Nine Worthies

Nine Worthies

The Nine Worthies (les neuf preux) were nine historical, scriptural, mythological or semi-legendary figures who, in the Middle Ages, were believed to personify the ideals of chivalry. They were first described in the early fourteenth century, by Jacques de Longuyon in his Voeux du Paon (1312). Neatly divided into triads, these men were considered to be paragons of chivalry within their particular tradition: be it either Pagan, Jewish, or Christian. De Longuyon's choices soon became a common theme in the literature and art of the Middle Ages and earned a permanent place in the popular consciousness. Female equivalents were sometimes added, though the women chosen varied.

The Worthies were:

As a group, the nine worthies represent all facets of the perfect warrior. All, with the exception of Hector and arguably Arthur, are conquering heroes. Most came from royal families. All brought glory and honor to their nations and were noted for their personal prowess in arms. As individuals, each displayed some outstanding quality of chivalry, which, in combination with their historical context, made them exemplars of knighthood.

The Cloisters has the remaining portions of an early 15th century tapestry series illustrating the Nine Worthies. The Nine Worthies were also a popular subject for masques in Renaissance Europe. In William Shakespeare's play Love's Labour's Lost the comic characters attempt to stage such a masque, but it descends into chaos. (The three Worthies actually named in the play include two not on the original list, Hercules and Pompey the Great, as well as Alexander.) The Nine Worthies had not devolved to folk culture even in the seventeenth century, for a frieze of the Nine Worthies, contemporary with Shakespeare's comedy, was painted at the outset of the seventeenth century at North Mymms Place, Hertfordshire, an up-to-date house built by the Coningsby family, 1599.

Don Quixote evokes the Nine Worthies in Volume I, Chapter 5, telling a peasant (who is trying to get him to admit who he is) "...I know that I may be not only those [legendary people] I have named, but all the Twelve Peers of France and even all the Nine Worthies, since my achievements surpass all that they have done all together and each of them on his own account."

Female Worthies

In the late 14th century, groups of female Worthies are sometimes seen, but usually not individualized, and all shown as Amazon-type warriors.

Eustache Deschamps to the neuf preux adds neuf preuses (women), including Penthesilea, Tomyris and Semiramis. Together with their male counterparts, they precede Henry VI as he enters Paris in 1431, and figure in Le Jouvencel (1466). The list of preuses was however less fixed, and not always structured in pagan, Jewish and Christian triads. Thomas III of Saluzzo has: Deiphille, Iynoppe, Hippolyte, Menalyppe, Semiramis, Lampetho, Thamarys, Theuca, Penthésilée.

A vey fine set of Siennese 15th century panel paintings, attributed to the Master of the Griselda Legend and others, now incomplete and widely dispersed, showed male and female worthies - the remaining paintings were reunited in a 2007 exhibition at the National Gallery, London.

In the German Renaissance, there was a attempt by Hans Burgkmair to establish a set of female worthies grouped like their male counterparts. He made a set of six woodcuts, each showing three of the "Eighteen Worthies". In addition to the usual males, his prints showed:

Burgmair was in touch with Augsburg Renaissance Humanist circles, who may have helped choose the group. Apart from Veturia, mother of Coriolanus, who tried to save Rome from defeat by her son, the other pagan two were examples of chastity, responsible for no heroic acts except their defence of their own virtue. In contrast, two of the Jewish women, Judith and Jael, are known for their personal assassination of leaders opposed to Israel. Judith carries a sword in one hand and Holofernes's severed head in the other, and Jael carries the mallet with which she hammered a peg in the head of Sisera. The "Power of Women" and female violence was an interest of German artists at the time, and both Lucas van Leyden and Albrecht Altdorfer made prints of Jael in the act.

The Christian trio of saints, all very popular in Germany at the time, are all women who had been married - Bridget became an abbess as a widow. In addition, like three of the male Worthies, Elizabeth of Hungary was an ancestor of Burgkmair's patron Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Helena was a Roman Empress. Unlike the other two groups, who all face each other, apparently in conversation, these three all look down, and may illustrate the female virtue of silence.

Burgkmair's conception does not seem to have been very widely followed.

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