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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 4 - Medieval Narrative  


The Carnival Spirit in Medieval Europe

The social structures dominating life in medieval Europe drew attention to the figures on top of the hierarchical ladders --kings and popes, lords and ladies, chivalric heroes--and to the institutions they represented and sustained. But since life at the bottom of the ladder exists as well, a remarkably vibrant counter-culture challenged the orthodox vision. Side by side with serious epic poems, for example, appeared mock epics, often in the form of beast fables whose talking animals ridicule or parody the highflown utterances of traditional heroes. On every great Gothic cathedral, next to exquisite stained glass windows and rows of statued saints, lurk grotesque gargoyles, twisted, shocking, and amusing figures that entwine animal and human forms. Simply performing a necessary architectural function, these gargoyles drained water from the central strcture, but also commented ironically on the surrounding grandeur.

This mocking culture transcended art and literature, and, like those waterspouts, channeled natural energies into potentially subversive forms. For example, clowns and fools with official license to undercut the sober political world cavorted in royal courts. In addition, on certain designated days, Lords and Ladies of Misrule gained power in rituals that inverted the ruling order. Wearing masks and costumes, celebrants transformed themselves from obedient workers to flamboyant usurpers and yielded to outlawed impulses.

Rowdy festivals ushered in the holiest days of the Christian calendar, juxtaposing the sanctification of the spirit with the pleasures of the flesh. Much of this subversive activity is frankly sexual; indeed, the open ribaldry of medieval literature often surprises modern readers. In essence, the life of the senses expressed itself in the Saturnalian, carnivalesque world that lay beneath the surface of Christian piety. These expressions of revolt were perceived as safety valves to let off steam and prevent more serious threats. But an unsanctioned adversarial culture flourished as well and precipitated a number of aborted peasant revolts as the medieval era drew to a close.

The Development of Vernacular Languages

The triumph of the vernacular languages of Europe described below is, in an important sense, a victory of popular over official culture, but it was made possible by the growing literacy fostered by the clergy, whose educational background was in Latin. The word "vernacular" comes from the Latin "verna" and means "house slave" or "native." Applied to the use of language, the word came to mean the language of the people. The Roman Empire left Latin as its linguistic legacy to countries like Italy, France, and Spain (although these were still not countries but rather geographic entities until the fifteenth century or later.) However, the Latin spoken by the people was not classical Latin, with its complex rules, but a fluid and evolving Latin, admitting new vocabulary words as circumstances changed. Classical Latin, for example, used the word "equus" for horse, while popular Latin used "caballus."

This popular Latin evolved into the Romance languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. The Italian vernacular was already in use by the tenth century, the French perhaps by the ninth. The situation in England was further complicated because the medieval vernacular absorbed more than one root language. In fact, the history of English encompasses three broad periods of development: Old English, also called Anglo-Saxon; Middle English, the language of Chaucer; and Modern English.

Old English is Germanic in origin. Among the tribes who descended on Western Europe during the fifth and sixth centuries were the Angles and Saxons. Many modern English words (and most of the famous "four-letter words" in our vocabulary of obscenities and curses) derive from the Anglo-Saxon or Old English spoken by these invaders. Anglo-Saxon words tend to be relatively concrete.

In l066, the Norman French invaded England, and for about three centuries thereafter, three languages impinged in England: Latin, French, and Anglo-Saxon. The first was the language of Church and document; the second, of law, government, and aristocracy; and the third, of the common people. As late as l350, any writing intended for an international audience was in Latin. The Latinate vocabulary includes longer, more euphemistic, more abstract words than Old English.

Middle English emerged in the fourteenth century, a vernacular combining Latin, French, and Anglo-Saxon words which provided English speakers with an extraordinarily large choice of vocabulary. In Modern English as well, which is still a Germanic language at base, we can choose to express ourselves in short, pithy words, generally of Old English extraction, or in more elegant or abstract words. The level of vocabulary one selects is known as diction, a term which does not refer to pronunciation in this context.

The Conventions of Medieval Literature

Every human activity is governed by conventions, expressive shortcuts that a community agrees to understand and honor. Since these conventions change to satisfy the needs of different communities and eras, a knowledge of conventions helps us place and date most texts. The art of the medieval period is particularly rich in conventional forms. Perhaps the most deeply rooted and significant is the system of signs known as allegory.


Allegory can refer to an entire work or to a figure within a work. In either case, an allegorical text conveys more than one idea at the same time in a kind of literary algebraic equation in which x and y either are assigned different meanings by the author, or are perceived to have different meanings by the interpreter. Metaphor explicitly yokes two things together; for example, Charlemagne was a lion in the fight against the Saracen wolves. The qualities of the lion and wolves are associated with Charlemagne and the Saracens. An author may omit mentioning Charlemagne and Saracens, however, and describe instead an extended story about a lion fending off and killing rapacious wolves. If the writer provides clues that refer to Charlemagne and the Saracens, then the resulting work is a composed allegory, because the author has objectified in the concrete form of lion and wolves such abstract concepts as strength and courage on the one hand, and vicious rapacity on the other. If, on the other hand, an author composes a simple narrative without intending any allegory but a reader assigns allegorical values to it, the result is an imposed allegory. The rise of allegorical thinking during this era was influenced by the habit of reading episodes in the Hebrew Bible as veiled foreshadowing of Christian meanings.

Courtly Love

Although the actual term "courtly love" rarely appears in the twelfth-century lyric poetry of Provence, in Southern France, the associated term "fin'amour" or "refined love" nevertheless does appear frequently. The phrase introduces a new, intensely romantic notion of love, counterbalancing the bawdy comic view of relations between the sexes and the essentially disapproving view of sexual passion that orginated in the classical world. The convention of courtly love, which evolves from Provencal poetry, joins many strands of medieval life, including feudalism, chivalry, arranged marriages, misogyny, nobility, and poetry itself.

Typically, the courtly lover is a knight kneeling before a marrried woman, and seeking to be accepted as her "servant." The knight, who is generally pale, suffers from palpitations in the presence of this disdainful lady and must prove himself worthy of her attention by deeds of valor and nobility. In the end, an adulterous liaison may ensue, with tragic consequences, as in many of the tales of King Arthur and his court. In other cases, the bond remains Platonic and the woman emerges as a symbol of spiritualized love. Dante's Beatrice falls into this category, although Beatrice may not even have been aware of Dante's existence.

To account for the convention of courtly love in medieval literature is not a simple matter. Because marriages often were arranged by families for social or economic motives, courtly love may have been a fictional assertion of the need for love and free personal choice. Moreover, requiring the knight to prove his nobility by deed may have been a daring innovation at a time when nobility was thought to be inherited by family blood.

Whether the convention of courtly love reflected the actual practices of the real world is debatable. Although certain etiquette books assume the existence of courtly love in society, some scholars suggest that the formal, codified behavior associated with courtly love may have been intended more as a guide to flirtation than as an actual encouragement to adultery. The punishment for the latter was quite severe in the Middle Ages, as Dante's story of Paolo and Francesca indicates.


Although not precisely conventions, the pagan goddess Fortune and the power of astrological influences appear frequently enough in the literature of the Middle Ages to seem fundamental to the medieval view of the world. Blindfolded and capricious, Fortune was pictured as spinning the wheel of humanity and parceling out punishment and reward without any real rationale or motive. According to the Roman writer Seneca, the Fates lead the willing person, but drag the unwilling. This notion totally opposed the Christian notion of God's universal providence. Perhaps the introduction of Fortune was necessary to account for the vicissitudes of life that simply did not square with the existence of a kind and provident God.

At the apex of the hierarchically ordered medieval cosmos stood the Almighty, whom the pious simply called "God the Father." This divinity held all the reins in its hands and could do anything except be guilty of a contradiction in terms. Beneath divinity were armies of angels and demons flitting about casting good or evil influence. While guardian angels might protect one from harm, demons could even impregnate some unsuspecting woman, at least according to the medieval view. Beneath the spirits were the stars and planets whose alignments influenced all human activity for better or for worse.

Thus even the most devout Christian parents would probably have a child's horoscope cast at birth and respect the power of Fortune, a popular topic in the literature of the period. For example, one of the great best-sellers of the Middle Ages, the Consolation of Philosophy, written in Latin by Boethius, a Roman who lived in the sixth century A.D., focuses on the power of Fortune. Dante pictures Fortune as God's "general minister" and discusses her in the seventh canto of the Inferno. Chaucer, who early in his career translated Boethius's Consolation, calls Fortune "the executor of fate" and includes many references to her. It is no wonder that, tugged by angels, devils, stars, and blind fate, a writer like Dante begins his spiritual journey in a dark and tangled forest.

The Short Narrative in Medieval Literature

Medieval literature excels in a variety of short narrative forms, possibly reflecting the transitional character of an era caught between oral and written forms. The earliest medieval works in the vernacular are epic poems that celebrate heroic events and obviously derive from oral traditions. But even the works originally conceived in writing were often read out loud by their authors in court surroundings. Thus the circumstances of oral performance determined the length of much medieval narrative. The short poems of the writer known only as Marie de France, an important figure in the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, are prefaced by a prologue which begins,

Whoever has received knowledge
and eloquence in speech from God
should not be silent or secretive
but demonstrate it willingly.(1)

Addressing herself to the king, the poet presents her lais to the court again in terms of speech: "Now hear how they begin."

Moreover, medieval and Renaissance writers frequently organized diverse narratives into a unit by linking them within a fictional frame that described its narrators as orally telling tales. Ultimately, these frames derive from ancient Eastern and classical models (some books of Ovid's Metamorphoses, for instance, supposedly are narrated by a group of people telling each other stories), but became a standard vehicle for medieval writers. Such a frame is most obvious in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. A famous picture that serves as the frontispiece to a manuscript of Chaucer's tragic narrative poem, Troilus and Criseyde, shows a man (presumably Chaucer himself) reading to a group of courtiers assembled on a hillside.


1. Translated from Old French by Joan M. Ferrante and Robert W. Hanning.