Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Nine Worthies

"Nine worthies were they called, of different rites-
Three Jews, three pagans, and three Christian Knights"
John Dryden, The Flower and the Leaf

When I attended St. Andrews University several of us would pass our free time by quizzing one another on questions of history, literature, and science. It was a wonderful and fun way to learn. A local TV show at that time, Mastermind (something like the American show Jeopardy) would ask contestants very specific questions in topics which they selected. The show also published books, and I bought a copy which we passed around. This was the context where I was introducted to the Nine Worthies. One of my Scottish friends, Roger, first asked me that question (Who are the Nine Worthies?) and we still kid each other to this day about it. The Nine Worthies were actually quite famous and significant figures. Several of the worthies would interest lovers of things Celtic, so it seemed like a good idea for a blog article, so here goes.

First, who were the Nine Worthies? The Nine Worthies (les neuf prevx) were nine figures from different times in history who personified ideals of chivalry. They were first written of in the Fourteenth Century by Jean de Longuyon in Voeux du Paon. The consisted of three pagans; Hector, Alexander, and Julius Caeser; three Old Testament Jews; Joshua, David and Judas Maccebeus; and three Christian Knights; Arthur, Charlamagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon.  An interesting collection of persona to say the least! de Longuyon saw them as the champions of chivalry and they became a popular theme in the literature and art of the Middle Ages.

I don't know alot about all of these figures, and many of them are shrouded in myth and strike me more as psychological archetypes-yet that is why they are fascinating and have something to say to us today. Let me focus on the three Christian Knights. Charlmagne needs little introduction and was the greatest king of his era, the example of what a Christian King could be and do. Godfey of Bouillon was an important leader linked to the First Crusade. He helped "liberate" Jerusalem from the Moslems in 1099, and was even offered the title of King of Jerusalem but refused.

That leaves Arthur who is arguable the greatest Celtic hero of all time. Step back St. Patrick and Robin Hood! People are fascinated by Arthur to this day, and many books and films try to describe his unusal life. It's a magical tale matched by no other. Arthur was raised by the powerful magician Merlin who gave him a Harry Potteresque like upbringing, no doubt sharing with him his vast knowledge.  Magical indeed! So no one was really surprized when Arthur was crowned King at the tender age of 15. The message was clear. Big things were in store for Arthur and he had a lot of work to do. And no surprize, here the themes revert back to chivalry, or as us moderns put in "do the right thing". And that is just what Arthur did.

Arthur began his reign of "doing the right thing" with a magical sword, Excalibur, that he carried everywhere he went. With it, Arthur scourged the country of monsters, and drove out those nasty invaders, the Saxons and hopefully some of those damn Vikings who were pillaging the Irish monastaries! Arthur did not act alone, and formed a team of other chivalric Knights, and together they lived in Camelot where valour and chivalry guided their lives. All the Knights upheld the Code of Chivalry, which included honor, the brotherhood of arms and the protection of the poor and the Church. What's not to like there?

Funny, but as I have been thinking and writing this article, it strikes me that Medieval culture is really not so vastly different than our own time today. Shockingly, our times seem eerily alike. How are we to behave in a culture where there is so much violence, war, and widespread greed? An antidote to these values might be new role models who can teach us a different sense of values. So perhaps here is one of the takeaways we can have with the Nine Worthies. They can be models, even mythical and imperfect,  of how to respond to the challanges of life in both a heroic and dignified way. Put aside some of the historical contexts of these folks (which must have been brutal) and what shines forth are some pretty nifty character traits. Honor, the brotherhood of man, the protection of the poor, and a deep personal faith. Work of those personality traits and you'll pass any test life throws your way.

We might find it difficult to get excited about the nine worthies, so indulge yourself and select  someone you've admired. Christians for many centuries  have found it worthwhile to study the lives of saints. What about St Patrick, St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis or a modern day theologian or spiritual writer? Who are your spiritual worthies? Best of all, you'll be following a trusted spiritual practice and path.

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