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  • Image, Ideology, and Form:The Middle English Three Dead Kings in Its Iconographic Context
  • Ashby Kinch

The Three Dead Kings is a lively and imaginative late Middle English narrative version of a widespread iconographic motif of medieval macabre art commonly referred to as the "Legend of the Three Living and Three Dead." The artistic and moral core of the Legend lies in the encounter between three people, often, though not always, aristocratic males, and three dead, who are sometimes in coffins, sometimes upright, and often quite voluble, representing a particularly dynamic version of what I term "the didactic corpse," which appears widely in medieval death art. The Middle English poem has generated precious little direct criticism, despite the fact that it provides unique English narrative evidence for a central iconographic motif in European culture. The fact that it is a virtuoso display of formal experimentation ought to attune us to the potential for undiscovered complexity.1 But formidable textual problems have inhibited a clear understanding of the dating, localization, and authorship of the poem, which is transmitted in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 302, an anthology of moral and penitential poetry compiled under the direction of John Audelay in the second quarter of the fifteenth century.2 Though the poem is occasionally ascribed to Audelay, who composed other original poems in the manuscript written in the alliterative style, Ad Putter has recently reinforced the case against Audelay's authorship by demonstrating that it conserves some older linguistic forms that the first scribe of Douce 302 normalizes and modernizes in other poems preserved in the manuscript.3 But the question of authorship, while it might help date the poem and thus contextualize it to a certain degree, will certainly not open up the poem's fascinating interpretive questions; to pursue those questions requires a much more considered examination of the iconographic tradition of the Legend, including a reflection on the conditions and contexts within which it was transmitted. [End Page 48]

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Fig 1.

Ennezat (Auvergne), France, mural painting of Three Living and Three Dead. Photograph by Ashby and Amy Kinch.

The Legend of the Three Living and Three Dead in general has been the object of enthusiastic cataloguing, though not particularly incisive criticism.4 Nearly two centuries of study of late medieval macabre art has unearthed a dazzling variety and scope of images: nearly 200 mural paintings, like Ennezat, in Auvergne, France (Fig. 1);5 dozens of manuscript illuminations, both full-page, as in the De Lisle Hours (Fig. 2), and bas-de-page, as in the Taymouth Hours; and about fifteen poetic versions of the Legend in French, English, Italian, and German. In addition, there are historical references to art forms no longer extant, including a panel diptych, sculptural forms, and even paintings on the sides of houses in Paris and Chartres, where addresses were often given by visual cues taken from images on the walls.6 Another, less obvious form of the Legend appears as part of larger works or embedded in other forms, the most famous of which is the Camposanto Triumph of Death mural in Pisa, but also includes an occasional appearance in other macabre works, like Last Judgment images, where they function like a visual echo of a recognizable tradition.7 Despite its widespread diffusion, however, scholars have expended very little critical energy on the form, choosing to root their studies in exploration of the origins and sources of the Legend, and to fight that pervasive proxy-battle for nationalism by identifying the origin in one national tradition or another.8

Part of the lack of attention to form stems from a subtle, but pervasive sense in scholarship on macabre art that the Legend is the less interesting, less compelling predecessor to the more vigorous danse macabre, [End Page 49]

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Fig 2.

MS G. 50, De Lisle Hours (fol. 6v), image depicting the Three Living (with the Dead counterparts missing). Image courtesy of the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

which many scholars believed evolved from the Legend.9 Given the large numbers of extant examples of the Legend, there is a rather...


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