Summary: The Friend: Chapter 1, Wedded Brother

This chapter summary is part of my reading summaries series. Click here for more information on the series. Click here for more chapter summaries from The Friend.

Chapter one begins with a tomb in a fourteenth-century Dominican church in modern-day Istanbul. The shared tombstone of Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe shows helmets facing each other, corresponding “to the stylized depiction of a kiss, and the arrangement of… two overlapping shields below to that of an embrace.” He notes that the arrangement of the arms “is that of a married couple.”

They are not married, however, at least not in the contemporary sense. The kiss “points to a ritual act that would have been familiar in any Latin church in the fourteenth century”, the kiss of peace in the Mass. Richard Strangways, writing in the 1450’s, identifies the men on the tombstone as “‘sworn’ brothers”, brothers bound together by an oath that had been made in a ritual act in a church. 

The tombstone tells the story of the intimacy between the two men. After the death of Sir John Clanvowe on October 17, 1391, “Sir William Neville, for whom his love was no less than for himself, [was in] such inconsolable sorrow that he never took food again and two days after breathed his last, greatly mourned.” Bray explains this friendship in Ciceronian terms, in which “verus amicus est tamquam alter idem,” “the real friend is, as it were, another self.”

Bray also notes that this friendship is distinctly public and commonplace. The documents and remaining evidence of the time never elaborate on the marital arrangement of the tomb’s figures, suggesting that observers at the time would have, without additional explanation, understood their meaning.

Similarly, Bray discusses the twelfth-century Topographica Hibernica of Giraldus de Barri. De Barri satirises the practice of sworn brotherhood in Ireland. Bray notes that “its satirical intentions would not have hit home if it had not been present in Ireland.” De Barri writes about a ritual in which the two men “join in covenants of spiritual brotherhood”, perform ritual practices within the church, and then, “retain[ing] from the custom of the pagans”, drink each other’s blood to seal the oaths. Setting aside the satire, Bray writes that the implication of de Barri’s writing “is that his readers in Latin Catholic Europe knew that the ceremony of ‘sworn’ brotherhood ended with a celebration of the mass, and this knowledge prepares them to be all the more scandalized by the blood that (according to Giraldus) all too often follows among the Irish.”

The Eucharist had a central role in social life in medieval society: “in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Eucharist was figured as a symbol at the center of the secular world, becoming incorporated into its forms of life, shaping them, and being shaped by them.” In this ritual then, where sworn brotherhood is sealed by the reception of the Eucharist, we can see that friendship had “a formal and objective character markedly different from friendship in modern society.”

Bray then discusses other “traces of friendship” in this period. He writes about the eleventh-century sworn friendship of Robert D’Oilly and Roger D’Ivry, recorded in the 1280’s in the abbey of Oseney by its abbot, William de Sutton. Bray writes about a priest’s twelfth-century recording of Edward II’s sworn brotherhood to Piers Gaveston. That story relates: “When the king’s son gazed upon him [Piers], he straight away felt so much love that he entered into a covenant of brotherhood with him and chose and firmly resolved to bind himself to him, in an unbreakable bond of love before all men.”

The Latin chronicles in England from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries have many instances of “wedded brothers”. Bray notes, however, that “a ‘wed’ in Middle English was a pledge or a covenant”, in contrast to the use of the word “wedding” today. Further, “language of this kind recovers a social world constructed in binding oaths and ritual acts made before witnesses, human and divine.” 

Sworn friendship can be found in romances, ballads, chapbooks, and folk songs in the nineteenth century. Though not realistic depictions of social life, Bray writes that “are highly colored stories of the love between sworn brothers and the testing of the fidelity of their oaths to each other in the most extreme of circumstances. He discusses the ballad of Bewick and Graham, the story of Horn and his “wedded brother”, the romance of Amys and Amylian, the romance of Athelston, Chaucer’s Knightes Tale, and other stories. The term “fratres iurati”, “wedded/sworn brothers”, is common in such stories from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries. Bray writes that he knows “of no occasion before the seventeenth century when any need is shown to explain what these terms mean.” Though Bray does not know the actual prevalance of such sworn friendships, he says that these relationships played an important role in the imagination of traditional society.

Finally, Bray outlines various historians’ accounts of the reasons for such friendships. Some have argued that these “primal forms of social organization” were necessary to form alliances to withstand “effective central state power”, with the fear of violence motivating friendship. Others have argued that these friendships were motivated by a desire for profit, creating “an insurance against the heaviest financial loss that could befall a soldier.” Finally, some have argued that these friendships were motivated by “what most people today regard as the essence of marriage: a permanent romantic commitment between two people.” Historians have typically approached these friendships through an isolated lens of power, profit, or sex. Bray notes that the historical evidence both validates and challenges these approaches. Bray writes that these sworn friendships could have had many, varied, competing, and overlapping motivations, and the evidence attests to this fact. Thus, Bray seeks to “interrogate traditional society” in a broader way than it has been so far.

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