THE MIDDLE AGES
(1066 – 1500)
THE MIDDLE AGES (1066-1500). The social and literary scene. The alliterative and the Continental traditions. Literary kinds (romance, dream vision, allegory, bestiary, estate satire, sermon, confession, moral tract, fabliau, dits amoureux, dits de Fortune, danse macabre, de casibus stories) and conventions (framing devices). The new voices of authority: Church and Castle. Medieval lyric (amour courtois or pro amore dei). Medieval epic (The Arthurian Saga and the code of chivalric values. Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight). The voices of subversion. William Langland: satirist and preacher. Geoffrey Chaucer, or, “God’s plenty”, breaking out of medieval confines. Medieval drama poised between eschatology and contingency
The Middle Ages is a period well-defined by the Norman Conquest (1066) and the Reformation of the Church (1533-1559). The arrival of the Norman conquerors led by William meant the end of a heroic society and the onset of the feudal age. The change had actually started before, as early in the century Wulfstan, Archbishop of York (1003-1023), was already composing a dirge on the loosening of bonds between thane and thrall, father and son, and on the impending collapse of the traditional values of the patriarchal way of life. In any event, it was only after the Anglo-Saxons' defeat by the Norman Gauls, with their different social grammar, that the personal relationships, which could be felt also as natural and affectionate bonds between king and thane, thane and thrall, began to be rapidly replaced by a rigid and complicated social hierarchy. Being a “bond person” no longer meant “loyalty”; it meant lack of freedom and of the means of personal economic sustenance. The civil hierarchy of king and peers (duke, marquis, earl, viscount, baron) and a middle stratum composed of knight, squire and burgess (well-to-do citizens, who could be elected to Parliament), and the ecclesiastical hierarchy of prelates were towering haughtily above the majority of the population made up of peasants (franklin, yeoman and husbandman) and serfs (tied to the land, with no right over it). The Domesday Book, a survey of the land and its inhabitants, compiled by order of William I in 1085-86, leaves no doubt about the king regarding them as his own possessions, thus revealing the mercantile nature of the power-relationships informing the entire social edifice: Patronage was lucrative. Men offered money in order to obtain what the king had to offer: offices (from the chancellorship down), succession to estates, custody of land, wardship, and marriage – or even nothing more concrete than the king's good will. All of these were to be had at a price, and the price was negotiable. According to the Book, half the value of the country was in the hands of less than two hundred men. Power and wealth were accumulating at the centre of the feudal state. Another power structure still retained forms of patriarchal gender and age discriminations, A “Roll of Ladies, Boys and Girls”, dating from the administration of Henry II (1154-1189), mentions Lucy, the widowed Countess of Chester, who offered the King 1,500 marks for the privilege of remaining single for five years. No wonder that at a time when both marriage and being single were equally subject to taxation, we should find the following comment in the Dialogue of the Exchequer (1170) by Richard FitzNeal, Bishop of London and Treasurer of England: the power of princes fluctuates according to the ebb and flow of their cash resources...
Obviously, such a cold-blooded scheme did not work a favourable impression on those – the greatest numbers of the population – called upon to provide for their betters. Therefore, the dominant classes worked it into a fiction: A sermon delivered in the 1370 by Bishop Thomas Brinton of Rochester supplements the hierarchical view of society with a more organic view of the interdependence of its estates. We are all, he says, the mystical members of a single body, of which the head (or heads) are kings, princes and prelates; the eyes are judges, wise men and true counsellors; the ears are clergy; the tongue is good doctors. Then within the midsection of the body, the right hand is composed of strenuous knights; the left hand is composed of merchants and craftsmen; and the heart is citizens and burgesses. Finally, peasants and workers are the feet which support the whole . Once triggered, imagination was quick in producing other seductive images of the organically compounded social body, giving everyone an impression of being needed to fulfil some providential scheme: the kingdom as a well-trimmed garden or as a well-run bee-hive, as we can read in a fragment of 1751 lines of alliterative verse, composed under Henry IV (entitled Mum and the Sothsegger, by its first editors, M. Day and R. Steele, 1936). Not only images but also literary forms and conventions were inspired by this social outlook: dits de Fortune and De casibus stories, which bemoaned changes in the social hierarchy (from high to low social position) attributing them to the whims of Fortune, on the one hand, and, on the other, estate satires and danse macabre, which presented a general picture of all social estates, engaged in a vivid repartee, acting for a common purpose (devotional or economic) or sharing the same metaphysical destiny (all being subject to Death).
1066 was the beginning of a long period of French influence, during which the native language was replaced by Latin in the theological and ecclesiastical discourse and by French as the language of statecraft, civil record-keeping, entertainment and schooling of the new aristocracy. Beyond everyday speech, English was only employed in oral instruction that is in sermons or addresses from the pulpit to a congregation that did not understand Latin. The native language was thus deprived of the necessary exercise of accomodating new ideas occurring in theology, politics, law etc. The influence of the dominant French culture was reinforced by the Angevin conquest of 1153-4. Henry I (1100-1135), who had succeeded to his brother, William II (1087-1100) had been left without an heir after his son's death. His daughter, Empress Matilda (so called on account of her first marriage to the Emperor of Germany) was married a second time to the much younger Geoffrey Plantagenet (a nickname describing his coat of arms), Count of Anjou. Their son, Henry, who married Eleanor of Aquitaine (previously married to Louis VII of France) became King of England (Henry II, 1154-l189). From King John (1199-1216), who succeeded to his brother, Richard I (Coeur de Lion, who had spent most of his time crusading or on his domain in France), after getting rid of his nephew Arthur, the legitimate heir to the throne as the son of an elder brother, the English Royal House descended in straight line through Edward I (1272-l307), and Edward II (1307-1327) to Edward III (1327-1377). The French properties of the English kings and their claims to the crown of France were the cause of the one-hundred-year- war between the two countries. The family policy of Edward III saw to it that his numerous sons held in their power the entire kingdom: Edward, Prince of Wales, who did not live to see the end of his father's long reign, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Edmund, Duke of York. Apparently, another son, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, was killed on his own father's command, out of his partiality for Richard, Duke of Kent (the son of the Prince of Wales, the valiant Black Prince), who became King Richard II (l377-l399). With the usurpation of Richard by Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster (after John's death), the fratricide War of the Roses began. The House of Clarence, united in time through marriage ties to the dukedoms of York (having a white rose as its emblem) and Gloucester, and the earldom of March launched a coalition against the House of Lancaster (the red rose). After the successful reigns of Henry IV (1399-1413), and Henry V (1413-1422), they finally managed to defeat the weak Henry VI (1422-1461), and to put Edward of York on the throne (Edward IV, 1461-1483). The cunning schemes of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, including the assassination of his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, and of his nephew, Edward V (1483), won him the throne in 1483. His defeat (in the famous battle of Bosworth, 1485) by Henry, Earl of Richmond, (a descendant of Owen Tudor of Wales, married to the widow of Henry V) marked the end of the war, as Henry's marriage to Elizabeth of York sealed the peace between the two houses. Richard III was the last Plantagenet, the last of the Angevin dynasty. Henry VII (1485-1509) founded the Tudor dynasty (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth I), which saw England through the exceptionally flourishing period of the Renaissance, and that meant, as anywhere else, the assertion of the national spirit. But the French spirit had long been extinguished, yielding to the native. In the middle of the fourteenth century, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, wrote a devotional treatise (Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines), apologizing for the quality of his Anglo-Norman French: par seo qu jeo suit engleis .
The Anglo-Norman society may be said to have been a literate one, considering that tens of thousands writs were produced, not only for learned people but for day-to-day transactions as well; e.g. eight million charters confirmed the land ownership of smallholders and peasants alone in the 13th century. Whereas in the Anglo-Saxon period a seal had been only the King's privilege, each landowner was now possessed of one. Although people were passing from an oral society to an extended participation in literacy, literary compositions were still meant for an oral, social enjoyment. Mixed assemblies of people would sit about one hearth (not only in the gorgeous dining-halls of peers or prelates, but also under the modest roofs of smaller owners and cultivators of land), listening to readings by private individuals or performers of songs, ballads, romances, mummings, shows, interludes, moralities etc. Even when such compositions were committed to writing, the manuscripts remained in private ownership (sometimes multiplied and disseminated among the patron's acquaintances). The fact was of great import, both in point of rhetoric (the emphasis upon auditory effects and the visualizing potential of the artistic medium), and in that of the manuscripts' chance of being known among a wider readership or of survival. There was no such thing as the homogeneous discourse and the unifying literary consciousness that collects at a certain time (Chaucer, Langland and the Gawayne poet, although contemporaries, may not have known each other, which resulted in their widely diverging discourses), and we may suspect that lots of manuscripts have been lost, considering that a masterpiece like Sir Gawayne has only come down to us thanks to the chance survival of one manuscript.
The literature of the entire period was controlled by the power discourse of the dominant ideologies. The paradigms map the three traditional estates of medieval society: the seigneurial, the spiritual, and the agricultural. Those constituting official authority were the first two: the discourse of the church disseminating received ideas (auctoritates) in hosts of homiletic, hortatory writings, and didactic poems, and the discourse of the aristocracy, reifying the images they constructed of themselves, codified as chivalry and courtly love (romances and lays). The agricultural communities welcomed the homely tradition of the humorous fabliaux, Arthurian legends, as well as the legends of the East (those of the Holy Rood contained in the Jewish legends, the Book of Adam and the Book of Enoch, an Old English version of Apollonius of Tyre wooing the king of Antioch's daughter by solving a riddle narrated in Chap. 153 of Gesta Romanorum), Oriental stories of magic and wizardry, which were brought to England by crusaders, and by warriors, ecclesiastics and statesmen visiting the great abbeys (St. Alban). The crusades had stirred an interest in the fabulous East which, alongside the institution of chivalry and the mystic symbolism of the Church entered into the melting pot which produced the modern romance (12th century).
All these discourses knew dynamic exchanges of their semantic energies, literature being very far from autonomous at the time when English came in its own right (thirteenth-fourteenth century). Education was largely responsible for stimulating moral and religious anxiety, even in works of the imagination, created for entertainment.
By 1220 Oxford and Cambridge were established as seats of learning. They taught as main subjects theology, philosophy, science, poetry, but also much pastoral work: compendia of dogma and ethics, series of model sermons, improving stories, saints' lives, paraphrases and explanations of the books of the Bible. The hermeneutic work on the doubly-articulated language of the New Testament, the structure of the sermons – the most widely-spread form of preaching – helped shape an awareness of multi-layered discourse.
In his authoritative book on Medieval Imagination , Jacques Le Goff comments on the double temporal structuring of an exemplum. On the one hand, in order to grasp the interest of the listener/reader, the preacher passes off some anecdote, brief narrative, for recent experience (audivi, vidi, memini): this is real, this is no vain talk, it may happen to you any time. On the other, he produces a diachronical narrative, looking back to official authorities (exempla, auctoritates, rationes, quotes from the Scriptures) and forward to the end of the world (the time of redemption) – that is, set in eschatological time. Finally he returns to the present moment, trying to persuade his auditors into starting on their work of redemption that very moment (hodie). The medieval discourse is hierarchical, just like the social structure, or the heavenly hierarchy of God on his throne and his angelic company of various degrees.
Northrop Frye, in his Theory of Symbols (Ethical Criticism), describes the medieval four-level scheme of meanings in a hierarchical sequence, in which the first steps are comparatively elementary and apprehension gets more subtle and rarefied as one goes on. It is not a sequence of meanings, in fact, but of contexts or relationships in which the whole work of literary art can be placed, each context having its characteristic mythos (narrative) and ethos (characterization), as well as its dianoia or meaning . Frye's word for these contexts and relationships is “phases”. Not only allegory but also framing devices produce independent layers of meaning. In Chaucer, for instance, the prefatory phases or the closures usually subvert the meaning of the framed narrative, which draws on some pre-existing source, therefore we find rather improper the comparison of this structural technique to that of Gothic architecture, where the various juxtaposed “panels”, “masses” and “blocks” do not comment on one another .
The linear perspective of a totalitarian society, as was that of the late Middle Ages, streamlined writing practices, even if they were springing from different sources: lay and religious, the seigneurial Castle and the dogmatic Church. In time, they merged into a common tradition, with hybrid generic figures, like the errant knight whose secret love is Virgin Mary (see poem 85 in the Harley 2253 manuscript, collected in Herefordshire and written in a timespan of about half a century, between the late thirteenth and the early fourteenth centuries). The love-quest, the traditional topic of the chanson d'aventure, is further purified from the idealistic, non-marital love of the courtly lays, in order for the rider to “cast out fleshly lust” and fuel the somber teachings about mortality delivered from the pulpit:
Though bright and fair of face you be,
Decay shall fade your flowers.
For almost two centuries after the Norman Conquest, the vehicle of poetry was Norman French or Latin. The male tradition is usually one of stern admonishing, arduous praise, particularly of Virgin Mary, and of self-conscious pride in literary achievement which served the higher purposes of devotion (see poet Richard's eulogy of “the finest verses of our time”, in poem 74 of the same collection). Famous is The Love Song of Friar Thomas de Hales, written around the year 1270 by a Franciscan, the most liberal religious order which did not reject love of nature and beauty or the secular art which could serve God's greater glory. Friar Thomas undertakes to write “a lover's lay”, as a troubadour used to do, in the romance tradition, yet sending forth a different message: let the lady forfeit worldly deceit and vanity and betrothe herself to Christ in a convent. The following picture of the knight-at-arms deceived by love and withering away like meadow grass may have inspired Keats in his refurbishing of a French poem by Alain Chartier (1424), La Belle Dame Sans Mercy:
The thanes who once were fierce and bold
Have gone like wind upon the gad;
Beneath the ground they moulder cold,
Like meadow grass which withers dead.
With its double scheme of worldly trivia pitted against a spiritual heaven, this poem might also have lingered in T.S. Eliot's mind on writing his Love Song of Alfred Prufrock.
As the vehicle of sacred learning in the Middle Ages, Latin must have sounded like a firm anchorage for the vernacular. In the following example of Macaronic poetry – verse written in two or more languages –, hymn and prayer combine to produce a meditation on the Nativity as humanity's progress from destruction to salvation through Mary, summed up in the key Latin words:
Well he knows he is your Son.
Ventre quem portasti; whom you bore in your womb
Your prayers to him he will shun,
Parvum quem lactasti. whom as a baby you suckled
So kindly and so good he is
That he has brought us all to bliss
Superni of heaven
And shut for ever the foul abyss
Inferni of hell
Marie de France, whose twelve lais have been treasured in the Harley manuscript, was probably a Plantagenet Princess and Abbess of Shaftesbury in the late twelfth century. She puts forth no proud claims of authority and originality, reserving for herself the modest role of interpreting and glossing what the ancients “assez oscurrement dissaint”. Her poetry is, however, counter hegemonic, effecting a reversal from estoire to conte, from the written tradition to the oral Breton lais, from Latin to the vernacular, from masculine to feminine narration. As Eva Rosenn says in The Sexual and Textual Politics of Marie's Poetics, she was privileging marginality in all respects. In Lecheor, Chaitivel or Equitan, she multiplies the narrative voices. Women produce stories, from different points of view, in a sort of women's lai contest.
A more relaxed attitude, far from the strictly religious assumptions and dogmas, can be seen in the miscellaneous secular poems of the time, for instance in this poem from the Harley Manuscript about “The Man in the Moon”. Associated with Cain, as the humanly shaped patch in the moon appears to be wearing thorns, or with the man in Numbers XV, 32-36, stoned to death for gathering sticks on the sabbath, this popular figure of the English folklore invites in this poem commiseration rather than the abhorrence of evil. He is one of the wretched of the earth, impoverished by his bundle of sticks, frozen and paralysed with fear for having trespassed property or for some other transgression of the law („half crippled with dread”) The speaker takes pity on him and imagines a humorous scene in the homely country life, which might release the Man in the Moon from his pledge to the bailiff:
Your pledge may be taken, but bring home your boughs:
Put your other foot forward and stride out free:
We'll pay host to the bailiff here in the house,
And make him at ease in the highest degree.
We'll give him strong drink till his spirits rouse;
Our housewife will pleasantly sit on his knee,
And when he's as drunk as a drowning mouse,
We'll take back the pledge from the bailiff, you'll see.
The Man gives no reply, as he is imprisoned in his fear of authority, like the sluggish Man in the Moon, choosing wrong idols and masters in Shakespeare's Tempest, instead of the true redeemer.
As the young aristocrats enjoyed private tutorship, the students of Oxford and Cambridge were usually middle class – sons of the gentry, burgesses, priests, clerks. There is a liberal tradition in medieval verse, for instance in the political poems produced in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Song of the Battle of Lewes (1264) is antimonarchic and antiabsolutist, supporting the cause of Simon de Montfort, whose endeavours finally led to Parliament, which limited the king's power. On the Death of Edward III is a patriotic poem, allegorizing the state as a ship bereft, after the powerful king's death, of its rudder. The war with France had created new wealth and had shifted the balance of power. Next to the king, who had secured the whole nation's loyalty, is placed the House of Commons, while the Lords is as “out of sight and out of mind” as the country's glory under Edward III, now that he is dead:
The Commons, by the cross on high,
I liken to the vessel's mast,
Who with their wealth and property
Maintained the war from first to last.
By the end of the thirteenth century the military suppression of the Albigensian and Waldensian heresies had silenced the more unorthodox voices, while the Provencal royal house of the cult of woman, of love and gallantry had symbolically collapsed. It was the decay of the baronial class, on account of the loss of labour caused by the Black Death (1348) that had allowed of the rise of the bourgeoisie and of a renewed confidential tone among the “Commons” in the next century.
In the late fourteenth century subversion takes the form of social satire (Langland, Chaucer), parody of courtly romances (Chaucer), and the transformation of the hegemonic discourses themselves, which are now appropriated by merchants and farmers. The romance, for instance, is rendered familiar, centred on the home, thematizing the common duties of the marital couple, united in a more egalitarian domestic bond (see the Franklin's romance in The Canterbury Tales).
Deceptively democratic is the argumentative or debate tradition of the Middle Ages, which, in fact, served the official code of values. The Thrush and the Nightingale is a debate poem, opposing the Thrush's misogyny to the Nightingale's defence of women.
Each of them brings in arguments for and against woman's worth, and it is the Nightingale who makes her point by bringing up the issue of Mary who had washed away Eve's fault.
The Owl and the Nightingale, a poem in the vernacular from the second half of the thirteenth century, in French octosyllabics (one of the earliest examples of the shift from alliterative to regular metre), combines the tradition of the bestiary, in which birds and animals are endowed with moral qualities (ethos), with that of the French débat. The dialogue between the two birds reads on a second, allegorical level, as a dispute between a disciple of Eros and a didactic, patronizing priest.
A dialogical form (the popular and the theological) may be identified in a dream-vision allegory, Piers Plowman, whose three surviving versions have been recently dated in the l370s. Of the author of the poem, William Langland, we only know what the poem tells us: that he was born in the Midlands, was educated at the Benedictine school at Malvern passing afterwards to London, where he dedicated himself to a professional writer's career. Written in the popular tradition of the alliterative verse, the poem imposes upon us its theological design through a characteristically medieval handling of allegory and prologue framing.
In the prologue, the author tells of his falling asleep and dreaming that he beheld a “field full of folk”, going about their daily work, within the space between the Tower of Truth and the Valley of Evil (Death). The setting is at once local and universal, descriptive and allegorical, defining humanity as engaged in a perilous pilgrimage, leading to either doom or salvation. The dreamer – who is dressed like a shepherd, passing judgement on what he sees like a priest or Christ, who are Shepherd figures, blends his account of a society plagued by deceiving friars, merchants and pardoners with a pageant of allegorical figures, which is a comment on the former: Falsehood and his companion, Lady Mead (Reward of Bribary), surrounded by Flattery, Simony, Guile and other sins, more or less deadly. The poem is divided into sections of unequal length, called “passus”, while, thematically, it falls into two parts: Visio of Piers Plowman, which is a satire of social sins and an exhortation to cure them, and Vita of Piers, which shows three forms of the good life, sought under the names of Do-Well, Do-Bet, and Do-Best. These blessed states invite a reading on three levels: literal, moral, and anagogic. Do-Well means living a good life, in accordance with the precepts of the Church, and the practice of Charity – the supreme Christian virtue. Do-Bet is the state which finds its consummation in active religious commitment: preaching to the people. Do-Best is humanity which, having grasped the essence of Christianity is reformed in its spirit, and merges with Christ. Piers, the busy and dilligent farmer, assumes the task of assisting the seven Deadly Sins on their way to repentance (Passus V). Their dramatic monologues render them exceptionally vivid, through the details of physical appearance, manners, dress, habits etc. The “visio” of Sloth, for instance, impersonated by an idle priest, looking dirty, shabbily dressed, in love with good food and other worldly delights, illiterate and forgetful of his duty makes us quite oblivious of the allegorical convention. The next metamorphoses of Piers place him within the contexts of the Christian ethos. On one occasion, when the narrator falls asleep again, he has a vision of Chrystes passion and penaunce. The “old folks” are now those who have been redeemed through the Crucifixion, singing Gloria laus and osanna. And who should show up, in a resplendent show, local and universal, medieval and mythic, but Piers himself ? Langland sees him at the climactic point of medieval ceremony, like a knight who comes to be dubbed, “without spurs or spear”, but also “semblable to the Samaritan”, and, through a third expansion of the allegorical design, barefooted on an ass – a Christ figure. The authoritative Derek Traversi is mostly aptly describing the allegorical design in its full medieval form (implying) the capacity to see a situation simultaneously under different aspects, each independent and existing on its own level, in its own right, but at the same time forming part of a transcendent order in relation to which alone its complete meaning is to be ascertained.
At the end of a mid-fifteenth-century manuscript of Piers Plowman, containing only the first four passus, there is a fragment of 93 lines, Mum, Sothsegger (Shut up, Truth-teller), which was edited by W.W. Skeat as Richard the Redeless and attributed by him to Langland. Apparently it was composed in the last year of Richard's rule, referring to his misdemeanour, under the influence of unworthy royal favourites, and making a splendid allegory of the jewels in the crown as the desirable virtues in a king (a meaning mediated by the metaphysical symbolism of gems in the Revelation). The narrative persona falls asleep and comes to an idyllic garden, with fruit coveted by men, children and ladies alike. The gardener explains to him how he keeps the garden free from weeds and caterpillars. The garden is an allegory of Eden, the earthly Paradise which can be regained, if only man will allow the Sothsegger in his heart to speak the truth.
John Burrow Longman included in his 1977 anthology of English Verse. 1300-1500 a fragment from a later manuscript, dealing with the government under Henry IV, telling the king another cautionary tale on the necessity for the king to be told the truth. The manner of freely mixing up characters in flesh and blood (the Sothsegger) and allegorical embodiments of abstract qualities (Mum) is indeed characteristic of Langland. The end, with the narrator waking up and offering the king a “bag of writings” which will tell him the truth about his subjects is reminiscent of the Welsh bag of poetry (Craneskin) . The anagogic meaning is pointed out by a Latin sidenote quoting Matthew 5:10 (Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake). This is the Sothsegger who is sitting anointing his wounds, while Mum, the principle of keeping one's mouth shut, is having a great time at a mayor's banquet. The narrator, who is so grieved at Mum being such a master among men of good that he falls in a swoon, dreams of the blooming garden and the perfectly-run bee-hive as allegories of a good state and of Eden.
 The Oxford History of Britain, edited by Kenneth O. Morgan. Vol, II, The Middle Ages, by John Gillingham and Ralph A. Griffith, Oxford, 1988, p. 45
 Paul Strohm, The Social and Literary Scene in England, in Chaucer, edited by Piero Boitani & Jill Mann, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 2
 Ibidem, p. 6
 Jacques Le Goff, Imaginarul medieval, Editura Meridiane, 1991, pp. 147-151
 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, 1957, pp. 71-78
 Barry Windeatt, Literary structures in Chaucer, in Chaucer, Op, cit., p. 196
 Derek Traversi, Langland's Piers Plowman in the Penguin Guide to English Literature, The Age of Chaucer, Penguin 1981, p. 133
 See Colin Wilcockson, Mum and the Sothsegger in The Review of English Studies, May 1995.
 Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Faber & Faber, 1992, pp. 458-460.
din Bucuresti 2004.