Medieval Dreams

Peter Burke

One night in 1130, King Henry I had a nightmare. He dreamed that he was being attacked, first by a crowd of peasants, then by a group of knights, and finally by a number of clerics. For many historians, this detail, recorded by the chronicler John of Worcester, would be no more than a fascinating piece of useless information. For Professor Jacques Le Goff, it is a clue which helps us to understand the 12th century a little better. Le Goff, whose collected essays, written between 1956 and 1976, and published in French in 1977, have just made their appearance in English, is one of the liveliest and most stimulating historians at work in France today – no small praise at a time when Ladurie has just published another monograph, and Braudel is still active.

One essay in this collection dates from the year in which Le Goff set the members of his seminar at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes the task of studying medieval dreams, including the dream of Henry I. Another year, his theme was the history of gesture. Le Goff had worked on changing attitudes to time and on the history of stories about monsters, such as dragons or the serpent-woman Melusine, whom he describes in one essay as ‘mother and pioneer’ – défricheuse.

Défricheur is an appropriate adjective to apply to the author himself. Wherever there is a frontier between medieval history and another discipline, there Le Goff is likely to be found. He draws on folklore, psychology, and, above all, social anthropology. His footnotes refer, not only to his sources and predecessors, but also to the work of Freud, Lévi-Strauss, the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp and the French comparative mythologist Georges Dumézil.

An initial reaction to this collection of essays on diverse medieval subjects is likely to be that of admiration for a scholar who can pursue so many intellectual interests so constructively. A second reaction may be to be somewhat suspicious of an intellectual agriculture which is extensive rather than intensive. Le Goff arrives, clears the field, crops it and then moves on to the next frontier. Slash-and-burn, rather than the prolonged cultivation of an intellectual garden. However, he does get results and he is less over-extended than may appear.

These essays chart Le Goff’s intellectual itinerary over twenty years, from the history of medieval universities to that of other occupations, licit and illicit, and from the classification of occupations to more general conceptions of society, such as the ‘three estates’ – conceptions which may be expressed consciously or unconsciously, in learned culture or in popular culture, in texts, in images or in rituals. What holds this volume, and Le Goff’s intellectual career, together, is his abiding concern, not only with the Middle Ages, but also with a particular set of problems, the problems of writing what the French call histoire des mentalités, the social history of attitudes and values.

What is this history of mentalities? One of the best answers to this question has been given by Le Goff himself, in an essay (published in 1974) which does not, unfortunately, appear in this collection. The history of mentalities is concerned with ideas. Not so much the great ideas of great thinkers as the ordinary ideas of ordinary people, the categories they have employed in different periods to make sense of their experience. Mentalité was a new and fashionable word in France in the 1920s. ‘Mentalité me plaît,’ Proust wrote in Le Côté de Guermantes.

One man who helped put the term mentalité on the intellectual map in France was the philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, a member of the Année Sociologique circle; he tended to use the term where Durkheim would have written représentations collectives. Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, founders of Annales, the journal associated with the ‘new history’ in France from 1929 onwards, were also quick to take up the new concept. Bloch’s book Les Rois Thaumaturges, first published in 1923, was concerned with the belief in the healing power of the royal touch and with the problem of the persistence of this belief when healing failed to take place. Bloch pointed out that people expected a miracle to happen and hence were predisposed to believe that one had happened if the sufferer’s condition improved naturally. If it did not improve, they explained the failure away. In other words, their belief was not falsifiable. Belief in the royal touch could not easily be given up because it was not isolated. It was part of an intellectual system in which the different elements – the belief in miracles, reverence for royalty, and so on – supported one another. Hence, as Le Goff reminds us more than once in this volume, mentalities change very slowly, though they do eventually adapt to changes in social or political structures or in material culture. Their history is, in Braudel’s phrase, essentially one of longue durée.

Henry I’s nightmare tells us something about the mentality, the intellectual categories, prevalent in the 12th century. Even in his dreams, the king, like his contemporaries, saw society in terms of the ‘three estates’, clergy, nobility and peasantry, ‘those who pray, those who fight and those who work’. It was Georges Dumézil who pointed out that this view of society as composed of three groups exercising three basic functions goes back a long way into Indo-European tradition, since the people of Gaul, for example, were divided, according to Caesar, into Druids, equites and plebs, just as the people of ancient India were divided into Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. Jacques Le Goff adds the observation (developed by Professor Georges Duby in his recent study of The Three Orders) that the idea of the tripartite society was reactivated in Europe between the ninth and 11th centuries, in places as far apart as Alfred’s Wessex and the Poland of Boleslaw the Wry-Mouthed, because it ‘corresponded to a new need’. It was good propaganda for the new national monarchs, who claimed to concentrate the three basic functions in their own persons.

The idea of the three estates or orders was rather less convenient for the groups which did not fit, such as merchants and professional men. As one 14th-century English preacher declared, God made the three estates but ‘the devil made the townsmen and usurers,’ thus concentrating into one phrase his dislike of avarice and his sense that people who did not fit into traditional pigeon-holes must be up to no good. The same idea seems to underlie Peter Abelard’s bold attempt, discussed by Le Goff in another essay, to assimilate university teachers to knights, describing arguments as weapons and disputations as battles or tournaments. He was trying to legitimate his own profession and incidentally to adapt traditional categories to fit a changing society.

For another example of the persistence and gradual modification of traditional social categories, Le Goff turns to the list of occupations forbidden to the clergy in the Middle Ages, a list which reveals the survival of ancient taboos such as the ‘blood taboo’ which barred clerics from being barber-surgeons or butchers as well as from shedding blood on the battlefield, and the ‘taboo of impurity’ which prevented them from becoming cooks or laundrymen. Here, too, change is visible in the course of the Middle Ages. In the 12th and 13th centuries, scholastic theologians sanctioned the rise of new occupations. University teachers, originally condemned for selling knowledge, which was a gift of God, now became theologically respectable.

Merchants had similarly been condemned for selling time, another gift of God, by lending money at interest. However, as Le Goff shows in one of his best-known essays, time was secularised in the later Middle Ages. Merchants and craftsmen came to think of time as belonging to themselves. As one city after another installed a public clock, task-oriented time was replaced by time divided mechanically into equal units. The analogy between time and money goes back to the 15th century at least.

It will be obvious enough that historians of mentalities have been preoccupied with some of the same questions as social anthropologists over the last fifty years or so. Le Goff’s discussion of task-oriented time is reminiscent of what the late Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard wrote about the Nuer, just as Evans-Pritchard’s treatment of Zande beliefs in the efficacity of their poison oracles echoed Marc Bloch on medieval belief in the efficacity of the royal touch. ‘In this web of belief,’ Evans-Pritchard once wrote, ‘every strand depends upon every other strand, and a Zande cannot get out of its meshes because it is the only world he knows.’

Le Goff is well aware of the analogies between the work of historians of mentalities and anthropologists concerned with modes of thought. Indeed, together with other members of the Annales group, such as Le Roy Ladurie, his aim is ‘ethnohistory’ – in other words, the anthropology of the past. This aim is most obvious in the last and latest essay in his volume, ‘The Symbolic Ritual of Vassalage’, one of the longest and most important contributions in the whole collection. The rituals he interprets include the kiss on the mouth, the handing over to the vassal of some object symbolising the fief – a ring, book, hat, glove, knife or whatever (the 17th-century scholar Du Cange listed no less than a hundred objects used for this purpose in the Middle Ages); and the immixtio manuum, the placing of the hands of the vassal between those of his lord (a gesture which may be obsolete elsewhere in the civilised world, but which still survives in degree ceremonies at Cambridge). Le Goff treats these rituals, in true anthropological style, as a ‘system’, comparing and contrasting them with other ritual systems in Africa and elsewhere, and ‘reading’ them as expressions of social attitudes. The kiss, for example, he interprets as a sign of reciprocity, conspicuously absent in Spain, where the vassal kissed his lord’s hand, not his mouth. Le Goff remarks in passing on the importance of border regions as the location for vassalage rituals. Sensitive as he is to parallels in the anthropological literature, it is surprising that he fails to cite Victor Turner’s work on ‘liminality’. A frontier is an appropriate setting for a rite of passage from one status to another.

A telling criticism levelled against the first historians of mentalities, Marc Bloch and his friend and colleague Lucien Febvre, was their lack of sensitivity to differences of attitude within a given society at a given time. They wrote about ‘the medieval Frenchman’ or ‘the 16th-century Frenchman’ as if there were no significant variations between one social group and another. Le Goff does not fall into this trap. A number of essays in this collection are, in fact, primarily concerned with differences between learned culture and popular culture in the Middle Ages, and in particular with the extent to which the Church, in different periods, accepted popular beliefs, rejected them, or reinterpreted them. A fascinating illustration of these themes is the essay on St Marcellus of Paris and the dragon. St Marcellus was bishop of Paris in the fifth century; the Faubourg Saint-Marcel was named after him. But who was the dragon? For the Church, a symbol of the forces of evil. But what about the laity? A comparative study of stories about combats between heroes and dragons leads Le Goff to suggest that, for the people, the dragon of St Marcellus was a symbol of the local community.

Le Goff’s lively and inquiring mind leaves its mark on every page of this book. It is a pleasure to read a scholar whose long service in the field of learning has not killed his urge to assimilate new ideas or to take calculated risks. These great merits have their price, and it would not be too difficult to find fault with specific essays on matters of detail or even matters of more substance. For example, the treatment of the problems of method involved in the interpretation of dreams by historians is somewhat cavalier, given the sharp differences of opinion between different psychological schools, and the impossibility of discovering the dreamer’s associations to the dream. Some essays appear in what is virtually note form: appropriate enough, no doubt, for the conferences for which they were originally written, but not for a published collection. Interesting ideas are not fully worked out. Slips appear to be rare, though Le Goff seems to think that the antiquarian Henri Sauval lived in the 18th century: in fact, he died in 1670. The translation, fluent and readable, creates a few minor misunderstandings. Not all readers will guess, for example, that the university faculty of ‘decrees’ was the faculty of canon law.

This collection of essays was originally entitled Pour un autre Moyen Age. The American publishers, perhaps embarrassed by the claim, settled for Time, Work and Culture instead. They were too cautious. Le Goff is one of the most intelligent and articulate of a group of historians who are giving us a ‘new Middle Ages’ by asking new questions and opening up new approaches.