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False knights and true blood : reading the traitor's body in Medieval England : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in History at Massey University, Manawatu, New Zealand
From the late thirteenth century, traitors in England were subjected to
spectacular rituals of public execution that could include drawing, hanging,
disembowelling, beheading, quartering and bodily display. These executions took place
within a context in which the human body was saturated with significance. The body of
Christ, the body politic imagined through the body of the king, and the whole and
perfect body of the perfect knight were all central constructs in medieval thought. This
thesis considers the polyvalent cultural meanings and responses that could be
generated when the traitor’s broken and divided body was read in relationship to these
other, idealised bodies.
The ritualised processes of the traitor’s execution were intended to send a
message about hegemonic power, particularly the king’s power over the bodies and
lives of his subjects. However, the public and performative nature of these spectacles
meant that they could provoke unpredictable and unexpected interpretations. Through
a close analysis of documentary accounts of a number of high-profile executions that
took place in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century England, this study explores
the ways the traitor’s body could work to destabilise and subvert dominant notions
and relationships of status, gender, and political authority that the ritual of execution
was intended to reinforce.
The work that follows is structured around three thematic chapters. In Chapter
Two, it examines the ways the trial and punishment of traitors made manifest deep
uncertainties surrounding the social status of ‘knighthood’, in the process publicly
exposing cultural and political conflicts over claims to power. Chapter Three turns to
the challenges the traitor posed to the construction of aristocratic masculinity.
Beginning from a premise that the categories of ‘knight’ and ‘traitor’ were ostensibly
wholly oppositional but in reality mutually constitutive, it examines the potential for
slippage from the masculine ideal of knighthood to the monstrous feminised inversion
represented by the traitor. Chapter Four considers the complicated relationship that
could develop between the traitor’s body to the bodies of Christ and the martyrs. It
analyses a number of accounts that actively engage with the Passion topos in ways that
invite alternative interpretations and resistant responses to acts of spectacular public