An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry (5) Southern’s “Chansons vs Romance”
An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry (5) Southern’s “Chansons vs. Romance”
Good Morning, Everyone!
Ugh. Slowed down by a nasty head-cold the last few days, so rather than pulling apart the cotton in my brain to look for an idea, I’m going to rely on a favorite medieval historian’s work to add another view on the rise of romance literature in the 12th Century.
Here’s an excerpt from one of the most beautifully written studies on Medieval Europe, Richard W. Southern’s (1912-2001) The Making of the Middle Ages. For those aspiring epic fantasy writers and general medieval-times enthusiasts, check out how a master — who also, like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis researched and taught at Oxford University — makes a comparison between the two literary forms of chansons de geste & Arthurian romance AND gives a vivid glimpse of the “orders” within medieval society. (For those readers on-the-go with no time for a mini-lecture from one of the foremost medievalists of the 20th Century, I’ve highlighted the parts relevant to what we should take-away from the chanson and “romantic” literary forms when turning their respective lenses onto epic fantasy.)
[Begin excerpt: Richard W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages]:
… The Song of Roland might have as its sub-title ‘a tale of heroism and treachery on the borders of Christendom’. No doubt part of its enjoyment came from the fact that it was listened to as a piece of real history. It was history seen down from a long perspective, but still it was a piece of real life. We shall never know what it was that turned the obscure disaster which befell Charlemagne’s army on 15 August 778, when Roland Count of Brittany was killed, into one of the most memorable incidences in Christian epic … The poem reflects the ideas of men who have not yet been stirred either to enthusiasm or to opposition by the church doctrines which were becoming widespread in the years following the death of [Pope] Gregory VII. It was taken for granted that an archbishop would be in his place among the fighters and that his counsel and strength in battle would be as good as another’s, or better. The wisdom of the clerk was not distinguished from the wisdom of the layman. And the wisdom of the layman was that of shrewd and practical men. They were men grounded in the externals of feudal custom, well versed in the niceties of the bond which tied them to their lord and to their fellow barons. This was the world which they knew, and about which they felt deeply. They quarreled like schoolboys about the fine points of social obligation and feudal etiquette, for these were the things to which they attached importance. It was a masculine society, and its members were more conscious of the group to which they belonged and of their duty towards it than their own hearts. They were unmoved by the romantic loyalties of the heart. The heroes of the poem speak of women only in the crude way of the camp, and in hours of crisis they think more of their lands than of their loves. The dying Roland had no thought to spare for his betrothed, though she straightaway died on hearing of his death. And when the heroes think of their lands, they also think of the ancient holy places of France, and call upon St. Michael or St. Denis — never on the Virgin. These are the old ways of piety; the piety of a localized society closely tied to the places men know.
[continue Southern excerpt]: We are in a limited world, the boundaries of which are clearly marked. It is for the most part…the France from Mont St. Michel to the Rhine and from Boulogne to the Loire, with the coast road to the Pyrenees well mapped. Beyond the Pyrenees lies an unknown Moslem world, a wonder-world of fantasy and evil — a kind of parody of the Christian world, where a strange trinity of Gods, Tervagan [sic, or “Termagant,” a name given to an imaginary god that Christians believed Muslims worshipped], Mahomet, and Apollo, are worshipped in ‘synagogues and mahumeries ’ filled with idols and images. But within the limits of the well known, the impossible is not expected to happen; there is a great respect for the obvious and inescapable limits of Nature. The barons of Charlemagne are indeed men of great strength, but then their muscles are large; and even they, when they meet an overwhelming foe, die. They know that they are in the right, for “Pagans are wrong and Christians are right”, but they also know that a strong Pagan will beat a weak Christian. They have confidence in their saints, but they also shrewdly remark that “men fight well when they know that no prisoners will be taken.”
The barons of the Song of Roland would have been considered “unimaginative” by a later age, and the limits within which the imagination worked were certainly narrow. It was circumscribed by the ties of lordship and vassalage, by the recollections of fiefs and honours and well-known shrines, by the sacred bond of comradeship. The bond between them was precious, and Guanelon and the Moslem king Marsilie, were enemies of society, endangering the Christian commonwealth. They were both external enemies in the sense that they were outside the pale of society, and the opprobrious word ‘felon‘ was applied indifferently to each…
[continue Southern excerpt]: With the work of Chrétien of Troyes, who was writing in the third quarter of the twelfth century, we enter a new world. His romances are the secular counterpart to the piety of Cîteaux. Of both, love is the theme. Love is an inward thing, and therefore a lonely thing united only to its unique object. So the knight of Chrétien’s romances seeks solitude for the exercise of his essential virtue. It is true that his life is centered on a community — the community of King Arthur’s court — and that his highest virtues have their root in the everyday ties of loyalty to his lord and companions. But thought the court is a school of discipline, it is in a higher sense a place of relaxation where virtue will become rusty unless sharpened by periodic flights into the wilderness. The life of the court forms a picturesque background rather than the focal point of knightly virtue: it’s rules sit lightly on those who aim at high things. In the Song of Roland the highest virtue was that of the good companion and the good vassal, to whom the words baron and prud’homme could be applied; the lowest infamy was that of the felon, the traitor to his lord and companions. In Chrétien, these words have gone a long way to losing their distinctive meaning; felon for instance can be applied to all kinds of things like bad luck or bad looks. The two poles of conduct are represented by words denoting more intimate qualities: courtois and vilain, the gentleman and the lout. These qualities will come out in action, but they refer in the first place to something which a man is in himself, and to the surroundings in which he is at home, the court or the pig stye — for vilainis the word also indifferently used for a peasant.
[continue Southern excerpt]: In the Knights of Arthur, as in those of Charlemagne, there is a great sense of a common objective, but it is a wholly ideal objective, at once quite universal and quite individual. It is unthinkable that the knights of the Song of Roland should fight each other without a breach of their fundamental code of conduct: their ties of loyalty and vassalage were too serious for that. They fight as members of a body. However much a Roland may stand above his fellows in prowess, he takes part in a common action against a common enemy. But in Chrétien the enemy is dispersed; he is everywhere and may be found everywhere. The knights of Chrétien seek the enemy in solitude and in the course of their search they may well find themselves striving against one of their fellow Knights. There was nothing disconcerting in this, for action was only a means to a spiritual end.
[continue Southern excerpt]: The whole action of Chrétien takes place as it were on the confines of the physical world, where reason and passion do not come up against the brute facts of resistant nature. In the Song of Roland we stand on solid earth, though we have glimpses into the cauldron of unreason behind the curtain of Christendom; but in Chrétien we take a bird’s eye view of earth from above, where all unevenness art leveled out, and from where it seems that men can go anywhere without difficulty but may meet anything by the way. The eye ranges far and wide, but the unknown is close at hand. Danger may lurk under every tree and the nerves are strained in anticipation. There is no security, no friendly society round the camp fire. The world is a wide one and we move effortlessly from Winchester to Regensberg to Constantinople; but wide though it is in geographical extent, it is wider still in the variety and mystery of its contents.
[continue Southern excerpt]: The Song of Roland told the story of an action in which each man had a part to play, and played it well or ill. Chrétien’s knights are engaged, not in an action, but in a quest, which each man must undertake alone. A quest for what? Ostensibly for knightly adventure, but really for adventures of the heart. Chrétien’s stories are stories of the heart in search of love, and his most penetrating passages are those where he analyses the strange twists and contradictions of the passions. Since he is writing stories and not a treatise he does not aim at a systematic doctrine; yet a a systematic treatise could be written from his stories. It would distinguish three stages in the quest. The first is the life of the court, where men and women entertain each other with agreeable attentions without any serious wounds being given or received. Then [secondly] there is the stage of the lonely peril, grief and exertion in which the heart feels the wounds of love without attaining the assured possession of its object. Beyond this there is the third stage, always in the future, in which the heart and its desired object are perfectly joined in an unbreakable union. It was within these three stages that Chrétien’s stories were chiefly concerned: the stages of journeying, seeking, and suffering.
[continue Southern excerpt]: A treatise such as this would have many points of contact with St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s three stages of carnal, rational, and spiritual love. But Chrétien, as an author, was neither religious nor, in intention at least, anti-religious. Religion was part of the furniture of his stories — indeed an essential part, for religious observance was one of the elements of good breeding. But the Christianity of Chrétien is an affair of externals, providing plenty of bishops and clerks to add to the dazzling throng, and a rich pageantry of mitres and croziers at weddings. The real internal religion of the heart was untouched by Christianity. There is in Chrétien none of the melancholy, none of the sense of the sinfulness of the heart, which we sometimes find in [Sir Thomas] Malory. Chrétien probes the heart, but it is the enameled heart of the twelfth-century secular world, not yet made tender by the penetration of strong religious feeling. There is nothing in Chrétien like the passage from Morte d’Arthur when Guinevere takes leave of Lancelot.
The religious and the romantic quests were born in the same world — Troyes is only about thirty miles from Clarivaux —and drew in part on the same sources of inspiration, but they were in the twelfth century kept rigidly apart. There were indeed the great alternatives opened out to the imagination in the mid-twelfth century… [End excerpt, Richard W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages, Yale University Press, New York & New Haven, 1953; pp. 241-246]
The medieval historian, Norman F. Cantor, titled the chapter on his mentor Southern “The Once and Future King” (in apt reference to the impact Southern had on medieval studies in the mid-20th Century), and highlighted the transformation this historian created in The Making of the Middle Ages, a transformation that Cantor synopsized into five questions:
(1) granted that the romantic movement of the 12th century augmented self-consciousness, to what extent did it articulate a concept of individualism, the appreciable autonomy of the individual?
(2) can we separate a secular romanticism in twelfth-century culture from a much-enhanced spirituality in practical mysticism?
(3) did 12th-century culture depart from the heightened sensibility and self-consciousness that we usually identify with romanticism to attain a new naturalism in perceiving the physical world and to a psychological realism in assessment of heterosexual human relationships? or are this naturalism and this psychological realism part of the whole romantic movement itself?
(4) what specific aspects of ancient eroticism (Plato, Ovid, etc.) inspired medieval romanticism? how did the romantic movement draw upon, interpret, and absorb these aspects of the classical heritage?
(5) there is the whole issue of the relationship between the rise of popular heresy and counterchurch movements and facets of spiritual and secular romanticism. Was radical religion a confrontational extension of romanticism or possibly a conservative reaction against it?
Even were I not wandering through a haze of congestion and fever, there’d still be no better bridge between the early medieval form of the chansons de geste and the high medieval romantic literature than this book by Richard Southern.
Thanks for visiting!
Next time: King Arthur & High Medieval Romance
P.S. For those interested in reading more of R. W. Southern’s works (and I recommend all of them), here’s a bibliographical list from Wikipedia:
- “Ranulf Flambard and Early Anglo-Norman Administration”, Alexander Prize Essay (1933)
- The Making of the Middle Ages (1953)
- Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (1962)
- The Life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, by Eadmer (as editor and translator) (1962, 2nd ed. 1972)
- St Anselm and His Biographer (1963)
- Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970)
- Medieval Humanism and Other Studies (1970)
- Robert Grosseteste: The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe (1986, 2nd ed. 1992)
- St. Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (1992)
- Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, Vols. I & II (1997, 2001)
- History and Historians: Selected Papers of R. W. Southern, edited by Robert Bartlett (2004)