Friday, June 29, 2012

Tasty Lady

Chocolate candies are always the most reliable historical sources.
Incidentally, you have no idea how hard it is to find pictures of this that are safe for work.

Everyone knows about Lady Godiva’s famous ride. Her evil husband’s challenge that if she cared about the people of the city so much, he’d lower the taxes – if she’d ride though the city naked at high noon. Of course, never being one to turn down a dare, she did just so, and the one person who peeked during her au natural ride (Peeping Tom) was struck blind. And then her evil husband was forced to lower taxes, and Lady Godiva went on to found a great chocolate empire with Godiva Chocolates.

Ok, most people don’t actually believe that last part. But I have heard people say it. Frankly, it sounds pretty awesome.

So, what’s to not get right? Evil husband, brave woman, struck blind man, chocolate… Just how much of it is history and how much of it is mythtory?

Godiva is actually the Latinized version of her name. Her name was Godgyfu, and she was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman. We’re not sure when she was born, but she most likely died in 1067, the year after William the Conqueror … um… conquered. She had most certainly died by 1086 because by that time her lands had all passed to new owners by the recordings in the Domesday Book.

Despite its name, it's more than one book.

Godiva was the Countess of Coventry and owned a great deal of land in her own right. At her death, she was one of the richest and most powerful women in the Kingdom – powerful enough to be one of the few Anglo-Saxon nobles who were able to keep their land and processions after the Norman Conquest. Anglo-Saxon women were expected to be able to do all of administration and running of their own lands, the whole “husband gets all of the wife’s possessions” thing didn’t start until after the French took over in the Norman invasion.

This is important because it was her setting the taxes, not her husband. (That makes the whole taxation bit in the story awkward, just a bit.)

The husband in the story was actually Godiva’s second husband, Leofric, the Earl of Mercia. If you’ve studied pre-Norman English history (which I’m sure is totally a common hobby, right?) you’d recognize the name. He’s kind of famous… for his generosity and piety. He was one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, extremely loyal to his king, and helped prevent what would have been a very bloody civil war. He founded and endowed (donated the lands and the funds to build and support) the Benedictine Abby at Coventry [*]. Mr Godiva was actually a pretty fantastic guy.

So if she set her own taxes, and her husband wasn’t this huge colossal jerk, how did the story get about?

Peeping Tom, more creepy in some renditions than others.

Mostly it seems to have been a simple mixing up of actual history, plus the love of a good story. The oldest version of the “naked Lady Godiva riding through town” legend comes from 1175, well over a hundred years after she had died. Peeping Tom didn’t appear until 1732. 

There was a man in Lady Godiva’s time that was famous for his unfair taxes, but it wasn’t her husband – it was the king, Harthacnut. [**] Harthacnut died in 1042, right in the middle of Lady Godiva’s reign.  What most likely happened was that Lady Godiva was memorable because she was a powerful woman ruler who was able to keep her power, was remembered for her piety and generosity as a benefactor, as a patron of the church, and that while she was ruling Coventry, the taxes suddenly went down. Harthacnut was only king for two years, and the Normans wanted everyone to quietly forget that there had ever been a ruling class other than the Normans, so Harthacnut fell into obscurity.

He wasn't king long enough to mint his money, so he was taxing everyone with his father's coins.

 As the Normans were in control longer and longer, the idea of a woman being the one setting taxes and governing became more and more alien, and therefore she must have found some way of forcing her husband to lower the taxes. Not just anything would do, it had to be a sensational act. Like riding through town naked. And all the blame fell on poor Leofric’s shoulders. Like the size of the metaphorical fish that always manages to just get away, the story just grew more and more outrageous over the centuries.

Incidentally, so did the town. Coventry only had around 70 families living in it at the time of Godiva’s life. Hardly a huge town for her to parade about on horseback through. 

If I have to tell you what this is, you may need to leave the computer for a bit.

And what of Godiva's chocolates? Godiva was founded in 1926 in BrusselsBelgium. So it's a company from Belgium, making a product that is indigenous to the Americas, named in honor of an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who died around 850 years previously. Well, until it was bought in 1967 by Campbell's Soup Company.

Think of that the next time you bite down on one of those truffles. 

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