A Tale With Legs

Last week, I pointed out that it wasn’t time for nude horseback riding. Guess what? Now it’s time. Today, June 10, is the date traditionally given for Lady Godiva’s famous ride. And don’t try to tell me you haven’t heard the story. Really? If you’ve seriously never heard it, check the Fount of All Knowledge. I’ll wait.

You back? Good.

Let’s agree to one thing up front: the story of Lady Godiva is a myth. For those of you who didn’t check the FoAK, the actual Countess Godiva is very well-documented for someone who lived in the 11th century. It’s clear that she died sometime between 1066 and 1086; the first documentation of her supposed nude ride through Coventry wasn’t written until 1215 or so. If you think such a stirring event wouldn’t have been at least mentioned at the time, you may need a skepticism transplant. Face it: a lapse of 200 years is not contemporary.

So, if we’re agreed that it’s a myth, let’s move on. The myth has evolved over time, as myths tend to do. Several attempts have been made to make the story less titillating, with Godiva dressed in a penitent’s shift (an undergarment similar to a modern slip) or even fully dressed, but without the jewelry that would mark her as a member of the nobility. As one might expect, the public at large hasn’t gone for those ideas. Surprisingly, scholars–whose publish-or-perish mentality often leads them to embrace revisionist theories–haven’t been swayed either. The literature is clear that the original account uses a word for “naked” that has only ever meant “without clothing” and that the story’s roots lie in pagan fertility rituals, events highly unlikely to be performed fully dressed.

Other changes: The original story makes it clear that the town folk of Coventry lined the streets to watch Godiva’s ride. The change to the tale in which the public was required to remain indoors with the windows covered seems to date to the mid-1500s. The further addition of “Peeping Tom”, who disobeyed the injunction to not watch the ride and was punished with blindness, came later still, dating from the 1700s.

Why Tom survived when other attempts to change the story failed could probably fuel an endless sociological debate. My own auctorial take–feel free to disagree–is that people like stories where someone learns something, and they like stories where the listener also learns something even better. “Taxes suck” isn’t much of a learning: unless you’re the person receiving the taxes, you probably already believed that before hearing Godiva’s tale. “Breaking the law is bad” and “Looking at naked women is dangerous” are somewhat more controversial. You may not agree with one or both of those messages, but at least there’s some room for discussion.

Regardless, the story certainly has legs (and other body parts). Here we are, 800 years after the story was written (give or take) and it’s still being retold, reworked, and remodeled. Even leaving aside Peeping Tom’s legacy (how many voyeurism-oriented websites are there? I don’t think even Google can count that high), Godiva has made her way into paintings, sculptures, books, movies, popular songs, and even chocolate. Yes, Godiva Chocolates are named for the countess, and she appears in the corporate logo*.

* It seems that Godiva Chocolates looks further ahead than Starbucks. The latter had to redesign their mermaid logo to hide her nipples when they went national; Godiva’s logo incarnation has never had nipples.

And yes, Godiva has spiritual descendents in the realm of political protest: groups using nudity for protest or promotion include PETA to promote animal rights, Breasts not Bombs and Baring Witness in peace and anti-war demonstrations, and FEMEN to protest sex tourism and sexism.

So feel free to honor a great lady who never did what you’re honoring her for. This is one case where the fiction is more inspiring than the truth.

But if you’re going for a bareback ride, make sure you’re the only one with a bare back: you do not want horse hair chafing you there!

4 thoughts on “A Tale With Legs

  1. And I thought, from the title, that you were going to be writing about that positively filthy piece of art in the BART station.


    • Oddly, I had written the headline before I saw the news about said art.

      I will be talking about it in the next Bay Bridge/BART update, but I suppose I’ll have to come up with a different title.


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