Fearful Symmetries

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27 November, 2013

Hoary-Haired Warriors and Clean Venus Chambers: Medieval Culture and Society - David Herlihy, ed.



I have to admit to being a bit leery when I bought this book. Having been published in 1968 I was concerned that new evidence had been uncovered in the past 45 years which would contradict or at least cast new light on some of the themes presented in it. Plus the field itself has no doubt changed over the years. From my experience, older texts on medieval history tend to ignore women and pretty much anyone who wasn't clergy, royalty, or aristocracy while newer ones often fill in these gaps. Books laying out who ruled and went to war when are easy to come by but ones that give me a sense of a medieval mindset and vivid descriptions of quotidian life are harder to find. But this book was cheap so I wasn't going to lose much if it turned out not to hold anything new for me. As a bonus, I discovered halfway through that the editor, David Herlihy, was a professor here at the UW-Madison when this book was published.

The book is divided into three parts that each cover the generally accepted eras of what we call the Middle Ages. You've got the Early Middle Ages which spans roughly from 500C.E. to 1000.; then there's the Middle Middle Ages which lasts until 1350; and finally the Late Middle Ages which goes until 1500. Each of these sections includes primary sources, texts in whole or excerpted, from the respective periods with each having a short introduction by Herlihy. There is a good mix of texts here. You've got histories, papal writings, poems, saintly hagiographies, etc. But you also get various government documents spawned by medieval bureaucracies.

The book begins with Tacitus giving us an overview of Germanic culture in the first century C.E. I was pleased to find out that my ancestors were a fun-loving bunch: "No other race indulges more freely in entertainments and hospitality." It came as absolutely no surprise to me to read that they drank beer. "A liquor for drinking bearing a certain resemblance to wine is made by the process of fermentation from barley or other grain." Speaking of beer, we also have De Villis, a manual for running royal estates thought to be issued by Charlemagne himself, in which we find "During the time the steward performs his service, he should have his malt delivered to the palace. Similarly, let masters come who know how to make good beer there."

Having read a fair amount about St. Benedict and Benedictine monasteries, I was happy to actually find something from the man himself here, namely, the Rules of St. Benedict, from c. 540 in which he lays out monastic virtues. Unlike the monks featured in Into Great Silence who enjoy sledding from time to time, it would seem that Benedictine monks would have been a very dour, humorless group. What are the "instruments of good works"? Not to embrace pleasure. To be terrified of hell. To hate one's own will. Not to pronounce idle or frivolous words. Just imagine Jorge de Burgos as your boss. Uff da!

Also included is a description of the Synod of Whitby by Bede the Venerable. The Synod took place in 663ish and featured the English and the Irish churches arguing over when to place Easter. The English want to adopt the practices of the Church in Rome whereas the Celts were keen on their own dating tradition. A bishop named Wilfrid argued for following Rome's example and did so in only the most confusing way possible. To wit: "But if the Sunday were not to come the next morrow after the 14th day of the change of the moon, but the 16th or 17th or any other day of the moon until the one-and-twentieth, he tarried for that Sunday, and the Sabbath before, upon the evening, he began the most holy solemnity of Easter." Whew! No doubt early Church fathers would be appalled at how Christmas has taken the top spot in the ranks of Christian holidays.

When we get to the Middle Middle Ages, historians have a much larger written record to draw from and, consequently, this section of the book is much lengthier than the first.

Much is made of the feudal system but cities and towns were often granted special rights and privileges in the name of promoting commerce. An example is given here in form of the statutes of the "free village" of Lorris in France. In the early 12th century land was cleared and, in order to get people to settle in the new village, liberal regulations were adopted by Louis VI. We're not talking a libertarian paradise here but various fines, tolls, and taxes were waived. And men didn't have to leave town in order to take a case to court.

Even an unschooled layreader like myself can't avoid the great love story of Abelard and Heloise. As with St. Benedict above, it is nice to read about their legendary love story first-hand instead of third. Abelard was a renowned philosopher who became smitten with Heloise. She lived with her uncle so the crafty scholar installed himself in the uncle's house and began a relationship with Heloise. In short, she gets pregnant and, when the matter becomes public, he is castrated. Here's how he describes the terrible act: "For they cut off those parts of my body, by which I had committed the deed which sorrowed them." That's putting it lightly.

This period is one in which literature flowered. Instead of fiction devoted entirely to the derring do of warriors on the battlefield or the hunt for Grendel, we have Dante's epic Divine Comedy, the humorous tales of sly and cunning Reynard the Fox, and lyric poetry devoted to love. Of the last we have an excerpt from Romance of the Rose. Today we complain about George Lucas tweaking his own movies with CGI, but imagine being a fan of this poem which was hastily completed after the author died and then expanded four fold a few decades later. The original tale by Guillaume de Lorris was written around 1237 but he did not complete it. To de Lorris' 4000 lines were added 78 new ones by an anonymous author so that the story concluded. Cut to 1277 when Jean de Meun re-wrote the ending. This seems heretical enough to us but, to make matters worse, he took his sweet time and added 16,000+ lines to the original. De Lorris wrote about a man seeking love, "aided in his quest by mirth, courtesy, gladness, wealth, largesse, and other qualities". The special extended addition is more vulgar as we find here with excerpts from passages by both authors.

De Lorris describes how a man may be courteous and attract women with his good manners. "Be courteous and accommodating/With soft and reasonable words," he writes. Also "When you are passing through the streets/Be sure you act politely." This is the stuff parents teach their children. However, de Meun takes another route and describes the advice from an old nurse given to women who wish to succeed in love. One handy bit of advice: "She should keep her Venus' chamber clean/If she is refined and well brought up/Let her leave no spiderwebs about". De Meun is like a proto-editor of Cosmopolitan magazine here.

The section dealing with the Late Middle Ages is the shortest of the three. You've got Boccaccio describing the Black Death in Florence and some Chaucer as well. "The Ordinance of Laborers" by Edward III interested me. In the wake of The Plague, workers were in short supply and so could demand higher wages and have more choice in where they plied their trades. Edward, apparently not a fan of the law of supply and demand, took matters into his own hands and dictated terms for workers in his lands. It became forbidden for reapers and mowers to "depart from the said service without reasonable cause or license". "Artificers and workmen" saw their pay limited to pre-Plague rates. Perhaps in a blow for consumer rights, Edward also commanded that "sellers of all manner of victuals" sell their food "for a reasonable price".

Judging from the preface, Medieval Culture and Society is a text for the layreader like myself. (One also learns in the preface that Herlihy was a professor here at the UW-Madison when he compiled the book.) And the introductory material is also clearly written for someone, also like me, who is not fully steeped in medieval history. One problem is that these elements are very concise and people just learning the subject are probably going to be left with many questions. This book is not largely an historian explaining history and then giving examples from primary sources to illustrate his text. Instead the reader is given brief outlines as introductions and then thrown in the water to sink or swim. While by no means a scholarly book, this is also not meant for readers who are just starting with the subject.

Along these same lines, there are times when footnotes would have been handy. Take "So Filled With Happiness" from the section about troubadour lyric poetry. It has the line "Richer than gold in Frisian mart". How many modern average Joe's are going to A) know where Frisia is and B) understand why the author would have referred to it?

At least this is better than the Great Books of the Western World series for which editor Mortimer Adler decided against introductory notes completely. One thing Great Books and Medieval Culture and Society have in common is a love for translations that aren't much newer than the texts they transcribe.

Take, for example, Song of Hildebrand. It is littered with thee's and thy's. Plus you've got "Canst win the harness from so hoary a man". It's better than the Old High German of the original but had no one translated it after 1650? I'm no scholar so I don't know exactly who has translated what and when, but you'd think that the core texts, texts that form the foundation of our understanding of the time, would have at least semi-modern translations.

The Internet mitigated some of these problems and it also helped that I was not starting from scratch when it came to medieval history. Overall, Medieval Culture and Society was good reading. I especially enjoyed being able to read the words of figures I've only read about. But a lot was left out. For instance, there was nothing written by women here – not even a token entry from Hildegard of Bingen. Maps are always welcome too. Help me place the events described, where they are on the globe but also where they are located politically. What are the boundaries of the kingdom? The more context the merrier, I say.

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|| Palmer, 3:16 PM

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