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received would have realized that the two men were of great nobility™.17 An
exceptionally strong and able lance thrust or sword stroke, in fact, often reveals
a hero™s identity despite his attempt at disguise by wearing unaccustomed
armour. Lancelot™s great prowess regularly puts him in this situation. Tristram
and others have the same problem.
Galahad delivers what may be the ultimate sword blow in the complex ¬ght-
ing between incognito knights in the Post-Vulgate Quest. Bors, unhorsed by
Galahad, challenges him to a sword ¬ght: ˜Come test me with the sword, and
then I will see that you are a knight.™ He gets more than he bargained for.
Galahad™s blow
cut through his shield, the pommel of his saddle, and the horse™s withers, so that half
the horse fell one way and half the other in the middle of the road, and Bors was left on
foot, holding his naked sword, and half his shield, the other half having fallen in the
road.

A badly frightened Bors calls out, ˜I see by this blow you™re the best knight I
ever saw.™18
To be the best knight in the world, as we can read time and again in chival-
ric literature, means not to be the greatest landlord but to show the greatest
prowess. The wise Merlin tells Arthur, about to choose new knights for the
Round Table:
King, choose from all the land the ¬fty best knights you know, and if you know any
poor knight, valiant in person and courage, do not fail to include him because of his
poverty. And if anyone who is nobly born and of high lineage wants to be included, but
he is not a very good knight, take care not to let him be included. For a single person
who is not of such great chivalry would shame and degrade the chivalry of the whole
company.19

Of course acquiring land and wealth is assumed to follow naturally, and is
welcomed as an enhancement of honour. Any deep gulf between the acquisi-
tion of wealth and the practice of chivalry is a modern myth; gold and glory in
fact made a ¬ne amalgam in the medieval knightly view. William Marshal was
taught that lesson early in his model chivalric career and he was long troubled
by the slight reward in terms of land that his great prowess had earned him. In
time, of course, it won him ¬efs almost beyond his dreams. Moreover,

Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 179“80; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 196. The French term, in
17

fact, is preudomes. This general sentiment appears repeatedly and again in the Vulgate and Post-
Vulgate cycles.
Asher, tr., Quest, 137; Bogdanow, Folie Lancelot, 119“20. Kay and Gawain soon second this
18

sentiment. Hector later receives a similar blow from Galahad, and comes to the same conclusion,
as does the watching Sagramore: Asher, ibid., 189; Bogdanow, ibid., 356“7.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 223; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 201.
19
The Privileged Practice of Violence 133
prowess is the quality hymned without cease in his biography, and in every
other piece of chivalric literature. Lancelot™s grandfather, as we learn in the
Lancelot, was not a king™s son, but he was chosen as king ˜because of his
prowess™.20 Lancelot himself later declares, when he sees Bors in battle, that
this young knight should be given lands”he would defend them so well.21
In fact, in chivalric literature prowess can come close to conveying the
meaning of a man™s life, or even of life itself. In the Perlesvaus God stops the
¬ght between Perceval and Gawain because he did not want those good
knights to kill one another; his wish was that each ˜should know the other™s
worth™.22 The Lady of the Lake tells Guinevere she raised the young Lancelot
˜because of the great prowess that was to manifest itself in this knight™.24
Hearing of a great deed of prowess after a period of captivity, the mature
Lancelot hopes to God that the valiant knight who is talked of will appear,
˜Because, sir,™ he tells Galehaut, ˜we have been imprisoned here for a very long
while, and it has been a long time since we saw jousting or knightly deeds, and
we are wasting our time and our lives. As God is my true witness, if he comes,
I shall ¬ght with him.™24 In the Chevalier de Papegau, a work of very different
tone and quality, the same sentiment appears; the parrot (an enthusiastic and
frequently heard voice for prowess) explains that to be lacking in valour is the
worst prison for a knight.25 Gawain is reluctant to kill Nascien who will not
surrender although defeated (in a tournament turned deadly): ˜ “I do not want
to kill you,” said Sir Gawainet. “That would truly be a shame, for you are most
worthy.” ™26 His worth has, of course, been demonstrated by prowess. Boson,
boasting in Girart de Roussillon about the prowess of the men on Girart™s side
in his war with the king, proudly declares that none of their fathers died in
their beds.27 King Arthur, holding the severed head of Lamorat in his hands,
laments the knight in the classic formula: ˜Indeed, it™s too bad that he is dead
so soon, for had he lived a long time he would have surpassed in chivalry all
those of his lineage.™28 In Malory™s ˜Tale of Arthur and Accolon™, the Damsel of
the Lake saves Arthur in his ¬ght with Accolon because she saw ˜how full of

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 239; Micha, ed., Lancelot, V, 123.
20

Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation 306; Micha, Lancelot, VI, 111.
21
22 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 129; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 197, emphasis supplied.

Equating prowess with worth is common. A wise dwarf tells a questing Tor he need not fear delay
by accepting a joust: ˜a valiant man cannot lose by delay,™ he assures Tor, ˜and here you can ¬nd
out if you are worth anything™. Asher, Merlin Continuation, 234; Paris and Ulrich, eds., Merlin,
II, 102.
Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 232; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 556.
23

Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 359; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 531.
24

Vesce, tr., Knight of the Parrot, 33; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du Papegau, 32.
25

Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 336; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 304.
26

Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, 401.
27

Asher, Merlin Continuation, 82; Bogdanow, ˜Folie Lancelot™, 80.
28
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
134
prouesse his body was™ and has pity lest ˜so good a knyght and such a man of
worship sholde so be destroyed™. The view of Sir Outlake is similar: ˜that is
grete pyt© that ever so noble a man as ye ar of your dedis and prouesse, that
ony man or woman myght fynde in their hertes to worche ony treson aghenst
you™.29
Great prowess so expresses the meaning of life that after an unsurpassed day
of battle the sated, triumphant knight may yearn for death to close his career
on such a high point. In the war to recover Lancelot™s inheritance from
Claudas, young Claudin, his son, knows that he has fought so magni¬cently,
that he tells a companion, ˜Truly, dear friend, were it not for my father™s great
loss, I wouldn™t care if I died in this battle, for I believe I™ll never again accom-
plish what we™ve done today, you and I.™30 Near the end of the Lancelot do Lac,
King Yder, wonderfully successful on the battle¬eld, hopes that God will ˜give
him death, for he would never again have such an excellent day™.31
Certainly, prowess is the prominent virtue, and sometimes nearly the exclu-
sive virtue, in the summing-up of a great man™s life at its close. Mourning her
dead husband, King Bors, early in the Lancelot, Queen Elaine twice laments
˜the great acts of prowess of her lord (les granz proesces son seignor)™. Only his
prowess and his (unspeci¬ed) kindnesses merit mention in the queen™s
lament.32 When Gawain is shown a badly wounded knight in a castle hall, he
comments on how unfortunate his condition is, since the man is so handsome.
˜You would truly say it was a misfortune™, says the lady caring for the knight,
˜if you knew how great his prowess was.™33 When later in this text Lancelot
goes mad because of his imprisonment in Saxon Rock, Queen Guinevere
laments the apparent end of ˜his feats of arms, his jousting, his swordsman-
ship™.34 The maiden, whose knowledge of herbs saves the poisoned Lancelot
later in this cycle, tells her worried brother, ˜I can assure you that if God grants
that he come through strong and healthy, he™ll yet deliver many ¬ne blows
with sword and lance.™35 The queen, fearing that she has lost Lancelot™s love,
in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, hopes that she will still hear of his deeds of
prowess.36 An untrue report of Arthur™s death, when he is under the power of
Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 87, 89.
29

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 304; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VI, 103“4.
30
31 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 385; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 550.
32 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 8; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 14“15; Sommer, ed.,

Vulgate Version, III, 14.
33 Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 414; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 313; Carroll, tr.,

Lancelot Part II, 172“3.
34 Carroll, Lancelot Part II, 231; Micha, Lancelot, VIII, 455.
35 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 147; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 137.
36 Benson, ed., Morte Arthur, ll. 752“9. Even after his conversion to the religious life as a her-

mit, his death elicits from Bors this lament and summation: ˜The beste knight his life hath lorn /
That ever in stour [battle] bestrode steed!™ ll. 3892“3.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 135
the False Guinevere, causes the queen to cry out, ˜Dear Lord God, now all
prowess is gone and all joy turned to sorrow.™37 A knight, who has heard a sim-
ilar rumour about Lancelot, cries out for his own death: ˜I have no desire to
live any longer now, when the knight who was supposed to surpass all earthly
prowess has died.™ As he carries Galehaut™s dead body to burial at the Dolorous
Guard, a weeping Lancelot laments his great friend™s ˜prowess and valour™.38 A
lady falsely informed by Sir Gawain that her lover, Sir Pelleas, has been slain,
intones the formula: ˜that is grete pyt© for he was a passynge good knyght of
his body™. She adds that any lady should love Gawain, since he is well born and
of such prowess.39
Perhaps the most striking instance appears, however, late in Malory™s Morte
Darthur. The king, learning ¬nally beyond doubt of the liaison between
Lancelot and the queen, is told how they were taken together, how Lancelot
escaped by ¬ghting his way out against numerous would-be captors:
˜Jesu mercy!™ seyde the kynge, ˜he ys a mervaylous knyght of proues. And alas,™ seyde
the kynge, ˜me sore repentith that ever sir Launcelot sholde be ayenste me, for now I
am sure the noble felyshyp of the Rounde Table ys brokyn for ever, for wyth hym woll
many a noble knyght holde. An now hit ys fallen so,™ seyde the kynge, ˜that I may nat
with my worshyp but my quene muste suf¬r dethe,™ and was sore amoved.

Without diminishing our sense of the king™s feelings, or of the deeply moving
prose with which Malory sets forth this crisis in the story of Arthurian knight-
hood, we can only note that Arthur comments here ¬rst on Lancelot™s great
prowess, second on the impending collapse of the great fellowship of knights,
and third on his ineluctable judgement on his queen. As he says shortly after,
it is the loss of the knights, not the loss of the queen, that makes him sorry.40


Identi¬cation of Chivalry with Prowess
Only after reading scores of works of chivalric literature can we fully appreci-
ate the utterly tireless, almost obsessional emphasis placed on personal
prowess as the key chivalric trait.41 Not simply one quality among others in a
list of virtues, prowess often stands as a one-word de¬nition of chivalry in
these texts.42
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 266; Micha, ed., Lancelot, VII, 114.
37

Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 61, 83; Micha, Lancelot, II, 218, 309.
38

Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 102. Ibid., 682, 685.
39 40

My impression is reinforced by the careful study of Burgess, ˜The Term “chevalerie” ™. Burgess
41

¬nds the term is speci¬c, rather than abstract, and generally refers to deeds of prowess and the
mentalit© which produces them. I owe thanks to Alan Lupak for this reference.
Emphasized even when a knight™s other qualities are disreputable. Blioblieris, in Le Bel
42

Inconnu, is described as harsh, cruel, proud, and wicked, ˜but no one ever saw a better knight™:
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
136
This identi¬cation appears regularly in chansons de geste. Folchers rides out
into battle ˜seeking great chivalry™ in Girart de Roussillon. He achieves it,
putting his lance through the heart of ˜the valliant Count Routrou™.43
Characters in the Chanson de Roland link chivalry with deeds of prowess, as, for
instance, does Ganelon (a great knight, even if a traitor) when speaking with
Marsilion. If the pagan leader can kill Roland, he assures him, ˜then you will
have done a noble feat of arms [literally a noble act of chivalry, gente cheva-
lerie]™.44 William, in the Chanson de Guillaume, observes Rainouart smash a
Saracen™s head into four fragments: ˜You should be a knight™, he shouts
approvingly.45
Statements linking chivalry with prowess in the vast Vulgate and Post
Vulgate cycles almost defy sampling.46 In a tournament at Pomeglai,
[Lancelot] drew out his sword like an expert swordsman and delivered heavy blows to
the right and to the left, felling knights and horses with blows of the sword blade and
by the hilt. He grabbed men by the hoods of mail and by the edge of their shields; he
pulled helmets from heads; and he hit and shoved and pounded and struck with his
limbs and his horse, for he was very skilled in doing all that a great knight must do.

Those who witness Lancelot™s work with edged weapons regularly pronounce
him ˜the ¬‚ower of chivalry™. Arthur, for example, declares that Lancelot has
earned the status of best knight after a tournament at Camelot, and a defeated
Gawain agrees; the stump of Lancelot™s spear has just been extracted from his
side, and he is beginning a month of recuperation.47
A knight who has seen Lancelot perform in a tournament (in the Lancelot)
can scarcely ¬nd words suf¬cient to praise his prowess:
[I]t takes a lot more to be a worthy man than I thought it did this morning. I™ve learned
so much today that I believe there™s only one truly worthy man in the whole world. I
saw the one I™m talking about prove himself so well against knights today that I don™t


Fresco, ed., and Donagher, tr., Renaut de Bâg©, ll. 36“41. At the opening of the Lancelot do Lac we
meet Claudas, ˜a king, and an excellent knight™ who was ˜very clever and very treacherous™: Elspeth
Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 1; Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 3. Of many cases in Malory, note
Helyus and Helake who ˜were men of grete prouess; howbehit that they were falsse and full of tre-
son, and were poore men born, yet were they noble knyghtes of theire hondys™: Vinaver, ed.,
Malory. Works, 437. For examples from a chanson, Girart de Roussillon, see Mary Hackett, ˜Knights
and Knighthood™.
43 Meyer, ed., tr., Girart de Roussillon, laisse 159, particularly ll. 2744“5.
44 Brault, ed., tr., Chanson de Roland, 38“9.
45 Muir, tr., The Song of William, 193; Suard, ed., Chanson de Guillaume, 197“8.
46 In addition to the passages quoted below, see, e.g., Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 34; Kibler,

tr., Lancelot Part V, 180, 203, 204, 215; Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 280, 312; the corresponding
passages in Micha, ed., Lancelot are II, 115, IV, 273“4, 385, 387; V, 36; and VI, 8, 138.
Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 30, 32, 38; Part V, 204“5; Micha, Lancelot, II, 99 (emphasis sup-
47

plied), 107, 129“30; IV, 389“91.
The Privileged Practice of Violence 137
believe any mortal man since chivalry was ¬rst established has done such marvellous
deeds as he did today.

He explains explicitly what these marvels were:
I could recount more than a thousand ¬ne blows, for I followed that knight every step
to witness the marvellous deeds he did; I saw him kill ¬ve knights and ¬ve men-at-arms
with ¬ve blows so swift that he nearly cut horses and knights in two. As for my own
experience, I can tell you he split my shield in two, cleaved my saddle and cut my horse
in half at the shoulders, all with a single blow. . . . I saw him kill four knights with one
thrust of his lance . . . if it were up to me, he™d never leave me. I™d keep him with me
always, because I couldn™t hold a richer treasure.48

In a tournament at Camelot (¬ghting, by Guinevere™s wish, against the
proud knights of the Round Table), Lancelot again displays his prowess:
Lancelot put his hand upon his good sword, striking left and right like a man to whom
it was more natural than a raptor pursuing its prey. He began killing knights and horses
and striking down whatever he met in his way. . . .
Then were the great marvels of his prowess, which had been testi¬ed to in many
places, shown to be true, for he split knights and horses and heads and arms and lances
and shields, and beat down knights to the right and left; he did so much in so little time
that all those who had been pursuing others stopped on his account . . . to watch him
and see the marvels he performed.49

Other heroes perform wonders of prowess, highly praised as the essence of
chivalry. The Mort Artu refers repeatedly to acts of prowess as ˜deeds of
chivalry™ or ˜feats of chivalry™; the link between the two is often apparent.50
Once he has seen Morholt defeat Yvain, in the Merlin Continuation, Gawain
almost foams with praise: ˜Oh, God! what greatness there is in a valiant man!
God, how powerful this man is; how effective he is, and how much he can do!
God! what a fool and how guilty of excess would he be who pressed such a
man to battle, unless he had a good reason!™51
Hector does so well in the war against Claudas that Gawain looks on with
rapt admiration:
Hector threw down his shield, took his sword with both hands and began to slay
knights and horses and clear the space around him so wondrously that there was no one
so bold as to dare to put out a hand to stop him. Looking at him Sir Gawain said to
himself, ˜My God, what a knight we have here! Who would have thought that such a
young man had such prowess in him?™52
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 161“2; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 198“9.
48

Kibler, Lancelot Part V, 197; Micha, Lancelot, IV, 359“60.
49

Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 36, 139; Frappier, ed., La Mort, 17, 144.
50

Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 272; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, II, 374“5.
51

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part VI, 303; Micha, Lancelot, VI, 96“97.
52
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
138
In the seemingly endless battles with the Saxons the Round Table knights™
prowess is constantly praised: ˜open displays of knightly prowess could be seen
by all™, we learn; Arthur™s men ˜slaughtered knights and horses, they sent
shields ¬‚ying from necks and helmets from heads, they chopped off feet and
hands and they did such wonders that scarcely anyone could believe the great
slaughter of the Saxons they did™. Merlin enthusiastically promises them more
of the same, in words that almost de¬ne prowess: ˜Today we™ll see who has
prowess in him. Today we™ll see who can ¬ght boldly with sword and lance.
Today the great and worthy knighthood of the Kingdom of Logres [literally,
˜the great acts of prowess of the Kingdom of Logres™, ˜les grans proesces del
roialme de Logres™] will be displayed.™53
Even Galahad, for all his spiritual qualities, attracts similar eulogies. Arthur
the Less, wonders at the ˜great prodigies™ performed by Galahad in battle
against King Mark™s knights, for, the text says, ˜he reached no knight, no mat-
ter how well armed, whom he did not lay on the ground dead or mortally
wounded or crippled™. Such work elicits fulsome praise from Arthur the Less:
Oh God! What can I say of this man? By my faith, no mortal man could do what he™s
doing. Truly, all the other knights in the world are nothing compared to him, for if
everyone else in the world were a knight and he faced them all in one place, I think he
would defeat them all, for it doesn™t seem to me, from what I™ve seen, that he could
grow weary from striking during the lifetime of one man. Now may I have ill fortune
if I don™t from now on call him the best of all those who now bear arms, for I see well
that he deserves it.54

Prowess was thought to bring other qualities in its train (as we will see), and
these qualities may have more appeal for most modern readers than prowess
itself;55 but we will radically misunderstand the medieval view and the

Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 386, 387, Sommer, ed. Vulgate Version, II, 397“8. The phrase
53

about open displays of knightly prowess, reads, ˜si peust on ueoir apertes cheualeries faire
darmes™. Even the voluble Parrot in the Knight of the Parrot sings praises for the ˜chivalries™
Arthur has ˜done™. Vesce, Knight of the Parrot, 54; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du Papegau, 52.
Physical strength may take forms modern readers (incorrectly) suspect are parodic. William of
Orange struts with such vigour in the royal hall (in the Charroi de N®mes) that he bursts the
uppers of his Cordovan leather boots. He similarly leans on his bow with such vigour that it
shatters. Price, tr., The Waggon Train, 62“3; McMillan, ed., Charroi de N®mes, 61, 64. In the
Chanson de Guillaume even his vigour in eating shows he is a man of prowess; the Saracens eat
men like ripe apples: Muir, tr., Song of William, 152, 159, 165, 193; Suard, ed., Chanson de
Guillaume, 72, 94, 113, 198.
Asher, tr., ˜Quest™, 246. A few pages earlier Galahad has ˜struck to the left and right and killed
54

all those he reached, and he performed so many marvels among them that no one who saw him
would have thought him mortal man but some strange marvel™: p. 237.
The ˜worthy man™ tells Arthur: ˜no one recognizes a man of worth so well as a man rooted in
55

great prowess™: Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 242; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 287. Hervi
of Rivel, attending at Arthur™s table when a monk comes with messages from the queens of
Gaunes and Benoic, tells Arthur that the man is trustworthy, as a former knight of prowess:
The Privileged Practice of Violence 139
medieval reality if we push the bloody, sweaty, muscular work done with lance
and sword swiftly and antiseptically to the side and hasten on to speak of more
abstract, more appealing qualities. What is at issue is less a set of idealized
abstractions than what Malory called ˜dedys full actuall™. Such deeds leave
combatants ˜waggyng, staggerynge, pantyng, blowyng, and bledyng™.56
But is this all merely literary arti¬ce? Did knights actually hack so heroically
and endure so resolutely? Historical accounts, it is true, do not generally fol-
low lance thrusts and sword strokes in anatomical detail; in the confusion of
most battles it could scarcely have been possible. Usually they praise heroes
more simply by enumerating foes slain.57
Yet time and again a chronicler or biographer assures us he wants to record
the great deeds of his subjects, just as a writer of chanson or romance might. No
less than imaginative literary texts, historical sources show us single great men
turning the tide of battle by their prowess, cutting paths through their ene-
mies, who fall back in stunned fear. Perhaps this is not merely ¬‚attery and
topos; given relatively small numbers, close ¬ghting with edged weapons, and
the sudden surges or panics so often described, one unusual man might well
tilt the balance.
In the pages of the biography of William Marshal chivalry often becomes
prowess pure and simple. At the siege of Winchester, for example, we are
told that groups of knights sallied forth each day ˜to do chivalry (por faire
chevalerie)™.58 The knight can do chivalry just as he can make love: it has this

My lord, believe whatever this man tells you, for kings and princes should heed his words. Be assured that with
his great courage and prowess he so far outshone any other knight in God™s creation that in dire need I would
con¬dently have turned to him to defend my honour and preserve my head.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 25; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 55; Sommer, ed., Vulgate
Version, III, 46.
56 Vinaver, ed., Malory.Works, 23, 198. John Barbour™s chronicle has men at least ˜stabbing,

stocking and striking™: McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbour™s Bruce, bk. XVII, l. 785. Malory™s
characters describe ¬erce ¬ghting as ˜noble knyghthode™: Vinaver, Malory.Works, 277. Sir Kay cites
prowess as the quality that earns Gawain a seat at the Round Table: ˜He is beste worthy to be a
knyght of the Rounde Table of ony that is rehersed yet and he had done no more prouesse his lyve
dayes™: ibid., 80. Tristram thinks himself unworthy to be a knight of the Round Table until his
˜dedys™ win him a place: ibid., 300. Unhorsing Kay and matching Lancelot allows the young
Gareth similarly to believe he can ˜stonde a preved knight™: ibid., 181. Blamour fears Tristram ˜May
happyn to smyte me downe with his grete myght of chevalry™: ibid., 253. Sir Darras, whose three
sons Tristan did ˜smyte downe™, agrees Tristan acted ˜by fors of knyghthode™: ibid., 338. Lionel
defeats and kills Calogrenant who tries to intervene in his ¬ght with Bors, ˜for thys sir Lyonell was

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