It may come as a shock to learn that ancient peoples enjoyed making lists of greats as much as we do. Just as websites make Top 10 lists about topical items today, so too did the Hellenistic Greeks make a Top Seven Wonders of the World list in their day (Wonders being all the rage back then). Another example is the list of the top nine most chivalrous men in history. This list, known as the Nine Worthies, was wildly popular during the Middle Ages. The Nine were believed to embody the ideal virtues, especially service to God and country.
Medieval artists and writers had a certain penchant for symmetry. The Nine Worthies include three Jews, three pagans, and three Christians. Each set of three is meant to symbolize the three distinct chapters in chivalry’s development. This highlighted how history was ultimately a broad and still incomplete enactment of God’s divine will.
The Nine Worthies: 14th century sculpture in Cologne’s historic town hall.
The Three Jewish Worthies
The first three are Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus. They represented the Old Law, the law of Jerusalem and the Old Testament. Joshua, the leader of the Jews after Moses, is considered the idealized general who led the Israelites to conquer the Holy land. David was “the anointed king and Messiah of the Hebrew people, who slew Goliath and whose line was forever chosen by God (Yahweh) to lead his people” (By The Gods, 2011).
The final Jewish worthy was Judas of the Maccabees, a priest who led the Maccabees in revolt against the Seleucid Empire. Judas’ restoration of Jewish worship at the Temple of Jerusalem is still celebrated each year with Hanukah. Together, the three Jewish worthies remind the audience “that the Old Testament is the story of God’s chosen nation, which was the spiritual vessel of His purpose for mankind, and through whose service of the one true God, the way was made ready for the coming of Christ” (O’Reilly, 2012).
The Three Jewish Worthies: Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeaus.
The Three Pagan Worthies
The next three are Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. These three represent the pagan or Roman Law. Prince Hector was the hero of Troy who bravely fought to defend his home.
Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world and spread the wisdom of the Greeks throughout the Mediterranean and Persia. Moreover, he was “a hero of fantastic romance: as “King Alisaunder” he harnessed griffins to his flying chariot, journeyed to the bottom of the sea in a crystal diving bell, met fire-breathing dog-headed men in India, and had many other adventures completely unconnected with the historical Alexander” (Harlansson, 2004).
Julius Caesar was the embodiment of the Roman Empire and the Pax Romana that followed its global conquest. It was this peace that eventually enabled Christianity to take root. “Christ came as the Prince of Peace at that point in time when the Romans had conquered the world and established their peace in it. It was the Roman peace, built on the achievement of pagan chivalry – Trojan, Greek, and Roman – that made possible the journeys of the Apostles, their evangelization of the Gentiles, and the establishment of the Catholic Civilization.” (O’Reilly, 2012)
The Three Pagan Worthies: Hector, Caesar, and Alexander.
The Three Christian Worthies
The final three worthies are King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon. They represent the New Law of the Catholic civilization in which chivalry was flourishing. The idyllic King Arthur was the quintessential Christian king, ever in the pursuit of justice, honor, and the Holy Grail. He was as beloved in the Middle Ages as he is today.
Charlemagne founded the Holy Roman Empire, which would encompass much of France, Germany, and the Low Countries. In 800, he was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor, the first in three centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Charlemagne was the protector of Christianity, especially of the papacy in Rome.
The ninth worthy is the most contemporary addition. Godfrey of Bouillon was a Frankish knight who helped lead the First Crusade to recapture the Holy Land. Godfrey was briefly the ruler of the (Christian) Kingdom of Jerusalem, which lasted from 1099 to 1187. Godfrey only reigned for one year. In 1100, he died – either by being struck by an arrow, by contracting an illness, or by being poisoned with an apple (accounts vary). His inclusion was important to the message and to the allure of the Nine Worthies. “Godfrey was by far the most recent recruit into the circle of the Nine Worthies. He, more effectively than any of the others, symbolized the fact that the story of chivalry’s divine mission in the world was still in process, that that mission was an urgent and contemporary one, and that there was no reason why, with the nine, all the ‘sieges’ of the first circle of chivalrous honor should be regarded as occupied.” (O’Reilly, 2012).
The Three Christian Worthies: King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon.
The Nine Worthies, so called, is widely attributed to Jacques de Longuyon’s 1312 book Les Voeux du Paon (The Vows of the Peacock). There had previously been suggestions of the combination of Old Law and Roman Law to make the New Law of Christ, as well as of certain significant historic figures representing the ideals of virtue, but de Longuyon is the first to neatly arrange the concept into three triads. The notion became very popular and can be seen in Medieval paintings, architecture, and tapestries. Given their love of symmetry, artisans often included Nine Worthy Women to accompany the Nine Worthy Men, but the Ladies’ identities were never so well established.