In the Middle Ages, a fair amount of thought went into the list: who was an example of virtue and valour; whose chivalry was worth emulating?
The Nine Worthies
by Marnanel Thurman
Suppose I asked you to name the world's great heroes? (For example, as you may recall, some talk of Alexander.) Well, in the Middle Ages, a fair amount of thought went into the list. Who was an example of virtue and valour; whose chivalry was worth emulating?
One such list is known in English as the Nine Worthies. It was drawn up in the early 1300s, and remained a popular theme in art for centuries after. Here they are in 1460, looking for all the world like a medieval pack of Top Trumps:
Even though some of these men had lived (or were supposed to have lived) millennia earlier, they are all drawn wearing armour of the time, and bearing their own coat of arms, as if they lived in that very moment. This is because they are deliberately idealised— after all, as a careful perusal of the Old Testament will show, not all of them were in fact models of chivalry. Take King David, for example...
The Worthies are divided into three groups of three: three Jewish heroes, three Christian heroes, and three pagan heroes— that is, pagan in the old sense of not following an Abrahamic religion.
The Jewish heroes are:
- Joshua the son of Nun, who led the invasion of Canaan;
- David the son of Jesse, who became king and wrote psalms; and
- Judas Maccabeus, who led the revolt against the Syrians now commemorated by Hanukkah. (Don't confuse Judas Maccabeus with Judas Iscariot.)
The pagan heroes are:
- Hector of Troy, a great warrior of the Trojan War;
- Julius Caesar, the first emperor of Rome; and
- Alexander the Great.
The Christian heroes are:
- Arthur, the hero of the Matter of Britain;
- Charles the Great, also called Charlemagne, the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire; and
- Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the first crusader king of Jerusalem (but disclaimed the title).
I am particularly interested by the heraldry. How did they make up new and unique coats of arms for people who had been dead for three thousand years? David has a harp because he composed psalms (and not because he was king of Ireland). Julius has an eagle rather like the one on the Roman standard; Charles has the same, appropriately for someone who was also trying to become Emperor of Rome, but combined with the lily pattern known as "France Ancient". Others of them are baffling to me: what is Joshua bearing, for example? I did find a reference to the arms they made up for Alexander in a book, but frustratingly I ran out of time to research this.
I am glad to report that there were also nine female Worthies to balance out the nine men. Unfortunately none of the writers seem to agree about which nine women they were.