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What can we learn about the Middle Ages from its literature?

 

By Danièle Cybulskie

I love history. I also love pop culture. Learning about both together – who could ask for anything more? (Feudalism and Star Trek, anyone?) But we’ve all heard what people say when someone signs up for an epically awesome course in medieval pop culture: what is it good for? What possible use could it be? Actually, old stories are a goldmine of cultural value, beyond just being immensely fun to read. So what can we learn from reading medieval fiction alongside our history books? Here are five things, for a start.

1. Attitudes Towards Religion

As we know, religion had a vastly important place in medieval life and culture, but the place of religion and attitudes towards it were complex and changing. Especially interesting in terms of religion and spirituality are the Arthurian legends, in which orthodox beliefs lie side-by-side with enchanted swords. Early Arthurian texts have more of what we might call mythical elements, such as Merlin’s enchantments, and encounters with the fairy otherworld (such as in Launfal), while later additions include the quest for the Holy Grail, and the eventual spiritual retreat of both Guinevere and Lancelot.

Throughout the Arthurian legends, there is a coexistence between strict Christian values, and older, pagan ones, which reflects the ways Christianity was integrated into medieval Europe. Tales of King Arthur were acceptable and popular for centuries; people were okay with believing in saints and fairies at the same time, as long as orthodox Christian values were paramount.

2. Moral Values

Stories never come to us out of a vacuum; rather, they are informed by the concerns of their particular time periods. In medieval literature, Beowulf must decide if he should endanger his own life as the king; Gawain must choose whether keeping a promise is more important than saving his own life; Robin Hood legends ask when it is okay to steal; and Chaucer’s pilgrims debate everyday problems with candour and humour. Medieval people watched their heroes make good choices and bad, and got to see how things turned out for them. Beyond entertainment, stories were a way to teach correct behaviour – even by showing the opposite. As such, they tell us about what “correct behaviour” would have been.

3. Cultural Values

I remember reading Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallott” and being struck by his description of Lancelot’s physical features, thinking (for one thing) that I’d never pictured him with a moustache. In fact, I don’t remember ever reading a medieval description of him at all. But the ladies, on the other hand, are often described in medieval stories in physical terms. (Similarly, many – if not most – ladies are without names in medieval stories.)

It’s always informative to take note of what elements are involved when people are constructing characters in fiction: if the ideal hero’s best attribute is that he is brave, and the ideal heroine’s best attribute is that she is beautiful, it says something about cultural expectations.

4. Commonality with the Present

I’m guessing that most of the multitudes who are eagerly anticipating the last of The Hobbit films have no idea about its connection to Beowulf. Both are regarded as great stories that need retelling (as the many film incarnations bear out). We are still telling Arthur stories and Robin Hood stories and werewolf stories because they have elements that we love just as much as our medieval counterparts did. Looking at these stories, we can discover what elements appeal to us consistently, telling us a little bit more about how our cultures have remained the same over time.

5. A Little Bit About Ourselves

The best stories are ones in which the historical context falls away to leave behind a narrative that is captivating and inspiring. Just because a story is not from our particular cultural moment doesn’t mean it can’t teach us anything. This is the very reason why Aesop’s fables are still circulated today: what was true then about human nature is true now. Robin Hood is more than green tights – he is a story about doing wrong to do right; Arthur’s story is about trying to live up to ideals despite human frailty; Beowulf is about what makes a monster. Reading these today can tell us a lot about their own cultural moments, but also about ourselves in our own moments of heroism and weakness. To read fiction, I think, is to self-reflect, which is always a worthwhile exercise.

While my little points here are just pebbles on the vast beach of literary analysis, they are some of the reasons why reading medieval fiction is important. Any object of a culture gives clues as to its creator and its intended audience, so stories are a vital part of reading the past. Never be afraid to take a “bird course” in medieval literature: it may be the best course you ever take.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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