Thursday, August 27, 2009

Medieval attitudes and their depiction in -- or absence from -- historical novels

Over at Magistra et Mater:

My post on historical novels (and the responses to it) have got me thinking a bit more about the difference between modern and medieval mentalities, or rather, the differences that historical novelists need to contemplate and possibly find ways to express. This is my first attempt to say what I think the most important differences to note are (please join in with your own suggestions in the comments). I also want to suggest some possible mental exercises/thought experiments to help both historians and novelists contemplate these differences

1) An acceptance of hierarchy, injustice and inequality.
This is often a difficult ‘modern’ concept to unthink: how could people accept the subordination and oppression of peasants, slaves, women, etc? I find memories of childhood (the more traditional the better) useful here (and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that children’s historical novels often stand up better than adult ones). You have to do what you are told, however unfair it might seem, because you are a child and ‘they’ are adults and that’s just how it is. And most children don’t spend most of their time raging against this, both because they don’t know that things could be different, and because there is no conceivable way to change the system. Instead, they spend any spare mental energy working out how to get along in this unfair system, or how to cheat it without getting caught, or dreaming about a better world, or waiting for something to change, or just enjoying whatever good bits there are. Transfer that to the medieval subordinated adult, and that seems to me a basic template for how you might react to a society that is biased against you. Most of the time, most of the oppressed don’t rebel: that’s a basic historical fact.

Lots more good stuff here!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are right, I have long concluded that while 19th C historical novels are often slack where it comes to facts, they are closer to the psychology and faith of the middle ages since theirs was still an unequal society and a religious one.

I would add to your general comment about quality the 21st century assumption that "true" love can only exist between equals. Mediaeval people would have been bewildered and incredulous of such an assumption. Most of the love relationships in the Middle Ages were between very UNequal partners: King and subject; lord and vassal; husband and wife; parent and child; master/mistress and servant; religious and superior and MOST IMPORTANTLY, between (wo)man and God. The "fun" of amour courtoise was that it inverted the cultual norm - and the norm must ahve been very strong to have contained such an inversion. It was, after all, a game for the leisured classes.

Finally, it has to be admitted that the average mediaeval man or woman would probably have understood the Islamic fundamentalists for better than we do, although they would probably have hated them even more thoroughly from the standpoint of their own faith!!

6:05 PM  

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