TITLE:Murderous Sows in Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Late Fourteenth-Century France
SOURCE:The Chaucer Review 44 no2 224-6 2009

    In the Knight's Tale Chaucer's narrator describes at length the decorations on the walls of the temples of Venus, Mars, and Diana, which Theseus orders to be built as part of the lists in which Palamon and Arcite are to fight for the hand of Emelye. At eighty-three lines, the description of the temple of Mars is nearly twice as long as either of the other two, providing a detailed catalogue of scenes of violence and bloodshed. Among the images is one that calls attention to itself because it takes place within the medieval domestic sphere but is fully as horrifying as the violence caused by wars and tyrants. The Knight, describing the temple almost as if he had visited it, says that among the decorations on the temple wall he saw a representation of a sow gnawing a child in a cradle: "Yet saugh I/.../The sowe freten the child right in the cradle" (I 2017, 2019).(FN1) This is an unexpected image in the long series of descriptions that focus on adults both as victims and victimizers: here the victim is an innocent child and the victimizer is merely following its natural animal instincts, horrible though they may be. The scene of natural rather than martial aggression seems a strange image to depict on Mars's temple wall.(FN2)
    Chaucer may have deployed the image of the sow eating the child as a result of having heard of just such an occurrence in the Norman town of Falaise, an event that was commemorated afterwards in a painting on the wall of a parish church there. In the last days of 1385 or the first days of 1386, the local tribunal sentenced a sow to be mutilated and hanged for having killed a three-month-old baby in his cradle by tearing off his face. In The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, E. P. Evans reproduces a mid-eighteenth-century description of the record of the payment received by the executioner, which briefly describes both the killing and aspects of the execution:

Quittance originale du 9, janvier 1386, passé devant Guiot de Montfort, tabellion à Falaise, et donnée par le bourreau de cette ville de la somme de dix sols et dix deniers tournois pour sa peine et salaire d'avoir trainé, puis pendu à la justice de Falaise une truie de I'age de 3 ans ou environ, qui avoit mangé le visage de l'enfant de Jonnet le Maux, qui était au bers et avoit trois mois et environ, tellement que le dit enfant en mourut, et de dix sols tournois pour un gant neuf quand le bourreau fit la dite execution.(FN3)
Original receipt of January 9, 1386, passed before Guiot de Montfort, scrivener in Falaise, and given by the executioner of that town for the sum of ten sous and ten deniers minted at Tours for his effort and salary for having led and hanged at the tribunal of Falaise a sow aged three years or thereabouts that had eaten the face of the child of Jonnet le Maux, who was in a cradle and was about three months old, in such a way that the said child died of this, and ten sous minted at Tours for a new glove when the executioner had done the said execution.

    According to Evans, for the execution the sow was dressed in men's clothing, and the punishment was carried out under the supervision of no ordinary executioner but rather a "master of high works" ("ma^itre des hautes oeuvres").(FN4) Thereafter, scenes representing both the animal's violent crime and the execution were painted on the west wall of the south transept of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Falaise.(FN5) Inasmuch as the fresco commemorated a local event that might otherwise have been forgotten relatively quickly, it would probably have been painted soon after the execution.
    Although the records of Chaucer's life do not indicate explicitly that he visited Normandy, he visited the north of France several times. If he heard of the infanticide and/or the fresco while on French soil, it may have been in July 1387, when, in the king's service, he accompanied William Beauchamp to Calais.(FN6) The possibility of a visit to Normandy during this trip cannot be ruled out entirely, as his exact itineraries during his sojourns out of England are not known.(FN7)
    Scholars generally believe that Chaucer wrote the Knight's Tale in the 1380s or 90s after acquiring his knowledge of Boccaccio (whose Teseida is the source for this tale) during a trip to Italy in 1378. Chaucer had probably composed a version of the Knight's Tale by 1388 at the latest since he refers to his story of Palamon and Arcite in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, generally dated between 1386 and 1388.(FN8) It is also assumed that after he envisioned the pilgrimage framework and the various narrators of the Canterbury tales, Chaucer revised the story of Palamon and Arcite to suit the Knight as narrator; inasmuch as the Knight is a father whose son the Squire is also on the pilgrimage, the allusion to the horror of the death of an infant is not out of character for him. Indeed, the otherwise remarkable temporal coincidence of representations of murderous sows on the walls of both a holy building in the Knight's Tale and a church in Falaise may suggest a date for a late and perhaps even final revision of the tale.(FN9)
    Loyola University, Chicago Chicago, Illinois (

1. All citations of Chaucer are taken from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn. (Boston, 1987).
2. Nothing resembling the allusion to the sow appears in the description of Mars's temple in Chaucer's source text for KnT, Giovanni Boccaccio's Il Teseida delle Nozze d'Emilia. Rather, Boccaccio concentrates on images of war and allegorized figures of vices associated with it, emphasizing the human violence of those devoted to Mars: "Every altar there was covered with blood that had been shed by human bodies only in battles" (The Book of Theseus, trans. Bernadette Marie McCoy [New York, 1974], 173-74 [7.35]); "ogni altar quivi era copioso/di sangue, sol nelle battaglie fore/de' corpi uman cacciato" (Teseida, ed. Alberto Limentani, in Tutte le Opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, ed. Vittore Branca, 12 vols. incomplete [Milan, 1964-], 2:229-664, at 458 [7.35])
3. E. P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (New York, 1951; repr. 1998), 335 (Appendix G). Evans reproduces illustrations of the execution of a sow as his frontispiece and a sow attacking a child on his title page, but because he gives no source for these images, it is unclear whether they are meant to represent the Falaise incident.
4. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution, 140.
5. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution, 16, 141. This fresco is mentioned in an 1814 account of the historic monuments of the town, but in 1820 the interior of the church was whitewashed, covering the scenes (142).
6. Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson, eds., Chaucer Life-Records (Oxford, 1966), 61-62.
7. Derek Pearsall discusses the impossibility of reconstructing the exact itineraries of Chaucer's foreign voyages in The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer. A Critical Biography (Oxford, 1992), 102-9.
8. The Riverside Chaucer, 826 (note by Vincent J. DiMarco).
9. Of course Chaucer could not add only one line to a tale written in rhymed couplets, and the verse that rhymes with the line describing the sow, "The cook yscalded, for al his longe ladel" (2020) presents the least martial, most workaday vignette among the temple decorations. Its relative banality as an image suggests the primacy of the horrifying sow for Chaucer.