Je sui uns hom

Tom Shippey

  • Medieval Civilisation 400-1500 by Jacques Le Goff, translated by Julia Barrow
    Blackwell, 393 pp, £19.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 631 15512 0
  • The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages. Vol. I: 350-950 edited by Robert Fossier, translated by Janet Sondheimer
    Cambridge, 556 pp, £30.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 521 26644 0
  • The Medieval Imagination by Jacques Le Goff, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
    Chicago, 293 pp, £21.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 226 47084 9
  • Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages by Georges Vigarello, translated by Jean Birrell
    Cambridge/Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 239 pp, £25.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 521 34248 1
  • Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas and Power by Jesse Byock
    California, 264 pp, $32.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 520 05420 2

Very good, Mr Hardy. Excellent poetry, especially in a time of the breaking of nations (1915). One of time’s universals. ‘War’s annals will cloud into night/Ere their story die.’ But what if you haven’t invented the harrow yet? Or indeed the collar for harnessing horses? The former is not seen till the Bayeux Tapestry; the date of the latter is much debated, but is definitely a Medieval, not an antique invention. So before perhaps the year 1000 you had to go round and break up the clods after ploughing by hand, maybe with a wooden spade. In those circumstances the oldest horse and the rustiest harrow must have seemed positively glamorous.

It is reflections like these which spring from the pages of Jacques Le Goff’s Medieval Civilisation. The whole book turns on a fascinating blend of the brutally materialistic and the generously imaginative. The Medieval world did not know how to keep wine, Le Goff points out. It was the French habit to smear the inside of the wine barrels with pitch before filling them up. The French said this gave the wine colour; unaccustomed foreigners were often sick. Meanwhile the English had a liturgical formula to say over beer barrels which had had small animals drowned in them (it is not recorded whether the animals were taken out first). Pitch in the wine; weasels in the beer; ergot in the rye; inability to grasp the idea of interest (which meant low capital investment); and people like the abbot of Burton, who told his peasants that they owned nothing, nothing of their own, nihil praeter ventrem, ‘nothing except their bellies’. If you read Medieval Civilisation in some moods, it sounds as if ‘civilisation’ is ironic; it’s also a wonder that the Middle Ages ever managed to reach any kind of economic or demographic ‘lift-off’.

Yet Le Goff is also very quick to point out the Medieval break-throughs: harrows, for instance, but also blast-furnaces, the crank, power-tools, the mill-technology which enabled one stream running through the Abbey of Clairvaux to grind the wheat, drive the fuller’s hammers, soften shoe-leather, filter, rotate, spray, wash and finally clean out the monastic sewers. ‘How many horses would be exhausted, how many men would tire their arms’ without the river, exclaims a monk-poet. The materialism of technology has at least something to do with such traditional themes as ‘the emergence of the individual’; just as the overall ‘technical poverty and stagnation’ of the Medieval West was in the last resort conditioned, according to Le Goff, by ‘the framework of society and thought’. Frequently one feels, reading through his immensely wide-ranging book, that some detail or other could be challenged. It is hard to believe, for instance, that bread with your meals, the companagium, only became common in the 12th century, and that only then did bread take on its ‘almost mythical significance’. Pre-Conquest English sources indicate that bread with no butter, cheese or broth was one of the familiar trials of life, while the ‘Solomon and Saturn’ poem treats dropping bread on the floor almost as a blasphemy, at least as something requiring minor ritual exorcism. But there are always more details. And the broad sweep of the whole is wonderfully stimulating. This is real history, you feel: never a battle nor a regnal date in it.

Still, Medieval Civilisation is an old book now. It came out in French in 1964, taking a quarter of a century to reach translation. What, one may wonder, have the French been up to meanwhile? One answer comes from Volume One of The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages, also a translation from the originals of Michel Rouche, Evelyne Patlagean and others. This, too, is a most engaging volume, with particularly brilliant and unfamiliar illustrations: the Roman officer’s cavalry helmet found in a peat-bog, together with a purse and coins dating ‘the accident’ to 319-20 (but if it was an accident, why did no one pick up his purse?); the throne of Dagobert, amazingly preserved; the votive crown of the Gothic king Reccesuinth, dug up in Spain in 1856. Le Goff’s liking for the telling detail is also well kept-up, in the matter of words and of things. I never knew that German vogt, ‘governor’, came from advocatus, and meant an ecclesiastic’s military deputy (so, all too soon, a hatchet-man), nor that hospitalitas was once a form of tax; my respect for the Frisians is increased even more by the suggestion that they, followed closely by the Anglo-Saxons, broke open one bottleneck by getting the Western world off the gold standard and onto the handier silver currency of the sceatta or denier.

The themes of the Illustrated History are, however, different from Medieval Civilisation, and more familiar. Michel Rouche especially is strongly pro-Medieval, even pro-barbarian, anti-Roman and anti-antique. He sees the Late Empire as a corpse, needing only ‘autopsy’; after it, there is ‘metamorphosis’, then ‘first gains’. The Carolingian Empire, he argues, was in every way stronger, richer, even happier, than its Roman predecessor. Its true competitor and comparison was the empire of Islam – to which this book devotes welcome and unusual space.

Fossier’s collection is, in short, an excellent guide (or perhaps rather a companion): but it does not have that ‘common-man’ perspective which did so much for Medieval Civilisation. What has happened to the history of familiar things? Here Le Goff’s much later book, The Medieval Imagination (French publication 1985), shows clear progression. It is, the author says, a work of ‘historical political anthropology, a new discipline whose content is still being defined’. It is overtly anthropological, with one essay on ‘Lévi-Strauss in Broceliande’, another on ‘Vestimentary and Alimentary Codes’, and others on gestures, time, dreams, the image of the city, etc. All too often, one has to say, it shows the effect of a familiar phenomenon: the senior professor with no time at all to develop an idea, probably because he is writing an analysis of his department’s research productivity. Haven’t been able to do armour as well as clothes, he apologises, that would need ‘a more comprehensive and ambitious study’, the analysis of action words in ‘Saint Patrick’s Purgatory’ is only on Chapters Six through Fifteen, I’d like to do the Proppian functions of ‘Meier Helmbrecht’, but ... More hares are set running than are ever caught.

Just the same, the flow of ideas is as prolific as ever, their application dead easy. How calmly ‘the marvellous’ is treated in Medieval texts, Le Goff remarks; and one thinks of the exemplum Chaucer read (surely feeling exactly the same as Le Goff), where the rusticus meets a devil, who remarks, Ego sum daemon, with very little more effect on the story than if he had said: Ego sum advocatus. Chaucer had to invent ‘The Friar’s Tale’ to explain that one, but at least the phenomenon is there. In the same way, when Le Goff broods on ‘the alimentary code’ of Erec et Enide, with its insistence on cloths and napkins and civilised food (even in the dangerous forest), one can hardly avoid thinking of the Gawain-poet’s poem ‘Cleanness’, with its obsession with clean clothes and hand-washing, and its determined statement (taken seriously by only one or two modern critics) that bad manners cause more resentment in God than poor morals.

Why are these ‘codes’ (of clothes, table-manners, polite behaviour) taken so seriously? Here Le Goff has, perhaps, been a little seduced by fashion. He has a habit of stopping when he has reached a Lévi-Straussian point, with a cry, so to speak, of ‘there you are!’ One would like him to push on. It is surely critical in Chrétien’s Yvain that the hero runs wild and becomes a raw-meat-eater, to be reclaimed by a chance gift of bread, awful bread, mostly bran and straw, but civilised food just the same. But what did Chrétien think of this, never mind Lévi-Strauss? It is tempting to see the story in terms of class evolution: at the bottom, even the wild churl of the forest wearing his bulls’ hides and carrying his club can say, when he’s asked, je sui uns hom – but that doesn’t mean much. Much more significant is the reply given to the churl by Calogrenant, or by the questing knight to the innocent Perceval: jo suis uns chevaliers. Chrétien, surely, is interested in how you get to a chevaliers from the rather unpromising state of hom. Le Goff is reluctant to go so far, or else only hints at what could be said. The clash of father and son in ‘Meier Helmbrecht’ – so interesting as a text on how (not) to rise in society – may coincide with ‘a structural and cultural crisis’, he remarks, but without saying which one. The non-clerical invention of the clock, he says, lost the Church control over time, to be compensated by ‘the acquisition of power over time ... in Purgatory’: but he doesn’t say if clocks and Purgatory have ever previously been brought together. Perhaps significantly, he discusses the forest wilderness of Europe in The Medieval Imagination as an image of nature against culture: in The Medieval Civilisation it was a place where you kept pigs.

Revenons à nos cochons – as also, à nos chemises. ‘Vestimentary codes’ are in many ways illuminated by Georges Vigarello’s Concepts of Cleanliness, a work predictably full of horror. The bidet was not invented till the early 18th century, but when it was, some French ladies at least received visitors while making vigorous use of the new utensil. Other people, at much the same time, might have no bidet and precious little in the way of washing facilities, but still be rich enough to own sixty shirts. Yet even that was after the revolution in taste which declared that clean linen (if not clean skin) was important. During much of the Middle Ages, according to Vigarello, the man with two, or worse still several shirts was just being needlessly luxurious; if your shirt got dirty (in some accounts), you waited till summer came and then you took it off and washed it. As for bathing, when an emissary from King Henri IV found his minister Sully having a bath, in 1610, and reported this to the King, the King, in great alarm, ordered Sully to stay at home and not stir out of his nightshirt and slippers for at least two days.

It took a long time for water to be regarded as morally and medically safe, argues Vigarello: clean clothes, especially shirts, were much more important symbolically than hygienically. It is hard not to agree with the thesis, and once it is granted, other thoughts stir. Shirts seem more important symbolically than practically in Icelandic saga, for instance (with which Vigarello has nothing to do). In Laxdaela Saga a man is divorced for having one cut so low it showed his nipples: he broke a law, more even than a code. When Asgerd in Gisla Saga asks her sister-in-law, Aud, to cut out a shirt for her husband, Aud (and Asgerd’s husband, who is listening) takes it more or less as a confession of adultery. Shirts, it seems, are connubial. It is a woman’s job to make them for her man, and if she does not like him she either will not do it, or else will do it in such a way as to expose him to ridicule. What is the male counter-sanction? Nothing very clear in Icelandic, perhaps, but in the romances treated by Le Goff one might note the particular insistence on Erec’s future wife Enide wearing tattered clothes to Camelot (so she can be dressed formally for marriage); and divided opinions thereafter on whether husbandly suspicions should lead to withdrawal of the right to fine clothes (Welsh version) or angry and pointed reaffirmation of it (French version). Perhaps husbands even now might make their point in one way or the other.

There is something to be said, though, for the theory that Medieval Iceland was a kind of pure-environment anthropological laboratory. As Jesse Byock points out, it was a country that ought to have been a Utopia. It had: no foreign policy, no defence forces, no king, no lords, no peasants, no dispossessed aborigines, no battles (till late on), no dangerous animals, and no very clear taxes. What, given this blank slate, could possibly go wrong? Why is their literature all about killing each other? The answers lie, says Byock, in ‘the underlying structures and cultural codes’ of the island’s social order.

His main interest centres on the relationship between gothi (or chieftain) and bondi (or farmer). It was an unusual relationship in European terms in that the gothi had absolutely no right to the bondi’s land. Nor did the bondi have to stick with the gothi if he didn’t like him – he could change allegiance (there was, strictly speaking, no such thing as allegiance). Having pointed this situation out, Byock then asks a series of brutal questions, on the whole not asked by decorous students of literature. What was the point of being a gothi? Was there any money in it? If there wasn’t, how did it happen in the end that an elementary democracy – all free men could go to the thing – turned into yet another shabby squirearchy? The answers, he suggests, lie in the sagas: works of fiction, admittedly, but not fictional about those issues.

Byock’s dissection of selected sagas gives a schema (as one might expect from Iceland) which is unusually neat without being incapable of complexity. The fact is that you could get rich by being a gothi: not by levying old taxes like thingfararkaup (tax for going to the thing), because the gothi did have to go to the thing, and take his supporting ‘heavies’, and pay their expenses. Once the island became Christian, though, you could make a profit by building a church and collecting tithes (priests came cheap). And you could make occasional heavy profits by taking over a bondi’s land, in return for maintenance and protection, if he got caught in a dangerous lawsuit or feud. It was in the gothi’s interests to see his bondi in trouble. But what if he failed to get his bondi out of trouble, or if the other baendr noticed what a high price they were paying? They would, of course, desert, or threaten to. And a gothi with no supporters would soon be vulnerable to anything including armed attack (as in the case of Hrafnkell the Freysgothi, robbed and mutilated without the countryside raising a finger).

A gothi had to have a strategy. The most fascinating parts of Byock’s book discuss the ways in which saga characters operate within a system of checks and balances to gain their ends. Supporters may be detached one by one. Ambitious men may edge up on the good hayfields, the islands for seal-hunting, one cautious step at a time. Sometimes the gothi’s target is his own men, sometimes those of another gothi. Sometimes the baendr warn, or needle, their own gothi into action. Across the whole field run the uncertain factors of vinfengi, or making friends, popularity, public opinion, or simple size and strength. Njall in his saga was only a bondi, but he had many friends and much wisdom: also a clutch of fierce and warlike sons. Not a target, then, even for an ambitious gothi. In 1185 Einarr Thorgilsson found that even a widow should not be pushed too far: as he rounds up her livestock in payment of a claim, she grabs his cloak and her two young sons, nobodies with no money or power, wound him mortally. Everywhere else in Europe they would all have swung on a gibbet. In Iceland they got off with losing their farm; but Einarr didn’t get it (they’d lost it already) – the gothar in general must have reflected that you could push people too far.

A balanced system, Byock concludes, with sanctions and counters on both sides. No doubt this is more widely true than it appears, but it takes the stripped-down, no-external-factors state of Iceland to permit a laboratory demonstration. The analysis of ‘cultural codes’ is in any case alive and well, and flourishing in Medieval studies. Harrows and forests, loaves, shirts and taxes: they all carry a meaning, to the alerted eye.