The Long Middle Ages

Depending on who you ask, the Middle Ages began in the 5th century (many people date the beginning at the sack of Rome in 400 CE) and ended in the 15th century (many people date the end at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation; the German reformation began in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenburg door).  That's about 1000 years of Medievality.

Now it should be obvious, no matter what you know or don't know about the Middle Ages, or about history in general, that life in 400 was not the same as life in 1517.

In the field of English literature, in the very beginning of the medieval period it did not exist.  One of the earliest example of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) is Caedmon's Hymn, from the mid 7th century.
nu scylun hergan   hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti   end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur   swe he uundra gihwaes
eci dryctin   or astelidæ
he aerist scop   aelda barnum
heben til hrofe   haleg scepen.
tha middungeard   moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin   æfter tiadæ
firum foldu   frea allmectig
 This is, as I'm sure you can tell, virtually unrecognizable to a contemporary English speaker.

Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, from the end of the 15th century, is also medieval literature, and though it is very late-medieval, I don't know of anyone who would categorize Malory as anything but a medieval writer.  But his writing is much closer to what we read now.  Here is a passage wherein Malory complains about the fickleness of the English, as they rebel against King Arthur:

Lo, ye, all Englysshemen, se ye nat what a myschyff here was? For he that was the moste kynge and nobelyst knyght of the worlde, and moste loved the felyshyp of noble knyghtes--and by hym they all were upholdyn--and yet myght nat thes Englyshemen holde them contente with hym. Lo, tus was the olde custom and usayges of thys londe; and men say that we of thys londe have nat yet loste that custom.  Alas, thys ys a greate defaughte of us Englyshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme. And so fared the peple at that tyme.
Now Malory would not have had an easier time of reading Caedmon than we do.  He did read older English than his own, but it would have been practically a foreign language to him, as it is to us.

For comparison's sake, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis was written and published only a little more than 100 years after Malory.
Even as the sun with purple-colour'd face
Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn,
Rose-cheek'd Adonis tried him to the chase;
Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to scorn;
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,
And like a bold-fac'd suitor 'gins to woo him.
Nobody characterizes Shakespeare as a medieval writer (nor should they), yet  he lived so near in time to Malory that an unusually long-lived-person may have met both.

Because of the way most academic departments think about history, I, who am studying Malory and Spenser, am catagorized as a medievalist, and so is my advisor, who studies Beowulf.  I'm not complaining about him or about my department--my advisor is a great scholar and editor who is certainly helping me craft a better thesis.  In fact I'm not complaining at all.  But to say that because someone has specialized in Beowulf is in the same era as someone who is specializing in Malory is like saying that someone who specialized in Shakespeare is in the same era as someone specializing in Toni Morrison.

And I don't have any idea why Toni Morrison is always my go-to example of contemporary literature.  But she is very popular this century.

My only point, really, is that the Middle Ages were very very long.

No comments:

Post a Comment