of the quene.”

The only part of the text that Malory cites directly is the sentence directly concerning Patryse, and the rest detailing the accusation and vindication of the queen is summarized. That in itself is a point worth investigating. But here I’m going to muse on a few other points.

Kenneth Tiller, in “En-graving Chivalry: Tombs, Burial, and the Ideology of Knighthood in Malory’s Tale of King Arthur,” explains that tombs are used in Malory as spaces to encode chivalry and to make sense, especially in Book I, of the chaotic events, and that at times these inscriptions are used as tools of revisionist history. He cites Balin’s tomb, which “rewrites the history of a bloody-handed and fratricidal warrior into one of an admirable and ‘chivalric’ knight” (39).

In the case of Sir Patryse, the history being recorded is an attempt to clear the name of the queen, who had been accused of treason and murder. It seems not to be revisionist history, because the events recorded on the tomb reflect exactly the events Malory has given us just before this.

Where things got interesting for me was when I read another section for this week’s seminar, “Slander and Strife” in The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Arthur Saunz Guerdon. This week’s seminar is focusing in part on trial by combat, but this episode does not have the same structured trial by combat as the other two we read for today (“The Poisoned Apple” and “The Knight of the Cart”).

Lancelot fights, wounds, and kills the knights who attempt to catch him in the act of adultery with the queen, but it’s more of a desperate attempt to evade capture than a fight of honor, and it proves nothing anyway – Guinevere is still sentenced to death, still accused of treason.

Another article we read for today, E. Kay Harris’s “Evidence against Lancelot and Guinevere in Malory’s Morte Darthur: Treason by Imagination,” changed my view of things a bit. (I wrote the title of this post before reading Harris’s essay, and I’m not actually talking about that anymore, but I like the title, so it stays.)

Harris uses the concept of treason by imagination, as used to define the act of treason in a 1352 statute. In this framework, a person could be accused and convicted of treason if there is proof that he imagined the death of the king. How to prove imagination? Words, Harris explains. A thief can be convicted when he is caught with the stolen goods, the physical evidence of the crime, and a traitor can be convicted when he is caught with treasonous words, the physical evidence of the crime.

So words in this case are physical.

Harris says that the constant “noyse” of the knights as they accuse Lancelot as he is in the queen’s chambers stands, in this model, as proof of Lancelot’s crime of treason. Once the words have been spoken in accusation, the statute and its subsequent interpretations meant that this accusation itself could stand as actual evidence of the crime.

Malory deliberately leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not Lancelot did sleep with the queen, a point many have addressed, including Harris in this essay. But ultimately, according to Harris’s analysis, it doesn’t matter, because the words of the accusation themselves convict Lancelot and the queen: “Without offering evidence that would prove either the innocence or guilt of Lancelot, Malory consigns Agravain’s accusation, teh clamor of ill-fame, to the imaginative realm. Even so, that accustaion which produces and publishes Lancelot’s treason brings about his banishment” (203).

But Harris cites an example of imaginative treason in 1444:

…in 1444 a woman acosted the king after Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, had been convicted of treason…For her words, the justices ruled that she be placed in a cart and paraded through London ‘with a paupire about hir hede of hir proude and lewed langage,’ and, according to the chronicler, she subsequently was pressed to death… (192)

Although it was her spoken words which condemned her, before being killed she was made to display them as written words. While the imaginative realm was enough to convict her, those intangible words needed to be made tangible. Harris does not explore the idea much farther than this.

But I find intriguing the correlations between Guinevere’s vindication by lengthy writing on a tomb, memorializing Lancelot’s defense and proof of her innocence through an honorable and structured system of trial by combat, and Lancelot’s conviction by spoken words, proving nothing in actuality.

If we are to believe Malory is presenting events honestly in “The Poisoned Apple,” the tomb in this case does not act as a tool for revisionist history, but merely records the facts as they occurred. Malory’s ambiguity and inconsistency, which is part of Harris’s starting point for this essay, means that the non-recorded words may in fact be acting as revisionist history.

So I don’t have a conclusion about any of that. Still thinking. And I want to take closer looks at all the tombs and their inscriptions throughout the whole book. But it’s all kind of fascinating.


Harris, E. Kay. “Evidence against Lancelot and Guinevere in Malory’s Morte Darthur: Treason by Imagination.” Exemplaria 7.1 (1995): 179-208.

Tiller, Kenneth. “En-graving Chivalry: Tombs, Burial, and the Ideology of Knighthood in Malory’s ‘Tale of King Arthur’.” Arthuriana 14.2 (2004): 37-53.


One thought on “Remember Me: Memorializing Complex Events on Tombstones in Malory”

  1. I really like the connections you make here in terms of records…their trustworthiness or speciousness…you’ve given us a lot to think about.


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