The lines above are from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval romance. I selected these lines because I consider them both the most evocative and the poetic in English poetry. It is a personal and, some might consider, peculiar opinion, I know, but the intent of this post is to muster some defense for medieval literature.
Recently, an acquaintance expressed an ambivalent attitude when I had disclosed that I have an MA in Medieval Studies. It was the surprised look and the always ironic “How interesting” that got to me. I felt as if I were some humanoid lemming recently discovered in the sewer system who had been found with Atari or Pong as his only diversions and was slowly evolving toward a primitive form of Dungeons and Dragons. Oh, I forgot: I was the last of my kind who spoke Leet.
Polite and patient, I heard several distortions of the medieval period, such as life was “nasty, brutish, and short,” was heard. Uh, Hobbes said that. Rebuttal: Life expectancy up until the early twentieth century was thirty-one years old. Life expectancy in the medieval period was thirty, but if you made it to twenty-one without childhood disease or other calamities killing you first then you might live another forty years. I should add that for a modern nation, the U.S. has a deplorable maternal-infant mortality rate, but I don’t see any politicians addressing that alarming discrepancy. Read the article and live with your outrage.
Medieval literature may lack modern literature’s verbal pyrotechnics (read the Gawain-poet’s Pearl and you may disagree), or lack verbal irony, but it is comedic, ribald, and tragic. Pearl is as a moving testament of grief for a dead child as any modern poetry, if you interpret the poem as a father’s grief for his dead daughter. There are numerous interpretations. How modern! It may well be that medieval literature is daunting because the language, the narrative logic and the rhetoric are alien. Logic and Rhetoric were disciplines of ethical persuasion and not to be confused with demagoguery. For a sense of perspective on rhetoric, the last American president to write his own speeches was Calvin Coolidge. Nothing against speechwriters, but it is hard to surpass Lincoln’s command of rhetoric; the Gettysburg Address is under 300 words. I’d suspect that a medieval person would evaluate the logic and rhetoric of any State of the Union address in the last forty years as appealing to emotion rather than to intellect. Scholasticism isn’t for wimps.
“It was a misogynist society.” Yes and No. It depended on where you lived. A woman who had her own trade and who married was allowed to keep her livelihood. Her husband had no legal say in her trade or her earnings. In other words, she was her own woman. There were successful women. For sheer commercial enterprise and success, who would not admire Christine de Pizan? Everyone seems to know exemplary religious women: Héloïse of Heloise and Abelard fame, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and, in my opinion, the most important woman of the Middle Ages because of her influence in politics, Catherine of Siena.
Fear of sexuality and the Great Chain of Being might do more to explain misogyny; but misogyny was also a recurring literary theme, as politically incorrect as the stereotypical greedy Jew, Archie Bunker, or Stepin Fetchit would be today. In defense of women, medievalists will point to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath story or his Legend of Good Women. I suggest daring readers go find a copy of Sarah Roche-Mahdi’s translation of Silence, a thirteenth-century romance in which a girl is raised as a boy, becomes a knight, pursues a quest to find Merlin’s laughter, and, in the end, becomes Queen of England. The medieval author tackles many issues, especially primogeniture. Prior to Elizabeth I, the closest England came to having a Queen was with Empress Matilda (1102-1167) as a result of the White Ship disaster. No doubt that Matilda was unpopular due to the way she treated other; she did, however, get her revenge through her son, Henry II.
“Medieval life was difficult”. When has life not been different on this planet? By comparison, we, as moderns, have more leisure time and advanced technology. We have more free time but we work as hard as our ancestors, although our ‘work’ is less physical, more mental. The type of psychological stress has changed. It is only in recent memory that ‘work’ has moved out of factories to offices. As mentioned earlier — for all our technology and advancements, women in the U.S. die in childbirth and children do not survive infancy. Medical misogyny? We have computers, instant messaging, and yet we have the modernist ills of depression, estrangement, and isolation.
“They were smelly and simple people.” Have you ever looked at a medieval cathedral or understood the concept of a vault or a flying buttress? I’ll venture to say that the two ‘greatest’ technological improvements in the Middle Ages were the horse’s bridle and the printing press. There are other examples, but I picked these two because for a reason: war was a major preoccupation and prior to the bridle and bit a horse was controlled by mane and posting and not much else; and the printing press was a social revolution, slowly wresting intellectual control of the hands of the clergy. War still remains a major preoccupation. On the matter of intellectual control, the ‘clergy’ was a broad social class, divided into seven levels and not simply monks, nuns, and priests. Oh, one last defensive remark: ‘Middle Ages’ is a relatively recent term in scholarship. Those living in the medieval era, if they thought of themselves living in the middle of anything, perceived themselves as living at the end of Time. Time with a capital ‘T.’
The medieval person had a different worldview than we do. They saw God everywhere and in everything. When God becomes absent, felt distant and inaccessible, is when a medieval person felt most psychologically uncomfortable. Ironically, the Puritans felt the same way, as Hawthorne’s stories and novels tell us. From architecture to the rose, God was everywhere. It is the absence of God that makes most of us feel modern. I should also point out that while we think of ourselves as advanced because we have information at our fingertips, readily available through the web, the medieval person would have no difficulty understanding hyperlink reality, since they read texts embedded in other texts, allusions pointing to other works and thinkers. There are, however, two subtle distinctions to be made here: 1) all symbols pointed to a coherent social and universal reality. The medieval person, I would argue, had a greater capacity to remember and synthesize information than we do. We may have access to more information but our personal capacity for processing information is limited. St. Thomas Aquinas could recite several texts simultaneously by specific line, with varying commentaries, as could Milton, because they had been educated to do so. 2) Oral recitation played a greater part in the transmission of knowledge in a society where literacy was low and books were expensive and in the hands of the elite, clergy and nobility. A book’s cost was equivalent to a house. Just one book. Keep that in mind when you see a used book next time.
I am not writing an apologia for religion. Separation of Church and State happened for a reason. What I’m pointing towards is one downside of the Reformation: with the protestation against corruption (a true complaint) came iconoclasm — the literal smashing of images. I always found it ironic that we live in an age fascinated with images but will not agree on artistic symbols, yet we are all in near agreement on symbols that denote material success.
Where there were no signs pointing as reminders to the divine and no intermediary to explain or guide it, revelation became a subjective enterprise and secular politics dominated. Proof? The Oath of Supremacy, which inspired the U.S. Oath of Citizenship, required any person taking public office or position of influence, including professors, to swear loyalty to the Crown before conscience. One can wonder rhetorically, of course, why a country like the United States, shaped by Calvinist theology, would wait until the late twentieth century to elect a Catholic president. I always found it peculiar that it wasn’t until 1559 that the first Catholic Mass was celebrated (in Pensacola, Florida); or for a more disturbing reminder of intolerance: there is a plaque on School Street, around the corner from what used to be Borders Books, that commemorates the first public Catholic Mass in Boston: 2 November 1788.
“This Act [of Supremacy] was partly in force in Great Britain even as late as the end of 2010.” America had Loyalty Oaths. The state of California requires all state employees as a condition of employment to take this oath:
“The text of that oath begins: “STATE OATH OF ALLEGIANCE I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter.”
To wrap of this post and illustrate the humanity within the medieval period, I would like to sketch out the highs and lows of the life of one ruler, a British monarch, who was descended from a truly dysfunctional lot, the Angevins: Henry II. I want to do this for a reason that I will disclose at the end.
You may recall that Peter O’Toole portrayed the king twice; and I have no doubt Mr. O’Toole, an Irishman, enjoyed the irony of playing a British monarch who campaigned against his Emerald Isle. Opposite Burton in Becket (1964) and Hepburn in Lion in Winter (1968), O’Toole conveyed Henry’s angst and agony.
Thomas of London — calling him ‘Becket’ would have been a pejorative to remind Thomas that he was low-born, a son of a Norman merchant — was a controversial figure in his own day. He was Henry’s friend and it was a friendship that Henry took seriously. I imagine that kings are lonely people and given that few English monarchs died of old age in bed vindicates my assumption. It is through Henry that Thomas enjoyed his success: first as Chancellor, the keeper of records, in 1155, and then as Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1162.
Henry’s main accomplishments were administrative and legal. He consolidated royal power by recovering ‘adulterine castles,’ and by rewriting charters in order to undo The Anarchy between his mother and King Stephen. Thomas and Henry came into conflict over Henry’s attempt at legal reform of the clerical orders: namely, prosecuting ‘criminous clerks,’ those clergymen who supplemented their income with crime, but escaped prosecution because of their religious ties. The church courts were slow to hand over ‘criminous clerks’ to secular courts. Church courts would not impose sentences that involved bloodshed. Secular courts could and did. In 1163 a canon of Bedford, Philip de Brois, a noble, was accused of murdering a knight. He was called in and swore an oath that he had not been the author of the crime. When evidence had come up later that suggested that the canon had lied, a royal judge moved to reopen the case. Philip de Broi openly insulted the judge — an offense punishable by death in secular courts because it was equivalent to insulting the king’s person. In the end Philip de Broi went free because Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, had presided over the case. Needless to say, Henry was furious that he had been insulted and that someone had gotten away with murder. Literally.
In 1164, Henry drafted the Constitutions of Clarendon, which defined very clearly the jurisdictional authority of church and secular courts. Thomas of London was likely forced by sword-point to accept the diminution of the church courts. Thomas then persuaded all the other bishops to go against their conscience to accept the Constitutions. They all accepted the king’s document. Then what does Thomas do? He reneges, refuses to sign the document and infuriates Henry and all the bishops, and runs off into exile for six years, finding protection under Louis VII of France, after Henry had accused him of embezzlement while Thomas was Chancellor. You will see that Louis VII would spite Henry every chance he could get. The distrust between the English and the French began in 1066. Thomas’s flight was the talk of western Europe and was the reasons that Pope Alexander III kept sending out papal legates like messenger pigeons. Thomas’s contemporaries left comments behind that he had brought on his own troubles.
Remembering Thomas’s slight, Henry had himself crowned in 1170 not in Canterbury, but in York, the ancient capital of England, crowned not by the Archbishop of Canterbury, but by the Archbishop of York and two bishops: Josceline de Bohon of Salisbury, and Gilbert Foliot of London. Gilbert Foliot had originally been the consensus favorite to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, but Henry appointed Thomas. When Thomas had excommunicated Henry and the clergymen who had crowned Henry because they had usurped Canterbury’s privilege to crown kings, the rest was history, however murky the details. Thomas of London was declared a martyr and canonized in due haste. The why of Thomas’s sainthood is another matter, with multiple interpretations. That’s an assignment for you.
Few words can do justice to the powerful personality of Eleanor of Aquitane. Henry’s marriage to her was a dynastic coup. He acquired his land by inheritance (Normandy and Anjou, and two other French counties), by marriage (western seaboard of France, Aquitane and Poitu), and by conquest (Ireland). Henry’s son Geoffrey’s marriage brought in Brittany. I suspect power had bound the couple together. Divorced at the age of 30 from Louis VII, the same king who had given Thomas of London refuge, on the grounds of consanguinity — a nice way of saying ‘too closely related — she married her third cousin, Henry, in 1152. I suspect that Louis VII subsequently divorced Eleanor because she had produced only daughters [two] with him. Eleanor’s land titles were too valuable for him to ignore, but they divorced nonetheless because a male heir was what mattered most. After a second daughter, Eleanor retaliated and married Henry. I should note that child custody in the medieval period was awarded to the male. I should add that while Henry II understood English he probably did not speak it. French was his mother tongue. Eleanor, a cultured woman and a patron of the arts (like her daughter by Louis VII, Marie, Countess of Champagne) gave Henry five sons and three daughters. Quite remarkable when you consider how risky childbirth was in that age of history. Some things don’t change.
Henry would take numerous mistresses; I suspect that Eleanor felt ignored. It did not help matters that Eleanor was in the habit of pitting Henry’s sons against him. His one son, Henry, had adored Thomas Becket, so it is left to conjecture how he must have felt knowing that his father was implicated in the archbishop’s murder. Eleanor’s favorite was her son Richard [the future Richard the Lionheart], while Henry favored John who had the unfortunate nickname ‘Lackland.’ When Eleanor had supported her son Henry’s revolt against his father, her husband had her imprisoned; she remained so until his death in 1189. The matter on how to divide up his kingdom created extraordinary tension between Henry’s sons. Because John was the youngest son and without lands to inherit (hence, ‘Lackland’), Henry gave Ireland to John. When, however, John sided with his brother Richard against their father because Henry had refused to recognize Richard as rightful heir or allow Richard to marry Alice, the fourth daughter of … Louis VII, Henry was left a broken man.
He retreated to Chinon, where he died of a bleeding ulcer. His last words were “Shame, shame on the conquered king.”
I hope that the above makes medieval history relevant and that it will inspire you to explore its literature and its aesthetics. There is a wealth of literature, from numerous countries [England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain] available in affordable translations. I hope that you think twice about ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ and what it means to be ‘civilized.’ I leave you with a few more lines from the Gawain poet, a writer about whom we know next to nothing :