Behold! A Medieval Graphic Novel Carved on an 14th Century Ivory Box

The Châte­laine de Ver­gy, a court­ly romance that was wild­ly pop­u­lar in the mid-13th cen­tu­ry, would’ve made a crowd pleas­ing graph­ic nov­el adap­ta­tion. It’s got sex, treach­ery, a trio of vio­lent deaths, and a cute pup in a sup­port­ing role.

See­ing as how the form had yet to be invent­ed, medieval audi­ences got the next best thing — a Goth­ic ivory cas­ket on which the sto­ry is ren­dered as a series of carved pic­tures that start on the lid and wrap around the sides.

In an ear­li­er video for the British Museum’s Curator’s Cor­ner series, Late Medieval Col­lec­tions Cura­tor Nao­mi Speak­man admit­ted that the pur­pose of such deluxe cas­kets is dif­fi­cult to pin down. Were they tokens from one lover to anoth­er? Wed­ding gifts? Jew­el­ry box­es? Doc­u­ment cas­es?

Unclear, but the intri­cate carv­ings’ nar­ra­tive has def­i­nite­ly been iden­ti­fied as that of The Châte­laine de Ver­gy, a steamy sec­u­lar alter­na­tive to the reli­gious scenes whose depic­tion con­sumed a fair num­ber of medieval ele­phant tusks.

In addi­tion to the ear­ly-14th cen­tu­ry exam­ple in the British Museum’s col­lec­tion, the Cour­tauld Insti­tute of Art’s Goth­ic Ivories data­base cat­a­logues a num­ber of oth­er medieval cas­kets and cas­ket frag­ments depict­ing The Châte­laine de Ver­gi, cur­rent­ly housed in muse­ums in Milan, Flo­rence, Paris, Vien­na, New York City and Kansas.

A very graph­ic nov­e­l­esque con­ceit Speak­man points to in the British Museum’s cas­ket finds the Duke of Bur­gundy break­ing the frame (to use comics ter­mi­nol­o­gy), reach­ing behind the gut­ter to help him­self to the sword the Châtelaine’s knight­ly lover has just plunged into his own breast.

Peer around to the far side of the cas­ket to find out what the Duke intends to do with that sword. It’s a shock­er that silences the trum­pets, qui­ets the danc­ing ladies, and might even have laid ground for a sequel: Chate­laine: The Duke’s Wrath.

Read Eugene Mason’s ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry trans­la­tion of The Chate­laine of Ver­gi here.

Watch more episodes of the British Museum’s Curator’s Cor­ner here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Book of St Albans, One of the Finest Medieval Man­u­scripts, Gets Dig­i­tized and Put Online

A Medieval Book That Opens Six Dif­fer­ent Ways, Reveal­ing Six Dif­fer­ent Books in One

Behold Medieval Snow­ball Fights: A Time­less Way of Hav­ing Fun

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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