Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Medieval Mind

I'm still slowly plowing my way through Tuchman's A Distant Mirror but I took a brief detour through Charles T. Wood's The Quest for Eternity: Medieval Manners and Morals.  One of Tuchmann's basic points is that the Medieval aesthetic was a juvenile one.  Prone to hysterics, lacking impulse control, tending towards extremes of love or hate, lacking foresight.  Right at the start of Wood's book he offers this vignette, which he sees as being about the failure of Christianity to reach something he calls the "Germanic" nature of the culture.  

"Even as late as the twelth century, traces of the gulf that could separate the ordinary Christian from the high ideals of his faith are to be found in the chansons de geste, whose plots reflect a folk memory of the past, particularly of the reigns of Charlemagne and his immediate descendants.  Nowhere is their testimony more vivid than in Raoul de Cambrai.  Raoul, the hero, has with some justice been called "a paroxysm of ferocity and impiety", for his career encompasses nearly every imaginable form of savagery and brutality.  But despite his shortcomings, Raoul clearly consiers himself a Chrisitian and subject to the dictates of the faith, facts that are somewhat startlingly demonstrated after he has burned down a convent filled with nuns, including the mother of one of his squires.  Fatigued from this exploit, Raoul returns to his tent, summons his seneschal, and is soon engaged in a a difficult exchange of words:

'Prepare me food and thou wilt do me a great service; roasted peacocks and devilled swans, and venison in abundance, that even the humblest may have his fill.  I would not be thought mean by my barons for all the gold of a city.'  When the seneschal heard this he looked at him in amazement and crossed himself thrice for such blasphemy.  'In the name of Our Lady,' said he, 'what are you thinking of?  You are denying holy Christianity and your baptism and the God of majesty.  It is Lent, when every one ought to fast;  It is the holy Friday of the passon on which sinners have always honoured the cross.  And we misterable men who have come here, we have burned the nuns and violated the church and we shall never be reconciled to God unless his pity be greater than our wickedness.'  Raoul looked at him and said: 'Son of a slave, why have you spoken to me like that?  Why did they wrong me? They insulted two of my squires and it is not a matter for wonder that they had to pay for it dearly.  But, it is true, I had forgotten Lent.' 

Raoul, sulking, then attempts to submerge his hunger in a game of chess. Thus are Christ's forty days in the wilderness piously commemorated."


  1. You know, what is interesting is that Georgette Heyer captured that perfectly in her historical novels about that general era. I read those and kept thinking: geez, what children!

  2. I'm a big Georgette Heyer fan and I thought she did an incredible job with The Conqueror, which I still re-read occasionally. Some of the same points are made, after a fashion, by Samuel Shellabarger in his novels King's Cavalier, Prince of Foxes, and Captain from Castile. All three are technically romance/adventure novels but both are also about the transition from a pre-modern to a modern political sensibility. From mere martial honor to an honor of the mind and heart, from territorial tribalism towards a theory of good governance and nationalist pride. If you squint you can see some of the issues in St. Joan.