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An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 6 Friends, Food, & Society

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Food & Society," in Beowulf; Norm Newberry concept art for 1999 film)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Food & Society,” in Beowulf; Norm Newberry concept art for 1999 film)

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 6:  Friendship, Food, & Society

Good Evening, Everyone!

Let’s start this blog with a birthday toast to my wife, Sophia, me lifting a pint of Guinness & she returning the clink with a glass of cabernet: “To our love, our friendship, our kids, & the friends who all make the bad times bearable, and the good times great — Happy Birthday, and hoping that this year is the best ever for you!”

Medieval University Classroom

Medieval University Classroom

When I think of Sophia, besides being a best friend, partner, & mother to our kids, I think of the wide circle of friends and social network that she’s prioritized for us the entire time I’ve known her.  Now, I’m reclusive by nature, but social by marriage. If I had my druthers, you’d most likely find me holed up at the university library or at my desk, researching, writing, or otherwise approximating whatever the hell a 13th century medieval monk would be doing if he found himself stuck in the 21st Century!

Medieval Socializing: "The Dance Village" (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566)

Medieval Socializing: “The Dance Village” (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566)

However, thanks to almost 23 years together, Sophia makes sure that those scholarly impulses remain bound within the confines of a Monday-Friday work week.  Every Friday evening, my “social director” takes almost too much delight in scheduling dinners with friends and family, activities with the kids, & essentially planning anything that gets us away from our desks and into some kind of a social milieu.

Timelessness of Socializing ("Luncheon of the Boating Party," Renoir, 1881)

Timelessness of Socializing (“Luncheon of the Boating Party,” Renoir, 1881)

Sophia’s inclination to hang out with friends and family isn’t anything new under the sun; people have enjoyed the company of kith and kin for millennia.  If you’re fortunate, a large part of being human is sharing parts of yourself with friends and family, and, in turn, letting them share aspects of themselves with you.  A couple of thousand years ago, the Roman orator & senator, Cicero, best captured the importance of friendship in human life:

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C., marble bust, Capitoline Museum, Rome)

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C., marble bust, Capitoline Museum, Rome)

[Begin excerpt, Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Friendship:
…the advantages of friendship are almost more than I can say. To begin with, how can life be worth living, to use the words of Ennius, which lacks that repose which is to be found in the mutual good-will of a friend? What can be more delightful than to have some one to whom you can say everything with the same absolute confidence as to yourself? Is not prosperity robbed of half its value if you have no one to share your joy? On the other hand, misfortunes would be hard to bear if there were not some one to feel them even more acutely than yourself.

Temple of Saturn (portico), Capitoline Hill, Roman Forum (Rome, Italy)

Temple of Saturn (portico), Capitoline Hill, Roman Forum (Rome, Italy)

In a word, other objects of ambition serve for particular ends —riches for use, power for securing homage, office for reputation, pleasure for enjoyment, health for freedom from pain and the full use of the functions of one’s body. But friendship embraces innumerable advantages. Turn which way you please, you will find it at hand. It is everywhere; and yet never out of place, never unwelcome. Fire and water themselves, to use a common expression, are not of more universal use than friendship…and great and numerous as are the advantages of friendship, this certainly is the sovereign one, that it gives us bright hopes for the future and forbids weakness and despair.

"Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes" (Benjamin West, 1804)

“Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes” (Benjamin West, 1804)

In the face of a true friend a man sees as it were a second self. So that where his friend is he is; if his friend be rich, he is not poor; though he be weak, his friend’s strength is his; and in his friend’s life he enjoys a second life after his is finished.  This last is perhaps the most difficult to conceive. But such is the effect of the respect, the loving remembrance, and the regret of friends which follow us to the grave. While they take the sting out of death, they add a glory to the life of the survivors. Nay, if you eliminate from nature the tie of affection, there will be an end to house and city, nor will so much as the cultivation of the soil be left….” [End excerpt, Cicero, On Friendship, trans. E. S. Shuckburgh, NY: Collier, 1909, Section 6]

Cicero died in 43 B.C. as the Second Triumvirate of Octavian, Lepidus, and Marc Antony eliminated enemies in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination, but his observations have stood the test of time.  Sophia and I feel very fortunate to have our those companions and shared moments, and I long ago realized that while the life of a solitary scholar might have many attributes, I’d not trade an instant of the laughter and good times we’ve had in the company of each other and our friends along the way.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (Berzé Castle, Bourgogne, France)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (Berzé Castle, Bourgogne, France)

Troubadours  (14th c.)

Troubadours (14th c.)

This social aspect of our lives — be it expressed in hosting & attending dinner parties, vacations, or simply going on a hike into the mountains on a weekend— seems a perfect theme for this particular blog on “food and society” in the Middle Ages, and, particularly, checking out how those elements appear in the chansons de geste (“songs of deeds”), which were written some 800-900 years ago by minstrels of northern Europe.  The chansons are just one of the many forms of medieval literature to which epic fantasy writers (& fans!) can turn when seeking inspiration for stories from original source materials.  If they take time to read some of the chansons, many fantasy writers will be pleasantly surprised to learn how much of the “true” Middle Ages they can introduce into their storytelling.

"The Wobbit: A Parody," Harvard Lampoon

“The Wobbit: A Parody,” Harvard Lampoon

"Bored by the Rings: A Parody," Harvard Lampoon

“Bored by the Rings: A Parody,” Harvard Lampoon

That is, while you might have a great idea for a story set in a faux-medieval world, unless you simply want to rehash what J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis created in their tales of Middle Earth and Narnia, you need to build a world that’s convincing to a reader and entertaining.  I urge you to check out some of the original medieval literary sources that those Oxford professors knew backwards-and-forwards, and perhaps you’ll touch upon some of the inspirations that informed their creative efforts.  But, be careful of hubris:  you might feel pretty confident that your imagination is fertile enough ground for world-building and, consequently, that you don’t need to stretch yourself and learn about how people actually lived a thousand years ago, but I think you run the risk of trying to sell a cliché-ridden story that too-often appears in the marketplace. (See John Wenzel’s shortlist of parodies at “chickenscratchcomedy.com,” http://chickenscratchcomedy.com, then check out Silver Blade’s “Grand List of Fantasy Cliches” http://Fantasy Cliches, or Fantasy Faction’s “Ten Fantasy Clichés that Should be Put to Rest http://Fantasy Faction Cliches, or, finally, general discussion among fantasy writers at io9.com’s “How to Learn from Tolkien without Flat-Out Copying Him… http://io9.com/Tolkien Panel).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Beowulf" ("Heorot," art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Beowulf” (“Heorot,” art by John Howe)

For the period of the chansons we can warm to the topic by looking at early medieval context of a fun dinner party with an excerpt from the c. 8th c. epic, Beowulf.  The only fragmentary evidence we have of the poem is a manuscript from the late 10th c., and here’s the moment after Beowulf has arrived to help Hrothgar, and everyone in the Hall of Heorot is feasting and having fun:

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Beowulf" ("The Hall of Heorot," art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Beowulf” (“The Hall of Heorot,” art by John Howe)

[Begin excerpt from Beowulf, trans. J.R.R. Tolkien]  …There was laughter of mighty men, the din of singing; sweet were the words. Wealhtheow went forth, Hrothgar’s queen, mindful of courtesy; with gold adorned she greeted the men in the hall, and then the cup she offered, noble lady, first to the guardian of the East Danes’ realm, and wished him joy at the ale-quaffing and his lieges’ love. He, king victorious, in delight partook of feast and flowing bowl. Then the lady of the Helmings went to and fro to every part of that host, to tried men and young proffering the jeweled vessels, until in due time it chanced that she, ring-laden queen of courteous heart, to Beowulf bore the cup of mead, and hailed the Geatish knight… [End excerpt, Beowulf, trans. J.R.R. Tolkien, edited w. intro. by Christopher Tolkien, HarperCollins, 2014, p. 30, lines 496-506.]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Food & Society," in "Beowulf"; Bill Mather concept art for 1999 film)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Food & Society,” in “Beowulf”; Bill Mather concept art for 1999 film)

Whether you enjoy socializing at home, or going to a restaurant, or even standing at table in a bar and chatting, we all recognize this very human inclination to spend time with others, to share the victories and travails of a work day, or to simply take a break from the daily grind.  Nine hundred years ago, when the chansons were being written or sung, the different kinds of foods shared by friends and family members (or monks and nobles) gathered at table or around fire might looked something like this:

Medieval Manor (Holt, Rinehart, & WInston Texts)

Medieval Manor (Holt, Rinehart, & WInston Texts)

[Excerpt from Pierre Riché’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne]:
…The peasant picked vegetables from the patches near his house — peas, vetches, and beans. In addition, he combed the underbrush, marsh, and river for supplements to his diet.  Monks, in obedience to the Benedictine Rule, got one meal in winter and two in summer: a collatio at noon and cent in the evening. The monastic rule prescribed a daily pound of bread, a hemin of wine (between a quarter and half a liter), or double that amount of beer. It forbade the monks to eat fruit or lettuce between meals.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Book of Hours," illuminated ms.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Book of Hours,” illuminated ms.)

[continue Riché excerpt] …Each meal included three dishes (pulmentaria) of dairy products and vegetables… Princes and aristocrats could not forego meat, particularly roasted meat. Charlemagne took an aversion to his doctors because they advised him to to give up his accustomed roast meat in favor of boiled meat. Spicy dishes were particularly appreciated at the tables of the great… Bread, particularly white bread, was the dietary base of the most privileged classes as well as monks and canons. At Corbie, 450 loaves were baked every day, and the oven at Saint-Gall was reputed to have a capacity of nearly 1,000 loaves.  While white bread was kept at Saint-Denis for monks and guests; the servants had to be content with rye bread…Meat was brought in from the hunt.  When Gerald of Aurillac’s cook lamented that he had no meat, a deer happily came to fall at his feet. This enabled him to prepare “a delicate repast, worthy of his lord.” In addition, the flesh of cattle, sheep, and even goats was consumed.” Pork occupied a special position of its own. At Corbie, an entire chapter of Adalhard’s Institutiones was devoted to pork. He figured that 600 pigs a year would be consumed in the refectory, with 50 reserved to the abbot… When they wanted to be sparing, Carolingians ate fish.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Chansons de geste" ("Fishing lamprey," from "Tacuinum Sanitatis," 15thc. illum. ms.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Chansons de geste” (“Fishing lamprey,” from “Tacuinum Sanitatis,” 15thc. illum. ms.)

[continue Riché excerpt] … Charlemagne advised his intendants that “when the fish in our ponds are sold, new fish should be put in their place, so that there may always be fish.” In the palace, fish dishes were prepared for service with condiments. It was considered good manners to eat them without turning them over. The cellarer at Reichenau supplied the fishermen with nets, indicating which fish were in season in the Rhine, and paid them with a cup of wine for their catch… When there was a feast, eggs, geese, moorhens and chickens flowed into the kitchens of the great lay and ecclesiastical aristocrats. Charlemagne protected himself against a possible shortage of fowl by ordering that his great estates should maintain a stock of at least 100 hens and 30 geese, while the smaller farms should have 50 hens and 12 geese. It has been estimated that in the year 893 the Abbey of Prüm controlled 2,000 farms with a production of roughly 20,000 eggs a year…

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Book of Hours, July," Jean Limbourg: Les tres riches heures du Duc de Berry," 1412-16)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Book of Hours, July,” Jean Limbourg: Les tres riches heures du Duc de Berry,” 1412-16)

[continue Riché excerpt] … Dairy products were more difficult to procure unless they were in the form of butter and cheese…Turning to vegetables, we find two categories. The term legumes (legumina) referred to the vegetables which grew in the fields: beans, lentils, peas, green beans, chick peas, and other types of edible herbs. Roots (olera) grew in the kitchen gardens: leeks, garlic, carrots, etc. … Everyone appreciated fruits. Complaints were common against schoolboys who devastated the orchards. The redactor of the capitulary De villis lingered over the names of certain types of apples: sweet apples and sour apples …Charlemagne advised the possessors of vineyards to hang grapes from hoops in order to preserve them… Let us end this glance at Carolingian alimentation with a reminder of the importance of honey and spices. Not only was honey used to sweeten food, but it was the base for many drinks: hydromel (mead), honeyed wines, and mixtures of honey and beer… Carolingian cuisine depended heavily on spices and condiments. Pepper, cumin, cloves, and cinnamon were purchased from merchants in touch with the Orient….Cinnamon, galanga, cloves, mastic, and pepper reached the market at Mainz….” [End excerpt from Pierre Riché’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, trans. Jo Ann McNamara, 1978, pp. 171-174]

The Medieval Year (from "Ruralia commoda," by Pietro de' Crescenzi, c. 1230-1320)

The Medieval Year (from “Ruralia commoda,” by Pietro de’ Crescenzi, c. 1230-1320)

These are the kinds of details available in the better monographs on medieval cuisine, but now that we’ve seen some context for the early- to high- Middle Ages, let’s look at another chanson for details that can be of use to epic-fantasy writing.  In one of the better-preserved and interesting chansons, The Song of William, we can catch a literary perspective both on medieval food and social life (especially between family members). First, here’s the essential info about the chanson itself:

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (Illum. ms, #24369, f. 197r, BN France, 13th c.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (Illum. ms, #24369, f. 197r, BN France, 13th c.)

[Begin Wikipedia entry, “The Song of William”] The Chanson de Guillaume or Chançun de Willame (English: “Song of William”) is a chanson de geste from the first half of the twelfth-century (c.1140, although the first half of the poem may date from as early as the eleventh century; along with The Song of Roland and Gormont et Isembart, it is considered one of three chansons de geste whose composition incontestably dates from before 1150). The work is generally considered to have two distinct halves: the first tells of Guillaume (or William) of Orange, his nephew Vivien and the latter’s young brother Gui and their various battles with Saracens at L’Archamp; in the second half of the poem (after 2000 lines), Guillaume is aided by Rainouard, a giant.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Garin le Loherain," Hervis de Metz, 13th c. illumin ms, Paris B.N. fr. 19160)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Garin le Loherain,” Hervis de Metz, 13th c. illumin ms, Paris B.N. fr. 19160)

[continue excerpt] The poem comprises 3,553 verses in assonanced laisses; most of the verses are decasyllables, but there are occasional recurring short six-syllable lines. The poem exists in only one 13th-century manuscript, written in an Anglo-Norman dialect, which only was brought to light in 1901 at the sale of the books of Sir Henry Hope Edwardes. The manuscript has since passed to the British Library (British Library, Additional 38663). It is the only chanson de geste concerning the deeds of William of Orange that was not included in the cyclic 13th century collections of chansons de geste generally referred to as the Geste de Guillaume d’Orange.  Much of the poem’s material (especially the second half) was expanded and adapted by the later chanson de geste, Aliscans[End Wikipedia entry]

The 11th-12th Century European world of the chansons de geste was a vibrant one, and we can see a recovery from the 9th-10th Century “barbarian” invasions of Scandinavian and Slavic peoples in the growth of population, agricultural expansion, and development of towns throughout the northern European and Mediterranean climes.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Le Chanson de Girart de Roussillon," illum. ms, c. 1450, Österrichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Le Chanson de Girart de Roussillon,” illum. ms, c. 1450, Österrichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)

While “songs of deeds” often focused on nobility in their takes on Charlemagne legends, ducal nobility, and Alexander the Great, if the epic fantasist trying to create a faux-medieval world looks carefully, in the chanson de geste we can sometime glimpse the lives of common folk. Le Chanson de Guillaume offers one of those moments, where during the course of a meal, the reader sees a host of medieval images related to food, households, and feudal ties in the Middle Ages.

[Begin excerpt from “The Song of William” as example of learning about (and describing) medieval food & social relations:

…Evening of Thursday

Guibourc brought water to her husband’s side.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Medieval Cooking," from 15th c. ms "The Decameron," Flanders)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Medieval Cooking,” from 15th c. ms “The Decameron,” Flanders)

He took his seat among the lower tables:
He could not move for grief up to the greater;
She brought him boar, and with no more delaying
He grasped the meat and ate it without waiting;
He could, because it was well cooked and tasty.

She brought to him a loaf of bread most fine,
And then two cakes baked freshly on the fire;
And then she brought a peacock, huge in size,
And afterwards a mighty mug of wine
Which her two hands could scarcely hold upright;
Her husband ate the bread up in a trice,
Then both the cakes baked freshly on the fire,
And all the haunch of roasted boar alike;
In two great draughts he drained the mug of wine;
He cleaned the plate, he drained the mazer dry,
No crumb or drop he offered to his wife,
Nor raised his face from eating all the time!

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (" A Family Evening," 15thc., Illum. ms, Paris BN Latin 9333, fol. 97v)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (” A Family Evening,” 15thc., Illum. ms, Paris BN Latin 9333, fol. 97v)

Guibourc looked on and shook her head and smiled,
Although with tears still welling in her eyes;
These tender words in William’s tongue she cried:
‘Almighty God, Who made me see the light,
And unto Whom this sinner’s soul of mine
Shall be returned when Judgment Day arrives:
He who can eat a loaf of mighty size,
And then two cakes baked freshly on the fire,
And then a haunch of boar in just two bites,
And then eat a peacock in a trice,
And in two draughts can drain a mug of wine,
Will surely give his brother lusty fights
And never flee a battle all his life,
Or bring reproach upon his kith and kind!’
‘Sweet sister, friend, I thank you, worthy wife!
But who will rule my brothers when I die?
I have no son of my own loins and line.’

 

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Peacock," Illum. ms, Brit. Library, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 125r)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Peacock,” Illum. ms, Brit. Library, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 125r)

At this, young Gui got up from by the fire,
His nephew and Beuvon of Cornbut’s child,
Born to a daughter of Aymeri the wise,
A nephew born on William’s own side
And another of brave Vivien the prized;
Not yet fifteen, his stature still was slight;
He had no beard, no hair upon his hide,
Save on his head, which he had had for life!

He strode across and at his uncle’s side
He hailed him thus and with these words replied:
‘In faith, my lord, I’ve never heard the like!
For I would rule your brothers, if you died,
And serve Guibourc with all my heart and mind;
No evil I could guard her from would thrive,
For she has cared for me all of my life.’

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Daily Life in the Chansons de Geste ("Boar Hunt, December," from "Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1412-16)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Daily Life in the Chansons de Geste (“Boar Hunt, December,” from “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1412-16)

On hearing this, the Count groaned at the child
And answering him in tones of bitter spite:
‘You are more fit to sit beside the fire,
Than on the seat which rules my mighty shires!
You are more fit to sit among the cinders
Than on the seat which rules my lands and cities!
Nor does my wife have need of your assistance!’

On hearing this, young Gui replied with wisdom:
‘In truth, my lord, I’ve never heard such mischief!’
‘You wretch, why turn the blame on me?’ cried William;
‘I’ll tell you why, but first I must consider —
For it is wrong for any loving Christian
To speak in heat and overstep the limits;
Why rail at me for being young and little?
The biggest man was littlest to begin with!
And by the Cross, my lord, I tell you this much:
There is no man in any Christian kingdom,
Nor any knight who fights for his religion,
Who, when you die, might come to seize and pillage,
With Vivien dead and Guibourc without issue,
Whom I’d not fight until his life were finished!
Then I would rule your lands and all your cities,
And take good care of Lady Guibourc’s wishes.’

On hearing this, the Count was filled with pity,
And from his eyes the tears flowed down his visage;
He beckoned Gui to come to him and kiss him;
Three times they kissed, then William told his kinsman:
‘In truth, my boy, your words display much wisdom;
Though still a child, you have a warrior’s spirit;
To you indeed may all my lands be given!
Sweet sister, friend, take care of him, I bid you.’

[End Excerpt from Michael Newth, trans.,
“The Song of William,”
in Richard Barber, ed., Epics of the Middle Ages;
London, Folio Society,
2005; pp. 140-142]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Daily Life in the Chansons de Geste ("January, Ploughing with Oxen" from The Anglo-Saxon Calendar, 1025-50, MS Cotton Tib. B. V, pt I, fol. 3, British Library)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Daily Life in the Chansons de Geste (“January, Ploughing with Oxen” from The Anglo-Saxon Calendar, 1025-50, MS Cotton Tib. B. V, pt I, fol. 3, British Library)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Baking Bread," Psalter illus., mid-12th c., Tempera/gold-leaf/inked on parchment, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, fol. 8v.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Baking Bread,” Psalter illus., mid-12th c., Tempera/gold-leaf/inked on parchment, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, fol. 8v.)

Ignoring the fact that the Count William eats enough food at one sitting to put a person into digestive catatonia, images of food in this chanson are insight into both medieval social and economic life.  We know that after the wartime disruptions of the 9th & 10th c., Continental Europe began a comeback on the food production and population fronts that made possible an expansion in almost every sector of a feudal economy.  Even in this excerpt you can see some of these developments expressed as a troubadour’s song, particularly with respect to foods:

cereals were still the staple for most people in the 11th & 12th century, and what had initially been harvested as fodder crops for animals (rye, oats), became refined enough to be eaten by the general population in a couple of forms: (1) porridge, (2) tarts or pastries, and most importantly, (3) bread, with the latter eaten by all social classes, and often doubling as a makeshift “plate,” or trencher (hollowed-out baguette/roll, into which food/stew could be placed)

Medieval Net Fishing

Medieval Net Fishing

fish available throughout Europe and Britain, but varieties depended on location, including: carp (rivers & ponds); cod (along w/haddock, along North Atlantic & Icelandic coasts — very tough, but like beef jerky, if cured correctly it could stay good for years in a household — need to beat & soak it, though…); herring (perhaps the most popular fish, because after gutted & either soaked in brine or smoked could last for a long time, too); lamprey & eel, lobster, crab, mackerel & tuna, flounder, pike, etc. (see full entries at http://Types of Medieval Fishing

legumes (peas and beans) became another food source during this period, providing essential protein for peasants who weren’t allowed to use the hunting and fishing areas of seigniorial lands

meat most villages had access to pigs, because unlike cattle or sheep in pasture on manorial lands, swine could graze in forests without need for human intervention; cows were used for both milk and meat, with remainder of body parts not going to waste (hooves as drinking vessels, leather from hide, etc.); mutton was the meat from a sheep at least a year old, and along with lamb, very popular; rabbits were another source of meat (for full entries, see http://Types of Medieval Meat)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Daily Life in the Chansons de Geste ("Dining," from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1320-40, Brit. Lib., Add. MS 42130)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Daily Life in the Chansons de Geste (“Dining,” from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1320-40, Brit. Lib., Add. MS 42130)

The villages and agricultural lands of Europe weren’t the only aspects of medieval life revealed in chansons such as this one; the interactions we see between lord (William), wife (Guibourc), and nephew (Gui) show us relationships that hint at “feudal” ties between lords and vassals, rites of succession, spousal relations, and the importance placed on declarations of loyalty and devotion.

As with any oral form of storytelling, you might have also noticed that there are some instances of repetition here, a commonplace to the form that the modern-reader should forgive because the redundancies are part of the tradition; think of the variations of Homer’s “rosy fingers of dawn” that that poet used to make “chapter breaks” within The Iliad and The Odyssey.  I also think that, in an age without television or “rewindable” media, the repeated phrasing of succulent food descriptions might have been very popular to the audience!

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: French Chansons de Geste ("The Song of Roland," 15th c.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: French Chansons de Geste (“The Song of Roland,” 15th c.)

Just as repetitions occur in music and versification, so too to we see them here.  To this relationship between the chansons & their performability, in the introduction to her translation of The Song of Roland, Dorothy Sayers observed the following: “…It appears on the whole probable that the ballad, the carol, and the chanson de geste all ultimately derive from a common origin, in a dance-song (carole), with its repetitive verses and refrain such as we find in London Bridge, or Oranges and Lemons; but it seems fairly clear that the chanson de geste does not derive directly from carol and ballad, nor they from it.  Nor can we say…that the nobly-constructed Roland assembled itself accidentally out of a patch-work of popular song and legend; although no doubt the poet drew his material from ‘folk legend’ and ‘oral tradition’ — whatever those phrases may precisely mean…’ [Dorothy L. Sayer, The Song of Roland, Penguin: NY, 1957, p. 42]

So, whether the event is in a 10th c. epic poem such as Beowulf, or a chanson de geste from the 11th-12th c., I think that descriptions of social activity among friends and family (including accurate renditions of food and drink) need to be included in any worthwhile epic storytelling of the 21st century.  Of course, whey you’re writing a novel you can’t recount only medieval recipes or record every conversation in a tavern scene as you try to narrate the exploits of the protagonist; however, I’ve never been much interested in fantasy heroes who exist in a vacuum, and that’s the risk many writers feel willing to take when they dismiss all of the “environmental” aspects of their world-building (e.g., kinds of foods, types of friends, relationships in families, etc.).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Daily Life in the Chansons de Geste ("Cooking," from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1340)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Daily Life in the Chansons de Geste (“Cooking,” from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1340)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Baking Bread," Psalter illus., mid-12th c., Tempera/gold-leaf/inked on parchment, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, fol. 8v.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Baking Bread,” Psalter illus., mid-12th c., Tempera/gold-leaf/inked on parchment, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, fol. 8v.)

In a Facebook Age where for some people every idea and thought seems to warrant publication, the tendency might be natural for a writer to focus on  the “self” of a protagonist.  That’s a fine starting-point, and certainly many books in the current fantasy crop focus on one or two characters.  However, when I read a book and see characters appearing as only plot devices or caricatures, I want something more, something that reflects the full potential of human experience, and for me that means every person in a faux-medieval fictional fantasy world has to “live.”   In that light, the protagonist’s development is crucial, but so too are the characters he encounters and with whom he interacts.  Characters are amongst the most important working parts of the engine that drives a story.  Why?  Because a main character’s friendly/antagonistic interactions with other people help the reader connect on a primal level; we all have to work with/befriend/react to other people, and better fiction writing achieves verisimilitude when an author creates situations & environments where the descriptions pull the reader into another world that still evokes realities from this one.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Tavern Scene," Illum. ms, Brit. Lib., Add. 27695, f. 14)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Tavern Scene,” Illum. ms, Brit. Lib., Add. 27695, f. 14)

Just because you’re a writer or reader of epic fantasy doesn’t mean that you’re exempt from this need to include “humanity” that makes for a truly literary work.  And, really, when you think about some of the most fun times in your life, do your memories of laughter and camaraderie exist as isolated experiences, reacting to a sitcom laugh track?  Or, more likely, do those memories linger in a space filled with friends & family, good food, and long conversations?  If the latter, try to include a sense of those moments in your story; that approach worked for the audiences of the chansons de geste a thousand years ago, and will almost certainly engage the readers of today!

For my part, I’m going to participate in some modern-day socializing by leaving the desk and getting into the weekend’s activities.  Sophia’s reminding me that it’s a Friday evening, so time to follow her lead and go have another adventure:  this time, heading with the family to see The Guardians of the Galaxy!  And then tomorrow, a dinner party with some friends down the street.  And so it goes …

Next time: Medieval Warfare as seen in the chanson of Raoul of Cambrai!

 {For a pretty complete entry on medieval food and drink, see the Wikipedia entry on “Medieval cuisine” at http://Medieval Cuisine}

 

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