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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Girls Gone Wild? No: Lady Godiva

John Collier c. 1898, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry
This enduring and popular English legend is, like many legends about historical figures, very unlikely to be true.  But what I like about it is that given the culture and norms of the period when this story gained popularity, this is a story of extreme social courage.  Imagine if you will a Zeitgeist very different from Girls Gone Wild (and if you don't know what that is, it's just as well.) In the 11th century, a noblewoman's virtue was her most valuable possession, because without it her future was grim indeed.  We're not talking about the risk of embarrassment.  This would have been the risk of being banished to a cloistered convent or worse.  There would have been a wide selection of sanctions to punish her with, but (according to legend) Lady Godiva risked it anyway.

A certain nobleman, the Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry, had imposed heavy taxes upon the people of that town.  They struggled to feed their families and pay their taxes as well.  Bellies ached with hunger, and some were driven penniless from their homes.  Lady Godiva, the earl's wife, pleaded with him daily to relieve the burden.  "My lord, the tax is too heavy," she told him, day after day.

At last, annoyed by her persistence and her tender heart, the earl replied, "My lady, I will remove the taxes the day you ride naked through Coventry."

Word went swiftly from house to house that the lady would take his dare.  Out of respect for her modesty and gratitude for her compassion, the people shuttered their windows and drew the curtains.  As the dawn broke, Lady Godiva disrobed in the stableyard.  Mounting her horse, she draped her long hair around herself like a cloak, and rode through the streets of the town.  They say only one person peeked, but that he was immediately struck blind by fate.

True to his word, the earl lifted the taxes, and the people of Coventry remained grateful to Lady Godiva for all her days.


2 comments:

  1. I like the lady Godiva story! Interestingly enough I always thought she would have ridden bareback, getting horse hair in very uncomfortable places... the picture showing her in a padded saddle looks much more likely.

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