Medieval Apocalyptica

My wife and I have been watching apocalyptic movies lately.  Last week it was Planet of the Apes (speaking of which, check out this great post over on Medieval Meets World). This week it is The Omega Man.

I don't know what exactly prompted this apocalyptic interest.  Probably it was the proliferation in culture of apocalyptic talk, related to the whole 2012 Mayan prediction thing.  But regardless, of where the interest came from, it got me thinking about medieval apocalyptica.  Now obviously theologically-minded or -oriented medieval writers wrote about the literal Apocalypse.  Here is a book about it.  But just like we do today, medieval folks told stories about all kinds of things.  The Middle Ages encompasses a very very long time (most folks think of it as about 500-1500 CE), and during that time there were certainly moments of intense cultural anxiety about the end of the world--moments of at least as much cultural attention as 2012 has for us.  So is there any medieval apocalyptic fiction? When medieval writers told stories about the end of the world, what did those stories look like?

Something like this?

My central scholarly interest is Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, which is a very late medieval work (from about 1485).  Because I already spend a lot of time thinking about the Morte Darthur, it is the first thing I think of now, too.  The Morte definitely has apocalyptic overtones.  For the characters within the artistic frame, the death of Arthur and the fall of the Round Table are very much like the end of the world.  The fellowship dissolves, and all of the knights end the story either dead or in a hermitage, in retreat from the world.  In its way this is as apocalyptic as any movie like Planet of the Apes.  Malory spends most of his time constructing this world, but his story has always been inexorably1 leading toward this end. The title of the book, after all, is Le Morte Darthur2. It is, from the very beginning, from even before Malory relates Arthur's conception, about Arthur's death. It is about the end of a world.

100 years earlier, Gower's Confessio Amantis, which was written basically at the same time as and which shares much in common with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales3, including several of the stories, is4not a particularly apocalyptic text in and of itself. It's the story of a worshiper of Venus making his confession. The priest (of Venus) to whom he is confessing preaches to Amans, and tells him a series of stories about the 7 deadly sins5. The stories themselves, as I have said, are not particularly apocalyptic. But Gower's prologue, in which he retells and interprets the story of Nebuchadnezzar's dream. The dream is of a statue with a head of gold, arms of silver, a torso of brass, legs of steel, and feet of steel mixed with clay. Daniel6 interprets the dream as a prophesy of ages to come. Each empire is followed by a weaker one, until the last--the feet of clay--which brings the whole statue down. Gower is quite sure that his day is the day of the feet of clay.

200 years7 before that, Beowulf is as apocalyptic as any monster movie of today. The first two parts of Beowulf, in which king Hrothgar and his Danes are being attacked in the night first by a monster named Grendel, who comes out of the darkness and carries away the men one-by-one and then by Grendel's lake-monster mother, are perhaps better described as "near-apocalyptic", since the hero Beowulf successfully prevents the end of the world8. The third part, in which Beowulf is himself killed while fighting and killing a dragon, is apocalyptic in almost exactly the same sense as the Morte Darthur is9.  Beowulf dies and with him dies his world.
This isn't, by the way, just a case of pathetic fallacy like the Fisher-King, wherein the land suffers with the king. Beowulf the king was Beowulf the warrior--strong and famous enough to protect his people not only from monsters but also from warring nations. Without him, they are left vulnerable.

"swylce giómorgyd Géatisc ánméowle
Bíowulfe brægd bundenheorde
sang sorgcearig· saélðe geneahhe
þæt hío hyre hearmdagas hearde ondréde
wælfylla worn werudes egesan
hýðo ond hæftnýd." (Beowulf, lines 3150-3155)

A rough paraphrase of the above:

"A Geatish woman sang a lament for Beowulf because she was afraid of the very bad stuff that was coming."10

So there you have it. A rough and dirty look at some highlights of apocalyptic fiction from the Middle Ages. Concern about the end of the world is, unsurprisingly, a very old thing. It makes sense. We all live at the very end of time.


1 Well ... not exactly. Not necessarily. Some critics have argued that Malory didn't write one story, he wrote a collection of stories that don't necessarily lead to one another. But those critics were wrong.
2 It's not at all clear that Malory himself intended the book to be entitled Le Morte Darthur. More likely it was his publisher, William Caxton, who gave it that title. But still.
3 The Confessio Amantis was actually dedicated to Chaucer, and the two were friends. Or at least they knew each other well. If you believe Chaucer's blog, then "friends" doesn't exactly seem like the right term"
4Sorry about that. I have a bad habit of separating the subject from the verb. I do the same thing in speech. It drives my wife bonkers.
5Except for "lust", which obviously isn't a sin against Venus. Gower substitutes "incest". Because that is a reasonable substitution to make.
6Of the Bible, in case that wasn't clear to anyone.
7Or so. Maybe as much as 800 years, really.
8Or the end of Heorot. Whatever.
9Except, of course, that it was written way before the Morte was. So really the Morte is like Beowulf.
10I said it was rough.

On Studying the Middle Ages

Why would anyone study medieval literature?

If you go into an average University here in North America, and go to the English department, and start asking around about people's focii I think you are likely to find that about 90% of English PhDs are focused on the 20th century or later.  There are good reasons for this, really.

More current stuff feels more relevant.  People, from the grad students to the professors teaching them to the hiring boards who will eventually give them jobs (they hope) to the people who will give them grants (they hope) all tend to feel that more contemporary literature is more relevant.  Toni Morrison writes a novel about the long-term effects of slavery upon America, that just feels like it should matter more to Americans (especially African-Americans) than a 500 year old book about some dudes with armor riding around in England does.

Because contemporary literature comes from the same cultural experience as those studying it do, it is more accessible.  That doesn't mean that people who study contemporary literature are lazy, but it does mean that they often expend almost no mental energy trying to understand the surface level of the text, which means they can focus their energy on reading more deeply--however they want to do that.  By contrast, Middle English is not instantly accessible, even for people who read the language fluently, because the culture is foreign to us.  So we need to first decipher the language, and then interpret the contextual clues that aren't necessarily obvious to us anymore, and only then can we understand the most literal level of the text.  If I want to understand the representation of the interaction between sacred and secular in the Morte Darthur, then I need to understand what was going on in the church of England in the fifteenth century, and probably also in the fourteenth century.  Just like I can't understand Toni Morrison if I've never heard of slavery in America, I can't understand Le Morte Darthur if I've never heard of the War of the Roses.  But I've probably heard of one and not the other before I even start reading.

But I like that medieval literature tends to be very familiar to a post-modern sensibility.  Chaucer was almost always meta-textual, for example.  And then I just plain prefer theologically-tinted books about violence to sexually-tinted books about colonialism (Victorian) or psychologically-tinted books about the the individual (Modern).  I also like correcting my own and other people's misconceptions about a huge swath of (literary) history. The Middle Ages suffer from what is frankly insulting negative stereotyping.  Even the name "Middle Ages" is obviously dismissive.  This isn't a new insight by any means, but it's worth saying again.  The Middle Ages are called "Middle" because they are conceived of as a low-point between the two high-points of antiquity on one side and modernity on the other.  It is a 1000 year lull.  Partly that's because early Modern folks in the Renaissance defined themselves as not-medieval.  Victorians even took to referring to the whole period as the "Dark Ages", originally because there was a lack of documentary evidence about the time, making it "dark" or obscure to historians.  Eventually (pretty quickly) the metaphor became richer, and the "Dark Ages" were understood to be backward, ignorant, barren of thought and art; a cultural desert.

Have you ever seen a documentary where they interview a scientist who specializes in deserts? Or even talked to one in real life?  The poor scientist usually comes off as a bit defensive and often says stuff like "People think of the desert as lifeless.  But it's a rich ecosystem."  That is how medievalists feel about the Middle Ages.  It was a rich ecosystem.  And "Middle Ages" covers so much that it seems absurd to lump it all together.  England circa 500 CE is just not the same as Italy of 1450, though both are "the Middle Ages". 

I'm getting off topic.  Why study the middle ages?

Because it's awesome.

Incipit Liber Primus

Well hi there.

I have decided that having four defunct blogs is not enough defunct blogs.

This is where I will ramble, rant, rave, ruminate, and (I need another R. Think quick.) review on medieval topics.  This might include thoughts on my thesis topic that won't ever make it into my real thesis, accounts of my triumphs or struggles in trying to finally learn Latin (which is kind of a must for a medievalist) or it might include any number of other medievally miscellany.