Arthur and Gorlagon revised John the Baptist’s beheading

tale of King Herod beheading John the Baptist

Like King Herod on his birthday, King Arthur held a magnificent banquet in the medieval Latin tale Arthur and Gorlagon. Enraptured by a girl’s dancing, King Herod made a foolish oath that caused him to order the head of John the Baptist served on a platter. No dancing girl, just abundant food was enough to make King Arthur lose his head. Arthur threw his arms around his queen, hugged her tight, and kissed her. Among the learned, what Arthur did is now called sexual assault. So what happened after that hug and kiss in the medieval Latin tale Arthur and Gorlagon?

The queen responded angrily to her husband’s action. She demanded to know why he had kissed her at an improper time and place, to say nothing of not securing her affirmative consent. Arthur tried the lovey-dovey parry. He responded:

Because nothing of my treasure delights me more, and of all my pleasures nothing is sweeter than you. [1]

The queen, ruler of her husband the king, responded that he had presumed to know her mind and will. Arthur abjectly pleaded, “your will for me is obvious.” She in turn declared that he never understood the disposition and mind of woman.[2]

Arthur then made a foolish, impious banquet oath like King Herod did. Arthur declared:

I swear by all the divine powers of the sky, that if this be hidden from me until now, I will offer work, and sparing no labor, I will never taste food, until by me is obtained to be enlightened about them. [3]

Arthur’s oath assumed his acceptance of his wife’s sovereignty over him. He transformed his concern to understand her mind and will into a grand quest for enlightenment about women. The childish fixations of leaders like King Herod and King Arthur reveal psychological foundations of gynocentric culture. In such culture, striving to please women captivates men.[4]

Arthur and Gorlagon then revises the beheading of John the Baptist and narrates breaking the spell of gynocentrism. Urgently seeking enlightenment about women, Arthur immediately left his guests at the banquet. He rode his horse continually for three days to reach a neighboring wise king’s court. That king, King Gorgol, was eating dinner when Arthur burst into the dining hall on his horse. Acting as if he hadn’t lost his mind, Arthur, without dismounting from his horse, inquired about the craft, disposition, and mind of woman. In the original understanding of chivalry, the uxorious knight was always ready to ride. Arthur on his horse in a neighboring king’s dining hall during dinner shows the ridiculousness of men urgently seeking wisdom about women.[5] Too much thinking about women is folly.

Arthur had sworn not to eat until he obtained enlightenment about women. King Gorgol, who knew nothing of Arthur’s oath, sensibly urged Arthur:

Dismount and eat and rest today, because I see that you are worn out from the stress of the journey, and tomorrow I will tell you what I know.

Although Arthur initially refused that request, he eventually yielded to the entreaties of the king and his guests and companions. Arthur, despite his oath, reclined at table and ate. The next day, Gorgol confessed that he had never acquired knowledge of the craft, disposition, and mind of woman. Gorgol urged Arthur to journey to inquire for such knowledge from Gorgol’s older brother, King Gorleil. Gorgol played Arthur for the fool he was. Too much thinking about women is folly.

Arthur’s interaction with King Gorgol’s older brother King Gorleil paralleled his interaction with Gorgol. Arthur’s interruption of Gorleil’s dinner thus ended with Arthur riding off to speak with King Gorleil’s older brother King Gorlagon. Arthur evidently was a slow learner. Too much thinking about women is folly.

King Gorlagon of course was dining when Arthur arrived on horseback in his dining hall. Unlike his two younger brothers, Gorlagon failed to persuade Arthur to violate his oath by eating. Gorlagon resolved to tell Arthur a tale by which the craft, disposition, and mind of woman can be understood. Yet Gorlagon declared, “what you learn will be of little use … when I have told you, you will be but little wiser.”

Gorlagon told Arthur a tale filled with vicious feminine betrayal and plaintive claims from literature of men’s sexed protest. Yet Arthur refused to dismount from his horse and eat until Gorlagon answered another question. That question was about a specific woman:

Who is this woman sitting opposite you with the grief-stricken face, who has in the dish before her a human head spattered with blood? She has wept when you smiled and she has kissed the bloody head whenever you have kissed your wife during the telling of your tale. [6]

Herod’s wife conspired to have John the Baptist beheaded and his head served on a platter. Gorlagon’s ex-wife was the woman kissing the severed head on the dish before her. Her weeping and kissing the bloody head on the dish corresponded to Gorlagon smiling and kissing his new wife. For Arthur and all other men urgently seeking to know how to please women, Gorlagon’s story is like a voice crying out in the wilderness.[7]

Gynocentrism will pass. A new dispensation, in which husbands need not ask their wives for permission to smile and kiss, will come.

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[1] Narratio de Arthuro rege Britanniae et rege Gorlagon lycanthropo (Narrative of Arthur King of Britain and King Gorlagon the Werewolf) from Latin trans. Day (2005) p. 209. Hereafter this text will be called Arthur and Gorlagon (as above). All the Latin text and English translations of Arthur and Gorlagon are from Day (2005) pp. 208-35, with my changes noted.

The queen isn’t explicitly named in Arthur and Gorlagon. King Arthur’s wife was well known to be Queen Guinevere. She probably was also known for appallingly cruel behavior.

Arthur and Gorlagon survives only copied into a single manuscript, Bodleian Library Rawlinson MS B 149. That manuscript dates to the fourteenth century. For the Latin text (available online), Kittredge (1903). Arthur and Gorlagon probably dates from the second half of the twelfth century. It’s stylistically and linguistically closely associated with Welsh literature. Echard (1998) pp. 204-14.

[2] The queen says to Arthur: agnoscas te nunquam ut ingenium mentemue femine comperisse. Day translates that as “you reveal that you have never understood the nature or mind of a woman.” Other similar phrases occur throughout the text. In order:

  1. mentem et uoluntatem (queen speaking of herself to Arthur)
  2. mentem…beneuolam…uoluntatem (Arthur speaking of the queen to queen)
  3. ingenium mentemue femine (queen speaking to Arthur)
  4. artem et ingenium mentemque femineam (Arthur speaking to Gorgol)
  5. ars ingenium et mens femine (Gorgol speaking to Arthur)
  6. artem et ingenium mentemque femine (Gorlagon to Arthur)
  7. mentem et ingenium femine (Gorlagon to Arthur)

Day translates ingenium as “nature.” In English today, “nature” in reference to humans carries a biological-essential connotation. The behavioral sense of the medieval Latin ingenium seems to me better translated with “disposition.”

Day translates ars as “wiles.” In English today, “wiles” has a somewhat derogatory connotation, especially in reference to women. Ovid’s Ars amatoria was a well-known, intellectually sophisticated, widely respected work in the Middle Ages. Given the appreciation for skill associated with ars in medieval Latin, “craft” seems to me a better translation of ars.

The phrase ingenium mentemue femine raises a particularly interesting and important philological issue. Day translates that phrase identically with ingenium mentemque femine. The word mentemque seems to be a straightforward compound from mentem que; mentemue could be an associated variant form. Variant spellings of the names Gorliel and Gorlagon exist within the manuscript. Day (2005) p. 262, n. 1. However, an intriguing possibility for mentemue is a double-consonant-assimilated compound formed from mēns + mūtō. Recognition of women’s superior mental capabilities is an important strand in literature of men’s sexed protest. See also Virgil, Aeneid 4.569.

[3] The Latin text of Arthur’s oath:

Omnia celi obtestor numina, si me actenus latuere, dabo operam, nec labori indulgens nunquam cibo fruar, donec ea me nosse contingat.

Day translates that as:

I swear by all the gods of heaven that if this be hidden from me until now, I will search these out and, sparing no effort, I will never taste food until it is my chance to learn them.

Within the Christian context of the European Middle Ages, the oath’s elevated, convoluted, non-Christian diction is significant. Above I’ve adapted Day’s translation to be more literal and to bring out the elevated, convoluted, non-Christian diction (particularly me nosse contingat).

King Herod publicly declared to the beautiful dancing girl:

Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it. … Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.

Mark 6:22-3. That oath disregards pious limits implicit in God’s law. Underscoring Herod’s folly, his oath evokes the devil’s temptation of Jesus. Matthew 4:1-11.

[4] Feasting commonly figures in Arthurian romance. Delaying eating until he has heard a tale or seen a marvel particularly distinguishes Arthur in the feasting motif. Arthur thus delays eating in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Byrne (2011) p. 63. In Arthur and Gorlagon, Arthur will see a marvel that transforms the beheading of John the Baptist. The grotesquely unappetizing direct sense of that marvel, apart from its more abstract righteousness, underscores the parodic form of Arthur and Gorlagon.

[5] Echard aptly observes that Arthur and Gorlagon “is nothing if not funny.” Echard (1998) p. 214. Day declares, “Arthur and Gorlagon is possibly the funniest tale of Arthurian literature….” Day (2005) p. 46. The text’s obsessive concern for eating obviously makes fun. The text more subtly evokes wry self-consciousness of men’s foolish behavior.

[6] Massey (2012) insightfully describes Arthur and Gorlagon as a text for theatrical performance, in particular, as an early English interlude. De Maria Magdalena, a Latin text written about 1200, similarly has considerable theatricality.

Gesta Romanorum includes a tale of a banquet in which a prince has his family and his guests served meat from a human skull held on a silver platter. The skull was the head of a duke whom the prince beheaded for committing adultery with the prince’s wife. The prince explained:

To remind the woman {the prince’s wife} of her shame, each day I command this memento to be placed before her, in the hope that her repentance and punishment may equal her crime.

Gesta Romanorum, Tale 56, from Latin trans. Swan & Hooper (1876) p. 95.

[7] Brady (2012) describes some of the motifs in Arthur and Gorlagon that are common in literature of men’s sexed protest. Those motifs include women’s strong, independent sexuality, men’s vulnerability to women’s highly active social communication, wives’ oppressive control of their husbands’ social lives, men’s inability to comprehend women’s social ingenuity, women’s dominating curiosity, women’s drive to know everything, and the overwhelming power of women’s tears. Adhering to long-established, oppressive ideology, Brady misandristically refers to literature of men’s sexed protest as misogynistic and antifeminist.

In further work, Brady comically declares that Arthur and Gorlagon “is not wholly misogynist.” She explains:

While it has been claimed that all Arthur learns about is the evils of women, it is equally possible that his new knowledge is precisely what Guenevere has implied: the sexual desires of women should remain private. The tale’s message is Guenevere’s: a wife who does not wish to put her private desires on public display is something for which to be thankful. Arthur’s queen simply appears to understand that feminine sexual desire is properly displayed only in the private realm.

Brady (2014) p. 27. Arthur and Gorlagon begins with Arthur kissing his wife the queen with all observing at the feast {The phrase cunctis intuentibus (“all observing”) Day omitted in her translation. For its theatrical importance, Massey (2012).} Arthur and Gorlagon ends with Gorlagon kissing his new wife. The frame narrative is about men’s behavior toward women, not about women’s sexual desire. Through to the present, social control of men’s sexuality is much harsher than social control of women’s sexuality.

By failing to recognize the final tableau’s relation to the beheading of John the Baptist, scholars have failed to recognize its significance for the overturning of gynocentrism. Echard describes Arthur and Gorlagon‘s final scene as “simply bizarre” and declares that the text “refuses to offer enlightenment.” Echard (1998) pp. 212, 214. Wilson calls the ending “preposterous punishment,” yet she sees in the work possibly a ritual plot of purification. Wilson (2008). Hopkins fantastically argues that Arthur exists in the text “to palliate the heinous sin of bestiality.” Hopkins (2009) p. 95. Medieval Welsh literature tolerated much more explicit depiction of sexual sin, as did medieval Latin literature. Archibald declares that Arthur “learns that women are dangerous, but does not take action to control his queen.” Archibald (2011) p. 142. What Arthur learns through the revelation of Gorlagon is like the prophecy of John the Baptist.

[image] The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Painting by Florentine Benozzo Gozzoli, 1461-2. Samuel H. Kress Colection 1952.2.3 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.


Archibald, Elizabeth. 2011.  “Arthurian Latin Romance.” Ch. 7 (pp. 132-45) in Echard, Siân, ed. 2011. The Arthur of medieval Latin literature: the development and dissemination of the Arthurian legend in medieval Latin. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Brady, Lindy. 2012. “Antifeminist Tradition in Arthur and Gorlagon and the Quest to Understand Women.” Notes and Queries. 59 (2): 163-166.

Brady, Lindy. 2014. “Feminine desire and conditional misogyny in Arthur and Gorlagon.” Arthuriana. 24 (3): 23-44.

Byrne, Aisling. 2011. “Arthur’s refusal to eat: ritual and control in the romance feast.” Journal of Medieval History. 37 (1): 62-74.

Day, Mildred Leake, ed. and trans. 2005. Latin Arthurian literature. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Echard, Siân. 1998. Arthurian narrative in the Latin tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hopkins, Amanda. 2009. “Why Arthur at all? The Dubious Arthuricity of Arthur and Gorlagon.” Arthurian Literature. 26: 77-96.

Kittredge, George Lyman, ed. 1903. Arthur and Gorlagon. Boston: Ginn and Co.

Massey, Jeff. 2012. “The Werewolf at the Head Table: Metatheatric ‘Subtlety’ in Arthur and Gorlagon.” Pp. 183-206 in Tracy, Larissa, and Jeff Massey, eds. 2012. Heads will roll: decapitation in the medieval and early modern imagination. Leiden: Brill.

Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper, trans. 1876. Gesta romanorum: entertaining moral stories. New York: Dover Publications Inc. (reprint edition of 1969).

Wilson, Anne. 2008. “Arthur and Gorlagon the Werewolf.” Online at

4 thoughts on “Arthur and Gorlagon revised John the Baptist’s beheading”

  1. If we utilize the “actual malice” standard promulgated by the US Supreme Court in NY Times v Sullivan, I believe Salome & Co. definitely could have sued the Baptist for libel…

    1. False accusations are a serious manner matter. Salome may not have been the woman who got John the Baptist beheaded. It may have been Herodias.

      1. Douglas says:

        “False accusations are a serious manner {SIC}”

        So is inadequate spelling! You were quite correct; males are a good deal weaker at communicating thoughts and ideas when compared to women…case in point!

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