The Peacock Vows ca. 1340

Joshua O'Driscoll

"The Peacock Vows" was excerpted in Active Cultures’ Digest, Issue 02, December 2019.

Images: Jacques de Longuyon, Les voeux du paon. Belgium, Tournai, ca. 1340-50. Morgan Library & Museum, MS G.24, fols. 43v, 44r, 52r.


Joshua O'Driscoll is Assistant Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York. He is currently preparing a major exhibition on the art of the book during the Holy Roman Empire.

To find out more, see Dominic Leo, Images, Texts, and Marginalia in a "Vows of the Peacock" Manuscript (Brill, 2013); and Christina Normore, A Feast for the Eyes: Art, Performance, and the Late Medieval Banquet (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Feasting, in the medieval sense, involved so much more than just eating. Banquets provided the occasion for the enactment of highly ritualized ceremonies combined with spectacular displays of food and entertainment. These meals often culminated with the presentation of a show-stopping dish, the high point of the evening. A celebrated example is the great Feast of the Swans in 1306, when hundreds of knights pledged their service to Edward I and made public vows over a dish of two regal birds. The ritualization of eating formed the basis for one of the most popular French romances of the fourteenth century: Les voeux du Paon (The Peacock Vows).

Like all old tales, the story is highly allegorical and intended to be understood on multiple levels. It unfolds against the legendary backdrop of a brutal war fought between Alexander the Great and Clarus, King of India. One of Clarus's men, the young knight Porrus, is captured during battle and brought to the Chamber of Venus in the city of Epheson (Ephesus). Obviously, this is no ordinary prison. Porrus and his fellow knights find themselves, instead, in a courtly paradise, where a group of elegant ladies entreat them to play a party game: Le roi qui ne ment (The king who doesn't lie), a highly charged performance of simulated courtship--the medieval equivalent of Spin the Bottle. With the mood set, Porrus wanders through the palace gardens where he encounters a magnificent peacock splaying its feathers. Brutally, he kills it [FIGURE 1], not knowing that it was the pet of the princess Fésonas. Seemingly unbothered by this atrocity, she suggests roasting the bird and making a splendid feast out of it. At the ensuing dinner, the knights and ladies make a series of increasingly competitive vows over the peacock, binding the group together in their commitment to courtoisie (noble behavior) and chevalerie (knightly behavior), and also providing the content for the remaining 4,000 verses. While most of the women pledge their love, one lady vows to recreate the bird in gold, an object which in turn provides the occasion for another feast, and surely another adventure.

The romance survives in a number of deluxe copies that attest to its popularity among the nobility. The medieval illuminators of this text delighted in depicting the feast scenes [FIGURES 2-3], in particular, which invariably focus on the unfortunate bird, plucked of all but its luxurious tail feathers. As an emblem of courtly splendor, the peacock that is about to be eaten serves as more than just a centerpiece. It prompts a reflection on the ultimate meaning of all the pomp and circumstance surrounding it. Depicted in the most elegant fashions and trendy coiffures, the noble diners trade glances and gesture emphatically. Are they in on it? Surely not. Thanks to the artist, though, at least the reader will be.

—Joshua O'Driscoll

Active Cultures is a cultural organization that explores the convergence of food and art in contemporary life.