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The Nine Worthies and the Present Age by Carlos Perona Calvete

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The Nine Worthies and the Present Age

"Nine Heroes and Nine Heroines" (detail with four figures. Left to right: Judas Maccabeus, King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey de Bouillon) (1411-1416) a fresco in Sala Baronale, Castello della Manta, Saluzzo.

As he studies history, the scholar may experience some echo of St. Peter’s vision, where the whole earth is gathered up by its four corners like a kerchief, that it may be represented in one mandala and grasped at a single glance. Diverse personages, separated by vast centuries, may begin to take their place in that pattern, like moments of a common paradigm.

The tradition of the nine worthies, les neuf preux, attempts to show us such a pattern. They were chivalric role models, exemplars of knightly virtue to mediaeval westerners, especially in France and Britain—this despite, or sometimes through, their grave faults. First mentioned by Jacques de Longuyon in his 1312 Voeux du Paon, they are biblical, pagan, and Christian personages whose legacy was responsible for building the world in which those who read of their exploits lived. What the nine have in common is that they all represent virtue in pursuit of a civilizational, epochal project.  They are warriors, conquerors, or rulers (albeit some of their life stories clearly exceed this facet) who have, at least in the mediaeval French narrative, sworn their swords to honour and service.

Among the European pagan worthies are Hector the Trojan, who fought admirably against invading Greeks, until Achilles struck him down; Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world and was known to mediaeval people through later Romances; and Julius Caesar, conqueror of Gaul and first emperor of Rome. It may be pointed out that Hector is not a European pagan, but Virgil tells us the Trojans were originally Italian colonisers of Anatolia, and by the Middle Ages their posterity was believed to populate Europe (as far north as Arthur and Odin, whose lineages are Trojan according to Geoffrey of Monmouth and Snorri Sturluson). Interestingly, all pagan worthies die unjustly, betrayed or struck down by a dishonourable foe. 

The ancient Hebrews are Joshua, successor to Moses and wager of war against the giants who had come to inhabit the promised land; David, slayer of Goliath and king of the united realms of Judea and Israel; and Judah Maccabee, priest and leader of the revolt against the Seleucid Greeks.

The 13th-century carving “Nine Good Heroes” (known as “Neun Gute Helden” in the original German) in the City Hall in Cologne, Germany, is the earliest known representation of the Nine Worthies. From left to right are the three Christians: Charlemagne bearing an eagle upon his shield, King Arthur displaying three crowns, and Godfrey of Bouillon with a dog lying before him; then the three pagans: Julius Caesar, Hector, and Alexander the Great bearing a griffon upon his shield; and finally the three Jews: David holding a sceptre, Joshua, and Judah Maccabee.

The mediaeval Christians are King Arthur, seeker after the Holy Grail and ruler of Roman Britain; Charlamagne, first Holy Roman Emperor in the west and scourge of the pagan Saxons; and Godfrey of Bouillon, who was among the leaders of the First Crusade and ruled at Jerusalem, but was humble enough to forego coronation. Godfrey concludes the nine, being that he, in a sense, obtains the prize of Jerusalem and displays the humility of a king who, in deference to his Lord, will refuse honours. In turning from the crown, he precisely crowns that tradition of French knighthood which the record of the nine worthies recommends to its readers—a tradition of humble heroism.

We may highlight the presence of two opposite roles in these nine: 1) that of building a politically integrated ecumene whose logistical and cultural ties will permit, among other things, the future or continued spread of Christianity, and 2) that of safeguarding a locality against political integration that is illegitimate or has outlived its purpose. 

The first role describes Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Joshua and David, and Charlamagne and Godfrey of Bouillon. The second describes Hector the Trojan, Judah Maccabee, and King Arthur. Granted, there are accounts of Arthur conquering Rome (likely based on a commander of the Roman forces in Britain, Flavius Magnus Maximus, who marched south late in the 4th century and was made Augustus of the West by Emperor Theodosius). However, these are rejected by the author of The History of the Nine Worthies, who writes that “some affirm that he subdued … the Romans … the credit whereof seems very doubtful,” and “Goths, Vandals, Burgonians and French invaded and ruin’d divers parts of the Roman Empire, yet we find no mention of King Arthur acting anything among them.”

A balance is therefore suggested, between integration and identity, conquest and cohesion. 

Some might object that attempting to glean patterns from the power-political spasms of history is a wholly arbitrary enterprise. But we are pattern-seekers, narrative-weavers, precisely because patterns do exist, and because patterns can be made to exist. It’s no use telling a carpenter that the groove in a wooden slab whose curve he has exploited in making a bowl is accidental, and was never meant to be a bowl at all. He himself meant for it to be so, and nature (or some higher fortuity) provided. It will likewise be of no use to tell him that the purpose for which he appropriates the wood and uses the bowl, the very human imperative of tool-making and sharing a drink with one’s fellows, is somehow “accidental.” To the contrary, it is a necessary feature of the human condition. 

Another objection might be that the tradition of the nine worthies is sinisterly romantic, that it threatens to justify the great persons of history merely because their prolific careers force us to acknowledge that they had a tremendous impact on the world. If this were the case, will-to-power and the ability to force a project upon the world would be our only criterion for recognizing a “worthy”—surely a criterion very much at odds with any properly moral conception of the designation.

Indeed, we should always reserve the right to outright reject the legacy of a world-historical figure, just as we should acknowledge that good can be rescued from evil, and that good works can inadvertently open up the possibility for evil. If a rainmaker ends a drought by invoking a storm, he should also instruct his people to guard against potential lightning strikes. That the fulfilment of a certain civilizational imperative was necessary, that the labours of its agents manifested, however imperfectly, a necessary vocation, does not force us to ignore its failures and the abuses that took place along the way. Like Aeneas when his departed father revealed to him a heavenly image of Rome’s history, we are grasping for archetypes, not cataloguing types.

Fundamentally, what the nine worthies provided, and can provide again, was a thematically unified account, a sweeping narrative, from Homer through the Bible and into Christendom, which western Europeans could use to understand and in some wise enshrine the canon of their history. 

There is much to unpack in order to understand why these nine figures in particular were singled out (a longer discussion on which may be found here). Foregoing a more exhaustive exploration of this sort, and given that almost one thousand years have elapsed since the last of them, we may, for our part, ask whether history has reproposed their ilk, once more revealing their archetypal pattern through lives that seem more literary than literal. Such a task seems particularly pressing given that our sense of history is now very much in question, as that which history has passed down to us, namely a civilization, is everywhere contested and, in very real terms, coming apart. 

The question we may venture to ask, in whose answer we might come to understand our era and its place, is whether it is possible to discern modernity’s worthies. It may be retorted that modernity can have no worthies, having fallen away from tradition and from the standards which the mediaeval scholar was celebrating. Yet, the stories of the worthies do not present ages of pristine order, but a periodic darkening of men’s spiritual lights, and, per their religious premise, the struggle to conquer territory from demonic powers and principalities. 

Besides, a good work can begin under inauspicious conditions, or be overtaken only to be finally completed, or else fully appreciated, in some more enlightened future. “Quidquid luce fuit, tenebris agit [What goes on in the light, acts in the darkness], but the other way around as well,” as Nietzsche tells us.

The formula of the worthies is certainly a fertile one. It resonates across contexts, conjuring gatherings of great rebels, from the knights of the Reconquista to the heroes of Greek independence. We might also envision the nine worthies of exploration: navigators who forged the age of discovery, or scientists who did the same in other domains. Yet, if we are to stay within the ambit of the original nine, we will focus on warfare, either conquest to facilitate the spread of western legal structures and the Christian religion, or defensively, against a predatory power. Granting this, we might be tempted to reach out and do justice to the global character of the modern age by referring to figures from across the world. Rebels like Tecumseh, Yaa Asantewaa, and Skanderbeg. Founders like Kamehameha, Osei Tutu, and Garibaldi. But again, in deference to the original nine, we will confine ourselves to figures from Europe proper.

In doing so, we should integrate the major events our—and global—civilization has undergone since the death in 1100 of Godfrey of Bouillon. Two of these events must surely be the fall of the Byzantine empire in the East and the discovery and conquest of the Americas in the west. To these we may add the huge changes in thought brought about by the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and political modernity. 

Beginning with the fall of Constantinople, we have a king, the last emperor, a second Hector of Troy, falling in battle, a man who, like Judah Maccabee, defended his homeland: Constantine XI. He is said never to have died, but to sleep, having turned into marble, beneath his city’s golden gate, awaiting the proper moment at which to return, like Arthur from Avalon.

Turning to the Americas, rather than focusing on explorers or monarchs, and following the emphasis on conquest in the nine worthies, we may hone in on the figure of the conquistador, whose major exemplar must be Hernán Cortés. He was not a prince, king, or emperor. He always answered to his lord, King Charles V. He never really transitioned from conqueror to king, ruling over the realm whose borders he had vastly expanded. Nor did he expend himself in a defensive war, falling martyr-like, like Hector.

And yet, he bears a particular similitude to Alexander. Like the eastward-venturing Hellene, he may have been partly spurred on by what Eric Voegelin called the concupiscent zeal of conquerors to lay eyes on the ends of the earth, to make plain and sensible the mystery of creation. But, reckless as this instinct is, it does not mean something important was not accomplished through them. There is much in Alexander’s romances and in Joshua’s career as related in the Bible that presents striking parallels to Cortés’ life. Suffice it to note, however, that in subduing the Aztecs and inaugurating what would be the conquest of the Americas proper, he is an unavoidable figure whose labour the authors of the nine worthies would likely have integrated.

In terms of the intellectual sea change that took place in Europe, we should not choose a champion of that change, as this would be out of keeping with the ethos of  a fundamentally Catholic tradition which we are already stretching to accommodate the eastern Orthodox, but which we will keep at least within the bounds of traditional thought. We would therefore need a figure who opposed—while integrating—the rising tide of new ideas. 

King Philip II, a Spanish Habsburg, represented a model of empire with multiple capitals and strict respect for local laws, one which entered modernity along mediaeval associationist lines, being devotedly Catholic and opposing the birth pangs of the nation-state, but also defending pseudo-Protestant and mystical figures in his court. However, Spain, or rather, that western reality which partly emerged from her, is already represented in Cortés. 

We may instead look to England for a monarch who was on good terms with Philip II, and who likewise integrated modernity, while opposing the religious rupture then raging in Europe. He had also tried to stop the conflict between his son-in-law, the so-called “winter king,” Frederick V, Palatine Elector, and the Catholic Habsburgs.  

He is King James Charles Stuart VI of Scotland and I of England and Ireland. James’ Anglicanism rejected the strident iconoclasm of the Reformation and was friendly to Catholics and continental, imperial institutions. Indeed, his building plans in Holyrood were opposed by certain Presbyterians for seeming too Catholic.

Like the Habsburg Philip II, he was interested in recovering the original model of the Solomonic temple, to which end he commissioned studies of Stonehenge and Madrid’s Escorial palace. For this reason, his eulogizer referred to him as the “British Solomon.” He was also called the “British Asclepius” by James Maxwell, on account of his interest in the sciences and the literature linked to Hermes so in vogue in his day (as well as his being of Scottish descent, given certain accounts of the Scots descending from ancient Egyptians, of which it was supposed Hermes had been pharaoh). For both Solomon and Asclepius, this uniter of biblical and classical themes gave his patronage to the translation of the Bible that bears his name, and in so doing, would give rise to modernist English poetry, including those curious semitisms that abound in it, reaching its zenith with William Blake.

King James represents an attempt to reconcile new and old realities: what is legitimate in Protestantism and Catholicism, modern streams of research, including in architecture, and ancient mysteries. For this reason, he may be counted as a worthy in the arena of the intellectual labour of modernity—without, however, losing the regal and marshal dimension of the original nine. In addition, modernity’s particularly English character is also emphasised by the inclusion of this monarch.

We should likely have chosen a French notable as well, given that France originated the tradition, and has also contributed greatly to building the modern era—a “légitimiste,” perhaps, representing old France—but the format is a restrictive one  which forces us to leave many worthy figures out. 

The point of the above is to suggest that this tradition deserves to be taken up—that the work of digesting history and discerning its shape according to specific principles is relevant to us today at least if we are to again view the present as coming from somewhere and going somewhere, if we are to engage in the imaginative labour of extraction patterns and lessons from the imperfect vicissitudes of history and orient our sails to catch those winds.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.