Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 3. Detroit: Gale, 2005.
Identity and Authority
When the term “Middle Ages” was first used in the eighteenth century, it was intended to refer negatively to the long period of European history between the fall of the great civilization of classical (Roman) antiquity in the fifth century and the “rebirth” of cultural greatness in the Italian Renaissance of the early fifteenth century. What this terminology acknowledges is the fact that in the period immediately preceding the Middle Ages, a void had been created by the disintegration of the centralized government of the Romans, leaving most of Europe under the control of tribal peoples with no written literature and no continuity of tradition in a geographically or culturally identifiable location. Thus, the early history of literature in the Middle Ages is in many ways the story of people seeking to define and justify their cultural identity. As the peoples of each region became conscious of themselves as a group distinct from others, they transmitted myths of origin involving a founding hero, passing them on orally within the areas of shared language that would eventually be recognized as countries. In some cases this figure was adapted from classical Greek stories, Homeric and Vergilian accounts of the fall of Troy where the Trojan heroes were dispersed throughout the world; the word “Britain,” for example, comes from the name “Brutus” and “France” from “Francus.” In other cases, the heroes were homegrown, such as Britain’s Arthur and France’s Roland. As their stories began to be organized and then written down in a cultural climate that honored the “authority” of the past (both classical and biblical), they served as the nucleus for thematic clusters known as “matters,” the chief examples being the matter of France, the matter of Britain, and the matter of Rome or antiquity.
The Matter of France
The matter (matière) of France provided the plots of many Old French chansons de geste (heroic poetry), such as the Song of Roland, a poem composed around 1100 which contributed immeasurably to the developing consciousness of what it meant to be French. Based on an historical episode in 778 in which Charlemagne’s nephew Roland was killed in an ambush as he was returning home from an unsuccessful campaign against the Saracens (Islamic Moors) in Spain, the poem recounts the heroic defense of a pass in the Pyrenees Mountains by the small French rearguard (with 20,000 men) against the overwhelming Saracen forces (400,000). With its tales of such originary figures as Roland, Charlemagne, and William of Orange, the matter of France not only created the substance of French literature of the early Middle Ages, but also was imported by other national cultures. For example, by the thirteenth century, many of the tales of Charlemagne and his Twelve Peers (or companions) were translated into prose in the Old Norse Karlamagnus Saga(Charlemagne’s Saga), while Wolfram von Eschenbach similarly adapted for a German audience the cycle of chansons de geste about William of Orange in his Willehalm.
Stories of King Arthur
The “matter of Britain” made King Arthur first a national hero in England, the equal of Charlemagne in French culture, and later a literary figure of international stature. In his twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth built upon and embellished earlier fragments of texts documenting a sixth-century Saxon warrior named Arthur, who achieved success in battles against the Romans and other neighboring tribes. Geoffrey created a full biography of the reign of the now familiar King Arthur, complete with some of this matter’s most memorable characters, including Uther Pendragon, Merlin (the magician and sage counselor of Arthur), and Morgan le Faye (Arthur’s antagonistic half sister). Among his accounts of other authentically historical British monarchs, Geoffrey placed the largely fictive story of King Arthur. Already in twelfth-century France, in the earliest examples of the romance genre (a type of long, episodic narrative poem), Chrétien de Troyes created narratives about Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Indeed, stories of this “matter of Britain” were retold and amplified by romance writers in France, England, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, as well as during the Arthurian revival (called “medievalism”) of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The Matter of Rome the Great
Although in modern times writers are often praised for the originality or the novelty of their plots and characterizations, these qualities were not much valued in the Middle Ages since it was believed that truth lay in stories and situations that had been tested and refined through the passage of time and filtered through tradition. Thus, the “matter of Rome the great” was not exclusively the early history of the region that would eventually become Italy. Rather, this broader category of plot source generally comprised various stories about classical antiquity in Greece, Troy, Rome, or Northern Africa. One of the most popular bodies of material concerned the heroes of the ancient Theban dynasties, whose tragic history was told first in Latin in Statius’ Thebaid (c. 91 C.E.), then later retold in medieval vernacular (non-Latin) poetry such as the French Roman de Thebes (1152) and the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio’s epic about the war between Athens and Thebes, the Teseide (The Tale of Theseus; late 1339-1341), the source story for the English writer Chaucer’sThe Knight’s Tale (early 1380s). Another large subject that belonged to the matter of antiquity was the Trojan War and its aftermath, originating in Vergil’s Aeneid, passed on in Latin versions of Homer, and then portrayed respectively in the French Roman d’Eneas (1160), Boccaccio’s Philostrato (The One Laid Low by Love; late 1330s), and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (early 1380s). The matter of antiquity similarly informed the plots and characters of many individual romances about the exploits of Alexander the Great, Queen Dido of Carthage, and other figures or events of Greco-Roman or North African history.
War and Reputation
Throughout the Middle Ages, but especially in the earlier centuries, literary texts composed in poetry and prose and produced in the British Isles, Scandinavia, and throughout Continental Europe reflected both the dominant warrior culture and the emerging ideals of personal reputation and honor. Such literary works typically celebrated the exploits of larger-than-life, hyper-masculine legendary heroes who fought monsters, battled the enemies of Christianity, and often died tragic martyr-like deaths. In heroic tales and in a variation on the genre in French culture, the chansons de geste(songs of deeds), the establishment and maintenance of the hero’s reputation (the hero’s los or pris in French) was the driving force inspiring the extraordinary feats and physical exploits by which the male protagonists earned their heroic credentials. Such heroes were expected to display a balance of fortitudo (physical courage) and sapientia (discretion and wisdom). The tragic downfall of the hero often occurred because of an imbalance of these epic virtues, when his discretion waned and he displayed overweening pride in his physical prowess. In the Song of Roland, for example, Roland does not heed the cautions of his companion Oliver and delays calling for help until it is too late. Except for emphasis on such single character traits, however, the usually anonymous authors of heroic narratives paid little attention to the psychological motivations of their male protagonists, who demonstrated less emotional interiority and soul-searching than did their later chivalric romance counterparts. Nor were these heroes’ exploits literally spurred by an interest in wooing a fair damsel or saving her from distress. Indeed, in these early heroic narratives love and the softening presence of women were almost completely absent. Typically, little to no information was provided about wives, sweethearts, or other emotional entanglements that might distract from the heroic imperative to perform mightily against almost impossibly dangerous foes, often in the interests of preserving physical security or in defense of their Christian faith.
The Heroic Narrative in England: Beowulf
The harsh conditions of early medieval life placed a premium on small tribal units of warriors and an overlord who repelled the raids of neighboring groups and made frequent forays of their own. Early heroic literature celebrated their exploits and memorialized their deeds for later audiences in what has been called “the tale of the tribe.” Social conditions, then, led to the rise of a literature peculiarly fitted to immortalizing the heroes of such social units. In English, the first of these heroic narratives was the Anglo-Saxon alliterative poem Beowulf, which is preserved in only one manuscript (now at the British Library), a miscellany (anthology) of stories of monsters, marvels, exotic locales, and fantastic creatures of huge size. Although it is the earliest major literary text produced in England, this story is actually set in Denmark and other Scandinavian locales. Before it was copied into the manuscript in its present form, the poem now known as Beowulf underwent many oral and possibly written revisions during a period from about the seventh to the eleventh century. Beowulf celebrates the heroic exploits of its title-hero, who is endowed with youth and superhuman strength, especially a mighty grip. These attributes enable Beowulf to rescue the court of the aged Danish king Hrothgar from the ravages of the semi-human monster Grendel, whose ancestry is traced to the biblical character Cain, Adam’s “bad” son. Grendel has terrorized and gruesomely killed Hrothgar’s retainers, called thanes, who nevertheless remain loyal to their chief despite decades of Grendel’s murderous, nightly raids on their residence in Hrothgar’s mead hall Heorot. The interior of the hearth-lit Heorot represents a haven of social solidarity, physical safety, and celebratory male bonding that contrasts with the brutally harsh winter landscape outdoors. The thanes’ life-risking loyalty was part of the early medieval heroic code practiced by male members of a communal group known as thecomitatus. In the comitatus the thanes were bound to their overlord in a special reciprocal relationship in which the lord offered material rewards and a social identity in return for his thanes’ military and political allegiance.
Repetitions and Reinforcements
The structure of Beowulf reflects not only the simple social life of raiding, distributing booty, and feasting, but also the recurring need for the social values of bravery and measured judgment. The poem has three episodes recounting the hero’s contests against three increasingly ferocious monsters. After slaying Grendel, Beowulf and the over-confident Danes are startled out of their victorious complacency by an even more brutal retaliatory attack by Grendel’s mother, who kills one of Hrothgar’s most valued thanes. Beowulf follows Grendel’s mother to an underwater cavern, clearly a monstrous parallel to Hrothgar’s Heorot. After defeating this grotesque female in her lair and beheading Grendel, a more difficult struggle than his first monster fight, Beowulf returns a hero to his homeland, the kingdom of the Geats, which is ruled by another king named Hygelac. The hero eventually succeeds Hygelac on the Geatish throne. Following fifty years of successful rule, Beowulf finds himself in a similar position to that of Hrothgar at the poem’s beginning when the Geats are attacked by a fire-breathing dragon. Instead of following Hrothgar’s example of admitting his limitations, elderly Beowulf insists on fighting the dragon alone when his loyal retainer Wiglaf—a version of himself in his heroic youth—offers to oppose the dragon’s venomous flames on his behalf. The old hero succumbs to the monster’s venom as young Wiglaf ultimately slays the dragon. The poem ends with a fiery Viking funeral as Beowulf’s now leaderless and vulnerable subjects mourn their king’s passing. If Beowulf’s attempt to brave the dragon against impossible odds was motivated by pride, his behavior was nevertheless consistent with the heroic ideal. It may, however, be significant that the poem does not eulogize its title hero with the trope “That was a good king!” which had been repeated several times throughout the poem to characterize successful, praiseworthy kings such as the Dane Scyld Scefing. Another ambiguity of the poem’s thematic meaning is its use of Old Testament biblical references (for example, the mention of Cain), which are intermingled with pagan values in a way that suggests contact with, but not full conversion to, Christianity.
Literary and Historical Significance
Often considered the first great poem in English literature, Beowulf is important not only for the story it tells but for its literary qualities as well. Composed and later written down in the language of the Anglo-Saxon tribes who had begun settling in England in the middle of the fifth century, the poem makes skillful use of the distinctive qualities of this Germanic dialect (commonly called Old English), which had a strong stress accent on the first syllable of most words and a tendency to express new ideas through compounding. As the poem was recited, perhaps to the accompaniment of a harp, listeners gathered in a hall would hear the insistent repetition of initial sounds (known as alliteration), which drew attention to key words (usually three to a line). Alliteration also helped the poet to remember the text (3,182 lines in its final form), which was probably passed on, in its early stages, only through memorization. The success of Beowulflies, to a great degree, in its skillful use of oral-formulaic phrases called kennings like “whale-road” (the sea) and “ring-giver” (king), which are often concealed metaphors which cast a sharp light on a familiar subject or allow the listener to imagine it in a new way. Thus, the ship travels on the sea just as the whale swims on a “path.” Or, when Beowulf speaks, he “unlocks his word-hoard” to give out words just as the lord gives out to his followers rings or other gifts. This diction, then, expresses the values of the society.
Heroic Literature in Medieval Scandinavia
Cultural Traditions of the Vikings
During the ninth and tenth centuries, migrating northern tribes, now referred to as the Vikings, sailing in lightweight but sturdy and swift longships, invaded almost all regions of Europe, including Russia (named for the rus’, the redhaired Scandinavians who settled there), northern France (named Normandy for the “northmen” who settled there), England, Scotland, and Ireland. These Norsemen traded as far east as Byzantium and also forayed westward, to Iceland, Greenland, and as far as North America. The threat of the Vikings unified the formerly disorganized group of competing tribes and small kingdoms of Britain under Alfred the Great (871-899), king of Wessex, who successfully resisted the Viking incursions with military force in 878 and created a fleet of ships, the foundation of the British navy, to defend southern England against the seafaring might of the northern invaders. Eventually, an uneasy peace was reached, with the Norsemen controlling the eastern half of England and Alfred and future Anglo-Saxon kings dominating the rest of the country. The extent of Norse influence on England’s literary and linguistic development is measured by the fact that the first major literary work, Beowulf, is about Scandinavian tribes, not the original inhabitants of Britain, and there are many Scandinavian loan words in Old English. However, the Vikings did not participate in the mutual imitation of literary forms that took place in other areas of Europe throughout the period. In fact, the literature produced far to the north of central Europe on the remote Scandinavian Peninsula does not parallel whatsoever most of the other medieval genres produced in England and on the Continent. Although some works originated on mainland Scandinavia, the majority of the greatest literary works were produced in Norway’s tiny, even more remote, westerly island colony of Iceland, which was settled about 870. By 1000, Iceland had adopted Christianity as its official religion, which had a profound influence on the content of the literary texts produced.
Scandinavian Lyric Poetry
Like the very early literary works of many other nations, such as those of ancient Greece, some early Scandinavian lyric poems reflected their culture by incorporating polytheistic theological explanations of the world, involving the exploits of gods who were like men, while others tended to emphasize formal concerns, including the intricacies of language itself. Whereas the rest of Europe developed lyric poetry that celebrated courtly love or devotion to the Virgin Mary, the earliest surviving texts in verse written in the Old Norse language are poems of two distinct types: Eddic and Skaldic poetry. Eddic poems, composed in freeform or varying meters, were heroic and mythological lays (songs) based on Germanic legends and mythology about the pagan northern gods. The Eddic poems incorporating these myths and legends include two major works: Völuspá (Sibyl’s Prophesy), the history of the world predicted by a sibyl, from creation to Ragnarök, the end of the world when the sun turns black, fire engulfs an earth declining into total darkness, and the gods fall; and Hávamál (Words of the High One), a didactic poem wherein Odin instructs mankind about correct social conduct and interaction between the sexes and explains about runes (mystical sayings inscribed using ancient Germanic script) and magic. Composed before the settlement of Iceland, the Hávamál as well as these other Eddic poems were handed down orally until they were recorded later in Iceland. This process parallels the development of heroic literature in England and on the Continent where oral versions of the Beowulf story or Roland’s tragic stand against the Saracens circulated for sometimes hundreds of years before the texts known to modern readers were established in manuscript form. Unlike the less formal Eddic poetry, Skaldic poetry was much stricter in its poetic technique, employing an erudite, specialized vocabulary in a highly complicated syntax. The most talented skald was Egil Skallagrímsson, whose life was celebrated in Egil’s Saga (c. 1230), one of the finest Icelandic or family sagas. As recounted in Egil’s Saga, good poetry could be literally lifesaving. One of this Viking-poet’s most successful poems was Head Ransom, composed around 948, when Egil was imprisoned awaiting execution by King Erik Bloodaxe, who then ruled in York. The night before the execution, this skald composed a poem honoring Bloodaxe which so pleased his captor that he granted him his head as a reward, hence the poem’s title. Although they may have been written on the Scandinavian Peninsula, Eddic and Skaldic poems are nevertheless preserved only in manuscripts found in Iceland.
Development of Prose Genres in Medieval Scandinavia
In addition to poetry, prose genres developed in medieval Scandinavia to a greater degree and earlier than they did on the Continent or in England, apparently out of a desire to record significant historical events, especially accounts of the settlement of Iceland and the reigns of Norwegian kings. For example, the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) details the history of the settlement of Iceland, while Heimskringla (Orb of the World), written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), recounts the history of the kings of Norway up to 1184. This writer also composed the Prose Edda, a handbook on the use of literary language, which is an important source of heroic tales of Germanic pagan gods and the human heroes of northern legend. However, the most distinctive literary form that developed in Scandinavia was the saga, a unique kind of prose narrative invented in Iceland (hence they are often referred to as “Icelandic” sagas) during the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. The Old Norse word saga literally means “something said,” an indication of the ultimate oral origins of most of the narratives that comprise the body of the sagas. As in other national cultures in Europe in the period, accounts of the exploits of noteworthy men or events have always supplied subject matter for orally delivered entertainment or instruction. From such oral narratives, which were amplified, embellished, and transmitted by skilled tale-tellers over the course of several centuries, the written saga evolved.
The Influence of Christianity
With the coming of Christian missionaries to Scandinavia, the more advanced Latin culture provided the tools for further development of indigenous literary forms. Although “runic letters” (from a Teutonic alphabet of characters composed of straight lines suitable for inscriptions in stone, metal, or wood) had been employed to convey information in Scandinavia from very early times, runes had not been used to record any lengthy story or even poem since this mode of writing was too cumbersome for communicating anything of considerable length in a manuscript. This situation changed, however, when, after some initial resistance by those favoring the old pagan Germanic faith, Christianity was legally adopted as the state religion of Iceland in 1000, bringing with it the Latin alphabet and manuscript tradition. Following conversion, the clerkly culture, featuring the use of Latin, the language of the medieval Christian church, was introduced into Iceland. Inhabitants of Iceland quickly absorbed the newly adopted ecclesiastical and secular literature. Aided by the far-flung travels of the Vikings, the newly literate Icelandic writers were further exposed to literary genres practiced and themes depicted in other vernacular languages of Europe. The new learning did not eliminate interest in the old largely heroic saga-themes; rather, elements from Continental romance, hagiography (accounts of the lives of the saints), and other forms were grafted onto the traditional saga-lore. Even the pre-Christian mythology, which earlier had been an essential ingredient of the work of Icelandic poets, was not entirely replaced by the imagery of the new religion. Although the Icelandic sagas effectively superimposed Continental Christian influences upon traditional local subject matters, there was always a tension between the pre- and post-Christian materials.
The Icelandic Sagas
If the sagas, which are the crowning literary achievement of medieval Scandinavia, shared some elements with other medieval heroic texts, their style and content nevertheless stood apart from any other heroic literature produced in medieval Europe. Sagas give the impression of being reliable historical or biographical accounts. However, fact and fiction often are seamlessly blended in these prose narratives, and many sagas resemble modern historical novels more than any expected medieval genre. Moreover, exploiting a variety of influences from abroad, saga style was quite elastic, making possible the development of various sub-genres. Kings’ sagas present imaginatively constructed biographies of medieval Norwegian monarchs. “Sagas of Ancient Times,” such as the Saga of the Volsungs, recreated in prose the kinds of traditional heroic legends from mainland Norway that had been treated by the Eddic poets and the Skalds. Exposure to Continental genres resulted in new hybrids: sagas inspired by characters from the chansons de geste, such asCharlemagne’s Saga; sagas influenced by romances about Arthurian characters like Tristan and Isold, such as Tristan’s Saga; and Ecclesiastical sagas, inspired by Continental religious writings and hagiography, that deal with the conversion of Iceland to Christianity and the biographies of various Scandinavian bishops.
The Icelandic Family Saga
The sub-genre for which the sagas are best appreciated and most famed is the “family” saga. These largely thirteenth-century narratives skillfully shaped the traditional oral accounts of the social, legal, and religious practices of Icelandic clans (who had originally settled Iceland in the tenth and eleventh centuries) into tightly structured, complexly orchestrated written texts. In general, saga style is plain and terse. Sentences are short, vocabulary is limited, syntax is simple, the plot moves quickly, and the expected repetitive embellishments of other European medieval heroic narratives are noticeably absent. With little extraneous depiction of places or people, the use of descriptive adjectives is quite sparing. Yet character development is typically vivid, relying on revealing statements made by the individuals themselves in the sagas’ extensive use of dialogue, on the actions of the characters, and on brief but pointed summary characterizations made by the usually disinterested narrator. Even these instructive pieces of dialogue, used solely to further the action, are themselves characteristically and disarmingly pithy, exemplifying the literary figure of litotes(ironic understatement). A good example of this stylistic feature is the statement made in Njál’s Saga by Skarp-Hedin when he is about to be burned to death by his enemies and admits casually that his “eyes are smarting.” In sagas, the mundane details of daily life are never extraneous, but always anticipate some important event or the climax of the plot, which is almost always gruesomely violent. The sagas feature extremes in behavior and emotional range. Plots rarely recount great, history-changing events. Rather, they create moving tragedy out of the petty banalities of everyday life—breaches of loyalty and friendship that result in family feuds and ensuing vengeance, which in turn lead to the tragic destiny of one of the protagonists. Characters either intensely love or hate one another, with little neutral feeling in-between. By showing how ordinary events can unwittingly be pushed to an extreme that provokes significant consequences, sagas express marked sympathy for and understanding of human tragedy.
The Scandinavian Blood Feud
What perhaps renders sagas most unique compared to heroic literature in the rest of medieval Europe is that their plots are punctuated by a phenomenon endemic to Scandinavian culture: the blood feud. This social practice requires that a slain character’s kin either retaliate against a family member of the offending clan—the new victim must be of equal rank to their lost member—or collect substantial financial remuneration for their loss. The blood feud motivates a degree of physical violence that is extreme even for the medieval romances and chansons de geste that were familiar in the rest of Europe, whose audiences were accustomed to exaggerated numbers of anonymous knights being slain on the battlefield. Indeed, sometimes this “eye for an eye” mentality triggers ever-escalating waves of deadly retaliation. In some sagas, this acceleration of violence culminates in a killing that not only exceeds the legal “rules” of blood feud, but also so shocks the local community by its savagery that it is declared “murder.” Technically the worst conceivable violent crime in a close-knit community tightly bound by kinship bonds, murder merits a penalty even worse than death—the social ostracizing of the perpetrator as a declared “outlaw.” This plot line characterizes some of the best family sagas, such as Grettir’s Saga, about the outlaw Grettir the Strong, an analogue of Beowulf; Laxdaela Saga, a romance-influenced multi-generational tragedy whose female protagonist Gudrun is one of the toughest, most desirable, and most vividly realized women in medieval literature; and Egil’s Saga, the biography of the cantankerous Viking-skald Egill Skallagrímsson.
Njál ‘S Saga: A New Christian Sensibility
Both the traditional influence of the blood feud and the impact of European missionary activity can be seen in the longest Icelandic family saga, Njál’s Saga (1280), which is now also generally considered the greatest example of the genre. Judging from its survival in 24 manuscripts—the largest number of any of the sagas—this work was also appreciated as a masterpiece in its own age. Its plot revolves around the enduring friendship between two great heroes: Gunnar, a valorous, yet somewhat naive youth, and Njál, a wise older man, highly respected as a community leader, who possesses prophetic gifts. Eventually both of them die heroically. The saga’s first third introduces Gunnar of Hlídarend and his courtship and disastrous marriage to the beautiful but proud and fiercely vindictive woman Hallgerd, whose initiation of a series of retaliatory killings between the two friends’ households threatens to provoke a breach in the friendship between Gunnar and Njál. However, through their self-restraint and mutual loyalty, the friendship, though extremely strained, never falters. After Gunnar’s death, Hallgerd continues to fuel the families’ blood feud by provoking her son, son-in-law, and lover to continue to harass and goad Njál’s clan. Escalating tensions climax in the intentional burning of Njál’s house while he and all his family members, including his wife, adult sons, and little children, are inside it. Since the saga includes an account of Iceland’s conversion to Christianity and miracles that occur at the battle waged by the Vikings against the Irish at Clontarf (1029?), the voluntary fiery death of the priest-like Njál suggests the Christian martyrdom characteristic of the medieval saint’s life elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, Njál’s son, Skarp-hedin—in most respects a Beowulf-like figure—brands crosses into his flesh while he endures the burning, thus introducing Christological motifs into the saga. Ultimately, the deaths of Njál and his family were probably interpreted by contemporary audiences as either a kind of Christian martyrdom, expiation for sins of violence endemic to the old culture, or as the irrational acts of doomed and perhaps despairing heroes. Among the sagas, Njál’s Saga is preeminent for its masterly characterization, tight plot structuring, and such memorable scenes as Gunnar’s last heroic defense in his house at Hlídarend and the burning of Njál’s homestead. These attest to the saga-writer’s skill at creating effective fiction. On the other hand, this work can also be appreciated for its presentation of important moments in Icelandic history and its accurate treatment of the development of Icelandic law.
The Heroic Narrative in France
A New Historical Context
The concern for history illustrated in the Icelandic sagas takes a somewhat different form in France, where a new political and economic system was evolving. Three centuries after the disintegration of the Roman Empire, a system of centralized rule re-emerged in the area of Western Europe now known as France when a dynasty of successful kings, the Carolingians (named after founder Charles Martel, whose Latin name was Carolus), capitalized on remaining links to Roman civilization through alliances with the popes of Rome and churchmen in England and created new political institutions. Culturally, the most important innovation was a system of social, political, and economic relationships of mutual dependency between the kings and their fideles (“faithful men”) known as comitatus. By the tenth century, this system of dependency involved the rulers and their vassalli (“vassals”) or homines (“men”), retainers who exchanged military service for political protection and social benefits conferred by their temporal lords within the complex social-political-economic hierarchy. These homines or retainers paid homage to their lords by providing military service in exchange for an estate of land or property, the feodum (“fief”) from which some historians termed this mutual hierarchical relationship “feudalism.” As in Anglo-Saxon literature, where narratives illustrated the virtues of comitatus, the emerging literary forms of France demonstrated the values of their social system through the heroic behaviors of characters who participated in this arrangement. The poems often centered on Charles Martel’s grandson, the illustrious Charlemagne (768-814) or Carolus Magnus (Charles the Great; le-magne means “the Great” in Old French).
Models of Leadership
The key to Charlemagne’s “greatness” was his ability to put into practice the heroic formula for successful lordship: sapientia and fortitudo (wisdom and fortitude). He achieved a reputation for sapientia by his encouragement of letters and the arts, an overall program continued by subsequent Carolingian kings (sometimes called the “Carolingian renaissance”). He demonstrated his fortitudo by successfully waging warfare for conquest and plunder on many fronts, especially against Saxons in England and the Avars in the southeast. Even if Charlemagne’s war against the Spanish Muslims in Andalusia was not a military success, the adventures of his vassals in this campaign provided the raw material for the creation of the quintessential heroic literary form of medieval France, the chanson de geste (song of deeds or exploits). Although some of these “songs of deeds” stemmed from oral accounts about major heroic figures like Charlemagne, most were devoted to the exploits of less famous figures like William of Orange, about whom a series of these heroic poems eventually were written (the William of Orange Cycle, the most important of which is Aliscans). However, the subject of the primary exemplar of the genre was a relatively minor figure, Charlemagne’s nephew Roland, who led the rearguard in an otherwise historically insignificant skirmish, the battle of Roncevalles in 778, an event which Einhard, a scholar in residence at Charlemagne’s palace school, mentions only briefly in his biography of the emperor.
The Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland)
The extraordinary appeal of the chanson de geste entitled the Chanson de Roland probably arose in part from its connections with two major movements of the tenth and eleventh centuries: the Crusades against the Muslim Arabs in the Holy Land and the popularity of pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James of Compostela. The entrapment of Charlemagne’s nephew Roland in a mountain pass in the Pyrenees range dividing southern France from Spain was a minor incident within the context of an ongoing, several-centuries-old animosity between the Christian Franks of France and the “Saracens,” North African Muslims who had colonized Spain. In some sense this story reflects microcosmically the cultural and religious clash between European Christians and Muslim Arabs that was to be played out on a large scale in Jerusalem with the calling of the First Crusade in 1095. As it happened, the story underwent two centuries of oral development before this event, in large part because the same mountain pass in which Roland’s battle against the Saracen emir Marsile took place was part of the on-land pilgrimage route to the shrine of St. James in Compostela, one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in medieval Europe. For the entertainment of the steady stream of penitents traveling to Compostela beginning in the tenth century, oral tales concerning Roland’s tragically heroic defense in a nearby locale, which was now a part of local folklore, circulated and were performed by jongleurs (entertainers) along the pilgrim routes. Thus, by the time the poem was written down around 1100, it was both well known and rhetorically polished, offering a perfect vehicle for Crusading propaganda. Pope Urban II’s request in 1095 to European kings for military support for a holy war initiated a chain of obligation-fulfillment between lords and vassals that soon had many members of the knightly class traveling to Jerusalem to wage war on the Muslim “infidels.” With its Christo-centric pronouncement, “The pagans are wrong; the Christians are right,” the Chanson de Roland supplied in literary form the kind of propaganda that was necessary to help inflame Crusading zeal and to galvanize and popularize the war effort that temporarily united a previously divided Europe against a common enemy.
Politics and Treason
Even with its political appropriateness and folkloric appeal, the Chanson de Roland would not, of course, have been able to fulfill its role of inspiring greatness if it did not illustrate the kinds of troubling situations and complex moral issues that challenged contemporary warriors. In this sense, then, the term “songs of deeds” can be somewhat misleading. To be sure, the Chanson de Roland contains numerous “deeds”—the mutual “slashing and bashing” of evenly matched warriors and many almost mindlessly repetitive scenes deployed in laisses similaires (“similar stanzas” like those also found in Spain’s El Cid), that depict Christian Frankish combatants pitted against sometimes outrageously exoticized Saracen warriors, who mutually exchange brutal physical blows. But, more importantly, in the Chanson de Roland one also finds interesting scenes that not only reveal the politics of medieval lordship in action, but also depict the homo-social comradeship that bound medieval warriors to one another through their mutual obligations of fealty. This is similar to the comitatus ideal described between Beowulf and his retainers or between Beowulf and Hrothgar in the English heroic poem Beowulf. The subtleties of medieval politics are exemplified in Roland in the complex machinations that occur at the council held by Charlemagne in the poem’s opening. Here the Franks argue about continuing their seven-year-long (and thus far unsuccessful) campaign against the Emir Marsile of Saragossa. Roland, one of the youngest at the council, speaks rashly out of turn, urging their continued effort and, after being denied the mission himself (he is deemed too brash for the delicate diplomacy necessary to the negotiation), he nominates his stepfather Ganelon to serve as Charlemagne’s envoy to the Saracen camp. Suspecting his nephew’s motives, for this has the possibility of being a death mission, Ganelon becomes enraged and vows revenge. Ganelon misrepresents Charlemagne’s terms to the Saracen emir, betrays the Franks to Marsile for financial gain, and ensures his nephew’s defeat in the narrow pass of Roncevalles by nominating him for rear-guard duty in a military trap planned in collusion with the Saracens. This aspect of the story, then, is an exemplum of a failure of loyalty, where a retainer allows his personal antipathy to outweigh his duty to his overlord and to a comrade in battle. The scenes of Roland’s defeat reinforce the listener’s sense of horror at Ganelon’s crime, and the ending of the story provides a lesson in justice. After being tried for treason—the worst crime in the fellowship-oriented ethos of the chanson de geste genre—Ganelon is hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Comradeship and Loyalty
The positive values of comradeship are also present in the poem. The loyalty between men at arms is exemplified in the intense friendship between the hero Roland and his friend, Oliver. This relationship anticipates the chivalric relations between Arthur and his Roundtable knights depicted in the romance genre that was invented in France in the twelfth-century narratives of Chrétien de Troyes. In a dichotomy similar to the simplistic one that distinguished between pagans and Christians, the Roland-poet characterized the two comrades thus: “Roland is brave; Oliver is wise”—a variation on the heroic “sapientia and fortitudo” ideal. Roland may be courageous, but his valor entails a good degree of proud folly when, as it becomes obvious that his army cannot prevail against the Saracen troops, he refuses to heed Oliver’s “sage” advice to sound his horn for help from Charlemagne. Later, when his depleted troops number only seventy and Roland rethinks his position about seeking help, Oliver scorns Roland’s plan. Distinguishing between “prudent valor” and “recklessness,” Oliver claims that if they called for aid now they would lose “los” (renown), the driving force that motivates not only the vassals in the chansons de geste, but also the Roundtable knights in the soon-to-be-developed Arthurian romances. Admitting that Oliver is right, in a series of moving laisses similaires, Roland nevertheless blows the horn so hard that he bursts the veins of his temples. In the ensuing attack of the Saracens, when Oliver is severely wounded, the blood running into his eyes blinds him and he strikes inadvertently at the weakening Roland. Oliver dies in his comrade Roland’s arms and when the French are outnumbered 40,000 to 3, Roland again feebly sounds his horn. After breaking his beloved sword Durendal so that the enemy cannot confiscate it, Roland dies extending his right hand toward Heaven. Angels bear Roland to Paradise, the promised reward for all loyal Crusaders.
Passion and the Grand Gesture
As full of “deeds” and broadly drawn differences as their plots are, these heroic poems are also characterized by a depiction of human passions and motives that is intriguing but somewhat baffling, conveying well the inscrutable and perhaps ultimately unknowable causes of their protagonists’ behavior. What triggered the evident but unexplained animosity between Roland and Ganelon? Why does Ganelon betray kin and country? What personal hubris (pride) prevents Roland from sounding the horn? The poet leaves these motives unexplored and ultimately elusive. This opaque mode of characterization would change with the advent of romance, which intimately explores the inner workings of the knightly protagonists’ minds and the sentiments of their hearts. But the Chanson de Roland is a poem full of grand and, if not subtle, then unforgettable gestures: Ganelon’s flinging of his cloak and backing up against a pine tree; white-haired, silver-bearded, 200-year-old Charlemagne’s brooding, almost mythic stroking of his long beard; Roland’s pathetically overdue sounding of the horn. It is also marked by touching moments between two male heroes, Roland and Oliver, whose friendship and mutual loyalty ultimately outweigh any differences of opinion they have about military strategy—the same homosocial affinity that saved the strained friendship of Gunnar and Njál in Njál’s Saga. Although little is made of the relationship in the poem, Ganelon’s sister Aude had been betrothed to Roland, and upon hearing of his death, Aude herself dies. One of the greatest changes in the literary treatment of the chivalric knightly ethos that occurs with the rise of the romance genre is the new prominence given to love relations between men and women. Given this same plot, Chrétien de Troyes would have made much more of the Roland-Aude courtship than the Roland-poet could ever care about.
The Heroic Narrative In Spain
The Multicultural Influence in Medieval Spain
While the emphasis on group deliberation and the successful trial of Ganelon in the Chanson de Roland suggests a move towards universal law that supersedes the blood feud of the Scandinavian sagas, the heroic narrative in Spain even more clearly shows an intense interest in the development of a legal system, one of a number of literary themes that arose from the area’s unique blend of Eastern and Western cultures. From the mid-eighth century—when a renegade from the Abba-sid dynasty in Persia, Abd al-Rahman I, brought an army to Spain, took possession of Córdoba, and proclaimed himself “emir” (commander) of al-Andalus—Muslim influence became firmly established in the Iberian Peninsula. The Muslim conquest of Spain was accompanied by the transmission to that region of the cultural flowering that had occurred in the eighth through ninth centuries under the Abbasids in Persia, when a widespread effort to translate the great advances in science, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy from Greek and Indian sources was undertaken. Great strides were also made in the development of legal treatises and commentaries on laws regarding taxation, religious practices, and rules of warfare. Under the Islamic emirs, medieval Spain was a rich cultural and ethnic mix of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, with over seventy-five percent of the population in al-Andalus (which took in most of the peninsula except for the small Christian kingdoms in the north) being non-Islamic. Resistance to the emirate began with the Christian king Alfonso II of Asturias (791-842), who modeled his reign on that of Charlemagne to the north. Alfonso’s descendents, particularly Alfonso VI (1065-1109), moved the capital of his kingdom from Oviedo to León where they erected churches, endowed monasteries, and encouraged literature and the arts to flourish. Moreover, after centuries of isolation from the rest of Europe, starting in the tenth century and continuing throughout the Middle Ages, northern Spain became the destination of pilgrims from all corners of Europe who journeyed there to visit the shrine of St. James at Compostela, contributing further to the rich cultural mix that characterized medieval Spain. Along the pilgrim routes that extended through France over the Pyrenees, the chansons de geste were performed orally by French and Spanish jongleurs (entertainers). The reign of Alfonso VI coincided with the period of the First Crusade, when Christian knights were under the obligation as vassals to fight for the pope against Muslim possession of the Holy Land. This constellation of influences—the free intermixing of Christians and Muslims in Spain, the themes of the literary works performed along the pilgrim route, the longtime tradition of caliphate encouragement of interest in laws and legal practices—were uniquely melded into a historical figure who would become the hero of Spain in its national epic.
The Career of “El Cid”
Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, whose exploits won him the title Mio Cid or “My Lord,” was banished twice as an outlaw (from 1081-1087 and from 1089-1092) by Alfonso VI, king of León. In many respects, true to the traditional profile of career outlaws, Rodrigo hired himself out as a mercenary knight for both Christian and Muslim sides in the various wars that occurred during Alfonso’s reign. In the first exile, Rodrigo served the Moorish emir Mu’taman of Saragossa in wars against his brother and the count of Barcelona. In the second banishment, Rodrigo captured the count of Barcelona and besieged the Moorish city of Valencia, taking possession of it in 1094 and dying there in 1099. After Rodrigo’s widow Jimena Díaz buried him in the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos, Valencia fell again to the Muslims. Out of these rather mundane threads of an outlaw’s life was spun a rich literary tapestry and the greatest heroic narrative of medieval Spain.
The Poem of El Cid
Although it is liberally embellished with fictional elements, the oldest nearly complete medieval epic of Spain, The Poem of El Cid, like its literary relation the chanson de geste, is deeply rooted in historical fact. However, the mode of development of the work, from oral narrative to written epic, resembles the pattern of the Roland and the more folkloric, supernatural Beowulf. From a few bare facts the poetic treatment of El Cid’s career as an outlaw warrior developed in Latin chronicles and songs delivered by jongleurs (entertainers) to amuse visitors to Rodrigo’s tomb. Sometime between 1201-1207, a century after the events which it portrays, the poem as it is known by modern scholars was most likely composed by a monk at the abbey at Cardeña, who may have been exposed to French heroic poems such as The Song of Roland and the William of Orange Cycle, which were performed for entertainment along the enormously popular pilgrimage route to the shrine of Saint James at Compostela. Blurring the historical facts through the lens of fiction, the Spanish poet invents several pivotal characters who enliven his plot either by befriending the hero—his right-hand man Álvar Fáñez—or by providing conflict for the protagonist—two obscure and cowardly Leónese minor nobles, known in the poem simply as the Infantes of Carrión. These villains marry El Cid’s daughters and later brutally dishonor them by stripping them of their outer clothes and leaving them in a forest; thus the Infantes provoke the delayed vengeance of their father-in-law, a highlight of the poem.
The Structure of El Cid
From the outset, one of the distinctive cultural features of El Cid is its setting in a society with a highly developed “court” system where many people serve as the king’s advisors, seeking to be among his favorites and thus receive lands and benefits. The poem’s overlapping double plot, structured over three divisions or cantars (songs) which may have been orally performed on three separate occasions, concentrates chiefly on El Cid’s second term of exile, purportedly instigated by false accusations about him made by jealous courtiers. The first plot depicts the hero’s dishonorable exile and his gradual political rehabilitation, achieved by his strategic cunning, his display of physical prowess, and the favor of his Christian God towards him in a series of successful military campaigns against the Moors in the first cantar. In an epic exaggeration the Christian Cid loses only fifteen followers while the enemy Moors suffer thirteen hundred fatalities, yet the defeated Moors respect him so much that they are sorry to see him leave. In the second cantar, El Cid vindicates his personal honor, achieving a royal pardon for his triumphant capture of Valencia and, yielding to the king’s will, marrying his daughters to the Infantes of Carrión, even though he knows that these alliances will lead to trouble in the future. The importance of the theme of courage as the distinguishing characteristic of the hero is emphasized at the beginning of the third cantar, which opens with an invented but powerfully effective episode in which the cowering Infantes physically disgrace themselves at the sudden appearance of an escaped lion. When El Cid so intimidates the lion that he is able single-handedly to recapture and cage the beast, he thus increases his own already considerable fame while disgracing his cowardly sons-in-law. The Infantes subsequently avenge their shame by abducting their wives, stripping them of their outer clothing, beating them brutally, and leaving them for dead in the wild oak forest. El Cid’s nephew returns the hero’s daughters to their grateful father, who brings a lawsuit against his sons-in-law in the king’s court. Here the heritage of the caliphate interest in legal issues reflected in a major section of the plot can be seen. Because the king had arranged the marriage between the Infantes and El Cid’s daughters, he shares the dishonor of his vassals. The trial culminates in a judicial combat between three of El Cid’s followers, who successfully champion his suit against the Infantes and their family, defeating them in the field. In addition to receiving financial compensation from the Infantes, the hero is further honored at the story’s end when the king arranges for El Cid’s daughters’ marriage to the princes of Navarre and Aragon. The poem’s structure well displays in Rodrigo’s behavior the hero’s possession of fortitudo(physical courage) in the conquest of Valencia and the lion episode. El Cid exhibits sapientia (wisdom, discretion) in the self-restraint he shows in electing to prosecute rather than physically attack the Infantes, which causes them to lose more honor. The trial, a highlight of the text for the original audience, reflects the cultural inheritance of Muslim learning.
Origins, Definitions, and Categories of Romance
The New-Found Power of Women
The invention of the romance genre occurred because of a confluence of historical events, cultural developments, and shifts of literary taste and audience. When Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade in 1095, the lords of hundreds of demesnes (manorial lands) throughout Europe answered the request of their religious lord and marched or sailed to the Middle East to spend years in military combat. These aristocrats and their followers were exposed to Eastern and Arabic cultural and literary influences, as well as opportunities for economic exploitation and importation of the luxury goods, spices, and exquisite fabrics from the region. Literary forms of the first half of the twelfth century, such as the chanson de geste, not only reflected the heroic warrior ethic of European Crusaders, but also provided textual vehicles for Crusading propaganda. While these male members of the aristocracy were absent from their courts and manors, life and business went on at home in Europe, chiefly through the management of these estates by their wives and mothers. This trend is reflected in the transitional work, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Willehalm, in which the hero Willehalm leaves his citadel in Orange in the capable hands of his wife Gyburc, who not only runs the estate, but also literally defends its ramparts against invading armies of Moors. Two royal women in such circumstances—Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) and eventually her daughter, Marie—had a particular influence on the development of romance. Duchess of the largest duchy in France, extending from the Poitou to the Pyrenees Mountains near the border of Spain, Eleanor was first married to the king of France, Louis VII, whom she accompanied to the Second Crusade, where according to one chronicler, she paraded herself to the troops dressed as an Amazon queen. When, after fifteen years of marriage, she failed to produce male heirs, Louis divorced her in 1152, and shortly thereafter Eleanor made an even more lucrative marriage to Henry II, Plantagenet king of England.
Female Literary Influence
Eleanor brought to the English court her interests in poetry, music, and the arts, all of which were cultivated at the court of Aquitaine where she was raised by her grandfather William IX of Aquitaine (1071-1127), a Crusader and also the first known troubadour poet. In the vernacular narratives now seen as early “romances” that may have been written for and/or dedicated to Eleanor, an emphasis on the sort of love relationship that is depicted in troubadour poetry, commonly known as “courtly love” (fin’amors in Provençal, the language of troubadour poetry), can be found. In such relationships the female beloved is elevated to have extreme emotional power over her male lover, a supremacy that was probably a literary wish fulfillment fantasy of the female audiences of romances. Marie, Eleanor’s daughter by Louis, also made an advantageous marriage by which she became duchess of Champagne, presiding over not only a political court, but also a “court of love,” at which troubadour poets and writers of the newly emerging genre of romance, such as Chrétien de Troyes, were supported with her patronage and, at times, that of her mother. Another important writer at Marie’s court was Andreas Capellanus, whose Art of Courtly Love, a treatise on conducting relationships involving fin’amors, reflects the new examination of interior feelings and motives that characterize the heroes and heroines of the emerging romance genre. Thus, the new audience of powerful women who presided over the courts of France, England, and Germany influenced the subject matter of many of the narratives that were written in Europe in the second half of the twelfth century. It is no accident that the earliest romances, which were about the “Matter of Antiquity”—the history of Thebes, the Trojan War, and the settlement of Rome by Aeneas—featured female characters who were militarily powerful, such as Camille in the Roman d’Eneas, based on the Amazon warrior queen Camilla in Vergil’s Aeneid, or the Amazon Penthesileia in the Roman de Troie, a romanticized version of the story of the Trojan War.
New “Matter” for Romance
Another factor that gave rise to the development of this new genre was the twelfth-century emergence and dissemination of Celtic legends, circulated by traveling conteurs (storytellers) and jongleurs (court entertainers) from Brittany. These oral tales of Breton folklore contributed such characteristic Celtic themes and motifs as magic, the supernatural, human to animal transformations, and a faery “otherworld” not only generally to the romance genre, but also particularly to its most famous product, Arthurian romance, which got its start in the mid-twelfth century when Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-55) wrote about a semi-mythical king, Arthur, in his History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey established Arthur’s conception and birth at Tintagel in Cornwall, his marriage to Guinevere, and his reliance on his sorcerer-like advisor Merlin. Geoffrey’s chronicling of British royal history, which began with a “Matter of Antiquity,” the foundation of Britain by Brutus (great-grandson of Aeneas), soon became disseminated in France when a Norman chronicler named Wace translated these British materials for a French audience in his verse narrative, Brut (1155), incorporating his own inventive embellishments to Geoffrey’s themes such as the “Round Table” and the sword “Excalibur.” At the end of the twelfth century still another English writer, Layamon (or Lawman), retranslated Wace’s French narrative into alliterative poetry in the Middle English Brut. This trans-Channel transfer of stories about Arthur rendered him and his Roundtable knights one of the most enduring subjects of medieval romance. When combined with the effects of the first Crusades and the beginnings of troubadour lyric poetry, the dissemination of Celtic and Arthurian motifs resulted in the development of romance, a genre that was to remain popular in nearly all areas of Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
Conventions of Medieval Romance
Medieval romances, which liberally took their plots from the various “matters” of France, Britain, and Rome (or Antiquity), comprised a very elastic form subject to much variation. In certain ways, romances duplicate some of the characteristics of heroic narratives. In fact, both genres are populated by knights who engage in elaborately described martial combat. Nevertheless, certain narrative conventions characteristic of romance help distinguish it from other heroic poetry. A romance is usually a long, loosely organized, episodic narrative, composed in verse or prose, whose plot involves a search or quest and the testing of the prowess or morality of its knightly hero, for whom events are often governed by chance, accident, fate, or supernatural intervention. The romance’s handling of narrative time varies: in some cases, plot events are slowly protracted, almost suspended in time; in other cases, there are rapid jumps in narrative time. Observing artificial deadlines is part of the hero’s test, as in Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain, when the protagonist fails to return to his wife Laudine within a promised year and, to make amends for this betrayal, must spend the second half of the romance in the service of distressed women.
Male and Female Protagonists
The goal of the male protagonist—usually the bravest, most handsome specimen of courtly society—is to achieve self-realization through physical adventures, following a plot pattern of separation from the group (often the other Roundtable knights), disruption, testing, and ultimately a return to harmony, often, but not necessarily, gained through a romantic love interest. The focus of romance is the psychologically flawed and un-self-aware individual hero on a quest or journey away from the known to test his moral strength. It is usually not King Arthur himself, but rather one of his individual Roundtable knights who is the hero of Arthurian romances. The female characters of romance, almost always extraordinarily beautiful, are sometimes peripheral objects of exchange between men, sometimes the goal of the quest, sometimes catalysts to disaster as temptresses, and sometimes the ultimate rewards for the ennobling behavior they elicit from the knightly protagonist. Antagonists are either monsters—giants, mythical beasts, grotesque hybrids like the Green Knight of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—or pathological versions of the self, as in Malory’s fratricidal brothers, Balin and Balan. Romances are set in the exotic other world of faery, an “unofficial” or liminal fantasy world that is juxtaposed with the “official” court, from whose safety knights journey through the dark forest of aventure (what happens to you) on a quest to discover the self.
Categories of Medieval Romance
Although to modern audiences medieval romances can seem utterly fantastic, completely unconnected to the concerns of reality, for their original audiences these narratives served not only to entertain but also to instruct. The predicaments in which the heroes of romances found themselves and the manner in which they met these challenges served as models of behavior for aristocratic auditors or readers. For example, in the roman d’aventure (romance of adventure) a knight achieves great feats of arms almost solely to enhance his reputation through a series of what appear to be random adventures. The similar “courtly” or “chivalric” romance serves as a vehicle for presenting and examining the chivalric ethic, where each in the progression of adventures demonstrates different things about the hero or represents different stages in his journey towards internal harmony. In the knight’s quest or search, the locales he traverses are meaningfully related to the knight’s individual moral progress or expose some aspect of the aristocratic life to critical scrutiny. In this way, courtly romance is educative, proposing for the knight-protagonist (and for the romance’s original medieval audience) models of courtly behavior or courtoisie (courtesy) in various areas such as combat, social relations, or the service of women and the oppressed. In long romances, the series of adventures becomes something like a fated and graduated test encouraging the knight to strive for personal perfection. Other secular romances follow the general pattern of adventure and quest, but combine these elements with another genre: the allegorical dream vision. For example, the narrator of the Romance of the Rose, a work that examines the spectrum of erotic love and satirizes aspects of courtly life, dreams that he undergoes a quest for a special rose (symbolizing the psyche of a young woman), resulting in a poem that, while called “romance,” is really more closely related to moral or didactic literature.
Religion and Romance
Medieval romance was not only about the secular subjects of knightly combat, social niceties, and erotic attraction. A large component of many romances reflected the influence of Christianity and its teachings. In “religious romances” the allegorical and symbolic potential of the genre is exploited to direct the action from secular to religious goals. The knight’s progress is turned to a narrower examination of the state of his soul; through the process of the quest, the hero arrives at spiritual revelation and, in the end, he rejects the physical world altogether. The romances about Galahad’s achievement of the Grail Quest—where Lancelot’s son Galahad concludes that he cannot achieve spiritual perfection and remain in the earthly world—and Gawain’s humble acknowledgment of his flawed troth in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustrate this romance sub-type. Moreover, in “homiletic” or “didactic romances,” the usual elements of romance are superimposed on a story told primarily for its moral significance according to the pattern of a saint’s life as established in a narrative genre called “hagiography.” In these “hagiographic romances,” the central character suffers extreme hardships either as punishment for transgression or as a test of faith in a trial by ordeal rather than by adventure. The romance concludes not with the achievement of self-knowledge, but with the granting of grace or reprieve, as is illustrated by Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale of Griselda and his Man of Law’s Tale of Custance, where after seemingly losing children and family, the heroines have their losses restored to them at the end of the tale.
“Courtly Love” or Fin’amors
One of the most commonly held, and perhaps most misunderstood, modern notions about the Middle Ages is the type of romantic or erotic love believed to have been practiced in the period, popularly referred to as “courtly love.” Courtly love is a cluster of related ideas and sensibilities characterizing an extreme expression of romantic passion that was demonstrated frequently by characters in medieval literature, especially in courtly romances and the love lyrics of the French troubadours and the German minnesingers. The term “courtly love” was never used in medieval texts, although medieval authors and poets did use the term fin’amors (refined love) to describe the extremes of emotion experienced, often suffered, by male protagonists in romances and by the lover singing love songs to his beloved in the lyric tradition. After observing the phenomenon depicted in various romances, the French literary historian Gaston Paris coined the term “courtly love” at the end of the nineteenth century to describe the devotion of knights for their ladies in medieval romances and love poetry, and the term took on a life of its own. Many general discussions of medieval literature now treat the “courtly love” experienced by various romance heroes—Chrétien’s Lancelot, Chaucer’s Troilus, or Dante’s narrative persona in his ostensibly autobiographical lyric collection La Vita Nuova—as if the authors themselves used the term. In fact, although medieval authors never call what they are describing “courtly love,” this particular construction of heterosexual love has a long literary history. It is not surprising that the Middle Ages would embrace a variety of love discourse that has such antique, and therefore authoritative, origins.
The Origins of Courtly Love
The origins of this form of extreme love can be traced to the Roman poet Ovid, one of the most highly regarded “authorities” in the Middle Ages, whose Ars Amatoria (Art of Love; 1 B.C.E.) contributed many of the tropes now familiar as “courtly love.” These include the idea of love as a kind of warfare between the sexes, in which every lover is a soldier in the army of love over which Cupid is the commander-in-chief, and the notion of the absolute power of women over men, who are afflicted by a form of madness because of which they undergo various hardships and physical sufferings and practice absurdly exaggerated behavior. Another likely literary source of more contemporary vintage was The Dove’s Neck Ring, produced in Muslim Spain (1022) by Ibn Hazm, who was influenced by Platonic ideals about love. Hazm’s contributions to the discourse of courtly love include the notion that man reveals and improves his character or good breeding by practicing a chaste (rather than sensual) love. This rarefied love produces an ennobling effect on the male lover, changing a man of humble birth to the equal of the noble lady to whom he aspires. According to Hazm’s version of neo-Platonism, true love is a reunion of parts of souls that were separated in the creation.
Characteristics of Courtly Love
But what exactly was the late medieval European phenomenon known popularly as “courtly love”? This medieval pattern of erotic behavior was really a cult of frustrated longing. It involved the male lover’s unfulfilled sexual desire for a female love object—an unattainable, extremely beautiful and perfect courtly lady, whose very inaccessibility (because she is married to someone else, often the lover’s lord) makes her more attractive to the lover. Thus, for the male lover, the essence of the experience of love is a paradoxical combination of pleasure and pain. He experiences joy at the sight of the beloved whose proximity brings delight; at the same time he endures intense mental and physical suffering—a host of disorders including chills, fevers, aches, insomnia—experienced simultaneously with the pleasure. This paradoxical combination of pleasure and pain is caused illogically by the fact that despite her very nearness, the lover cannot have her. In this topsy-turvy situation, the courtly lady is the “physician” who is both the cause and the potential cure of the courtly lover’s painful frustration. Because they often involved marital infidelity on the part of at least one of the pair, courtly love relationships had to be conducted with the utmost secrecy. This necessitated clandestine meetings between the lovers, which ended at dawn, thus giving rise to the lyric genre of the aubade or “dawn song.” Secrecy and physical separation inspired acute bouts of jealousy in both parties, all part of the phenomenon’s allure. Because the attainment and practice of courtoisie (courtesy) was limited to the aristocracy, courtly love was only to be practiced by the most elite classes of medieval society, the knights and ladies at the aristocratic courts. Indeed, when a knight was attracted to the beauty of a peasant woman, he was instructed simply to take her by force if she did not immediately succumb to his flatteries, a plot situation illustrated in the lyric genre of the pastourelle.
Real and Imagined Courtly Love
Although no concrete evidence exists that the fantastic courtship known as courtly love was actually practiced during the medieval period, this erotic fantasy or game nevertheless had much literary currency from the twelfth century onwards, when the wife of King Louis VII of France, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their daughter Marie reputedly set up “courts of love” respectively at their estates in Aquitaine and Champagne. Both Eleanor and Marie were literary patronesses of troubadour poets and romance writers, and, through their encouragement, the discourse of courtly love as we know it took shape. At Marie’s request, Chrétien de Troyes wrote the unfinished romance, The Knight of the Cart, about Lancelot’s courtly desire for Guinevere, and at her court another cleric, Andreas Capellanus, wrote his Ovid-influenced treatise De Amore (About Love) also titled De Arte Honeste Amandi (About the Art of Frank Loving; 1180s), a three-part “guide” to conducting courtly love addressed to a young man named Walter. Andreas’s first two books present the rules of the game—what rank the lovers must be and how they must conduct themselves. Ironically, his third book, containing a vehement repudiation of secular love and a misogynistic attack on the vices of women, retracts all the advice offered previously. Placed on the proverbial “pedestal” above the reach of the courtly lover by his frustrated yearning for her, the courtly lady of the first two books enjoyed a position of power that few actual medieval women (except for queens and countesses like Eleanor and Marie) ever experienced. And even queens, subject to the temporal power of their husbands, could be locked in towers, which happened to Eleanor herself when her second husband, Henry II grew tired of her meddling in his political affairs. Knocked off the “pedestal” of adulation, the courtly lady instead returned to being the object of medieval antifeminism more typical of the period’s attitudes toward women.
The Historical or Pre-Literary Arthur
King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table are to this day the most familiar and beloved medieval literary characters. They continue to fascinate audiences of contemporary novels, scores of cinematic treatments—from the serious John Boorman film Excalibur to the parodic farce, Monty Python and the Holy Grail—and even print and television advertising employing the Arthurian icons of the sword Excalibur, the ideal of Camelot, and the quest for the Holy Grail. Although the figure of King Arthur known to medieval and modern audiences first took shape in the twelfth century, the product of the accumulation of almost six centuries of legend building, there is some evidence (admittedly slender) for the actual existence of an “historical” Arthur. Contemporary archeological excavation contributes to the still ongoing search for the historical foundations of the King Arthur legend. A leader of the Welsh named “Arthur” who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons apparently lived in late fifth-to early sixth-century Britain. The historian Gildas first mentioned the battle of Badon (c. 500), which the Welsh poem “Gododdin” (c. 600), in the earliest reference to Arthur’s name, later attributed as a triumph to someone named “Arthur.” The Welsh historian Nennius, in theHistoria Brittonum (History of the Britons; c. 800), named this Arthur “Dux Bellorum” (leader of warriors). Two tenth-century Welsh chronicles, the Spoils of Annwen, and the Annales Cambriae (Annals of the Welsh) added to the growing legend the figure of Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, who later kills his father. The tenth-to twelfth-century anthology of Welsh tales titled the Mabinogion added other Arthurian characters, including Yvain, whose character was amplified most extensively by Chrétien de Troyes in a romance about his adventures. In 1125, the historian William of Malmesbury wrote his Gesta Regnum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings), further establishing Arthur’s reputation as a British hero.
Literary Treatments of the Arthur Legend
The six centuries of scattered historical fragments giving evidence of the existence of a warrior named Arthur coalesced into a coherent narrative of a heroic life in the mid-twelfth century. The version of King Arthur that has become familiar to post-medieval audiences was first compiled then by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155), whose Latin text, Historia Regnum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain; 1137), used the growing legend of Arthur as a unification myth for a Britain divided in civil war between loyalty to King Stephen or to Empress Matilda. Geoffrey introduced many of the features that would become standard Arthur lore—Merlin, the Mont-Saint-Michel giant, the prehistory of Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon, and Arthur’s final voyage to Avalon. The Anglo-Norman writer, Wace (c. 1100-1175), “translated”—rewrote in Anglo-Norman French with considerable changes to suit his audiences—Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicle into Le Roman de Brut (1155), an originary romance featuring stories about Camelot and the knights of Arthur’s court, and inventing the Round Table. In the late twelfth century, Chrétien de Troyes (fl. 1160-1190) appropriated Arthurian knights to produce in Old French a series of long and complex verse romances separately dedicated to the individual stories of several members of Arthur’s court: Yvain: the Knight of the Lion, Lancelot: the Knight of the Cart, and Perceval, who figured prominently in the Quest of the Holy Grail. At about the same time Chrétien was writing his Arthurian romances, Marie de France (1150-1200) also wrote a series of Breton lais, two of which feature the Arthurian court—Lanval, about an unknown young knight, and Chevrefoil, about Tristan and Iseult. Thus by the end of the twelfth century, the constellation of Arthurian characters had become familiar to French and English audiences. Across the English Channel, Lawman (also spelled “Layamon,” 1189-1207) translated Wace’s Le Roman de Brut into alliterative early Middle English in a poem titled Brut, which introduced the motif of Arthur’s prophetic dream before Mordred’s treachery.
Late Medieval Expansion of the Arthur Story in France
Although Arthur was the main figure in the “Matter” of Britain, his story was appropriated by all European medieval national literatures, but especially in France. By the thirteenth century, the stories about Arthur and his knights had accumulated to such a degree that between 1215 and 1235 several anonymous French writers contributed to the compilation of what has come to be called collectively the Vulgate Cycle (or Lancelot-Grail Cycle) and the later Post-Vulgate Cycle of romances, parts of which were translated into German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Irish, and Welsh, and were important sources for Sir Thomas Malory’s late Middle English Morte D’Arthur in the fifteenth century. This vast interrelated but independently authored cycle of romances traced the entire career of the Arthurian cast of characters, including an extensive narrative about the life of Merlin (The History of Merlin); the enmity between Morgan le Faye and her half-sibling Arthur; her vengeful desire for Lancelot in order to thwart Guinevere; the knightly adventures of Lancelot as well as the adulterous love between Lancelot and Guinevere (The Prose Lancelot); the Grail Quest (The History of the Holy Grail and The Quest for the Holy Grail); and Arthur’s death (The Death of Arthur). The Vulgate Cycle’s authors expanded upon the personal lives of the Arthurian cast more than had ever been done previously and embellished the growing legend with a high degree of magic, mysticism, psychological complexity, and explicit sexuality. This French version of the Arthur story was perhaps the high point in the development of the medieval legend.
The “Englishing” of Arthurian Romance
Arthur was not neglected by writers in his own Britain, especially in the last two centuries of the medieval era. In the fourteenth century, several important additions to the Arthurian literary corpus were produced in England. The Alliterative Morte Arthure (c. 1360), a Middle English poem about Arthur’s death which may have been influenced by the Vulgate Cycle and later served as an important source for Thomas Malory in his own long collection of Arthurian narratives, is notable for using the Boethian symbol of the “wheel of fortune” (representing the concept of cyclical alternations between worldly prosperity and adversity) in its characterization of Arthur’s developing enmity with his illegitimate son Mordred. Written in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, another poem that belongs to the so-called fourteenth-century “Alliterative Revival,” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, depicts the challenge brought to Camelot by a monstrous Green Knight, who is elaborately described as a hybrid of courtly elegance and primitive naturalism. With its intricate structure into four parts or “fitts,” its employment of extensive number symbolism (the three correlating hunts and seductions at Castle Hautdesert and the highly symbolic pentangle emblem on the shield carried by Gawain) and color signification (green and gold), and its incorporation of folklore motifs into a courtly romance (the exchange of blows game introduced by the Green Knight and the exchange of winnings game proposed by Bertilak), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most literarily sophisticated romances in the Arthurian canon. At about the same time, in the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer assigned an Arthurian romance to be told by his female pilgrim, the Wife of Bath, in which an unnamed Arthurian knight (analogues suggest the knight was Gawain) rapes a maiden and to avoid execution quests to find out “what women want most.”
Romance in Print: Malory’s Arthur
Finally, between 1469 and 1470, Sir Thomas Malory composed a series of tales about Arthur and Camelot in late Middle English prose. Published and edited by the early printer William Caxton, the first printed edition of Malory’s Arthurian tales was titled Le Morte Arthure by Caxton in 1485. Upon the discovery of the presumably earlier hand-written Winchester Manuscript in 1934, Eugène Vinaver re-edited Malory’s romances as Malory’s Works. Comparison of Malory’s texts with earlier versions of the Arthur story reveal that, in addition to the Alliterative Morte, Malory also drew heavily on the various parts of the French Vulgate Cycle for such details as the origins of Arthur, the role of Merlin, the treachery of Morgan le Faye, the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, the Grail Quest, the extensive story of Tristram and Isolde, and the death of Arthur at the hands of Mordred. While many sections of Malory’s version are immediately recognizable as deriving from the Vulgate source, Malory is far more reticent than his French authorities were about incorporating elements of magic and details of the sexual passions experienced by these Arthurian characters. Like his model, Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose twelfth-century audience was experiencing civil war between advocates of King Stephen and Empress Matilda, Malory, himself a prisoner when he wrote the book, used the story of Arthur as a unifying myth for a divided Britain. In Malory’s hands, Arthur’s legend, which culminated in internal strife because of the moral frailties of the inhabitants of Camelot, served as an exemplum, a story embodying a moral lesson, for his fifteenth-century English audience, who were now divided, as they had been by the Stephen-Matilda feud in Geoffrey’s age, by the War of the Roses.
Translatio Studii: Sources for Romance
The Medieval Definition of “Translation”
Reverence for the past and respect for the “authority” of previous authors and texts determined which plots and characters medieval writers selected to “translate” from a different language, either Latin or another vernacular language, into a new vernacular version for their immediate audience. This process, known as translatio studii, was not the equivalent of the modern translator’s earnest striving to reproduce with linguistic exactitude the ideas of a foreign language literary text; rather, it reflected the Latin root of “translate,” meaning “to carry across.” Thus, the medieval translator’s goal was to transfer the plot and characters of a tale produced for the audience of one national culture or earlier period to that of another culture in a later period. This process was often accompanied by significant changes in the transfer. Often what got “lost in translation” was not only some of the plot and original roles of the characters, but also the very genre that the model text represented. In France, the twelfth century simultaneously saw a peaking of the popularity and production of chansons de geste (heroic poetry), exemplified by the large cycle of William of Orange poems, and the development of a new genre, courtly romance, in the works of Chrétien de Troyes. Given the reluctance of medieval writers to invent new plots, it is not surprising that many older works were “translated” to fulfill the demand for stories that could be reworked into this popular vernacular literary form.
Translatio Study from French to German
In the early thirteenth century, the German writer Wolfram von Eschenbach (d. 1220-1230) “translated” Aliscans, a twelfth-century French chanson de geste from the William of Orange cycle, for a new German-speaking audience. As a result, the genre of Wolfram’s uncompleted Willehalm is virtually unclassifiable. This hybrid work exemplifies a significant trend in the development of medieval European literature: the transition in literary taste from the heroic mode to the romance. Wolfram’s earlier Parzival had already translated Chrétien de Troyes’s unfinished Conte du Graal, a courtly romance about the “Quest for the Holy Grail,” proving him an adept practitioner of the new genre. In Willehalm, Wolfram maintains the basic chanson de geste plot conflict about the title character, a Frankish warrior, William, who must enlist aid from the reluctant French king Louis to defend the city of Orange against attack by armies of Moors attempting to recapture Willehalm’s newly converted Christian bride, Gyburc. However, in importing this plot from the French heroic mode, the German author, a practiced romance writer, adds many romance elements to the received heroic plot. Leading the Moors are the father, former husband, and son of Gyburc, whose family is intent on returning her, dead or alive, to both her original home and her Muslim faith. However, in Wolfram’s treatment, Gyburc’s conversion results as much from her deep love for the Christian warrior Willehalm as from her altered religious convictions. This change reveals the obvious influence of the development of “Minne,” the German concept of courtly love.
The Shift to Romance
Although the heroic literary tradition exoticized the Moors to the point of their seeming monstrously inhuman and therefore deserving slaughter by the Christian armies, Wolfram also shows a new tolerance for religious difference that replaces the rigid “The Christians are right, the Pagans are wrong” mentality that dominated the earlier heroic mode. He depicts the Moorish leaders as courtly knights who practice the same chivalry as their Christian counterparts. This shift is exemplified in his revised characterization of the giant wild-man-like Moor Rennewart. In the epic exaggeration of the source text, this buffoonish character carries an uprooted tree with which he crushes anyone who causes him trouble. Wolfram’s character at first wields a large club, which he later replaces with the more civilized sword. Moreover, his substantial role in the French source is downplayed so as to give Wolfram’s hero Willehalm more prominence. On the other hand, Willehalm’s doomed nephew Vivianz, whose idealistic heroism reflects Roland’s stubborn self-sufficiency and whose saintly death reflects the wafting of Roland heavenward at the end of the Song of Roland, seems a throwback to the earlier mode. Wolfram’s revised treatment of Gyburc, the heroine, also illustrates his bridging of elements of both genres. This engaging and sympathetic female character is shown to be capable both of carrying out the “feminine” duties of the faithful wife and chatelaine of the castle, and of ingeniously defending the citadel of Orange (in Willehalm’s absence) against a protracted siege waged by armies of Moors that include her own father, former husband, and son. Whereas typical chansons de geste downplayed the role of women in the lives of heroic warriors such as Roland and Oliver, Gyburc is a substantial character in Wolfram’s reconceived plot and a major force in the hero’s successful defense of home, nation, and religion.
Translatio Studii From Greek to Italian to Middle English
Another case of how translatio studii could significantly change the nature of a well-known story involves the transmission of narratives about the ancient Greeks into late medieval literature. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), an Italian writer more famous for his story collection the Decameron, also wrote two important texts about characters from Greek history—Il Teseide (The Story of Theseus; c. 1341) and Il Filostrato (The One Made Prostrate by Love; c. 1341)—both of which balance heroic and romance style. Geoffrey Chaucer translated these works into Middle English in the late fourteenth century, but significantly altered them, both in content and in genre, while doing so. Both Boccaccio’s Filostrato and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde are set during the Trojan War and feature such famous classical characters as Troilus, Priam, Hector, and Cassandra. Although Boccaccio had already somewhat altered the Greek story for his medieval Italian audience in the Filostrato, Chaucer added to his own translation (written about forty years later) even more “medievalizing” of the costumes worn, religious faith practiced, and general socio-cultural outlook of the story’s characters. For example, Chaucer turned the political tragedy of fallen Troy into a backdrop for complicated interactions between the ill-fated lovers Troilus and Criseyde, their go-between Pandarus (now Criseyde’s uncle rather than her cousin as in Boccaccio), and a rival lover Diomede. With its incorporation of courtly love elements such as the enforced secrecy between the lovers and Troilus’s protracted languishing in physical afflictions and emotional despair, Chaucer’s text more resembles a courtly romance than an epic. In a further example of translatio studii, Chaucer also assigned to his character Troilus many speeches about free will versus predestination taken almost verbatim from Boethius’s Latin Consolation of Philosophy, which Chaucer had himself translated from Latin to Middle English as the Boece. At the conclusion of the Troilus, Chaucer’s narrator also adopted a medieval Christian perspective that is at odds with his earlier pagan outlook, which had been indicated by invocations to the classical muses and overt references to the Greek pantheon.
In the Knight’s Tale, the first of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer performs a similar transformation from an epic or heroic mode to romance. He eliminates most of the material in his Italian source Il Teseide about Theseus’s war against the Amazons and renders Theseus less a tyrant and more a philosopher-king, thus moving the poem towards a consideration of universal order and earthly impermanence. Likewise, by enhancing the courtly love motif in the triangle between the rival lovers Palamoun and Arcite and their love object Emeleye, and eliminating any characteristics that would associate her with the war-like Amazons, he brings the trio into a thoroughly medieval world that includes conventional beauty, love-sickness, jealousy, and the demande d’amour (a question of which of the two lovers is worse off, since the one the lady has not chosen can see her from his prison while the other has her love but is exiled). Chaucer also incorporates, as he did in the Troilus, significant passages from Boethius’s Consolation in the discourse between Palamoun and Arcite, whose imprisonment by Theseus in a tower resembles the situation of Boethius. In this way, Chaucer and other medieval authors took material from the past as well as texts of earlier authors and made them relevant to the cultural situation of their immediate audience. In doing so, they created literary works that straddle the genres of epic and romance.
The Breton Lay in French
Although the transformation from heroic poetry to romance was among the most common kinds of “translation,” not all romances were long narratives with grand battles and episodic repetitions. Some examples were quite brief. In fact, the structural relationship between what is known as the “Breton lay” and a full-length romance is similar to that between the short story and the novel. During the twelfth century, traveling minstrels and conteurs (storytellers) spread a body of tales then originating in Brittany, whose plots reflected and incorporated aspects of Celtic folklore. These tales, originally in the Breton language, were performed orally until eventually a twelfth-century female writer, Marie de France (probably a native of France living in England), transformed her oral sources into formal Anglo-French “lays.” Marie’s sparely written narratives feature settings in the magical Celtic Other World, rash promises, erotic entanglements between humans and the world of faery, an ambivalent almost amoral code of ethics guiding behavior, and a strong supernatural strain. Marie’s Lanval exemplifies the genre’s main characteristics. This lay depicts the secret erotic relationship between an impoverished Arthurian knight Lanval and a ravishingly beautiful faery mistress, who brings him prosperity and fame in return for his promise not to tell anyone about their relationship. When the jealous Queen Guinevere accuses Lanval of homosexuality, he breaks his promise by praising his absent mistress’s beauty, thus revealing her existence to Arthur’s court. Although the protagonist is saved by the faery, she whisks him, perhaps ominously, to the Other World of Avalon at the tale’s end. In another of the tales, the title-character Bisclavret, although a werewolf, nevertheless is portrayed as being ethically superior to his traitorous human wife, thus exemplifying the moral ambivalence of the genre. Similarly, Marie’s Laüstic, meaning “Nightingale,” tautly narrates the clandestine relationship between an unhappy wife and her lover in a house across the alley from hers. The adulterous courtly love of these neighbors is symbolized by the title bird, whose evening song is the woman’s excuse (to her jealous husband) for standing at the window to communicate with her lover. When the irate husband kills the bird, the lovers enshrine the nightingale—and their love—in a jeweled casket.
The Breton Lay in English
Some of the Anglo-Norman lais of Marie de France were translated into Middle English. For example, Marie’s Lanval was rendered by an anonymous author as the fourteenth-century short romance, Sir Launfel. Other Middle English romances based on Breton lays include Sir Orfeo, retelling the legend of Orpheus and Euridice, Sir Degaré, and Sir Gowther, the last two of which involve magical transformations and shape-shifting. However, the most famous English example is the typical Breton lay that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote as one of his Canterbury Tales. The Franklin’s Tale, which is set in Brittany, revolves around an intricate exchange of promises made by a husband Arveragus, his wife Dorigen, a neighboring squire Aurelius who is smitten with the wife, and a clerk from Orléans. The tale’s crux involves the disappearance, magical or otherwise, of treacherous rocks along the coastline of Brittany, the removal of which Dorigen imposes on the squire as a condition of her love. The Franklin’s Tale concludes with the ambiguity that is the hallmark of the genre of the Breton lay, an open-ended question asking the audience to choose—from the husband, the squire, or the clerk—whose behavior was the most “free.” This key word “free,” an adjective that means “generous” and “honest,” also refers to the status of a non-noble landowner, the rank of the teller, the Franklin (“frank”=”free”), who is especially concerned with exhibiting virtues that will associate him with a higher class.
The Non-Narrative Lyric Impulse
In addition to long heroic and romance narratives in verse and prose, short “lyric” poems, some intended for singing to musical accompaniment, were composed from the ninth through the fifteenth centuries throughout Europe. Their subject matter varied by region, reflecting local political, religious, and cultural developments. And as these issues changed throughout the European Middle Ages, the trends in what was “sung” or recited in these short poetic works shifted commensurately. Even so, as also occurred with the long heroic narrative and the romance, there was much mutual imitation of short poetic forms among European nations, especially on the Continent.
The Lyric in Early Medieval England
In the Anglo-Saxon period in England (ninth through eleventh centuries), lyric poetry had a distinctively nostalgic or elegiac tone. Although the poets could not have known the ancient Greek and Roman elegy lamenting the loss of a person, place, or thing, the brooding or gloomy tone of these poems reflects the harsh conditions of life for isolated tribal peoples who were often separated from their comrades or families by brutal weather, lengthy sea travel, or internecine warfare. Lyric poems produced during this era reflect many of the heroic themes of Beowulf, but at the same time sometimes give evidence of a shift in religious sensibility from belief in the old pagan Germanic divinities and myths to the formal adoption of Christianity. More than any poetry of the Continent, these verses resemble the Skaldic and Eddic poems of early Scandinavian lyricism. These elegiac poems were set against a bleak, wintry seascape, a marked contrast to the spring-like setting of later medieval lyricism on the Continent. For example, the respective narrators of “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” are roaming almost aimlessly by ship, traversing the icy winter seas off the coast of England while lamenting the death of an earthly leader, who is sometimes allegorized as the Christian “Lord,” indicating the often uneasy transformation of formerly pagan Britain to Christianity. In another elegy, “The Ruin,” the narrator recalls with regret a once imposing feasting hall that is now a crumbling pile of stones battered by the elements. As inBeowulf, these poems employ the trope of “ubi sunt,” a series of unanswered questions (“Where are the brave warriors?”), which underscores the absence either of missing or dead comrades from the comitatus, or of buildings demolished by the ravages of time and the harsh northern weather.
A New Arab Influence
On the Continent, beginning in the eleventh century, a new style of lyric poetry developed, inspired, as in Britain, largely by political, religious, and cultural shifts. Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Muslim inhabitants of Spain in the ninth century, illustrated in the Song of Roland and other chansons de geste (heroic poetry), anticipated the even more extreme anti-Muslim military expeditions to the Middle East called Crusades, which began in 1095. The Crusades changed the cultural life of Europe through the introduction by the returning crusaders of the Arabic music, poetry, and luxury goods to which they had been exposed while in the East. Coming to Europe through southern France, the returning knights brought back a new Arab-inspired approach to lyric poetry, featuring themes of erotic love. A prominent early crusader, William IX of Aquitaine (1071-1127), became one of the first practitioners of this new kind of lyricism. William was the grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of both France and England through her successive marriages to King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England in the twelfth century. At their respective courts, Eleanor and her daughter by Louis, Marie of Champagne, became patronesses of this new style of French poetry, which reflected the discourse of courtly love described by Andreas Capellanus in his treatise, De Arte Honeste Amandi, which may have been commissioned by Eleanor’s daughter, Marie of Champagne, at one of her “courts of love.”
The Troubadours in France
Paralleling the development of the idea of courtly love in the twelfth century, these Arab-inspired poems, some of which were written about the experience of going on Crusade, called chansons de croisade (“Crusade Songs”), were created first in Provence in southern France by the troubadours and later continued by the trouvères in the north of France. The terms troubadour and trouvère derived from the verb trobar, which meant “to find or make.” Although these poets could be attached permanently to a particular court and patron, often they moved about from court to court, seeking more powerful and lucrative patronage. Troubadours in the south include Cercamon (1130-1148), Marcabru (1130-1150), Bernart de Ventadorn (1140-1180), Bertrand de Born (1140-1214), Pierre Vidal (1170-1204), Arnaut Daniel (1170-1210), and even a female poet (female troubadours are known astrobairitz) the Countess of Dia (1150-1200). The northern trouvères included Richard the Lion-Hearted (1157-1199), Gace Brulé (1170-1212), the Châtelain de Coucy (d. 1203), and Adam de la Halle (1270-1288). In contrast to the chilly, elegiac mood of Anglo-Saxon lyrics, this Continental poetry, influenced by the Crusaders’ experiences in the exotic Middle East, celebrated a new poetic theme: romantic love for a woman—sometimes the lady of the court to which the poet was attached, who was unattainable because married, and whose every whim controlled the singer of the chanson d’amour (love song). The vocabulary expressing the roles of the lover and the beloved of the troubadour songs echoed the terminology of lordship so that the beloved lady played the role of the haughty “domna” (female “lord”) to the poet, her vassal. If the poet/lover was successful, these songs were expressed joyously as in the fusion of identities between the human singer and the lark he sings about in Bernart de Ventadorn’s “Can Vei la lauzeta” (“When I see the lark”). If the lover was unsuccessful, he might sing mournfully, against the backdrop of a paradise-like setting, the paradys d’amour(“paradise of love”), an almost ubiquitous springtime landscape complete with bird-song, gentle breezes, and fragrant flowers that inspire the poet to sing about his love of the lady.
New Poetic Genres
Although these French poets are best known for their crusade songs and songs of love, the poetic repertoire practiced by the troubadours and trouvères included a number of different types reflecting both cultural life and social conditions. Among these were the jeu parti (a game-like debate poem reflecting the competition between poets to produce the best lyric poetry); thechanson d’aventure (song of adventure) about an unusual encounter experienced by a knight errant; and the aubade oraube, or alba (dawn song), a lyric in which lovers lament the coming of the dawn because they must part after a night of clandestine lovemaking. Troubadours also produced the planh (complaint) about unsuccessful love or oppressive political or economic situations; the pastourelle (song about shepherdesse), a short, dialogue-filled, narrative account of a courtly knight’s attempt to seduce an innocent, but clever shepherdess; the chanson de toile (working song), a song voiced by female workers spinning cloth or doing other chores; and the chanson de mal mariée (a woman’s song about being badly married), a complaint about marital problems often stemming from the practice of arranged marriages. By the fourteenth century, the emphasis shifted from genres based on theme to genres based on form, as French poets like Guillaume de
Machaut and Jean Froissart perfected “fixed form” lyrics with complicated patterns of rhyme and meter—genres such as the ballade, the rondeau, and the virelais, which at first were matched to complicated new musical forms, but later circulated independently. These challenging genres emphasizing the elevated language that corresponds to refined love were the precursors of the most famous Renaissance lyric form: the sonnet.
The Influence of the Troubadours In Germany
Eventually, most of these French models were imitated all over the Continent. In Germany, the minnesingers (singers about mine which means “love”), such as Walter von der Vogelweide (1170-1280), continued to develop the themes of fin’amors (refined or distilled love), but the Germans addressed their love poetry to ladies who offered less daunger(resistance), and consummation was more realistically attainable in German courtly love poetry than in the French models. On the other hand, the sequences and hymns composed by the polymath Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), the abbess of a convent of nuns located on the Rhine and the author of both medical treatises and accounts of her mystical visions, exemplify how secular and religious poetic themes could be fused. Like troubadour lyrics, Hildegard’s hymns combine celebrations of the re-greening of nature in springtime with awed praise for God’s creations and for the role of the Virgin Mary’s paradoxical chaste fertility in the Incarnation. For example, Hildegard’s hymn, “O viridissima virga” (“O greenest branch/virgin”) develops complex wordplay between conventional springtime tropes about re-greening branches, Mary’s role as a metaphoric “branch” on the family tree of Jesse (Christ’s genealogical lineage), and her giving birth to Christ, which helped endow the earth’s flora and fauna with new life and brought mankind into identification with the human/divine Redeemer, her son.
The Influence of the Troubadours in Italy
In Italy, the poets of the dolce stil nuovo (“the sweet new style”) mirrored the themes of the southern French troubadours, many of whom had traveled—wandering from court to court in search of better patronage—from nearby Provence and Aquitaine to Italy. Notably, Dante Alighieri, the author of the Divine Comedy, wrote independent love poems and also incorporated songs and sonnets about Beatrice Portinari in his early autobiography La Vita Nuova (The New Life). These anticipate his veneration of Beatrice almost as if she were a saint in the Divine Comedy, placing her in the highest circles of Heaven with other saints and the Virgin Mary. The troubadour term “ma domna” for the courtly beloved resonated linguistically with Madonna, the Italian epithet for the Virgin Mary, encouraging association between the model of divine femininity and the courtly love object. In Italy, late in the medieval period, the humanist scholar and poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) developed the sonnet, a formal fourteen-line poem, in a famous sequence of sonnets, the canzoniere (songs) honoring an idealized courtly lady, Laura. This popular lyric form, which had probably been invented by Giacomo da Lentini in the Sicilian court in the mid-thirteenth century, was revived in England in the sixteenth century as the “Petrarchan” or “Italian” sonnet, used to great effect in the hands of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the earl of Surrey, and, of course, Shakespeare.
Lyric Poetry in England in the Later Middle Ages
After the Norman Conquest (1066) in England, lyric poets also borrowed or absorbed many motifs from the Continental chansons d’amour, such as the conventional natureingang (“nature-entrance”), also known in Middle English as thereverdie (“re-greening”), a song celebrating the reappearance of spring after a long winter. Many chansons d’amour,chansons d’aventure, and Crusaders’ songs begin with an evocative celebration of the glories of the re-greening of nature in April or May, and Hildegard of Bingen had used the idea to great spiritual effect in her hymns. This lyric motif clearly influenced and contributed to the reverdie-like openings of dream visions such as the Romance of the Rose and the famous opening sentence of the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which describes how the sweet showers of April, the tender shoots of plant life, the birds making melody, and the spring breezes inspire sundry folk from all over England to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The love professed by the Middle English lyric singer for flesh-and-blood courtly ladies—for example in the Harley Lyrics’ “Alysoun”—was less intense and more playful than that of his passionate French counterpart, more like the German minnesingers. As in the case of Hildegard and the Italian practitioners of the dolce stil nuovo (sweet new style) of the late thirteenth century, Middle English poets also imaginatively developed the conventional devices and motifs of the Continental courtly love lyric by applying them not to a worldly female love object, but to the Virgin Mary, who became the spiritual “domna” revered by the lyric singer. In fact, Middle English poets wrote various sub-genres of religious lyric poetry devoted to such themes as veneration of the Virgin Mary, contemptus mundi (contempt for worldly things), the mutability of earthly life and the permanence of salvation, lamentation for the crucifixion of Christ, and the effect of the Fall of mankind on the human condition. In many Middle English lyrics, genres are combined paradoxically and provocatively, as in the brief lyric “Foweles in the frith,” which fuses the spiritual and the erotic in a reverdie that can be interpreted as being both about unsuccessful love and about the tragedy of Christ’s crucifixion. Perhaps harking back to the earlier dark, brooding Anglo-Saxon elegies at the close of the fourteenth century, Middle English poets like Geoffrey Chaucer also incorporated serious philosophical ideas and political sentiments in lyrics such as “The Former Age,” “Truth,” and “Gentillesse,” which were inspired by passages in Boethius’s philosophical treatise Consolation of Philosophy. Other Middle English poets used the lyric form to comment on contemporary political acrimony and social dissent that reflected such socioeconomic movements as the “Peasants’ Revolt of 1381” in which the lower classes protested against the nobility, the clerical orders, and the legal courts because of heavy taxation and denial of their demands for higher wages and freedom of mobility.
Medieval Allegory and Philosophical Texts
Religion and Medieval Artistic Expression
The Christian church was the most influential cultural institution in medieval Europe, having far more influence over every facet of life—including response to and production of texts—than any temporal or secular political or economic organizing system. From its earliest inception, the ecclesiastical establishment controlled the dissemination and interpretation of its foundational text, the Bible, accounting for any apparent inconsistencies through an elaborate system of reading that attributed multiple levels of meaning to the Scriptures as well as finding connections between events in the Old Testament and the history of Christ’s ministry in the New Testament. This mode of interpretation was invented and disseminated by the early church fathers. Most prominent among these were Augustine of Hippo (354-430), whose autobiography The Confessions and treatise The City of God exemplify fourfold-interpretation of the Bible, and Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) whose Moralia in Job (Moralizing of the Book of Job) took every verse of that Old Testament book and found four different ways of understanding them. These modes of interpreting Scripture not only influenced the expression of spiritual ideas and sentiments in the Middle Ages, but also had significant impact on the visual arts and on literature. When applied to literary texts, this pervasive mode of thinking was known as allegory. In addition to literary works like Piers Plowman or the Romance of the Rose which were completely allegorical, many works of medieval literature—even those associated with “realism”—incorporated some limited allegorical aspects in their overall scheme.
Medieval Allegory Defined: The Letter and the Spirit
Allegory, which sometimes employs an extended metaphor, is a narrative mode in which a series of abstract ideas are presented through concrete, realistic characters and situations operating within a literal plot that makes sense in and of itself. Allegorical literature is typically encountered in two distinct forms. In the older type, called personification allegory (the most famous example of which is The Romance of the Rose) characters personify abstractions like Jealousy or Friendship, but these characters have no existence in the real world and do not “symbolize” anything more than their name implies. The narrative then dramatizes the encounter between abstractions made visual. In the second type of allegory, called symbol allegory (of which the Divine Comedy is the most famous example), the characters are real people who exist, or once existed in the real world, who “stand for” or symbolize something beyond themselves. This literal plot is meant also to convey an extra level or, in the most complicated types of allegory, several levels of moral, religious, political, or philosophical meaning. To medieval readers of allegory, the difference between the literal and the “figural” or allegorical level reflected Saint Paul’s pronouncement in 2 Cor. 3:6, that “The letter kills, … but the spirit gives life.” The early church father Saint Augustine of Hippo interpreted this to mean that the “letter” or literal level of a text covers and conceals the “spirit” just as the chaff covers the grain, or, in a more familiar comparison, the “nutshell” conceals the “kernel” of the nut.
The Four-Fold Method of Medieval Alle-Gorization
In interpreting Scripture, the church fathers recognized the potential for up to four levels of allegorical or “exegetical” interpretation:
- The literal level, the thing as it really stands in the text;
- The allegorical level, which refers to the Church or something standing for a universal truth;
- The tropological or “moral” level, which pertains to the spiritual life of individuals, teaching how they should behave; and
- The anagogical or eschatological level, which stands for something pertaining to the hereafter.
In short, the literal level teaches things; the allegorical level tells what should be believed; the tropological or moral level tells what should be done; and the anagogical level explains where a person goes after death. Although this complex system was seldom used directly in the creation of literature, it was important as a mode of thinking and occasionally appears in some of the more self-consciously religious allegorical texts. In the late fourteenth-century poem that modern editors call Pearl, a touching story of a father struggling with the death of his young daughter, the poet meditates on the meaning of the word which has become the poem’s title in ways very similar to the “fourfold scheme.” The major symbol of the “pearl” is, literally, a lost gem or the dead daughter; allegorically it represents primal innocence before the fall or the state of a baptized infant; tropologically it emphasizes one’s duty to regain innocence; and anagogically it points to a beatific vision in the heavenly paradise. Much more common than this complex fourfold allegory was a type of narrative built entirely on personifications, which allowed writers to explore directly the interactions between abstract moral qualities (often characterized as vices and virtues) fighting for control of the human will.
Romance of the Rose
Surviving in over 300 extant manuscripts and translated into nearly every medieval language, the thirteenth-century allegory Romance of the Rose was the single most influential secular literary work written in the Middle Ages and a key text in the development of the medieval genres of dream vision, allegory, and romance quest. The text is divided into a pair of opposing but complementary parts, composed by two different thirteenth-century French authors. Guillaume de Lorris wrote the first 4,000 lines of this seminal dream vision in 1230-1235. The dreamer’s quest for the rose remained uncompleted until Jean de Meun added almost 18,000 lines, continuing Guillaume’s allegorical plot, but adopting a more satirical tone; he completed the work in 1275. This pair of authors exemplifies the medieval reverence for past authorities; both are heavily indebted to Ovid’s works in their conception of love. Jean also incorporated the re-discovery of Aristotelian and Platonic texts that had recently become part of the curriculum at the University at Paris.
Guillaume De Lorris’S Romance of the Rose
Guillaume’s section of the poem opens in typical dream vision fashion, set in a May time locus amoenus (literally a “beautiful place”) in which the narrator, who eventually is identified as Amant (lover), dreams that he discovers an enclosed garden. The garden’s exterior walls are decorated with images of allegorical figures representing social groups and human types who exemplify the “vices” of courtly society (such as hatred, felony, covetousness, envy, poverty, hypocrisy) or who are superficially unacceptable for elite membership in the garden of Deduit (mirth or diversion). Escorted into the garden by its gatekeeper, Idleness, the dreamer encounters allegorical abstractions representing the qualities of the leisured existence enjoyed by Deduit and the aristocratic inhabitants of his garden, a microcosm of courtly society: Beauty, Wealth, Generosity, Openness, Courtesy, and Youth. Proceeding through the garden, the dreamer encounters the fountain of Narcissus, whose myth literally reflects the self-absorption experienced by lovers. Gazing into the waters of Narcissus’s fountain, the dreamer sees a reflected rose and is infatuated by the rosebud’s surface beauty. The process of being “smitten” becomes literal and concrete as he is stalked by the God of Love, who shoots into the eyes and heart of the dreamer five allegorical arrows—beauty, simplicity, courtesy, company, and fair seeming—all catalysts to the psychological experience of love.
Allegory in Romance of the Rose
As personification allegory, Guillaume’s Rose represents a courtly lady confronted with the dilemma of erotic desire as it comes into conflict with the need for mesure (“restraint,” “rational control”), which will protect her reputation. The God of Love instructs the dreamer about how to pursue the goal of a single kiss from his beloved Rose and outlines what he can expect from the experience of love. Guillaume’s text here illustrates one especially common aspect of courtly love, whose victims are afflicted with an array of physical discomforts (chills, heat, pangs, sighs, lost appetite and strength, insomnia) and emotional torments (jealousy, despair) that are gladly suffered by the lover for the moral self-improvement conferred by love. Despite her attraction to the nameless young man, called “Amant” or “Lover” in the poem, the Rose is protected from the dreamer’s too avid pursuit by a court of attendants (mirroring actual court life), including Shame, Fear, Chastity, and Resistance (depicted as a churlish Wild Man). These abstractions are all allegorized aspects of her own attempt to maintain rational control over her honor. The attributes of the Rose representing her caution are balanced by others indicating her openness to the experience of love—Generosity, Pity, and Fair Welcoming—who encourage Amant to kiss the Rose. As soon as he does so, Jealousy imprisons the Rose and her Fair Welcome in a tower, where La Vieille (Old Woman), a cynical bawd experienced in the ways of sex, guards them. The first part of the poem breaks off with the dreamer’s pursuit of the Rose at an impasse, when Guillaume de Lorris apparently died before completing his story.
Jean De Meun’S Philosophical Continuation of Romance of the Rose
In 1275 Jean de Meun more than tripled the length of Guillaume’s unfinished text with a continuation of the courtly adventure of Amant’s quest to possess the Rose, to which he added new themes and many lengthy digressions from Guillaume’s original simple narrative. Jean expands the concept of love from Guillaume’s narrow and artificial focus on the emotional satisfaction of love to a more universal concept of fruitful cosmic love presided over by a personification called Natura. Whereas Guillaume strove for simplicity and innocence in both content and poetic style, the well-read Jean imbued his section of text not only with the cynical treatments of romantic love and marriage found in popular story collections and misogynistic satires like The Fifteen Joys of Marriage, but also the philosophical writings that he had come in contact with at the university. These included Plato and Aristotle, Aristotle’s later commentators, and the writings of the Platonists of the twelfth-century School of Chartres such as Bernard Silvestris and Alan of Lille, whose conception of Nature in the Complaint of Nature Jean adopted. With lengthy and didactic speeches issuing from their mouths, Jean’s allegorical characters resemble masters in medieval universities lecturing their students. Treating the subjects of the purpose of man’s existence on earth and his role in the cosmos, these talking abstractions use exempla(narrative examples), the “colors” or figures of rhetoric, and classical quotations to illustrate their orations. As Jean continues the plot of the dreamer’s erotic quest, Amant is advised by a new set of allegorical characters including Reason, representing the dreamer’s own good sense, who “reasons” with him and tries to dissuade him from pursuing love.
Jean De Meun’S Satirical Repudiation of Courtly Love
Abandoned by Reason, Amant seeks the help of Friend, who acts as his go-between to the Rose. La Vieille (Old Woman) also lectures the Rose’s Fair Welcome about the ways of attracting men through flirtatious behavior, a swaying walk, good table manners, and the employment of eye-catching clothing and cosmetics. By concretizing his abstraction False Seeming as a hypocritical friar, Jean also anticipates the satire of the fourteenth-century clergy created by Chaucer and Langland. Finally, Amant gains entry into the Castle of Jealousy, in which the Rose is imprisoned. With the help of Venus the goddess of love, he wages a “war” against the chastity of the Rose. At this point Jean de Meun interpolates into the love-quest plot several digressive sections borrowed from the Christian-Platonist scholars of Chartres. In a passage heavily indebted to Alan of Lille’s Complaint of Nature, Nature makes her “confession” to her priest Genius, representing the generative principle. She complains about how mankind has abused nature by practicing the artifice of courtly love rather than propagating the race. Genius urges the practice of various types of fecundity and recommends taking refuge in a park, which features the Well of Life instead of the Fountain of Narcissus. Jean parallels the major myth that anchors Guillaume’s garden, the myth of Narcissus, by using another myth to frame the dreamer’s experience—the story of Pygmalion, an artist who fell in love with the sculpture he created to represent his idealized perfect woman.
Jean De Meun’S Satire of Medieval Pilgrimage
As Romance of the Rose draws to its climax, the dreamer’s identity shifts to a pilgrim figure, allowing Jean de Meun to satirize the widespread medieval experience of pilgrimage. Accessorized with the typical staff and scrip of pilgrim “weeds” or costume, which in Jean’s impudent satire represent Amant’s genitalia, the dreamer assaults the architectural “aperture” of the Rose/castle into which he is attempting to gain entrance. The castle has now become a hallowed “shrine” to erotic love. Having broken the barricade, the dreamer literally and figuratively deflowers the Rose, following the laws promulgated by Genius and Nature. When Amant impregnates the Rose, the dream suddenly ends. By this time, with the extra layer of pilgrimage added to the many other strata of allegory, Guillaume’s original concept of Amant’s delicate courtly adulation for a perfect Rose/lady has been satirized to the point of near-blasphemy.
Literary Influence of the Romance of the Rose
The Romance of the Rose influenced many later medieval writers. Dante adopted this text’s highly symbolic rose to other purposes in his Paradiso, in which his idealized female figure Beatrice is beatified alongside the Virgin Mary as a petal in the Celestial Rose, a metaphor for the highest reaches of Heaven. Chaucer, who translated Guillaume’s text into the Middle English poem known as the Romaunt of the Rose, apparently also was familiar with Jean’s continuation, for he echoes the arguments of Genius in his own dream vision, Parliament of Fowls. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer modeled the characterization of his pilgrim Pardoner on Jean de Meun’s False Seeming, his hypocritical Friar, and La Vieille (Old Woman); Chaucer incorporated La Vieille’s advice about table manners into the portrait of his pilgrim Prioress Madame Eglantine, whose name means “briar rose.” Chaucer also took La Vieille’s generally cynical comments about male-female relations and transformed them into the autobiographical discourse of the five-times-married Wife of Bath in her Prologue and her tale. The Romance of the Rose continued to be both influential and controversial throughout the medieval period. In the fifteenth century, Jean Gerson and Christine de Pizan strenuously protested the dubious value of Jean de Meun’s text by taking part in a major literary debate with Jean’s supporters in the “Quarrel of the Rose.” Christine especially took offense at Jean’s blatant antifeminism, a far cry from the reverent adulation for the Rose practiced by Guillaume’s Amant.
Politics and Poetry
While The Romance of the Rose, the most influential poem written in French in the thirteenth century, had combined elements of courtly love, allegory, and philosophy, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri chose an even more daring strategy to write, in Italian, the first truly epic poem since Vergil’s Aeneid. Born in the city-state of Florence in 1265, Dante brought to his poetry the near photographic recall of an intensely political life and the love of his native language, while also having a vision of heaven, earth, and hell that surpassed all previous efforts at encompassing the vast range of human experience. A member of the Guelph party, which supported the power of the papacy against the Ghibbelines, who took the side of the Holy Roman Emperor, Dante attempted a career in politics, which was aborted when his own party split into two groups and the power fell into the hands of the opposing faction, who sentenced him to death. He lived in exile from his beloved Florence for the rest of his life, a circumstance that intensified his sense of the contrast between happiness and deprivation, and allowed him to make literary use of the characters and events of recent history from which he was forcibly distanced. As a man who so intensely defined himself as a Florentine, in an age distinguished by a new sense of civic identity and participation, Dante is significant for employing the vernacular, rather than Latin (the official language of learning), in his most important writings. In fact, he produced a manifesto advocating the use of vernacular dialects or the “vulgar” tongue to produce serious literature. This treatise, De Vulgari Eloquentia(On Eloquence in the Vernacular), is itself expressed in Latin, not Italian. Dante distinguished between natural language, locutio prima, that children learn at their mother’s breast, and a second artificial language, locutio grammatica, that they learn at school. Latin should be used only in technical works, such as the De Vulgari, while the first nobler, more natural language should be used to create art.
A Poetic Autobiography
Dante was a disciple of the poet Brunetto Latini, and with Latini, Guido Cavalcanti, and other poets early in his career he practiced the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”), the expression of courtly love poetry (influenced by the troubadours) in various Italian dialects. Culminating Dante’s early attempts to be a lyric poet was his creation of the Vita Nuova (New Life; 1292-1295), a 42-chapter collection of these early love poems, which are linked with a prose framework written in Italian, commenting on the poems themselves as well as generally about how to write and interpret poetry. This poetic autobiography, which attests Dante’s fidelity to the ideals of the dolce stil nuovo, especially to the acceptance of the power of Love as an external force, also chronicles Dante’s love for a young Florentine woman, which produced in him a spiritual renewal (hence the title). Although Dante was married to Gemma di Manetto Donati, with whom he had several children, the woman in the poem is Bice di Folco Portinari, whom he refers to in his poetry as Beatrice or Bea-Trice, a symbolic name meaning “triple blessed.” Beatrice served as an artistic muse and spiritual inspiration to him throughout his writing career. Beginning with Dante’s initial encounter with nine-year-old Beatrice and their second encounter nine years later, when she becomes a subject of his love poetry, Dante recounts his prophetic visions about her early death and her ascent to heaven. Upon her actual death in 1290, Dante abandoned writing secular love poetry, for in his perception Beatrice had now gone beyond incarnating earthly love and had become a vehicle of God’s larger plan. InThe Divine Comedy, Beatrice is nearly apotheosized. She not only guides Dante through Paradise towards the Godhead, but also takes her place near the Virgin Mary as a “petal” in the highly allegorical “Celestial Rose,” Dante’s metaphor for the most sublime reaches of Heaven.
Dante’S Divine Numbers
Written over the span of 1314 to 1321, The Divine Comedy is a tripartite visionary pilgrimage to hell, purgatory, and heaven, a medieval masterpiece that is considered one of the greatest literary achievements of all time. The poem is a highly structured work revealing Dante’s reliance on number symbolism, a favorite device of many medieval authors, including the poet who wrote the romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the dream vision Pearl, who made repeated use of the numbers three, five, and twelve. The entire Comedy is comprised of three major parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven). Each of the three parts, reflecting the sacred number associated with the Christian Trinity, is in turn divided into 33 cantos with one introductory canto in Inferno adding up to the sacred and mathematically perfect number of 100 cantos (songs) in all. At the beginning of the poem, after realizing he is lost in a dark allegorical wood of error, Dante envisions (significantly) three symbolic beasts—a leopard (lust), a lion (pride), and a she-wolf (greed/avarice)—that paralyze him with fear and prevent him from making further progress toward the hill of salvation, until another figure appears to prod the pilgrim into action. Even the verse form Dante invented for the Comedy, terza rima (“triple rhyme”), reflects his employment of the Trinitarian pattern to organize and unify the vast literary work in which his muse, triple-blessed Beatrice, leads him to the Beatific Vision at the end of the third part.
The Spiritual Journey of the Self
Although the Comedy is in many ways a very personal poem, its framework ensures that Beatrice and Dante’s other guide, whom he calls Virgil (spelled in Italian as “Virgilio” rather than as the Latin “Vergil”), does not lead only Dante to his goal. While on one level Dante’s mind-boggling experience constitutes his own spiritual autobiography, he is careful to include the reader as a participant on the journey he takes to Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. In the famous opening lines of the poem, Dante admits, “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself inside a dark wood, for I had lost the path that does not stray.” With his significant use of the plural possessive pronoun “our,” Dante ensures that his experience will have universal applications. Similar to the trip to the Underworld taken by Vergil’s Aeneas or St. Paul’s ascent to Heaven in the New Testament (he later compares himself to both figures), Dante’s allegorical journey begun in Inferno’s first canto builds on a literary tradition of journeys that will later appear in the works of other great poets of the period, including Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland. Dante’s choice of Vergil, author of the Aeneid, as his guide in the first part of the poem is hardly random. Significantly, Vergil was the greatest Latin authority for medieval arts and letters, and his epic was also a narrative about the arduous journey of its protagonist Aeneas, the eventual founder of the Roman Empire.
Sin and Retribution
The funnel-shaped landscape of Hell through which the character Virgil leads Dante is organized by various sins—not the traditional Seven Deadly Sins, but Dante’s own personal ranking of sins that adversely affect mankind not only in the personal sphere of life, but in the public realm of the economic and political operation of the polis (“city”). Dante has the various sins and subdivisions of them represented by an assortment of figures that include historical personages, literary characters, mythological figures, and his own local Italian contemporaries, many of whom are now obscure to the modern reader. Dante observes how these sinners are punished for eternity. The principle behind the assignment of the specific punishments is known as contrapasso (“opposition”), in which the punishment suits the sin by being its ironic opposite. For example, the gluttons, who ate excessively in life, are punished by being pelted by hurricanes of excrement, the byproduct of their own overeating, raining down upon them for eternity.
The Circle of the Lustful
In each circle Dante observes the sinners from afar, and then, in the most moving encounters, he actually converses with those being punished. For example, in Inferno’s Canto 5, devoted to the circle of the lustful, Dante is powerfully affected by the punishment of a pair of near contemporaries, Paolo and Francesca, who, for succumbing to the “storms” of passion that drove them to commit adultery and cuckold her husband (who was also Paolo’s brother), are forever within each other’s sight, but swept from each other’s touch by gale-force winds that fling them airborne. Francesca explains to Dante that what first sexually attracted them, impelling them to commit adultery, was their shared reading of a romance about the adultery of the Arthurian characters Lancelot and Guinevere. The reading led to kissing and beyond, and her husband, catching them, killed both. Dante has a violent reaction to Francesca’s characterization of an Arthurian romance as their “go-between” or pimp; he falls into a swoon. Whether Dante’s swoon was provoked by his pity for their fate or stemmed from his own stricken culpability as a writer who produced erotic poetry in his earlier career is a matter of interpretation.
Treachery, the Bottom of Hell
Dante and Virgil continue through the circles of Hell, encountering representatives of the sins of gluttony, avarice, wrath, heresy, violence against others (tyrants and murderers), against the self (suicides), and against God (blasphemers, homosexuals, usurers), and fraud in many permutations. The worst sin, and the one punished in the deepest pocket of Hell, is treachery, whose various degrees culminate finally in a monstrous three-headed Lucifer, who betrayed God his creator. Lucifer is seen grinding an anti-Trinity of other traitors in his triple jaws: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, who respectively betrayed Christ and Julius Caesar, representing Church and Empire. Closing Inferno with more “threes,” Dante here underscores his significant use of number symbolism in the Comedy. Climbing out of Hell, he and Virgil spiral their way up Mount Purgatory, now encountering another varied group of sinners expiating the traditional Seven Deadly Sins (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust) with punishments again assigned on the principle of contrapasso.
Reunion with Beatrice
Virgil, technically a pagan, is capable only of guiding Dante through the bolgias (“pockets”) of Hell and up the circular mountain of Purgatory to its pinnacle, the Earthly Paradise. Here he must yield his charge to an even higher authority, Dante’s long-lost Beatrice, who leads the pilgrim through the spheres of the planets, to the fixed stars, through the Empyrean to the heights of Paradise, where he has a vision of Beatrice joining the Virgin Mary and other saints in the Celestial Rose, a symbol that had been exploited in a secular way by the authors of the Romance of the Rose. In the last moments of Paradiso, Dante experiences the light and love of God. In trying to convey his utter incapacity to render his vision into language commensurate with its significance, the great wordsmith compares himself to an infant babbling while suckling at his mother’s breast. The poem, which started on a faltering note of moral paralysis, thus ends triumphantly with Dante restored to the primal innocence of a baby. In this way Dante’s poem is justifiably called the Comedy, a title that, for his medieval audience, indicated its genre. As explained in the Letter to Can Grande, duke of Verona, traditionally believed to have been written by Dante himself, a “comedy” is a work with a fortuitous ending and is the opposite of a “tragedy,” a story that ends badly for the protagonist. In those terms, Dante’s poem is the greatest of all comedies because the plot concludes ultimately with the protagonist experiencing a vision of God in Heaven.
The Medieval Dream Vision
Authorities for the Significance of Dreams
Although many people today associate the study of dreams mainly with Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung and the twentieth-century practice of psychoanalysis, these theorists were anticipated in their investigations by nearly eight centuries, for medieval people were intensely interested in dreams and their meanings. As with other medieval literary forms, the dream vision, a genre unique to the period, was securely founded upon the medieval reverence for classical and ancient authorities. First of all, the use of dreams or visions as a literary device was sanctioned by the highest textual authority, the Scriptures. The Old Testament narrates various dreams, purported visions, or apparitions experienced by Pharaoh, Joseph, Nebuchadnezzar, Ezekiel, and others, while the New Testament features in Corinthians 2:12 St. Paul’s vision of being caught up in Paradise, and in the Book of Revelation, the account of an apocalyptic vision on Patmos. Medieval dream poetry also was preceded and endorsed by classical texts such as Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic, Vergil’s account of Aeneas’s vision of the underworld in the Aeneid, and Macrobius’s Commentary on Scipio’s dream. These early models authorized the creation of a coherent group of texts whose “plot,” strictly speaking, consisted of the narrator recounting his or her unusual dream, experienced while literally asleep. Although medieval writers of these narratives never defined their texts by the term “dream vision”—they simply called them “books” or “poems” or “things”—literary historians have attached the term “dream vision” to this recognizable body of medieval texts. This genre, which overlaps with the categories of allegory and philosophical works, was one of the most distinctive and widely practiced literary forms of the Middle Ages.
Characteristics of the Dream Vision
Medieval dream visions or dream allegories share certain common features. First, dream poems often employ a prologue consisting of an account of the conditions leading up to the narrator’s having the dream, which sometimes is provoked by the dreamer’s surroundings in a natural setting such as the locus amoenus (“pleasant place”) full of spring breezes, birdsong, a flowery grove, and the lulling sound of flowing water. Examples include the May opening of the thirteenth-century Romance of the Rose and similar beginnings of later French dream visions by Machaut and Froissart, the Middle English Piers Plowman, the Prologue to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, and the fourteenth-century English alliterative poem Pearl. At other times the dream is provoked by the content of a book read by the dreamer just before going to sleep, which in turn influences the content of the dream. For example, Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls opens with the narrator reading Macrobius’s Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, which classified and interpreted dreams according to five types. Second, the main “plot” of the poem consists of a dream report or an account of the events occurring in the dream itself. The scope of this “plot” ranges from a limited, self-contained event, such as the dreamer’s encounter and dialogue with the pearl maiden in the fourteenth-century alliterative Middle English poem Pearl, to a broad, encyclopedic treatment of many political, social, and spiritual issues such as is found in Langland’s enormous alliterative dream vision Piers Plowman. Third, many dream poems, whether waking or sleeping visions, include the appearance to the narrator of a male or female authority figure who informs the dreamer about some aspect of his life or teaches him some spiritual or philosophical truth. For example, personified Nature appears to the narrator of Alan of Lille’s Complaint of Nature, Lady Holychurch appears to Will in Piers Plowman, and Reason, Rectitude, and Justice appear to Christine de Pizan in The Book of the City of Ladies. Fourth, some dream visions feature a framing epilogue consisting of the dreamer’s awakening from the dream and interpretative speculations about its meaning, as occurs in the end of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. Occasionally, the dream simply ends without the closing frame of the dreamer’s awakening. Such an absence of closure occurs in Chaucer’s House of Fame, in which the dream breaks off abruptly with the appearance of an otherwise mysterious “man of great authority,” perhaps Chaucer’s playful reference to the authority figure convention of dream visions.
Continental Medieval Dream Visions
The dream vision became a favored literary form in the thirteenth century with the appearance of the seminal exemplar of the genre, Romance of the Rose, started by Guillaume de Lorris and completed forty years later by another author, Jean de Meun. In Jean’s continuation of the work, he demonstrates the potential of the dream vision to break down the rational barriers of waking life and allow for the inclusion of an encyclopedic range of subjects that would seem too random for an account of lived experience. With hundreds of manuscripts of the Romance of the Rose in circulation, often elaborately illustrated, by the fourteenth century the taste for dream narratives reached its zenith, with many examples produced by French love poets influenced by the Rose. Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377), well known for his musical compositions and development of the motet, wrote the Dit dou Vergier (poem of the garden) in which the lovesick narrator swoons in an April locus amoenus and sees a vision of the God of Love, who dispenses advice about how to conduct a courtly love affair, using secrecy and loyalty to the beloved, whereupon the narrator awakens and vows to be true to his lady forever. As one of his earliest works, Jean Froissart (1337-1410) wrote the Paradys d’Amours (The Paradise of Love; 1361-1362), in which a lovesick, insomniac narrator prays for relief to the God of Sleep and, in the dream that ensues, gains the God of Love’s support in wooing his lady. When, as a more mature poet, Froissart revisits the genre in Le Joli Buisson de Jonece (The Fair Bush of Youth; 1373), he demonstrates the dream vision’s potential for psychological complexity as the narrator uses his dream of rejection in the garden of love to resolve his mid-life crisis, leading him to abandon love poetry and move on to more responsible authorial pursuits.
Currents in Medieval England
The earliest dream vision written in England, the anonymous Anglo-Saxon religious lyric “The Dream of the Rood,” is not a part of the tradition initiated by the Romance of the Rose but rather is a more direct descendant of the apocryphal New Testament stories—very like the canonical Book of Revelation—elaborating events in the life, death, and afterlife of Jesus which are reported by a narrator transported outside himself in a vision. In this remarkable poem, the dreamer-narrator recounts a vision of the crucified Christ on the cross in which the anthropomorphized cross or “Rood” speaks of its anguished feelings when made to serve as the implement of Christ’s torture at the Passion. The Rood describes its relation to Christ—who is not the suffering victim depicted in late medieval art, but rather a heroic warrior like Beowulf—as that of a thane to his lord in the comitatus. As English society changed with the arrival of the Norman French in 1066, there was no continuity of tradition from this early example. After a hiatus of several centuries, however, dream visions reappeared, in imitation of the French, particularly in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, who produced several examples: Book of the Duchess, which is much indebted to the love poetry of Froissart and Machaut; House of Fame, which combines French elements with a motif of ascent reminiscent of Dante’s Divine Comedy; and Parliament of Fowls, which owes its conception of Lady Nature to Alan of Lille’s allegorical female authority figure in Complaint of Nature. Chaucer and his works had English and Scottish imitators as late as the sixteenth century.
The English Philosophical Dream Vision
While Chaucer’s dream poems dealt with love, personal bereavement, the common profit, and fame, his English contemporaries combined dream vision with allegory to treat more serious, philosophical subjects. During the fourteenth century, the high mortality rate from the Black Death had accelerated economic changes that led to abandonment of the countryside by agricultural workers, periods of famine, sudden growth of urban centers, and the appearance of a new, socially unsettling, mercantile class that blurred old boundaries between noble and commoner. Camouflaging social critique under cover of a narrative that was “only a dream,” such works as Winner and Waster, the Parliament of Three Ages, and Piers Plowman responded to the enormous social, religious, and economic changes that occurred in England from about 1350 onwards. The anonymous poet of the unfinished Winner and Waster (1350), for example, addressed the pressing economic issues of the proper getting and spending of money, posing the question of how to use national wealth with social responsibility. As the allegorical armies of Winner and Waster prepare for battle before King Edward III, the king deems that Winner should ally itself with the Church while Waster joins the merchants of London’s Cheapside market district. Similar economic concerns dominate the Parliament [Debate] of Three Ages (1350), in which the dreamer is visited by three men, representing allegorized Youth, Middle Age, and Old Age. Youth is carefree and thinks little about anything except the immediate moment and his pleasures; Middle Age worries only about keeping what he has earned; Old Age rails against the vices of the previous two ages and reminds Youth and Middle Age about the evanescence of earthly life. Using illustrative exempla (parable-like stories of moral instruction), Old Age reminds them that all is vanity and only death is certain. When the dreamer awakens, he is so traumatized by the vision that he remains lodged in a tree house, unable to return to civilized life.
A Spiritual Dream Vision
One of the most exquisitely constructed poems in Middle English is the late fourteenth-century alliterative dream visionPearl, composed by the same unknown writer who created Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Patience (a retelling of the biblical story of Jonah and the whale). As in his Arthurian romance about Sir Gawain, this poet employs striking number and color symbolism in a technically brilliant and emotionally moving poem comprised of 1,212 lines complexly organized into a structure reminiscent of a pearl necklace, with stanzas that are linked by the appearance of a key word in the last line of a stanza and its repetition in the first line of the next. The first stanza group depicts the narrator, a “joyless jeweler,” lamenting the loss of some literal object, person, or state of being identified as a “pearl.” The poem begins in a garden-like setting that may be the grave of the narrator’s deceased young daughter or the literal “spot” where he lost a valuable pearl. After swooning from emotional loss, the narrator has a vision of a landscape suggestive of the terrestrial paradise in which a young woman, the pearl maiden, appears to him as a female authority figure like Boethius’s Lady Philosophy. The pearl maiden instructs the literal-minded dreamer how to cope with his loss, using two New Testament parables as exempla. When the stubborn dreamer refuses to accept the promotion of such a young girl to one of the “queens” of heaven, she uses the “Parable of the Vineyard,” whose moral is that the last shall go first, to explain the democracy of heavenly reward. To console him for his bereavement, she uses another parable from the Gospels, the “Pearl of Great Price,” in which a jeweler exchanges a valuable gem for the greater prize of salvation. In an instance of translatio studii, John’s vision of Revelation about the procession of the Lamb (representing Christ) into the jeweled city of the New Jerusalem is incorporated almost verbatim into the dream vision. The white-attired maiden, adorned with a huge pearl, joins the procession of 144,000 virgins honoring the Lamb. Against her warnings that it was not his choice to make, the dreamer, who cannot resist trying to cross the river separating him from this scene, is abruptly awakened from his vision. In the final stanza group, he finds himself once again on the mound where he fainted, consoled by a new white, round symbol to replace the lost pearl, the Eucharist. The highly suggestive image of the pearl can be read according to the four levels of allegorical interpretation: literally as a lost gem or the dead daughter; allegorically as primal innocence before the fall or the state of a baptized infant; tropologically as innocence, with emphasis on one’s duty to regain innocence; and anagogically as possession of the beatific vision in the heavenly paradise.
The Importance of Dreams to Medieval Sensibility
Other medieval literary works that are not, strictly speaking, dream visions also allude to the importance of dreams and attest both their veracity and the possibility of accurately interpreting them. Chaucer’s delightful animal fable, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales, features a well-read rooster and hen, Chauntecleer and Pertelote, who argue over the validity and possible significance of the cock’s nightmare about capture by a fox, with the cock citing many of the abovementioned biblical and classical dreams for authority, as well as referring directly to Macrobius. This tale combines dream vision and the animal epic, specifically the story of Reynard the Fox, the most famous example of which is the French Roman de Renart cycle, composed between 1174 and 1250 by a number of different authors. By using this important popular genre, where animals take on the roles of people (with the fox representing the voracious, aggressive, and overly clever part of man), Chaucer is able to reinforce a traditional theme about the similarities between animals and humans while at the same time exploring the issue of dreams satirically, drawing on the audience’s familiarity with the cock’s self-important attitude. Medieval dream visions are often, like this tale, self-referential, with many of them alluding to Macrobius’s authoritative typology of dreams, as well as other early dream visions such as Alan of Lille’s Complaint of Nature, and the Romance of the Rose.
William Langland and Piers Plowman
William Langland and the Allegorical Will
The long philosophical dream vision—or series of dreams—that editors title Piers Plowman is perhaps the finest example of the use of the dream vision for social, political, and spiritual commentary. Composed in alliterative verse in a Northwest Midlands dialect of Middle English, the poem twice was revised and enlarged over the course of the second half of the fourteenth century. Authorship by William Langland is based on internal evidence in some of the more than fifty surviving manuscripts (approaching the number of extant manuscripts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) whose large number indicates both the high demand for copies of this long and difficult text and, thus, the high regard in which Langland’s text was held in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. What little concrete evidence about the author’s life and background is known comes from inside the text itself. Langland was probably born about 1331 in the region of the Malvern Hills. He was most likely some form of cleric educated at a Benedictine school in that region, judging from his extensive knowledge of, and allusions to, scriptural passages and his use of Latin quotations throughout the poem. Like his narrative persona, Langland seems to have spent much of his life wandering and making a living from offering prayers for the dead for fees. Langland also seems to know a lot about the workings of the royal court and contemporary politics in London, so it is likely that he also lived in London at about the same time that Chaucer was working and writing there, though there is no evidence that they knew one another. The poem’s narrator is called “Will”—a pun referring to the author’s first name as well as signifying the abstract “human will,” rendering Will the Dreamer an Everyman figure. For convenience, modern editors divide the large sprawling allegorical plot into two major parts: theVisio and the Vitae. Langland subjected his first draft of the poem to two consecutive major re-writings and the three versions have been designated by modern editors the A, B, and C Texts, all of which are divided into chapters or parts called (in both singular and plural) Passus (paces or steps). These “steps” on the road to salvation are undertaken by Will through an allegorical pilgrimage whose goal is attaining a life devoted to “Truth.”
The A Text (1360s), the shortest version, includes only Passus 1-11, the Visio (vision) dreamed by Will about the everyday political and economic life of man in society. This section culminates in the appearance of the allegorical character Piers Plowman, an agricultural worker and pilgrim figure who leads Will on the pilgrimage to Truth throughout the remainder of the poem. All three texts begin on a May morning, typical of the dream vision, when the narrator, a wandering cleric named Will, falls asleep in the Malvern Hills and has a vision of a “fair field of folk,” a cross-section of the fourteenth-century English population similar to that achieved by Chaucer in the pilgrim portraits of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. This initial dream, which merges into a political allegory on the subject of good kingship (presented as an animal fable in which rats and mice—the laboring and middle classes—attempt to bell the cat or king in order to limit his power) becomes highly abstract. Like Boethius and Lady Philosophy or Dante and Beatrice, Will is visited by a female authority figure Lady Holychurch, standing for the institutional Christian Church. To Will’s question, “How can I save my soul?” Holychurch replies cryptically, “When all treasure is tried, truth is best.” She warns him against the temptations of money and worldly goods by showing him a vision of the failed metaphoric wedding of “Conscience” to another female allegorical figure, Lady Meed (fee or payment), who represents all the possible beneficial or corrupting influences of money, whether offered as a just reward or as a bribe. The Lady Meed episode, structured around the metaphor of marriage, illustrates various fourteenth-century crises in language, the economy, politics, and interpersonal relations. Both Langland’s allegorical use of marriage metaphors and his designation of “Truth” as the eventual goal of the Visio’s pilgrimage can be read in typical patristic fourfold allegorical interpretation as
- Literal marriage between an individual and his spouse;
- Political harmony between an individual subject and his king;
- Social and economic harmony between the individual and the larger community of his fellow men; and
- Spiritual union between the individual’s soul and God.
The Allegory of the Seven Deadly Sins
In his dream, Will then witnesses the confession of the Seven Deadly Sins, a parade of allegorical personifications, illustrating various social types from medieval estates satire—also employed by Chaucer in his General Prologue to type his Canterbury pilgrims—that embody in their lifestyles the practice of pride, wrath, avarice, envy, sloth, gluttony, and lechery. This is one of the most allegorical and at the same time most “realistic” sections of Langland’s poem. Gluttony’s overindulgence and vomiting in the tavern, Pride’s preening in her fine apparel, the slothful priest’s ignorance of the words to his Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer) when he knows by heart the rhymes of Robin Hood, all give fascinating glimpses into daily life of fourteenth-century London. When the plowing of a half-acre of land is disrupted by the workers’ laziness (here Langland is seen incorporating aspects of the new post-Black Death economy), the allegorical figure Piers the Plowman suddenly appears, offering to guide the group on a pilgrimage to “Truth.” This multifaceted virtue represents the abstract ideal of what is right, especially through the keeping of promises or contracts. Overall, in its many concrete references to and images of social, political, and economic life, the Visio is more “realistic” than theVitae.
The Vitae of Do Well, Do Better, Do Best
The B Text (1370s), three times the length of A, adds to the Visio Passus 12-20 comprising the “lives” of the allegorical triad of Do-wel, Do-bet (Do Better), and Do-best (lives of doing well, doing better, and doing best), whose subject is less the reform of general society than an exploration of how the individual Christian (represented by the narrator Will) can strive for spiritual perfection by practicing (with emphasis on do-ing) the virtue of Charity. B incorporates many more forms of allegory than A, each of which becomes increasingly more abstract, including the allegorical representation of the frustrating search for spiritual improvement through clerical and academic study, represented in Will’s ultimately inconclusive engagement with various personifications of the intellectual faculties such as Wit, Dame Study, Thought, and Scripture. Will’s quest to learn how to practice a virtuous life is represented in his attendance at a satirical banquet shared by personifications such as Patience, Conscience, and Haukyn the breadmaker, who represents the Active Life. The Vitae speak provocatively about such late medieval social problems as the hypocritical lifestyle of friars, who live luxuriously despite the pervasive poverty in the general populace. Will’s dream vision turns nightmarish in the concluding Passus, in which the narrator witnesses an attack on the Church’s unity by Antichrist, who leads an army of the Seven Deadly Sins. Apprehensive about the imminent collapse of society, the collective Conscience undertakes another pilgrimage to find Piers Plowman (who had disappeared from the plot of the dream), thus reprising themes from theVisio. Will awakens abruptly in the last lines of the poem to the stricken sound of Conscience’s perhaps unanswered cries for grace, leaving the conclusion of the quest for Truth uncertain.
Agricultural Imagery and Pilgrimage
The longest version of Piers Plowman, the C Text (written in the late 1380s, about the same time Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales), is largely the same as B, except for a few details, such as the addition of purportedly autobiographical details about the author and the deletion of certain controversial segments. In both B and C, Langland unifies the disparate themes of his complex philosophical vision through a series of agricultural and organic images and tropes begun in the Visio with the “field” of folk, the plowing of the half-acre, and the figure of Piers the Plowman, and continuing in the Vitae with the organic metaphor of the Tree of Charity, the plowing of the four Gospels, and the Universal Church imaged as a Barn called Unitas (“unity”) at the poem’s end. If this set of rural images reflects England’s agricultural foundations, then another motif, that of pilgrimage, ties the poem to a more contemporary concern: the popularity of pilgrimages. Langland’s selection of an allegorical “pilgrimage” to find Truth as his governing metaphor parallels Chaucer’s far more secular employment of the theme of a literal pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury in the Canterbury Tales. Increasingly, as the Middle Ages drew to a close, the undertaking of pilgrimages became a thorny issue as the sometimes less-than-pious motives of pilgrims were questioned by reform movements such as the Wycliffites or Lollards, led by Oxford clergyman John Wyclif. Knowing that the practice was both widespread and controversial, both Langland and Chaucer used the pilgrimage theme to great (if dissimilar) effect to illustrate some of the most compelling social and spiritual issues of their era.
The Medieval Story Collection
Resistance to Categorization
A characteristically unique feature of medieval literature is its tendency to mix forms and styles. In the cases of the philosophical dream vision, the romance, and the allegory, individual medieval literary works often combine or incorporate several independently identifiable genres such as prose and verse, or comic and serious elements, within one work. This tendency makes it impossible to classify certain works in a single generic category. For example, the long, highly complex thirteenth-century poem Romance of the Rose combines dream vision, courtly romance, adventure quest, allegory, love poem, philosophical treatise, social satire, and more, within a vast plot that was begun by one author, Guillaume de Lorris, and completed a half century later by another writer of a completely different mindset, Jean de Meun. Similarly, Piers Plowman combines allegory, dream vision, philosophy, pilgrimage quest, social satire and other forms to such an extent that it is difficult to describe it by a more precise term than “dream vision.”
Medieval Manuscript Miscellanies
One of the more popular ways for medieval readers to obtain copies of literary works was to order manuscripts that collected a variety of kinds of genres and forms within the binding of a single book. Medieval audiences thus might receive a mixture of long romances, mid-length narratives, and short lyrics in manuscripts that were loosely organized “miscellanies” or anthologies containing a sampler of varied genres and modes. Paralleling this manuscript model of the “miscellany,” medieval writers themselves were inclined to create what were essentially anthologies of different stories that circulated together in a reasonably coherent form. Sometimes these “story collections” were organized around a theme that provided a reason for a compiler to collect the tales. This variety would include collections of saints’ lives like the enormously influential mid-thirteenth-century Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend) by Jacob of Voragine; tales of remarkable people and events like the Gesta Romanorum (Deeds of the Romans); and the Breton lais and animal fablesof Marie de France. However, the most formal and literarily self-conscious medieval story collections involved a framing device, a larger narrative that linked all the other stories through an author’s invented occasion at which stories and exempla were exchanged. In some cases the stories were chosen to illustrate either a moral principle or its violation. Other story-collecting frameworks involve a group of people telling tales to one another as a social exercise, a game, or a way of passing what would otherwise be tedious travel time. Such storytelling “frame” situations were employed to organize several important landmarks of medieval literary culture in Continental Europe and England.
The Latin Story Collection in Italy
The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) compiled several story collections, both in Italian and in Latin, although in his own lifetime the Latin works were more popular than the vernacular ones. One Latin collection, De casibus virorum illustrium (Concerning the Fates of Illustrious Men; 1355), which was possibly a source for Chaucer’sMonk’s Tale, has no frame, and is almost exclusively didactic. It narrates the rise to fame and fall from fortune of various great men and several women in chronological order, starting with the biblical Adam and going to the middle of the fourteenth century. These tales, which seem overly similar to a modern audience, were enormously popular in Boccaccio’s time, and the De casibus was the work for which he was then best known, judging from over eighty surviving manuscripts and numerous French translations in luxury illuminated editions. Each narrative offers the same pattern—the turning of Boethius’s Wheel of Fortune, the foolishness of pride, and God’s humbling of the proud. Boccaccio also wrote a similar Latin collection on women, De mulieribus claris (Concerning Famous Women; 1361-1362), which recounts the lives of over 100 mythological and classical women who became famous or infamous for various reasons. This work anticipates Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, which has an elaborate frame and prologue, and Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies, a collection structured around the building of an allegorical city comprised of the biographies of illustrious women.
The work for which Boccaccio is now most famous, The Decameron (One Hundred Stories), is an Italian anthology organized within an elaborate fictive structural framework. It starts with a gruesomely graphic description of the physical symptoms of the Black Death, the pandemic outbreak of bubonic plague that swept across Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, killing off between one-third to one-half of Europe’s entire population. If for no other reason than the fact that its opening offers one of the only written eyewitness accounts of the ravages of the Black Death, Boccaccio’s Decameronwould be a landmark of medieval literature. However, additionally, like Chaucer’s similarly framed Middle English Canterbury Tales and Juan Ruiz’s Spanish Book of Good Love, this Italian collection of stories serves as a sampler of the variety of types of literary forms available in the late Middle Ages. Like Chaucer’s host, who stipulates that the pilgrims’ tales must combine “sentence and solas” (moral instruction and enjoyment), Boccaccio’s narrator dedicates his collection to the edification and pleasure of “ladies in love” who, confined to their sewing rooms, do not have the freedom of their male counterparts to escape the distress of being in love through outdoor physical activities, hunting, and business affairs.
Storytelling in the Decameron
Boccaccio’s fictive frame has ten young Florentines (seven ladies and three men) fleeing from plague-ridden Florence to various estates outside the city to escape infection in the more healthful air of the countryside. They agree to a story-telling game to pass their time pleasantly, with the rule that a queen or king is to be selected daily to determine the theme for that day’s ten tales. The assigned themes include positive reversals of fortune; recovery of losses; unhappy love affairs; successful love affairs; clever verbal maneuvers; treachery of wives against their husbands; tricks played by both sexes; the performance of generous deeds; or free topics—in short, the full range of life experiences. After ten days of story telling, the participants return to Florence and go their separate ways. Unlike the other story collections Boccaccio wrote, this group foregoes didacticism for the sheer pleasure of telling and hearing tales. The possibility of complete disorder in so many stories is precluded by the announced themes, which help give the stories coherence. Here, as in Chaucer’sCanterbury Tales, the sheer abundance and variety of tale-types—ranging from moral tales to romances, to bawdyfabliaux (for which Boccaccio is probably most famous)—ensure that all readers will find stories to amuse, provoke, and enlighten them. Moreover, as in Chaucer’s Canterbury story collection, the delightful interplay between the tellers within the framework of the contest provides additional human interest.
A Literary Miscellany in Medieval Spain
One of the landmarks of literary culture in medieval Spain was the 1350 Book of Good Love by Juan Ruiz, otherwise identified as the “Archpriest” of Hita, a town north-east of Madrid. Although not a formally framed story collection like Boccaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Ruiz’s Book, a meandering, episodic series of accounts of the Archpriest’s fourteen attempted (and sporadically successful) adventures in love, incorporates many literary genres and a wide spectrum of tones, ranging from the academically serious and religiously pious to the satirical and nearly blasphemous. Narrated by a priest who in one episode woos a nun by means of a bawd-like go-between named Convent-hopper, Ruiz offers a scathing treatment of contemporary clergy and religious life. Ruiz parodies the pastourelle in the narrator’s encounters with the aggressive, ugly Wild Woman-like “mountain girls” who physically overpower the Archpriest, forcing him to have sex in exchange for dinner and a place by the fire. The Archpriest also creates an Ovidian “art of love” similar to Andreas Capellanus’s Art of Courtly Love in which Sir Love and Lady Venus teach the narrator how to court women. The many allegories include a mock joust between a personified Sir Carnival and the pilgrim-attired Lady Lent (using meat and sardines as cannon balls), an allegory of the seasons and months, an allegory of the arms of a Christian, and an allegory of the seven Vices of Love illustrated by beast fables. Ruiz includes a dream vision in which Sir Love appears to the Archpriest, exempla, fables, fabliaux exchanged between the nun and the go-between, and other genres.
Allegory and Ambiguity in Ruiz’S Book of Good Love
Whereas the intended meanings of other story collections are more obvious, the ultimate signification of Ruiz’s complexly woven, tapestry-like collection is equivocal. He repeatedly reminds his audience of the metaphor of the “husk and the kernel,” suggesting that the work (or parts of it) may be understood as an allegory meant to convey meaning(s) beyond its sometimes outrageous literal level. Like Boethius in the Consolation of Philosophy, the narrator’s opening prayer indicates that he is writing from prison. But by “prison,” does he mean a literal jail cell, the “prison” of corporeal flesh, or the “prison” of the experience of love? Even the work’s title, which initially implies that its subject will be erotic love, proves to be ambivalent, for eventually Ruiz distinguishes between “good love” (defined as love of God and obedience to His Commandments) and “foolish love of this world,” which many of the Archpriest’s adventures illustrate, though it is uncertain whether anything is learned from his described experiences. One thing is clear—in a period of extreme antifeminism, the narrator admires and philosophically supports women in all their infinite variety. If the Archpriest’s persona remains flat and undeveloped, the characters of several of the eccentric women he woos (or is wooed by) remain unforgettable: the physically grotesque and sexually voracious “mountain girls,” the ever-present and ever-faithful “Convent-hopper,” and the two women with whom the narrator has most success in love, the widow Lady Sloeberry and the nun Garoça (with whom he enjoys a platonic relationship).
The Story Collection In England: Chaucer
In addition to his more famous Canterbury Tales—within which is included another incomplete collection, the Monk’s Tale (consisting of “tragedies” of men’s diminished fortunes)—Geoffrey Chaucer also wrote another unfinished collection, The Legend of Good Women (1389), his third-longest work, created shortly after Troilus and Criseyde. Like Christine de Pizan’s French allegory Book of the City of Ladies and Boccaccio’s Latin collection Concerning Famous Women, the Middle English Legend provides a story collection about various (sometimes questionably) “saintly” females who were victims of love. Chaucer’s female figures were selected from the annals of antiquity and classical myth, including Ariadne, Cleopatra, Medea, Dido, Lucretia, Philomela, and others. The Legend’s prologue sets the stories within the framework of a dream vision in which the narrator is harassed by Cupid, the God of Love, and his queen, the daisy-like Alceste, for writing literary works that defame women, such as the Romaunt of the Rose (Chaucer’s translation of the thirteenth-century French dream vision) and Troilus and Criseyde, in which Criseyde betrays her lover Troilus. To rectify this literary “sin” against the fair sex, the narrator of Legend is issued the “penance” of writing a collection of stories lauding the more than twenty thousand “good women” whose stories he has neglected. However, the legends that follow only tell of ten women. Whether Chaucer tired of this literary exercise and voluntarily abandoned the project or decided to express an ironic view of womanly virtue through the very brevity and inconclusiveness of the collection is impossible to tell.
John Gower’S Story Collection, Confessio Amantis
In Confessio Amantis (Confession of the Lover; 1390-1393), containing over 30,000 lines of narrative verse, Chaucer’s English contemporary John Gower presents a collection of biblical, classical, legendary, and popular narratives, recounted by Genius, priest of Venus, as he hears the confession of Amans (“the lover”). The narrative voice represents John Gower, who poses as an elderly lover. The structure of Confessio is organized as if Amans confesses to his priest the various sins committed against love in seven books of stories organized according to the Seven Deadly Sins—Pride, Avarice, Envy, Wrath, Lechery, Gluttony, and Sloth—with one book assigned to each mortal sin. For Genius and the Lover, Gower obviously is indebted to the same figures in Jean de Meun’s continuation of the Romance of the Rose as well as Jean’s source, Alan of Lille’s Complaint of Nature. Before the confessions proper start, there is a Prologue narrated by “John Gower” as well as another book summarizing Aristotelian lore at the lover’s request. Even though both Gower and Chaucer sometimes tell analogous stories—for example Gower narrates stories that parallel those of the Man of Law’s Tale of Constance and the Wife of Bath’s Tale of a rash promise to a loathly damsel—readers today generally favor the psychological complexity of Chaucer’s rendition over Gower’s more prosaic version. Gower, however, was a prolific writer, composing thousands of lines of verse in Latin, French, and Middle English, for which he had a large audience in his time.
This brief type of tale, also known as the short conte, was predominantly a French form, the earliest examples dating from 1200. The term is the Old French diminutive for “little fable” and its plural is fabliaux; no equivalent name exists in Middle English. Unlike the romance, which often takes place in the far away and long ago Celtic Other World or in some idealized version of Camelot, the fabliau is set in the everyday world of the present. Its characters are bourgeois: peasants, clerks, lecherous clergy, oversexed wives, artisans, and cuckolded husbands. Despite its bourgeois or lower-class subject matter, the fabliau is not a bourgeois phenomenon, and, indeed, examples of the genre or texts in related forms occur alongside romances and in such important works as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Juan Ruiz’s Book of Good Love. The genre may have been an aristocratic form that mocked middle-or lower-class pretensions or the lack thereof. Its clever, complicated plots, often love triangles, are concerned more with cunning and folly than with virtue and evil, and generally concern humankind’s most basic functions—mostly sex, sometimes excretion. Little descriptive detail is given and characterization is usually minimal, reducing people to stock character types: the stupid cuckold, the venal woman, and the lecherous clerk. Sometimes, as in an exemplum or fable, there is a moral, usually a satirical spoof of the character and his or her “sins.” Essentially, however, the whole point of the form is amorality. The fabliau expresses the non-official culture of carnal, almost carnival, irreverence, of those feelings suppressed by courtly politeness or religious asceticism.
The Canterbury Tales
A Cross-Section of Fourteenth-Century Character Types
Begun about the late 1380s and still incomplete at Chaucer’s death in 1400, the Canterbury Tales comprise the most famous story collection in medieval literature. Like the journey to escape the ravages of the plague in Boccaccio’s Decameron, the frame that holds together this collection of tales is the purportedly random meeting of 29 individuals at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, southeast of the city of London. The common goal of this group of “sundry folk” is to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. In some ways, this pilgrim group presents a cross-section of late fourteenth-century English people and professions. At the top of the social hierarchy are an aristocratic knight and his entourage (his squire son and their attending yeoman). Also represented are various strata of the clerkly class (an Oxford clerk and a lawyer) and assorted clergy and male and female religious persons (several nuns, a parson, a summoner, a friar, a monk, and a pardoner). Chaucer makes sure to also include representatives of the mercantile class from which he himself originated (a franklin, a merchant, some guildsmen, and a cloth-weaving female entrepreneur from Bath). In a parallel to Langland’s agricultural laborers and his title character Piers Plowman, Chaucer went on to include members of the agricultural peasantry (a plowman, a miller, and a reeve), though how they could have afforded the time or the funds to travel on a pilgrimage is left to the reader to wonder about. Chaucer’s treatment of the portraits of the pilgrims in the General Prologue to the Tales features stock character types from the tradition of medieval estates satire, which assigned recognizably stereotypical traits and appearances to certain professions. To these expected stereotypes, Chaucer added individualizing personal touches, like the hairy wart on the Miller’s nose, or the brooch proclaiming “Love conquers all” dangling from the Prioress’s rosary, or the gold “love knot” that fastens the Monk’s cloak. These details ultimately render the pilgrims vividly realized individuals rather than types.
The Storytelling Contest
These pilgrims are gathered together in a common enterprise by the inn’s host, Harry Bailly, who proposes a story-telling contest as a pastime to allay the tedium of days of travel on horseback. The promised prize is a free dinner (to be paid for by all the losers) at Harry’s inn on the return trip. The winning tale must successfully combine moral instruction and amusement (sentence and solas). Harry, the self-appointed judge of the contest, rigs the game so that the first contestant, appropriately, is the Knight, the highest-ranking member of the entourage. This aristocrat tells a long, highly philosophical, Boethian-influenced tale about ancient Greek and Theban characters, based on Boccaccio’s Teseide (Story of Theseus). Although Chaucer did not complete the Canterbury Tales (of the contracted two tales per each of the 29 pilgrims going to and returning from Canterbury, Chaucer did not even finish one set of tales apiece), what he did create is a sampler of the various literary genres popular at the time: an Arthurian romance by the Wife of Bath; a Breton lay by the Franklin; fabliaux told by the Miller, Reeve, Cook, and Shipman; exempla and moral fables offered by the Pardoner and Manciple; hagiographic romances narrated by the Man of Law and the Clerk; an allegory and a metrical romance volunteered by the pilgrim narrator; saints’ lives told by the Prioress, Second Nun, and Physician; a beast fable offered by the Nun’s Priest; and a treatise on the Seven Deadly Sins and remedial virtues by the Parson, which concludes the journey on the proper penitential note. This catalogue of genres gives little indication of how freely Chaucer intermixed elements of the various literary forms available to him to create new hybrid categories such as: exempla withfabliau elements by the Summoner and the Friar; a mixed romance-fabliau by the Merchant; and a mixed romance-epic by the Knight.
The Pilgrims’ Contestive Spirit
Beyond the astonishing variety of the tales told by the pilgrims, what sets the Canterbury Tales apart from other story collections, such as those by Boccaccio and John Gower, is the dramatic interplay between the tellers, who often seem to be taking the contestive spirit of Harry Bailly’s “game” a bit more personally than he had planned. Some pilgrims, like the Miller and Reeve, or the Summoner and Friar, tell thinly disguised tales about their antagonists. Others, like the Clerk, Wife of Bath, Merchant, and Franklin, seem to be playing their stories against the previous one in what amounts to a symposium on power relations between husbands and wives in medieval marriages. Many of the pilgrim narrators are also far more richly characterized than their counterparts in other collections. Most readers easily forget that the Wife of Bath is merely a collection of words on parchment. She seems to burst forth as a three-dimensional figure from off Chaucer’s pages, divulging in her Prologue to her tale, which is much longer than the tale itself, many autobiographical details about her married life (since the age of twelve) with five different husbands. In some of her defenses of women, she anticipates Christine de Pizan’s championing of womankind and even the arguments of twentieth-century feminists. Thus, the Prologues also often serve as “confessional” literature, revealing the personal and professional secrets of the tellers. The Pardoner’s Prologue reveals the teller’s duplicity, hypocrisy, and greed, which ironically, is the very vice that his moral exemplum about trying to kill Death condemns.
Chaucer’S Pilgrim Narrator
What also sets this collection apart from others of the period is the complex narrative voice of the pilgrim persona who may or may not be Geoffrey Chaucer. No mere omniscient voice-over, this narrator-character is at times a player in the contest, at other times a disinterested reporter of the appearance and actions of the pilgrims (he claims he is describing the 29 people “as they seemed to me”). However, his seemingly innocent comments, interjected in the otherwise objective reports of the pilgrims’ clothing, physiognomy, and behavior, speak volumes about the inner character of his subjects. For example, in describing the Man of Law’s busy-ness, the narrator slyly and revealingly interjects, “And yet he seemedbusier than he was.” Like some of Chaucer’s earlier narrators in the dream visions or Troilus and Criseyde, this narrator is remarkably complex and a character in his own right in the literary work.
The General Prologue’S Opening
This narrator also opens the work with probably some of the most wonderfully poetic and famous lines of verse in the English language. Chaucer’s evocation of the re-greening of nature in April—the time of year when the seasonal rains and Zephirus’s winds encourage the reseeding and germinating of verdure and flowers, when birds sing love songs “pricked” by nature in their libidos—replicates the “spring opening” tropes of many of the love songs of medieval lyric poetry and the reverdie topos. The opening lines comprise one nineteen-line-long compound-complex sentence describing a series of causes and their single effect. Whereas the tradition of love poetry that preceded Chaucer would have prepared his audience—when they heard or read about breezes, April showers, May flowers, and birdsong—to expect that the succeeding text would in some way involve love, Chaucer stuns his audience with an unexpected effect of all these causes: he claims, then folk long to go on pilgrimages; especially in England, they long to go on pilgrimage to Canterbury to venerate the holy blissful martyr, Thomas Becket. In addition to being some of the most evocative nature poetry in English, these lines play a joke on the audience, who learn early on that Geoffrey Chaucer is always full of surprises.
Christine De Pizan
Medieval Female Writers
Generally, female children in the Middle Ages were not educated as well as their male brothers were. That is not to say that all women were illiterate, but it was fairly uncommon for women to write literary texts. To be sure, there were prominent exceptions throughout the 600 years of the period, and literary works to which no certain authorship can be ascribed and which seem to voice the female perspective may have been composed by women. In the corpus of Anglo-Saxon lyric poetry is an anonymous first-person narrated poem, “The Wife’s Lament,” that explores the sadness of a woman who is separated from her husband. It is ultimately impossible to know whether an actual woman wrote it. In twelfth-century France, Marie de France composed her Fables and Breton lais (lays), apparently enjoying some degree of fame in the English court, though little is known of her actual career. In the same century, a woman named Heloise (1098-1164) had a notorious affair, and later a secret marriage, with Peter Abelard (1079-1142), a prominent and brilliant theologian at the University of Paris. After they parted and she became the abbess of a convent of nuns, Heloise wrote a series of illuminating Letters to Abelard, which express her emotional feelings for her former lover as well as detail the running of the convent. But these letters are not what is usually thought of as “literature.” The female troubadour poets in the south of France, known as the trobairitz, did create lyric poems, but they were amateurs, not professional writers. Also in that century in Germany, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote prolific letters to various ecclesiasts, as well as treatises on medicine and gemstones, accounts of her visions, the Scivias (Ways of Knowing), and many hymns, though these works were intended for the education of other nuns rather than for a larger public. Female visionaries and mystics in late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, such as Dame Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, left records of their visions, respectively in Julian’s Showings and Margery’s Book of memoirs about her marriage, her travels on many pilgrimages, and her visions of a bleeding Christ while on pilgrimage in Jerusalem. However, both these works were dictated to male scribes and we cannot be sure to what extent the resulting text reflects the sensibility of their female “authors.” The only female writer to which none of these qualifications applies is a prolific author of the late Middle Ages, Christine de Pizan.
Europe’s First Professional Female Writer
Christine de Pizan (1364-c. 1431) was the first “professional” female writer in Europe. As she admits in her allegorical autobiography The Book of Fortune’s Mutation (1403), unfortunate circumstances in her life forced her metaphorically to “become a man” in order to achieve such a rare distinction. Christine was widowed young and left with three small children and other family members for whom she had to provide. Rather than remarry or enter a convent as most women in her position might do, Christine instead supported herself by writing various popular literary forms such as collections of love lyrics, love debates, devotional texts, female conduct books, and pastourelles for aristocratic patrons. Like another unusual female writer three centuries earlier, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, Christine was both prolific and multifaceted, mastering a dazzling variety of genres in both verse and prose, as well as involving herself not only in the composing, but also in the production and illustration of manuscripts of her works. She began her career at the court of Charles V of France, whose biography, The Book of the Deeds and Good Conduct of the Wise King Charles V (1404), she was later commissioned to write. The extraordinary range of her literary output includes examples of genres unexpected from a woman: a military treatise, The Book of the Deeds of Arms and Chivalry (1410); a political treatise, The Book of the Body Politic (1404-1407), a guide for the behavior of princes, knights, and lesser subjects; and a mythographic work in epistolary form, The Letter of Othea (1400), in which the goddess of wisdom in the title teaches moral lessons to the Trojan prince Hector by using stories from mythology. Just as the twelfth-century female writer Marie de France wrote Ovidian-inspired fables and Breton lays, in Othea Christine reveals her knowledge of Ovid’s Meta-morphoses, one of medieval Europe’s greatest literary authorities.
Christine’s Allegorical Writings
Although she demonstrated skill at nearly all major medieval literary genres, Christine is best known for her allegorical works, which often incorporate autobiographical and political sentiments into the allegory, such as The Path of Long Study (1402-1403) and The Book of Fortune’s Mutation (1403). Of special interest is The Book of the City of Ladies (1404-1405), for which she has become noteworthy as an early champion of women. In this allegory, Christine echoes the sentiments of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath that female characters have suffered terrible treatment in the writings of male authors, and women would be depicted more positively if female writers had the opportunity to tell their stories. As in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, or Dante’s Divine Comedy, Christine is visited in a vision by three allegorical female personifications—Reason, Rectitude, and Justice—who instruct her to create a new literary tradition about women by “constructing” a metaphorical “city” of ladies. In reality, this new tradition is really a story collection in the mode of Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or John Gower’s Confessio Amantis—each building block/story of which narrates the achievements of a praiseworthy, virtuous woman. In creating City of Ladies, Christine was responding (as was Chaucer’s Wife of Bath) to misogynist collections of tales such as Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women, whose female exemplars were more infamous than famous and more notorious than virtuous. Christine includes in her literary “City” women who excelled in secular fields (painting, poetry, science, farming, military arts) as well as saints. Christine continued to promote the interests of women until her death. The last poem attributed to her was The Tale of Joan of Arc (1429), one of the only contemporary literary treatments of the purportedly visionary female warrior who led French troops against the English in the Hundred Years’ War. If Christine had lived to revise her text, Joan of Arc surely would have earned a place alongside other Amazon warriors such as Penthesileia in the City of Ladies.
Christine and the Romance of the Rose
Christine also demonstrated her advocacy of the female voice by participating in a heated literary debate that took place in 1401-1402. Both as a writer of visions, such as the autobiographical Vision of Christine (1405), and as a literary critic, Christine figured importantly in the development of real-life female characters (not mere personifications) in the dream vision genre. In the “Quarrel over the Rose,” Christine sided with the theologian Jean Gerson against other male intellectuals such as Pierre and Gontier Col and Jean de Montreuil over the value of perhaps the most famous and widely read allegorical poem and dream vision of the medieval period, the Romance of the Rose. Christine strongly criticized Rose, especially the continuation by Jean de Meun, for its antifeminist sentiments. Having collected the letters and arguments of the major antagonists in the quarrel, she presented them to Queen Isabeau, wife of Charles VI. Her very public profile as a professional writer and controversialist prepared the way for literary women who would begin writing in the Renaissance, at the same time that her literary range rivaled that of the great male writers of medieval Europe—Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Dante.