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Old 5th June 2006   #1
Join Date: July 2005
Posts: 1,784
Default ''Who surpasses all'' (Medieval Beauty IV)

In this, the fourth in our five-part series examining Medieval Beauty, we come to Guillaume de Machaut, whom R. Barton Palmer deems "undoubtedly the most renowned and influential poet of fourteenth-century France" (xiii).

Machaut spent many years in the service of the famous Jean l'Aveugle of Luxembourg, the King of Bohemia, whose real-life exploits were as exciting as those of any fictional hero of the Middle Ages. Like a true warrior prince, Jean l'Aveugle engaged in numerous military ventures throughout his lifetime, and died a noble death, valianty leading a cavalry charge into the thick of battle, even though advancing age had rendered him blind.

Machaut paid tribute to his distinguished patron by making him a character in his most famous poem, and even titling the work in his honour. But in Machaut's Le Jugement dou Roy de Behaingne ("The Judgment of the King of Bohemia"), dated 1342, the judgment that the king renders does not pertain to matters of the sword, but of the heart.

The poem begins with a forest encounter between two strangers, a knight and a lady. Both are deep in the throes of grief, and inquire about each other's woes.

The lady relates that her lover, the noblest of all men, has recently died, leaving her deep in mourning, and enduring the greatest suffering imaginable.

But the knight replies that his anguish is more acute, because his own love--the fairest of all maidens--has forsaken him for another. The knight claims that his pain is more intense because, while the lady's memory of her dead husband will eventually fade, lessening her grief, his unfaithful beloved is still alive--and therefore, he must live with the persistent, excruciating awareness that she is bestowing her affections on someone else.

The pair take their dispute about whose agony is worse to the King of Bohemia, and the king judges that the suffering of the knight is indeed greater.

Readers of the poem are never surprised by the king's decision, however, because the knight's description of his former lover's beauty is so rapturous, that the reader can well imagine how bitter would be the loss of such an incomparable goddess.

Alas, no truly poetic translation of Le Jugement dou Roy de Behaingne has ever found its way into print. But even in the rather literal rendering below, Machaut's evocative imagery shines through.

The knight's description of his beloved proceeds as follows:

. . . to tell the truth
No one could find in all the world
Her equal, nor could the whole world itself suffice
To describe her beauty

For I saw her dance so graciously,
And sing with such great joy,
Laugh and play so graciously

Valerie Lefkowitz in ''Figure'' magazine, 2003

That never yet
Was ever seen a more elegant treasure.
For her hair resembled threads of gold . . .

Amber Cather modelling for, Fall 2006 preview (if only she were truly plus!)

But her little mouth
Was just small enough, rose-colored, a bit rounded,
Always smiling, delicious, and sweet;
It makes me languish when my heart mourns her . . .

When she smiled
Her cheeks, which were pink and white
And a little plump, made two dimples,
Which increased her beauty . . .

Christina Schmidt modelling for Torrid, Winter 2005

And even more:
Her teeth were white, small, and even,
And her chin was a little wide,
Rounded underneath and above . . .

Megan Garcia in the plus-size style guide ''Figure It Out''

Wondrous indeed
Was her complexion, unlike all others,
For it was vibrant, fresh, and rosy,
More so than any rose in May before it's picked;

Charlotte Coyle on the Torrid cover, November 2005

And, in a few words,
White as snow, smooth, pleasantly plump
Was her throat, and without any wrinkle or bone;
Her neck was beautiful, which I prize and praise.

Kelsey Olson modelling for Torrid, Summer 2006

Without a flaw
Her body was rightly formed,
Noble, well-shaped, pretty, young, genteel, plump . . .

Unidentified model for plus-size swimwear

Her delicate skin
Was white and soft, more than all else
It shone, so that one marvelled at it;
Flaw or fault was there none, only goodness.

Kailee O'Sullivan modelling Laura Plus promwear

And to tell the truth
She was so beautiful (I hold this most firmly)
That, if Nature, who makes all things craftily,
Wished to make another just like her
She would fail.

Shannon Marie modelling for Dillard's--still the loveliest of all plus-size models, whose appearance exhibited every single attribute of ideal beauty

And never would she know how to do it
If she did not have this one as a model,
Who surpasses all others in beauty. (ll. 284-403)

* * *

Needless to say, the knight's description of his erstwhile lady confirms her as another definitive example of the timeless ideal of feminine beauty, akin to the goddesses who appear in the works of other medieval poets such as Matthew of Vendôme, Guillaume de Lorris, and Boccaccio.

Like her aesthetic predecessors, she possess abundant blonde tresses ("threads of gold"), fair skin ("white and soft," "pink," "rosy"), and, of course, a well-fed appearance, manifesting itself both in her figure ("plump"), and in her facial features ("pleasantly plump / Was her throat, and without any wrinkle or bone"; "her chin was a little wide, / Rounded underneath").

The prose translations of Le Jugement dou Roy de Behaingne highlight Machaut's emphasis on the latter features. Windeatt's translation reads, "Her throat was white as snow, smooth, beautifully proportioned--there was not a line in it, nor any sign of a bone" (8-9), and in Wimsatt's version, the lady's chin is deemed "gently curved below" (76). This praise of "curved" and "rounded" lower facial features turns up again in the next century, in Firenzuola's Renaissance beauty manual, which asserts that when a lady's chin will "slope toward the throat and run into a slight rise, it gains in overall beauty"--so much so, that Firenzuola deems this "the foremost ornament" in full-figured women (60).

The concurrent descriptions of ideal feminine beauty in these medieval texts constitute a specific aesthetic ideal--a timeless ideal, one which both preceded and succeeded the Middle Ages, and remained dominant until the 20th century.

Therefore, instead of trying to emulate the appearance of modern straight-size models, who personify an alien aesthetic that is the exact opposite of medieval beauty (an aesthetic of narrow faces, jutting bones, overtanned leatherish skin, and masculinized, ropy-muscled "toned" figures--none of which is the least bit attractive, no matter how insistently the media tries to pretend that it is), today's plus-size models should take pride in embodying a timeless image of beauty that reflects the natural human ideal of feminine appearance.



Firenzuola, Agnolo. On the Beauty of Women. Ed. and trans. Konrad Eisenbichler and Jacquiline Murray. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992.

Machaut, Guillaume de. The Judgment of the King of Bohemia. c.1342. Ed. and trans. R. Barton Palmer. New York: Garland, 1984.

Machaut, Guillaume de. Le Jugement dou Roy de Behaingne. c.1342. Chaucer's Dream Poetry: Sources and Analogues. Ed. and trans. B.A. Windeatt. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1982. 3-25.

Machaut, Guillaume de. Le Jugement du Roy de Behaigne. c.1342. Le Jugement du Roy de Behaigne and Remede de Fortune. Eds. James I. Wimsatt and William W. Kibler. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1988. 59–165.

Last edited by HSG : 6th June 2006 at 23:34.
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Old 7th June 2006   #2
Senior Member
Join Date: July 2005
Posts: 517
Default Re: ''Who surpasses all'' (Medieval Beauty IV)

I am finding this entire Medieval Beauty series incredibly inspiring.

Some of the characteristics that were so highly praised in the Middle Ages are still considered emblems of beauty, such as golden hair, while others, such as a fair complexion, are in a tug-of-war with the toasted look that comes out of L.A.

But it's such a revelation to discover that a full figure, and specifically plus-looking physical features, such as a plump neckline rather than a jutting collarbone, or a soft, rounded chin, were once just as emblematic of ideal beauty as blue eyes or blonde hair. I wish more plus-size models exhibited these distinctly plus traits. And I've noticed that the most popular models are those who do.

The fact that these soft, full features were praised throughout the centuries shows just how arbitrary and unnatural the present-day fetishization of thinness really is. Plus-size beauty is the historic norm.
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