Was the Poor Knight Covetous and Was the Covetous Knight Poor?

Yevgeny A. Slivkin, Grand Valley State University

Realistic-historical commentaries on Puškin’s “little tragedy” The Covetous Knight were attempted by G. Gukovskij (“Puškin and the Problems of a Realistic Style”) and B. Tomaševskij (“Puškin and France”). Both scholars considered baron Phillip a moneylender without indicating any proof of his usury in the text. This fact caused a number of Russian scholars of subsequent generations to oppose this view and instead to consider the baron’s debtors as subjects of a feudal lord paying a regular contribution to their seigneur. As V. Vetlovskaja put it, “the social relations in the Middle Ages, let alone the Code of Chivalry, eliminate the very possibility of combining a feudal lord and a usurer in one person.” In my paper I argue that this statment is not historically accurate, for the famous Order of Templars (founded in Palestine in 1119 and destroyed in 1307 by the French king Philippe le Bel) was a single social entity that conducted battles, owned land, and practiced large-scale usury. By the method of close reading I reveal the evidence of baron Phillip’s money-lending in the text of The Covetous Knight as well as the anachronistic features of the knight-templar reflected in his image.

In order to support the idea that Puškin might have a special infatuation with the knights-templars and their secret doctrine (this can also be suggested by the references to the history of The Order of Templars in the elegy “Andrej Shen′e” [noted by V. Vacuro] and the description of the devil-worshipping sect Jazidy in “The Journey to Arzrum”) I turn to his poem “The Legend” (also known under the title “Ballad about the Knight in Love with the Virgin”) which was written a year before The Covetous Knight. In my line of reasoning the epithet “poor”in reference to the hero of “The Legend” could designate something more than a lack of material wealth and an absence of elaborately decorated armor on the part of the knight, since “The Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon” (the name of the Jew in The Covetous Knight!) was the full name of the Order of Templars. While the source of Puškin’s poem has been identified as certain motifs from a collection of old German poems and a collection of medieval French fabliaux and legends (N. Sumcov, G. Frid, N. Gudzij, D. Jakubovič), I demonstrate that a highly plausible source for “The Legend” is the motif of the mortal passion of the templar (!) Brian de Bois-Guilber for the Jewish girl Rebecca in Ivanhoe (1819) by Walter Scott.

In the conclusion of my paper I show that in The Covetous Knight and “The Legend” Puškin implicitly depicted the love triangle: The Goddess—The Knight—The Devil whose underpinnings are the alleged dualistic and erotic elements of the secret doctrine of the knights-templars.