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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Knight Watch: Cain’s Gage and Disengagement

It looks as if Ginger White has picked up the gage thrown by Herman Cain’s lawyer, according to a New York Times news report alleging that Republican hopeful Cain was involved in a 13-year affair with Ms. White.

That’s gage as in the token, such as a glove, thrown down by medieval knights to signify a willingness or desire to enter into combat to gain satisfaction in a dispute.  Several weeks ago when some women came forward with allegations of Cain’s sexual misconduct, Cain’s lawyer warned other potential accusers to “think twice” before coming forward with additional allegations.  

I cringed when I read that—“think twice”?  Really? Where I come from we were taught not to try people with such language.  Such challenges are an invitation for someone to come in and try to knock your block completely off. Even people who had no opinion whatsoever about Cain’s innocence or guilt of the allegations were animated by such talk. Such talk takes us back to the medieval judicial duel or trial by combat in which accusations were settled by tossing a gage followed by a battle between the accuser and the accused, or their stand-ins. Lorenzo Sabine’s Notes on Duels and Dueling, published over 150 years ago and detailing the history of the duel, tells us that early Western notions of the judicial duel were founded on the belief that “a brave man did not deserve to suffer, and that a coward did not deserve to live.” 

Speaking of medieval times, knights and gages, the recent turn of events reminded me that our political process bears more than a passing similarity to a medieval tournament.

Consider this language from a website on medieval tournaments

A Medieval Tournament was a series of mounted and armoured combats, fought as contests, in which a number of combatants compete and the one that prevails through the final round or that finishes with the best record is declared the winner and is awarded the prize.

Gee, sounds like a major party presidential primary leading up to the nomination, doesn’t it?

Tournaments were imported from France during the 12th century and formed an important element of Medieval military and social life…. The contests in the tournament were fought with blunted swords or lances. However there were still many casualties, as many as 10% were injured, and there were also fatalities. The number of fatalities dropped as the tournaments became better regulated…. Knights would fight as individuals but there would also be team events. There were many different types of Medieval Tournaments which each had a different type of combat method. The events of the tournament were the joust, the melee, and fighting on foot.

Opponents in same-party political primaries usually favor blunted weapons.  After all, it doesn’t pay to try to maul your opponent—if you play nicely, you might be his or her vice presidential choice.  And while all three forms of fighting are in evidence in presidential primaries, the melee is probably the least favored—everybody could get hurt that way.

According to Sabine, combatants always fought in a just cause, at least theoretically.  However, at times even the combatants knew that they had entered into combat when they were in fact in the wrong. This could lead to “evasive shifts” in which the reason for fighting changed in the middle of the battle in order to  create an actual duel-worthy besmirchment of honor. Consider the following story from Sabine:

These evasive shifts are well illustrated in the story of a knight 
who entered the lists upon a case which he knew 
was wrong, and who, to change the issue, fled at the 
first onset." Turn, coward !" exclaimed his 
antagonist. "Thou liest!" retorted the knight: 
"coward I am none, and in this quarrel will I fight 
to the death; but my first cause of combat was 
unjust, and I abandon it."

It remains to be seen if Cain will make like the knight in the story.