"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Literature in the High Middle Ages

This post and the last one are parts of a paper on the intellectual and artistic achievements of the High Middle Ages I worked on in my Western civ. class. I included the missing footnotes in my last post in case anyone cares. This fragment ends somewhat abruptly because it was part of a longer essay I worked on. You'll just have to use your imagination to envision a nice concluding paragraph that wraps the topic up.

The High Middle Ages also placed great importance on books. Medieval historian C. S. Lewis shows that culture in, “the Middle Ages depended primarily on books. Though literacy was of course far rarer then than now, reading was in one way a more important ingredient of the total culture.”1 Literature from the past—particularly Greek and Latin—was looked upon reverently by the authors of the Middle Ages. Consequently, they modeled much their own work on previously written manuscripts. They embellished familiar stories, expanded on old subjects, and wrote down the legends of their fore bearers. To lend credence to their writing, authors from the Middle Ages would often claim they got their subject from an “auctour”--an author from Greek or Roman antiquity.2

The greatest work of literature from the High Middle Ages shows this tendency. The Divine Comedy of Dante not only borrows from earlier authors but goes to the extreme of actually including the Roman poet Virgil as one of the Characters who inhabit the Inferno. All the other characters Dante meets on his dream journey are also from history or legend. There is ample space in this huge poem about the after-life to retell the well-known stories of the people he meets.

One of the most easily recognized types of literature from the High Middle Ages is the epic romance. The tales of King Arthur and the Round Table are the most famous of these. Again, the earliest authors of these stories, such as the Frenchman Christien De Troyes, did not try to claim credit for inventing the tales but tried to show that they were ancient histories with just a little embellishment. The Arthurian stories were picked up by numerous authors in the middle ages. Intellectual property rights were not what they are today nor was this "plagiarism" seen as anything but flattery. Besides the “Matter of Britain” dealing with King Arthur, numerous other romances of chivalry were written. The “Matter of France” is another cycle of stories dealing with another king; this time the French Charlemagne. Called “chanson de geste,” these epic poems written by mostly unknown authors extolled the mythical exploits of Charlemagne against the Muslim invaders of Europe in the Early Middle Ages. The Song of Roland written around 1100 3 retells the simi-historical ambush on Charlemagne's rear-guard in the pass of Rounceval.

In Northern Europe a similar body of national epic literature was being developed during the same period. The German Nibelungenlied has been compared to The Song of Roland or even the Greek Iliad.4 The tragic death of Sigfried and the terrible revenge of his wife Kriemhild set among the forests and mead-halls of Germany has been the inspiration for stories and operas even into recent times. This corpus of German literature borrows from the same legends as the thirteenth century Eddas and tales of Scandinavia.

An important development in literature during the High Middle Ages came with the troubadour poets. The troubadours wrote and performed lyrical songs--often about love. Practicing a form of oral literature, delivered much like the famous bards of antiquity, troubadours usually had a rich patron who payed a troubadour to entertain his guests although some troubadours were nobles themselves. An important aspect of troubadour poetry that is characteristic of the literature of the High Middle Ages was “courtly love.” This term is both a literary and a real life characteristic of the period. The literary meaning is a lyrical poem written to an idealized lady whom the poet loves. But C. S. Lewis points out that this poet, “is no light-hearted gallant: his love is represented as a despairing and tragical emotion.” (sic)5

1. C. S. Lewis. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. (Canto Books, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995). 5

2. Ibid. 5

3. Jackson J. Spielvogel. Western Civilization: A Brief History, 3rd. ed. (Thomson-Wadsworth, 2005). 166

4. Arthur Thomas Hatto, editor. The Nibelungenlied. (Penguin Classics, Penguin Books, 1669). 8

5. C. S. Lewis. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. (Oxford University Press, 1968). 3

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