I enjoyed this book although it is authored by a Professor of English at Harvard University and is therefore written in somewhat ponderous college professor language. This academic jargon isn't helped by the fact that Godiva was a real Anglo-Saxon woman who died in 1067 the year after William Conqueror seized England. "Godgifu," Godiva's Anglo-Saxon name was the wife of Leofric, the earl of Mercia. Godiva's granddaughter became the last Anglo-Saxon queen of England. Godiva was immensely wealthy in her own right and probably much richer than her husband who was primarily a politician. Historically Godiva is recorded as a very pious and powerful benefactor of the church and it's monasteries, whose members also happened to be the chief historians of the Middle Ages. It was not until 150 years after her death that the story of Lady Godiva's heroic horseback ride was recorded in great, and unusual narrative detail by the monk historians of the Benedictine abbey of St. Albans. From that point forward the legend of Lady Godiva's naked, mid-day ride through the village of Coventry has captured the imaginations of audiences for more than a thousand years. The story has changed just as the details of a 1,000-year long children's game of "Pass It On" would change each time the tale was repeated.
Coventry added Godiva's famous ride to its annual public processions in 1678 and attracted huge crowds of interested spectators from the very beginning. The Coventry re-enactments of Godiva's ride have continued right up to the present time and still attract thousands of interested visitors. Earlier re-enactments of Godiva may well have been part of earlier processions for Corpus Christi that began in England in 1318?
One of the features of the original legend was that Godiva made her ride to free the citizens of Coventry from a cruel tax imposed by her husband. She eventually tricked him into making a bargain to rid the villagers of the tolls and taxes. He had declared that if she rode naked through the village at midday on market day, then he would cancel the tax. To his stunned amazement, she did exactly that and he had to abide by his bargain. In the original legend, Godiva submits herself to this naked ride for the high purpose of saving the people of Coventry from starvation because of the heavy taxes. She tricks her husband into the bargain because he believed her incapable of agreeing to such public exposure. Her motives are good, and the townspeople show their respect by going into their homes and shuttering the windows so that Godiva's ride is unobserved. Godiva's honor is saved and the people rewarded. Peeping Tom was added to the story much later.
From that original telling of the legend the motives and details of the ride have changed with the times. The myth has been the subject of countless poems, ballads, stories, artworks and modern reincarnations in new media like motion pictures. The myth has been so well known throughout the western world that Freud, Tennyson, Dr. Seuss, and Sylvia Plath referred to it as a cultural touchstone reference. Plath committed suicide shortly after writing her 1962 poem "Ariel" in which she rewrote the story from a subjective point of view and Godiva breaks free of the bonds of society. The legend of Godiva has changed with the passage of time and major changes in society. Immortal characters such as "Peeping Tom" soon became an important part of the story's fabric, but Godiva has become a hero to feminism as well as the enduring erotic personification of male voyeurism. Throughout the story's history Godiva's deed has been considered unselfish, honorable and heroic rather than scandalous. The beautiful woman riding naked upon a horse through the center of town has become an embodiment of contemporary society's dreams throughout different historical eras. Godiva is more than just the name of a popular brand of chocolate candy; she is a happy fantasy from the Middle Ages world that includes Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Harry Potter. The scholarly arguments about whether or not Godiva actually made such a heroic ride are discussed in great detail. The biggest obstacle to the legend being true is that in the Anglo-Saxon world, Godiva would not have had to ask her husband to cut the taxes of Coventry because she personally owned and ruled Coventry. She could have cut the tolls by her own decree since the village belonged to her alone and had been a part of her family for decades.
This book does explore almost anything anyone would like to know about the story, legend or myth of Lady Godiva's famous erotic ride. The occasional examples of Middle English spelling and syntax plus the Sylvia Plath poem discussion does require careful and slow reading--like reading Beowulf in the original or an early translation.