Thursday, December 18, 2014

Subtleties&Stuffe Subtleties from Henry V, etc.

An account which features descriptions of Subtleties from the reigns of King Henry V and King Henry VI and at the table of Cardinal Wolsey in 1527. 

by John Chester Adams.  

The visit of the Emperor Sigismond in England in 1416 was the occasion of elaborate festivities at the court of Henry V. The celebration of the Feast of St. George was deferred until his coming, and then (the 7th May) "solempnely holden at Wyndesore."[1 Chronicle of London, 10SQ—1483. Edited by Edward Tyrrell, London, 1837, p. 159, Note FF, from a Cotton. MS.]

The occasion has been made of importance in dramatic history by Collier's account of"a performance before [the emperor] and Henry V. on the incidents of the life of St. George. The representation seems to have been divided into three parts, and to have been accomplished by certain artificial contrivances, exhibiting [the three events described below.] Here we have clearly the outline of the history of St. George of Cappadocia, which often formed the subject of a miracle play: but whether, in this instance, it was accompanied with dialogue, or was (as is most probable) merely a splendid dumb shew, assisted by temporary erections of castles, etc., we are not informed. The wardrobe accounts of Henry V. do not supply us with any information regarding this or other similar representations." [2 English Dramatic Poetry, i, 39.]

Collier's conjecture is accepted by Dr. Ward, who speaks of a "magnificent dumb show" and pronounces the event a "memorable occasion."[3 History 0f English Dramatic Literature, i, 14J.]

The MS. (in part quoted by Collier) relates that at the banquet after the celebration of the Mass, all the royal party

 "saten on that oon side of the table. 
And the first sotelte was oure lady armyng seint George, and an angel doyng on his spores ; 
the iide sotelte was seint George ridyng and fightyng with the dragon, with his spere in his hand; 
the iiide sotelte was a castel, and seint George, and the kynges doughter ledyng the lambe in at the castel gates. And all these sotelties (sic) were served to the emperor and to the kyng, and no ferther,—and the other lords were served with other soteltes after their degrees. "[4 Chronicle of London, as above.]
The last sentence, in connection with the fact that they all sat "on that oon side of the table," seems at once to preclude any "magnificent" scale of presentation.
From the descriptions of soteltes below one may form a fairly clear opinion of what they were. The name is of course equivalent to subtlety, derived apparently from the ingenuity of the device, its most valued characteristic. The form subtilty occurs, and the Latin form is given in the Privy Purse Expenses of the Princess Mary's where xii d. are paid "Olivero Hunt pro iiiior skinnes pergameni per ipsum empt' pro factur' divers' subtilits."
Usually the significance of the sotelte was explained by a writing, called the "reason," often put in the hand of one of the figures. The sentiment was religious or political, or frequently only personal. At the coronation banquet of Queen Katherine (1419) elaborate soteltes were served, one after each course, paying compliment to the Queen's name:— 1. A sotelte callid a Pellican on hire nest with briddis and an ymage of Seint Katerine with a whele in hire hande—disputyng with the Hethen clerks—having this Reason in hir hande—Madame la Roigne—The Pellican answeryng Cest Enseigne. The briddes answeryng Est du roy pur tenir joie. A tout gent il met sentent. 2. A panter with an ymage of Seint Katenne in the same tariage and a whele in hire hande, and a Reason in hire other hande—The Reason was this—La Roigne ma file—The panter answeryng In cest He : another best answeryng with this Reason, Of Albion—Another best saiyng Aves Renowne.
3. A mete in paste with iiij aungels in form of Seint Katerine whele in the middes with aII est escrit Par mariage pure    Pur voir et dit. Ce guerre ne dure. 

A fourth sotelte also is given, much like the above. [Chronicle of London, pp. 161-5. Strutt, Manners and Customs of the English (London, 1775, ii, 101-a) gives a more intelligible version of the French Reasons, with translation.] Similarly elaborate soteltes were served at the coronation of Henry VI. (aetat. 8) ten years later, in which images of the King himself and of his father were presented, with St. Edward and St. Louis. [7 Chronicle 0f London, pp. 168 9.]

That the soteltes representing incidents of the life of St. George were served to the King and the Emperor only, and others to the other lords "after their degrees," suggests a method of paying discriminating compliments to distinguished guests. Soteltes were served specially in compliment to foreigners, to whom they seem to have been a novelty. 

Cavendish  tells of the elaborate devices that were served to the French ambassadors in 1527. [8 Life 0f Wolsey, London, 1827, pp. 193 ff.]

"The cooks wrought both night and day in divers subtleties and many crafty devices," which were brought up "with such a pleasant noise of divers instruments of music, that the Frenchmen, as it seemed, were rapt into a heavenly paradise." "But to describe the dishes, the subtleties, the many strange devices and order in the same, I both lack wit in my gross old head, and cunning in my bowels to declare the wonderful and curious imaginations in the same invented and devised." "Among all one I noted : there was a chessboard subtilely made of spiced plate, with men to the same: and for the good proportion, because that Frenchmen be very expert in that play, my lord gave the same to a gentleman of France, commanding that a case should be made for the same in all haste, to preserve it from perishing in the conveyance thereof into his country." 
pp 243-244.

The source for these accounts is: 

Adams, John Chester. "Incidents from the Life of St. George, 1416." Modern Language Notes. 
Vol. 17, No. 8 (Dec., 1902), pp. 243-244 [available through as part of Early Journal Content or through] Re-edited to place footnotes in text.

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