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Class, and Religious, Warfare

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Sometimes I think it’s my mission in life to make modern Americans–and, you know, others–understand that the Middle Ages was not a time when everything was religious.

It wasn’t even close to such a time. 

If you’re looking for societies obsessed with religion, and in which religion became virtually the only focal point of existence, you have to go forward several hundred years to the Reformation.

But the Middle Ages, and especially the High and Late Middle Ages, was a very practical and pragmatic period, especially in the English-speaking world (I’m throwing Scotland in here).  Universities in the Reformation and the Counterreformation were entirely tangled up in religion.  Universities in the Middle Ages–and it was the Middle Ages that invented them–although they included scholars in theology, were far more concerned with training doctors, lawyers, and “clerks,” meaning people who could read and write Latin well enough to compose court documents and correspond with the international community.

I also wouldn’t put too strong an emphasis on “a literate upper class” and “an illiterate lower class.”

Although it’s true enough that the lowest classes of society were illiterate, so were many members of the upper classes.  It isn’t until we get well into the Middle Ages that we find aristocrats automatically assuming it was necessary to learn to read and write.  Charlemagne never did learn, and he wasn’t the only one.  That was what you hired clerks to do.

It was the middle class–specifically, the professional middle class–who knew how to read and write, and they learned for the same reason their counterparts today go to Harvard Business and Yale Law–because it represented a marketable skill.

Nor were such people–or the aristocracy who hired them–likely to speak French in England much past the days of William the Conqueror.  By the time you get to Henry II–a thorough Plantagenet, unless I’m forgetting this completely–the English aristocracy spoke English, and all the documents that have come down to us, plus all the books written in the vernacular, were also in English. 

To the extent that there was an issue with the upper class use of a different language than the vernacular spoken by the common people, it was in the use of Latin.  But Latin wasn’t spoken by aristocrats in preference to the native tongue.  It was the official language of the Church, of scholarship and of international relations.  It was not the language of poetry, music or song, even for the aristocracy–who often couldn’t speak or write it anyway.

Nor do I think that the “literate upper classes” somehow deliberately supressed “lower class” literature or art.  Analyses of that kind tend to rest on modern assumptions about “power relations” that have very little to do with the reality of the Middle Ages.

For one thing, upper and lower classes–and that professional middle class again, a very important element in England–shared quite a lot of that culture.  Mursery rhymes, for instance, would have been known at all levels of society, and would have the Arthurian legends, the fairy tales and the basic folk stories.

The problem is that anything that was known largely to people who were illiterate is unlikely to have been written down by anybody.  If the people who can read and write don’t know about the work in question, they can’t write it down.  If the people who know about the work can’t read and write, they can’t write it down either.  The result is a work that is likely to get lost as the social structures that maintained the oral tradition of which it was a part began to break down.

But it’s also important to remember that most of this culture was religious only in a nominal sense.   The idea that the Middle Ages were a benighted period in which the Church controlled everything and held back science and art by an insistance on doctrinal orthodoxy is a complete fiction. 

Of the works of the period that have come down to us, only a very few are religious in nature.  Many are histories, with history being practiced as it was for the ancients–as a kind of more-or-less fact-based docudrama sort of thing.  And the single most famous work of literature of the period–Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales–although it uses a religious occasion as its framework, is largely secular in content.

Actually, even the religious framework is at least somewhat secular–you get the impression that the pilgrims on Chaucer’s

Written by janeh

November 18th, 2009 at 7:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Class, and Religious, Warfare'

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  1. Henry II was certainly a Plantagenet–indeed his father was the one who wore the planta genet as a symbol. But I wouldn’t count out French so soon. Court records–that is criminal courts–are still in something known as “law court French” for centuries. Family mottoes–and the Garter motto, not founded until the mid-14th Century–are exclusively in French.

    As for vernacular literature, I could be wrong–my Arthurian material is in storage–but I remember Geoffrey of Monmouth as writing in French. You had to get as late as Mallory at the end of the Wars of the Roses to get the major Arthurian stories in English

    It’s the prestige language for a very long time. All of Henry’s sons spoke better French than English, and it didn’t stop there. There is a reason we raise sheep and eat mutton, feed kine and eat beef and keep swine but eat pork. English-speaking people raised animals. French-speaking people ate them, and it echoes through the culture to the present.

    There’s a reason Tess Derbyfield becomes Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and why people mock Target by pronouncing the store name tarZHAY.

    Iliterate aristocracy are probably gone–well, reduced to our present rates, anyway–by Henry II’s time, which is, admitedly, “well into the Middle Ages” but still earlier than morality plays.

    But you don’t need literacy to appreciate plays or poetry–Sophocles and Homer any more than Shakespeare.

    And quite right about the fragility of an oral culture, though a literate one has its own vulnerabilities. Anyway, that was why I suggested ballads–an oral tradition written down late.

    Much like Homer.


    18 Nov 09 at 5:59 pm

  2. On the overall state of religion and law in the period, the interested party might wish to check the foundation dates of the various religious orders and cathedrals–and of the various universities. The derivation of the word “clerk” might also prove illuminating.

    Many things caught people’s interest besides religion–and would during the Renaissance adn Reformation, too. But let’s not get carried away.


    18 Nov 09 at 7:25 pm

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