The Talisman

by Sir Walter Scott

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The best leeches of the camp were unable to effect the cure of the King’s disease; but the prayers of the army were more successful. He became convalescent, and the first symptom of his recovery was a violent longing for pork. But pork was not likely to be plentiful in a country whose inhabitants had an abhorrence for swine’s flesh; and

     “Though his men should be hanged,
     They ne might, in that countrey,
     For gold, ne silver, ne no money,
     No pork find, take, ne get,
     That King Richard might aught of eat.
     An old knight with Richard biding,
     When he heard of that tiding,
     That the king’s wants were swyche,
     To the steward he spake privyliche—
     “Our lord the king sore is sick, I wis,
     After porck he alonged is;
     Ye may none find to selle;
     No man be hardy him so to telle!
     If he did he might die.
     Now behoves to done as I shall say,
     Tho’ he wete nought of that.
     Take a Saracen, young and fat;
     In haste let the thief be slain,
     Opened, and his skin off flayn;
     And sodden full hastily,
     With powder and with spicery,
     And with saffron of good colour.
     When the king feels thereof savour,
     Out of ague if he be went,
     He shall have thereto good talent.
     When he has a good taste,
     And eaten well a good repast,
     And supped of the BREWIS [Broth] a sup,
     Slept after and swet a drop,
     Through Goddis help and my counsail,
     Soon he shall be fresh and hail.’ 
     The sooth to say, at wordes few,
     Slain and sodden was the heathen shrew.
     Before the king it was forth brought:
     Quod his men, ‘Lord, we have pork sought;
     Eates and sups of the brewis SOOTE,[Sweet]
     Thorough grace of God it shall be your boot.’ 
     Before King Richard carff a knight,
     He ate faster than he carve might.
     The king ate the flesh and GNEW [Gnawed] the bones,
     And drank well after for the nonce.
     And when he had eaten enough,
     His folk hem turned away, and LOUGH.[Laughed]
     He lay still and drew in his arm;
     His chamberlain him wrapped warm.
     He lay and slept, and swet a stound,
     And became whole and sound.
     King Richard clad him and arose,
     And walked abouten in the close.”

An attack of the Saracens was repelled by Richard in person, the consequence of which is told in the following lines:—

     “When King Richard had rested a whyle,
     A knight his arms ‘gan unlace,
     Him to comfort and solace.
     Him was brought a sop in wine.
     ‘The head of that ilke swine,
     That I of ate!’ (the cook he bade,)
     ‘For feeble I am, and faint and mad.
     Of mine evil now I am fear;
     Serve me therewith at my soupere!’ 
     Quod the cook, ‘That head I ne have.’ 
     Then said the king, ‘So God me save,
     But I see the head of that swine,
     For sooth, thou shalt lesen thine!’ 
     The cook saw none other might be;
     He fet the head and let him see.
     He fell on knees, and made a cry—
     ‘Lo, here the head!  my Lord, mercy!’”

The cook had certainly some reason to fear that his master would be struck with horror at the recollection of the dreadful banquet to which he owed his recovery; but his fears were soon dissipated.

     “The swarte vis [Black face] when the king seeth,
     His black beard and white teeth,
     How his lippes grinned wide,
     ‘What devil is this?’ the king cried,
     And ‘gan to laugh as he were wode.
     ‘What!  is Saracen’s flesh thus good?
     That never erst I nought wist!
     By God’s death and his uprist,
     Shall we never die for default,
     While we may in any assault,
     Slee Saracens, the flesh may take,
     And seethen and roasten and do hem bake,
     [And] Gnawen her flesh to the bones!
     Now I have it proved once,
     For hunger ere I be wo,
     I and my folk shall eat mo!”’ 

The besieged now offered to surrender, upon conditions of safety to the inhabitants; while all the public treasure, military machines, and arms were delivered to the victors, together with the further ransom of one hundred thousand bezants. After this capitulation, the following extraordinary scene took place. We shall give it in the words of the humorous and amiable George Ellis, the collector and the editor of these Romances:—

“Though the garrison had faithfully performed the other articles of their contract, they were unable to restore the cross, which was not in their possession, and were therefore treated by the Christians with great cruelty. Daily reports of their sufferings were carried to Saladin; and as many of them were persons of the highest distinction, that monarch, at the solicitation of their friends, dispatched an embassy to King Richard with magnificent presents, which he offered for the ransom of the captives. The ambassadors were persons the most respectable from their age, their rank, and their eloquence. They delivered their message in terms of the utmost humility; and without arraigning the justice of the conqueror in his severe treatment of their countrymen, only solicited a period to that severity, laying at his feet the treasures with which they were entrusted, and pledging themselves and their master for the payment of any further sums which he might demand as the price of mercy.

 “King Richard spake with wordes mild.
     ‘The gold to take, God me shield!
     Among you partes [Divide] every charge.
     I brought in shippes and in barge,
     More gold and silver with me,
     Than has your lord, and swilke three.
     To his treasure have I no need!
     But for my love I you bid,
     To meat with me that ye dwell;
     And afterward I shall you tell.
     Thorough counsel I shall you answer,
     What BODE [Message] ye shall to your lord bear.

“The invitation was gratefully accepted. Richard, in the meantime, gave secret orders to his marshal that he should repair to the prison, select a certain number of the most distinguished captives, and, after carefully noting their names on a roll of parchment, cause their heads to be instantly struck off; that these heads should be delivered to the cook, with instructions to clear away the hair, and, after boiling them in a cauldron, to distribute them on several platters, one to each guest, observing to fasten on the forehead of each the piece of parchment expressing the name and family of the victim.

 “‘An hot head bring me beforn,
     As I were well apayed withall,
     Eat thereof fast I shall;
     As it were a tender chick,
     To see how the others will like.’ 

“This horrible order was punctually executed. At noon the guests were summoned to wash by the music of the waits. The king took his seat attended by the principal officers of his court, at the high table, and the rest of the company were marshalled at a long table below him. On the cloth were placed portions of salt at the usual distances, but neither bread, wine, nor water. The ambassadors, rather surprised at this omission, but still free from apprehension, awaited in silence the arrival of the dinner, which was announced by the sound of pipes, trumpets, and tabours; and beheld, with horror and dismay, the unnatural banquet introduced by the steward and his officers. Yet their sentiments of disgust and abhorrence, and even their fears, were for a time suspended by their curiosity. Their eyes were fixed on the king, who, without the slightest change of countenance, swallowed the morsels as fast as they could be supplied by the knight who carved them.

“Every man then poked other;
     They said, ‘This is the devil’s brother,
     That slays our men, and thus hem eats!’ 

“Their attention was then involuntarily fixed on the smoking heads before them. They traced in the swollen and distorted features the resemblance of a friend or near relation, and received from the fatal scroll which accompanied each dish the sad assurance that this resemblance was not imaginary. They sat in torpid silence, anticipating their own fate in that of their countrymen; while their ferocious entertainer, with fury in his eyes, but with courtesy on his lips, insulted them by frequent invitations to merriment. At length this first course was removed, and its place supplied by venison, cranes, and other dainties, accompanied by the richest wines. The king then apologized to them for what had passed, which he attributed to his ignorance of their taste; and assured them of his religious respect for their characters as ambassadors, and of his readiness to grant them a safe-conduct for their return. This boon was all that they now wished to claim; and

     “King Richard spake to an old man,
     ‘Wendes home to your Soudan!
     His melancholy that ye abate;
     And sayes that ye came too late.
     Too slowly was your time y-guessed;
     Ere ye came, the flesh was dressed,
     That men shoulden serve with me,
     Thus at noon, and my meynie.
     Say him, it shall him nought avail,
     Though he for-bar us our vitail,
     Bread, wine, fish, flesh, salmon, and conger;
     Of us none shall die with hunger,
     While we may wenden to fight,
     And slay the Saracens downright,
     Wash the flesh, and roast the head.
     With 0 [One] Saracen I may well feed
     Well a nine or a ten
     Of my good Christian men.
     King Richard shall warrant,
     There is no flesh so nourissant
     Unto an English man,
     Partridge, plover, heron, ne swan,
     Cow ne ox, sheep ne swine,
     As the head of a Sarazyn.
     There he is fat, and thereto tender,
     And my men be lean and slender.
     While any Saracen quick be,
     Livand now in this Syrie,
     For meat will we nothing care.
     Abouten fast we shall rare,
     And every day we shall eat
     All as many as we may get.
     To England will we nought gon,
     Till they be eaten every one.’”


The reader may be curious to know owing to what circumstances so extraordinary an invention as that which imputed cannibalism to the King of England should have found its way into his history. Mr. James, to whom we owe so much that is curious, seems to have traced the origin of this extraordinary rumour.

“With the army of the cross also was a multitude of men,” the same author declares, “who made it a profession to be without money. They walked barefoot, carried no arms, and even preceded the beasts of burden in their march, living upon roots and herbs, and presenting a spectacle both disgusting and pitiable.

“A Norman, who, according to all accounts, was of noble birth, but who, having lost his horse, continued to follow as a foot soldier, took the strange resolution of putting himself at the head of this race of vagabonds, who willingly received him as their king. Amongst the Saracens these men became well known under the name of THAFURS (which Guibert translates TRUDENTES), and were beheld with great horror from the general persuasion that they fed on the dead bodies of their enemies; a report which was occasionally justified, and which the king of the Thafurs took care to encourage. This respectable monarch was frequently in the habit of stopping his followers, one by one, in a narrow defile, and of causing them to be searched carefully, lest the possession of the least sum of money should render them unworthy of the name of his subjects. If even two sous were found upon any one, he was instantly expelled the society of his tribe, the king bidding him contemptuously buy arms and fight.

“This troop, so far from being cumbersome to the army, was infinitely serviceable, carrying burdens, bringing in forage, provisions, and tribute; working the machines in the sieges; and, above all, spreading consternation among the Turks, who feared death from the lances of the knights less than that further consummation they heard of under the teeth of the Thafurs.” [James’s “History of Chivalry.”] It is easy to conceive that an ignorant minstrel, finding the taste and ferocity of the Thafurs commemorated in the historical accounts of the Holy Wars, has ascribed their practices and propensities to the Monarch of England, whose ferocity was considered as an object of exaggeration as legitimate as his valour.

ABBOTSFORD, 1st July, 1832.


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