An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 2: The Groundwork of Latin & Vernacular Literatures
An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 2: The Groundwork of Latin & Vernacular Literatures
Good Morning, Everyone!
As we delve into some of the underpinnings of modern expressions of Epic (or High) Fantasy, I’ve recently cast back 1,000 years or so to the time of the chansons de geste (“songs of deeds”), seeing in the chansons’ great battles, heroic figures, & feudal hierarchies (lords & vassals) intimations of the standard themes prevalent in today’s epic fantasy.
Shifting into one of the next major influences on Epic Fantasy — the medieval romance — we come to the form that most influenced J.R.R. Tolkien, and a host of fantasy imitators who have succeeded his works since The Hobbit was published in 1937, and The Lord of the Rings in 1954-1955.
I’ll get more into the takeaways for Tolkien and the romantic form next blog; today, I think it’s helpful to look at the literary environment that surrounded creators (troubadours, minstrels, monks, et al) c. 1000-1200, a rough transitional period between the chansons de geste and the rise of medieval romances.
One caveat: I’m running through centuries here and taking pictures on the move, so please remember that whenever we look at any historical period, we shouldn’t forget that any apparent “snapshot” of time for us meant days, months, years, and centuries for the people who were actually living those historical moments!
Perhaps a commonplace observation, but as we leave the 10th through 11th century chansons de gestes and look to broader literary transformations throughout the medieval European world, we do need to keep in mind that changes in literature weren’t occurring uniformly, nor simultaneously.
Indeed, the only assertion that one could comfortably make from the evidence would be the fact that — at least among the educated literati (clerics, teachers, & functionaries who were trained in monasteries, church/monastery schools, & nascent universities) — the common bond throughout Europe in the late 11th through 12th centuries was omnis latinitas (“all Latinity”). This meant that no matter where one went on the Continent or Britain, a Latin-speaking traveler could be confident that attempts at communication would be successful because of the universality of Latin.
That reality of omnis latinitas is the the bridge we need for understanding the literary transformations taking place throughout the Continent and into the British Isles during this period. That is, we need to establish that there was a basic framework of Latin language before we can start seeing how Latin was transformed into “vernacular” languages (i.e., the common, everyday speech of ordinary folk).
Thanks to the early 5th century works of St. Jerome’s Vulgate and St. Augustine (d. 430), the latter of whom captured neo-Platonic thought through a Christian lens, the Latin literature of the Early and High Middle Ages always had a component that directed the attention of monastic or noble audiences toward God. The forms of Latin literature ran the gamut from chronicles, histories, and saints’ lives (Gregory of Tours’ The History of the Franks, Venantius Fortunatus, The Life of St. Martin, etc.), to reading suggestions & programs of study (Cassiodorus, Institutiones, which invented the “Trivium” & Quadrivium”), to philosophical works (Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy), to encyclopedias (Isidore of Seville).
By the time of the rise of cathedral schools and universities in the 12th and 13th centuries, theologians, scientists, and philosophers all used the Latin language to reinvent the medieval intellectual landscape from the British Isles to Bologna; for example, such luminaries as Alain of Lille, John of Salisbury (Politcraticus), Duns Scotus (Commentary on Sentences of Peter Lombard), Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon (Opus Majus; optics, alchemy, & celestial bodies), Peter Abelard (Sic et Non, History of My Misfortunes), and Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica) made intellectual advances that questioned everything from “proofs for the existence of God” to the origins of phenomena in the natural world.
All of these Latin authors were versed from an early age in rhetoric, that way of writing or speaking to persuade, and in an age where Latin grammarians ruled an ecclesiastical intelligentsia, rhetoric could be expressed in three ways: ars dictamen (“letter-writing”), ars poetriae (“verse-writing”), and ars praedicandi (“sermon-writing,” or “preaching”). This point is critical for those trying to understand how literary writers jumped from a simple “narration” of adventures à la what we saw in the chansons de geste — a mode of storytelling that usually jumped from action to action, with little consideration given to the whys and wherefores of a character’s deeds — to the very sophisticated emotional & motivational details that appear in the chivalric romance.
You see, writers who were trained in rhetoric were accustomed to making arguments in a “scholastic” environment, and these ways of arguing were detailed to a degree that would probably exhaust the modern conversationalist or rhetorician. That is, as students in cathedral schools, it was simply a given that everyone had memorized much of the Bible, and even long tracts and passages from the more popular authors of the day. The moment of truth in spoken debates or rhetorical writing came during the dialectic argument, wherein both sides would make propositions, and then defend or attack each other by means of citing authorities before coming to a conclusion.
As the intellectual historian David Knowles synopsized,
[Begin Knowles excerpt]: “…it [scholasticism] is essentially a term of method. If by a scholastic method we understand a method of discovering and illustrating philosophical truth by means of a dialectic based on Aristotelian logic, then ‘scholastic’ is a useful and significant term. This medieval dialectic, whether, as in an early phase, it is based on Boethian precepts, or whether, as in its mature phase, it rests upon the whole corpus of Aristotelian logic, or whether, in its phase of disintegration, it is a criticism or a supposedly new and truer interpretation of Aristotle, follows throughout a basic pattern of question (quaestio), argument (disputatio), and conclusion (sententia), and it is recognizable throughout the range of forms in which medieval thought finds expression, whether it be the dialogues of St. Anselm, the Sentences of the Lombard, or the Commentaries on the Sentences, the Summae and the Quaestiones disputatae of the thirteenth century, or the De causa Dei of Bradwardine. Thus understood as a methodical process, `scholasticism’ is almost, though not quite, coextensive with medieval thought.” [End excerpt, David Knowles,[Second Edition, edited by D.E. Luscombe and Christopher Brooke] The Evolution of Medieval Thought [New York: Longman Group, 1988], pp. 79-80.]
Now, as regions such as France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy developed their own respective ways of speaking and writing in Latin — the “vernaculars,” or Common Tongues of French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian — we start seeing secular literature that both conforms to, and departs from, classical Latin models that were being studied in the schools. Most of the educated Christian literati had been trained extensively in Latin grammar using those ancient models — library catalogues and reading lists show us that Ovid, Cicero, and Vergil were studied alongside the satires of Horace and Juvenal. In the 12th century many of the creative expressions weren’t reaching the masses in Latin, but, rather, in vernacular languages whose texts reflect a combination of Antique and Biblical themes being told in regional dialects that were offshoots of Latin (again, the Romance languages of French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian; but keep in mind that there were transformations occurring in German, too).
The minstrels and troubadours who served as the intermediaries between schools, courts, and towns where the chansons de geste (“songs of deeds”) were sung also introduced forms of lyric poetry and chivalrous romance that began paying attention to new themes; separated lovers, unrequited love, loneliness, chivalric impulses, heroic quests, and wonder-filled adventures, all of which thematically began to transform high medieval literature from its roots in classical- or biblical-based Latin into something recognizably vernacular.
Thus, while there were still chansons being sung in the 11th century that celebrated events from Alexander the Great’s 4th century B.C. and Charlemagne’s 8th-9th century times, the 11th and 12th century also saw lingual transformations across Britain and the Continent. For example, Old English & the Anglo-Saxon languages became supplanted by a French vernacular (after the Norman Conquest of 1066) that imposed a blend of both French and English; this new vernacular was centuries in the making, and eventually became the “Middle English” revealed by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th Century.
English and German touring troupes performed “mystery” plays that reenacted Bible moments, and expanded offerings eventually to include everything from comedic skits, to religious dramas, to “miracle” (or saints’-lives) plays to, finally, “morality” plays where human emotions and failings (Pride, Envy, Sloth, Lust, Anger) were played out before village audiences as incentives to goad the parishioners back into church. Similar departures from Latin occurred among the educated culture in Italy, culminating in the vernacular Italian recorded by Dante Alighieri in his The Divine Comedy and Boccaccio in The Decameron.
The transformations that occurred within the vernacular offshoots of Latin weren’t the only changes in medieval literature for this period. The Crusades and increasing trade exchanges throughout the Mediterranean World and the Continent brought Europeans into contact with a host of Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew influences, and these encounters had wide-ranging and long-term effects across the spectrum of intellectual, philosophical, religious, and, yes, literary thought.
One of the reasons that I urge would-be (and current) epic fantasists to become familiar with medieval literature is exactly because of the “synthesis” that the writers of the Middle Ages achieved first in their combination of antique Greco-Roman traditions with a Latin Christianity and, from there, beginning with the translators of the 11th and 12th century schools and universities, the assimilation (or refutation) of Arabic and Hebrew traditions. Such cultural and intellectual interchanges made the period incredibly dynamic — its justifiably called the “12th Century Renaissance” — and any writer who wants to capture some of the essence of medieval people in their epic fantasies would be well-served to read some of the texts that remain to this day.
The historian, Jan Ziolkowski, succinctly highlights the importance of “eastern” influences upon the rise of romance literature in his review of latin culture in the High Middle Ages:
[Begin excerpt, Jan Ziolkowski, “Latin and Vernacular Literature”]: Classical models continued to loom large but they were supplemented by new outside influences that gained entrance into Europe through such gateways as the crusades, Spain, Italy, and Greece. There is an irony in the fact that the hostile spirit of The Chanson de Roland, and the self-awareness of Christian Europe that came through the crusades, marked the start of a process that strengthened the eastern imprint upon Europe; for much more than silk and spices was imported from the east. Europe had many sorts of contact with Christian Greeks and Islamic peoples, especially but not solely Arabs. Although by the twelfth century Muslims had been dislodged from Sicily, they continued to occupy substantial expanses of the Iberian peninsula. Slaves changed hands between Christians and Muslims: Duke William IX of Aquitaine, seventh count of Poitou (1071-1127), the first known poet of secular lyric in France, owned slaves whom he had acquired from Spain.
The ties between many parts of Romance-speaking Europe and the westernmost reaches of Islam are potentially very significant for the literary history of both parties. Particularly noteworthy are the Arabic and Hebrew strophic poems known as muwashshahas that were composed in eleventh- and twelfth-century Spain, since more than five dozen of them are capped by verses in a local Romance dialect. Most of these colloquial verses, designated as kharjas, appear to derive from women’s love songs… [End excerpt, Jan Ziolkowski, “Latin and Vernacular Literature,” in David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith, eds., The New Cambridge Medieval History, IV. c. 1024-1198, Part 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 665.]
So, in conclusion, what do all of these developments mean for the epic fantasist? Plenty! I don’t know about you as a reader, but for me one of the quickest ways to eject me from a contented moment of “suspended disbelief” when reading epic fantasy is when a writer puts a story together that doesn’t tend to the basics about how people lived in a faux-medieval time. One might argue that Tolkien tended too much to the “philology” of his creations ― i.e., writing his books as “language first, story second,” and developing a history of Middle Earth therefrom — but at least he recognized the vital importance of language for his characters who were variously speaking the invented tongues of Quendian, Sindarin, Westron, Entish, Khuzdul, Black Speech, Rohirric, Valarin, etc.
I understand that some epic fantasy writers have sought to imitate Tolkien by creating new languages, but I’ve not found any yet that match the constructions he invented. What I do enjoy, however, is any work that takes time to let the characters both “breathe” and speak, with descriptions that let me know the author cares about more than just the main character — indeed, that the author truly cares about the world-building aspect of the fantasy form. For example, I’m currently re-reading Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and in The Gunslinger, I’m very much enjoying the distinction King already begins to make in this first book between the Low and High Speech, and the “classes” and socio-economic differences one can glean by looking at his characters in a post-apocalyptic/post-economic landscape.
For those who want to remain within the faux-medieval Epic Fantasy mode, it is helpful to at least recognize the elements that contributed to the form that Tolkien re-introduced to the world, and which everybody seems to want to recreate (but can’t quite figure out how to put the Middle Earth “lightning” back in the bottle).
Okay. We’ve seen the chansons de geste. Now we’ve got a sense of the Latin and vernacular literatures — and educational environments — that informed medieval creators. Next, it’s on to the most important influence for the epic fantasist: the medieval romance.
Next time: Tolkien’s Works as One Kind of Template for Modern Medieval Romance