Little does it quake as it lies on the plate

Tom Shippey

  • The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe edited by George Holmes
    Oxford, 398 pp, £17.50, March 1988, ISBN 0 19 820073 0
  • A History of 12th-century Western Philosophy edited by Peter Dronke
    Cambridge, 495 pp, £37.50, April 1988, ISBN 0 521 25896 0
  • The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought c.350-c.1450 edited by J.H. Burns
    Cambridge, 808 pp, £60.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 521 24324 6
  • Medieval Popular Culture: Problem of Belief and Perception by Aron Gurevich, translated by Janos Bak and Paul Hollingsworth
    Cambridge, 275 pp, £27.50, May 1988, ISBN 0 521 30369 9
  • A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World edited by George Duby, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
    Harvard, 650 pp, £24.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 674 39976 5

A captious person might mutter that The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe is a little ‘hobbitical’: it reminds one of Professor Tolkien’s hobbits, who ‘liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions’. This would be unfair, in that it is a splendid volume, presenting contemporary scholarship to the general reader with care, grace, much thought and many illustrations; filled with things that most general readers won’t know at all, and that many specialist readers won’t have thought of. Still, it is sometimes possible to imagine the contributors putting down their pens, staring at their charts of ‘The Capetian Kings’ or ‘The Royal House of Jerusalem to 1187’ – ‘BALDWIN I (1100 – 1181) m. (1) Godvere of Tosni (2) daughter of T’oros (3) Adelaide, countess of Sicily’ – and getting up from their desks with a feeling of justified completion and a mutter of ‘well, that’s that!’ Here are the pedigrees; here the accounts of political pressures; here are the maps – possessions of the kings of France, trade routes to Islam, routes of Viking invasions – thus, so, black and white, and not otherwise.

What lies behind it all? History of this kind maximises one’s information, minimises doubt. Its authors are pressed into shorthand statements, which often invite one tacitly to assume that things have not changed very much since the ninth century, or that one can make sense of events by a small exercise of the extrapolating imagination. When the Vikings, under several ‘royal Scandinavian generals’, defeated the kings of Northumbria and Mercia and East Anglia and fell on Wessex over Twelfth Night 878, King Alfred ‘rallied his subjects’ (writes Edward James). ‘Rallied his subjects’ sounds more grown-up, more professional and political, than ‘burnt the cakes’ – though this is exactly the moment when King Alfred is supposed to have burnt the cakes – but on reflection one wonders whether it isn’t equally hagiographical. Were the inhabitants of Somerset and Dorset and Devon ‘subjects’ in the sense that they are now? Surely the Viking armies can simply not have had enough men to ‘occupy’ Wessex as a modern army would, especially with no motorised transport. So what were they trying to do? Were they trying to get the thanes of Wessex to make a deal which would cut King Alfred out? Could Alfred rely on strong anti-foreigner and anti-heathen feeling? Is our tacit model of Nazis, Resistance fighters and Quislings at all apposite? It is not much good looking at the sources. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that Alfred met the men of the local districts at ‘Egbert’s Stone’ – how did he get them all to turn up at once in an occupied country? – and that ‘they were fain of his coming.’ But then, written a dozen years after the successful event, it would, wouldn’t it? One cannot help wondering what the reality was like, as compared with the modern abstracting formulation: and not only in matters of politics.

How did you go about being a Viking, for instance? Edward James is sensibly dubious about the modern ‘dry sherry’ school of apologists for the Vikings; ‘brilliant craftsmen, striking artistic development, peaceful traders for the most part, very bad press from the monasteries, atrocities much exaggerated, isolated cases of boyish high spirits’ – at times it has been like reading the Leeds United programme notes explaining away the latest blighted fixture. No, says James, look at the Repton excavations, with their revelations of careful, organised plundering and, one might add, of violent death and probable post-battle killing of prisoners. Does this not, like Viking poetry, show a cultural taste for violence ‘verging on the psychopathic’? James does not say where he takes this phrase from, but it is another modernism like ‘rallied his subjects’ – where the latter approximates modern conditions to ancient ones, the ‘psychopathic’ label registers modern distaste and distance. Does this make sense? It is true that in the Atlakvitha King Gunnarr, taken prisoner, demands to see his brother’s heart before he will talk, and when it appears – after some comic by-play with people bringing him an easily-detectable, low-class, non-warrior heart – says approvingly:

Now that is the heart of Högni the brave,
Not like the heart of Hjalli the coward.
Little does it quake as it lies on the plate.
It quaked still less when it lay in his breast.

He does this, of course, so that he can laugh at his tormentors, secure in the knowledge that he is even less likely to talk than his brother was. And the whole scene betrays an intense cultural delight in self-control, impassivity, grinning in the face of torture. But how did this sort of thing work through to a rank-and-file member of a Viking army (or come to that to a ‘royal Scandinavian general’, to use James’s phrase for the sons of Ragnar Hairy-Breeks)? Did they go a-Viking to show their courage? Were they just in it for the money? How many reckoned to survive and go home with a profit? Were there no kindly, sensitive, undersized or near-sighted Vikings? They can’t all have looked like extras from Conan the Barbarian. These questions seem, no doubt, flippant or unanswerable. But the more one broods on the facts as revealed by ordinary Medieval history, the less they seem to square with the little one knows of ordinary people. There has to be a distortion somewhere. Can one allow for it, discard it, grope one’s way through it?

Several recent volumes try in different ways to get round or to overpower this distortion. The most straightforward method is that of the History of 12th-Century Western Philosophy, edited by Peter Dronke. We just haven’t read all the material, insists Dronke. Enormous amounts of evidence lie hidden in manuscripts, or in bad early editions. The whole network of intellectual relations in the Middle Ages still needs to be charted, strand by strand, and that is what his contributors are now trying to do. The results are extremely impressive, especially with those contributors (like Michael Lapidge on ‘The Stoic Inheritance’) who are prepared to go right back to the beginning and to explain not only what the Middle Ages did inherit, but also what they (and we) have lost. Yet a doubt hangs over the whole exercise, voiced by Dronke himself: did people like William of Conches or Hermann of Carinthia have any serious effect on society? Or were they, so to speak, the ‘literary theorists’ of their day: highly prominent and well-paid in their fields, but exercising zero effect on politics, mass media, society at large? There is a comic if accidental illustration of this point. Alan de Lille, writes Dronke, said once that ‘because authority has a waxen nose, that can be bent in different ways, she must be fortified by reason.’ Alan, he says, was recalling a phrase of Thierry of Chartres, himself recalling Plato. But many years before Alan or Thierry, the Emperor Henry III, dealing with a group of Czech sea-lawyers, had told them brusquely: ‘The law has a nose of wax, as they say in the vulgar, and the king a hand of iron.’ Henry was not recalling Plato, he was remembering a popular proverb; and so, no doubt, was Alan.

Populism is largely absent, too, from The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought – though it does provide the anecdote just mentioned – and its contributors, too, struggle with the ‘relationship of ideas to reality’. Once again their material is largely about ideas. P.D. King, on ‘The Barbarian Kingdoms’, cites approvingly the letter of St Boniface to Ethelbald of Mercia, telling him not only that he was an adulterer but that he was only king by ‘God’s abundant mercy’. Ethelbald’s reaction is not known, but kings of Mercia may well have thought that God had very little to do with the way they clung to power. One cannot help remembering an amiable letter written at about the same time to St Boniface, by the King of Kent. It says, fuzzily, how pleased the King is that Boniface is praying for him; here are some presents; and, by the way, have they any hawks over there in Germany? Strong-flying, well-trained ones, above all ones capable of attacking crows? To such rulers the political thought of Ulpian. or the views on kingship of Deuteronomy, might have taken a deal of explaining.

Behind the Latin sources, there was a popular culture. Maybe it still is there in the Latin sources, argues Aron Gurevitch in Medieval Popular Culture, convinced like Dronke that our major error has been simply not reading enough. His sources, though, are not the top-class works of the new scholar-intellectuals, but the kind of material carried round by those trying to convert the heathen, or to strengthen the faith of the peasantry – saints’ lives, miracle collections, penitentials, visions of the after-life like that communicated by the Essex peasant Thurkill to his parish priest. Extraordinary nonsense emerges from this: King Cormack MacCartey on his throne in heaven, but doing three hours a day in hell, the corpses of unbaptised infants being staked down to prevent them walking, knights with demonic servitors who work without pay just because they enjoy being near people, like the soulless longaevi of fairy-tale. How did this relate, one wonders, to Hermann of Carinthia or Thierry of Chartres? Closely, says Gurevitch. Dialogue with the simpleton was always ‘inherent in the mind of the theologian, of the university professor, of the prince of the church’. But that dialogue is still the exception, rather than the rule, with English-speaking scholars.

The most successful attempt to get through the evidence to the minds that produced it comes from the volume edited by Georges Duby, whose contributors are determined to read the historical sources sideways. They read romances and ask why King Arthur had to be bled in public. They read sermons on lust and ask what these imply about dormitory arrangements. The drive of their collective work is to inquire whether the Medieval psyche was at all like the modern one, or was inevitably altered by lower living standards and the pressures of overcrowding. They focus on all that we regard automatically as private: private functions, private parts, private lives, private letters. Removed from society, considered on his own, would a Medieval person be like a modern one? If ill-fate thrust one of us into a Medieval environment, what would we have to do to adjust?

For much of the time, the quest seems almost hopeless. Was there any concept of privacy to study or invoke? When a Saint Gall donor stipulates, ‘My son will have this privitatem among his brothers of the monastery,’ he doesn’t mean anything private at all, he means his son must have his fair collective share. Duby himself studies monastic life in the hope that these familiae will tell us ‘how wealthy people behaved in the privacy of their homes’ (the monastery being in this view modelled on an ideal aristocratic household). But all we learn is that the monks lived collectively to a degree now barely imaginable. Even their aristocratic guests were put into thirty or forty-mattress dormitories, though it is some comfort to learn that at Cluny each mattress had its own personal latrine. The monks themselves, if they were members of a ‘family’, were child-members of it: a very good thing, according to Langland, whose Wrath remarks that he never goes there, for fear of being ‘challenged in the chapitelhous as I a child were, / And baleised on the bare ers, and no breche bitwene’. Adults presumably put up with crowding and flogging and self-criticism sessions because they had seen or heard of nothing better. For long periods aristocratic families were shut up with their servants in tiny, crowded donjons accessible only through an outside stair to a door twenty feet up in the wall. Peasant families in longhouses would normally get six people into 350 square feet, the size of a modern living-room, with the animals next door (if they had a door), and rats and mice everywhere.

Everyone must have got used to being under observation all the time. Bride and groom were commonly escorted into bed, and they may have been watched once they were in it. Presumably they would not have had the chance to develop inhibitions, but one cannot be sure. In the romance Tristan de Nanteuil the heroine (disguised as a man) has to take a public bath before being married to ‘his’ bride. Fortunately an angel intervenes before ‘he’ reaches the basin: ‘In the presence of many maidens he entered totally nude, and his member was visibly firm and thick.’ This is supposed to show the mercy of God, but it shows also the cruel evaluation of the crowd. You were never alone: not in death, or with your wife, not even visiting your ‘private’ latrine. Maturum stercus est importabile pondus, reflects Felix Faber of Ulm, ‘a ripe turd is an unbearable burden,’ and goes on to offer advice on the necessity of relieving yourself even on a pilgrim boat with scores of people watching. The need for his advice shows that some people at least had developed a certain squeamishness.

There must have been psychological compensations for all this. The crowd which watched also corroborated, exerting strong public pressure to see that everyone got his or her due. In a revealing English document – the French contributors to this volume use English evidence very rarely, though it often bears them out, and also often pre-dates what they regard as the start of documentation – one Ordlaf writes to King Edward the Elder early in the tenth century to explain the incredibly complicated history of a piece of land at Font-hill in Wiltshire. This has already been decided, he protests. We took it to your father, King Alfred: ‘And the king stood in the chamber at Wardour – he was washing his hands. And when he had finished, he asked Aethelhelm why what we had decided did not seem just to him ...’ The letter suggests that poor King Alfred really did not have a private place or a private moment. But it also shows that Ordlaf thinks that as soon as the incident is recalled, he will get justice. And after all Wihtbord knew about it too, and Aefric, and Brihthelm, and Wulfhun the Black of Somerton. They may have been crowded, then, but they had no need for lawyers. And one may suspect also, referring back, that a ‘network’ like this would not have taken a great deal of ‘rallying’, once it was sure that its own interests were being served.

A further point in mitigation of ‘crowd pressure’ is that since people were almost invariably acting out some sort of public role, the tension between public demands and private feelings so common nowadays might simply never be a problem. Philippe Braunstein cites a novella about a furrier from Lucca who goes to a public bath and takes off all his clothes, but is then struck with horror at the thought of no longer knowing who he is. So he puts a straw cross on his shoulder, as it were to mark his identity. Unfortunately a neighbour grabs it and says, ‘Now I am you; begone, you are dead!’ at which the furrier goes mad. The joke may be on status-conscious furriers, or it may be an early reaction to urban anonymity, but it shows a curious lack of belief in one’s private personality. In normal Medieval circumstances your identity was guaranteed by the crowd. It would take a very bold person to stand out against such continuous pressure – and that answers the question about kindly Vikings. A wise or well-adjusted person would aim not to let conflict arise. Even modern people may recall how much easier it is in a camp or a barracks once you stop keeping an eye open for your place, seat, shower, blanket, and simply use whichever one happens to be handy, as undergraduates used to do with bicycles.

Yet the urge towards self-assertion, self-demarcation, must always have been there. Even the monasteries had a constant struggle against people trying to mark little bits off for their own. The Benedictine priory at Little-more subdivided its dormitory into separate rooms; officials or people working for degrees felt they had a right to personal space. Nicholas in the Miller’s Tale has a room ‘All-one, withouten any compaignye’, though the tale significantly never considers the possibility of his bedding his landlord’s wife in it – she is too closely observed. As time goes by, we find people writing with love and gratitude about their own little spaces, like the locked studiolo his father gave to Hermann von Weinsberg of Cologne; he read and wrote and painted there, and his father was pleased to see him off the streets; ‘He always kept this little room for my use, even when I was at Emmerich; and when I came back, I found everything just as I had left it.’

Von Weinsberg was, however, incredibly lucky. For most people the urge for private space can only have been satisfied round the family hearth – you could sit in your shirt in the firelight, though one author remarks that men should be careful to see the cat is not under their stool first – or else in bed. Even bed was rather a doubtful place. Sir Gawain, in the English romance, is given a private bed in a private room, though as soon as his hostess visits him he reverts to public manners, and the romance seems in part to be saying that privacy only makes you vulnerable. In other romances heroes and heroines rarely seem to be sure who is in bed with them, and this is frightening rather than stimulating. Even when it is your wife she may seize the opportunity to wring fatal secrets from you; while if it is your husband he is all too likely either to beat you or at the very least to ‘remind you of the mistakes and naive remarks that you made during the day or over the past several days’, as the kindly husband of the Ménagier de Paris says he will do to help his young wife along.

Still, a curtained bed with no one else in it must have been like heaven to many an overcrowded Medieval. One begins to understand why beds and bed-furniture take up such a disproportionate amount of space in wills, and perhaps why Chaucer laid such heavy stress on his offer to Morpheus in ‘The Book of the Duchess’: ‘a feather bed of down from pure white doves, striped with gold and furnished with fine black satin doutremer, and many a pillow, and every pillowcase of Rennes cloth, for soft sleeping’. To his audience it must have been like a quizmaster gloating over the delights of the Bermudan holiday or the prize sports car. A surprising thing, though, is that Medievals must have learned either to keep very quiet in bed or else to turn deaf ears: the lady of Montaillou confessed that she was raped in her own bedroom (she seems not to have cried out), and that on another occasion her own majordomo slipped optimistically into bed with her, though there were servants in other beds in the same room.

One final interesting point raised is whether women, in that age, had more or less privacy than men. Less, in that there was very strong disapproval of their going out in the open to be on their own. Widgongel wif word geriseth, says the Old English poem reprovingly – ‘a gadabout woman causes talk.’ More, in that if they stayed in their own houses they might (if noble) have a gynaeceum for women only in which in male belief they did all sorts: talked obscenely, plucked their eyebrows, cut dogs’ ears off to make magic with the tips – or, more likely, got on with their spinning and stared out of the window wondering if there was any way to escape. ‘“Women” are not a good subject for history,’ says Dominique Barthélemy austerely. They came from too many classes and occupied too many roles to be lumped together. Nevertheless privacy and femininity do seem to go together historically: women were more likely to be shut away.

A History of Private Life is an excellent work in that it makes you rethink many old and familiar scenes. It is also much of the time an appalling or disorientating one, a sure antidote for those critics, Chestertonian or Robertsonian, who would have us believe that everything went better in the Middle Ages when people knew their place. They knew their place all right! It was the strip of plank nearest the draught and they didn’t have another one. As for whether social life (as opposed to living conditions) was then better or worse, say for a rich bourgeois, it remains hard to judge. Jean le Monnier and his wife set up a deal with their son Tassin in 1409 by which they gave up all their possessions in exchange for what we would now call a ‘granny flat’. Every detail of the deal was recorded, instead of being left vaguely to private, precarious good feeling: every Sunday, for instance, they got a pâté costing five deniers tournois, and every time dinner was served Tassin had to invite his father personally, repeating the words ‘Monsieur, come and be seated.’ ‘Good fences make good neighbours’: how many old fathers and mothers now get a fair deal from unsupported private emotion?