M-Cult-th-Lit-art - 9/18/08
"Viewing Medieval Culture Through Literature" by Ban-Fili Cailte Caitchairn, O.L.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
This article was first published in the September and October issues of the "Baronial Shaft" the newsletter for the Barony of al-Barran, Outlands.
Viewing Medieval Culture Through Literature
by Ban-Fili Cailte Caitchairn, O.L.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." He also said "There are no facts, only interpretations." History is the story of conflict and reaction. The conflict cannot be predicted, and therefore preparation is not possible. Conflict can only be met by reaction, and the reaction forms the outcome. Those who survive the conflict, by whatever means, are the winners, and the winners will write their story.
Literature such as chronicles, sagas and poetry are all ways for a culture to tell their story. There is a personal depth that, although not missing from other art forms, allows an ease of movement through time and place. An educated man may read these stories for himself. An illiterate man can hear the story as it is told by a storyteller or traveler, who may himself have learned it by rote from another. Even today, people will hear what is going on in another country before all of those same people see the same picture of it. The old axiom is true, good news spreads fast and bad news faster.
Words travel with an ease that physical items cannot. For example, if a person in medieval Sicily wanted to know what the gem-encrusted Insular Gospels looked like, the books could not come to his town as a traveling exhibit. He would have to take a very long trip indeed to visit Iona or Jarrow. The Pictish carved stones were not coming to a location near him at any future time so that he could see what they looked like. If someone were to write a description, then the curious Sicilian might have some notion of how the stones looked. If someone wrote an extremely detailed description of the stones, glorifying each curve and texture in minute detail, he would have an even better idea of their appearance.
Poetry and sagas present a culture in an accessible and exciting way. They capture not only the events of the time, but the climate as well. Who is the ruler? Is the story being told by a scholar or member of the court, by a Catholic or pagan? How is honor seen by the Anglo Saxons that differs from the Irish? Is the young adventurer an idiot or a hero? Stories relating how a culture presents its values, hopes and traditions are far more telling than carvings or metalsmithing.
A comparison of Beowulf and the Prose Edda shows a number of similarities. Kingly gifts of golden rings, rewards for devotion, bravery and honor are prevalent in both. This is a time of conquest and bravery, when Christianity is waging its own battle against the pagan ways, not unlike Beowulf and Grendel. The tone of Beowulf, with its invocations to God the Father to strengthen the hero in his fight against the mythical monsters, speaks of this battle between Christianity and paganism. In the end, Beowulf wins his fight, as does Christianity. A sculpture or picture cannot convey honor, bravery or virtue the way that words can.
There is a flaw in the use of literature to relate culture and history. Dates are not often mentioned, at least not in story, poem or song. The reader is often left with lineages, "centuries ago", and the sci-fi "distant galaxy far, far away" concept to conjecture time and place. The Vinland Sagas tell the story of the Vikings in America. However, depending on which story is read, the tale may only be half-told. The Graenlandiging Saga is rich with detail, creating a palpable, physical world. Eirik's Saga is sparse, relating events with little drama. The conflicts are the same, but the interpretations differ. Certainly the more elaborate tale would be more popular around the feast hall, but the simpler one may be the better accounting of events, even with vague references to time and place.
There is a carving on the Ruthwell Cross that some interpret as Mary and Elizabeth in a scene of the Visitation. However, the lettering around the figures shows the names Mary and Martha. The explanation is that it is probably Mary and Elizabeth, and the legend refers to the feast day of St. Martha. Unfortunately, the carver did not title that (or any other) section, but left it to the common knowledge to know what it said. This would be word of mouth from the practitioners. Once again, the spoken word appears more reliable than the object.
The representation of Christ and the Evangelists varies greatly in the Insular Gospels. Let us suppose that a researcher wishes to use the illuminations in several of the Gospels to define the clothing of Ireland, England and Scotland in that era. The Lindesfarne Gospels have reasonably realistic figures wearing plain robes trimmed at the edges. The Book of Kells shows more stylistic figures, with great, looming eyes fixed, no doubt, on a Heaven far away. They wear heavily patterned and decorated robes with wide borders. The Book of Chad shows an evangelist so swathed in stylistic folds of a plain robe that the modern mind is reminded of the Ezrine Tire Man. Which is the correct representation of the Insular way of dress? The answer is that perhaps it is not even Insular at all. It is an interpretation of how Hebrews would dress, and therefore not indicative of clothing of the area. Once again, interpretation comes into play.
This begs another look at interpretation rather than facts. Paint chips, rock crumbles, silk fades. How is the researcher to know if the item looks as it was meant to look centuries ago. On a personal note, I have listened to incredibly involved conversations regarding whether pink was on the medieval painters' or dyers' palette. The dress in an illumination appears to be pink, but is that a result of a particular red pigment that has faded, or was the painting of a faded red dress, or did the dyer indeed achieve pink and the illuminator represent it correctly? Three interpretations exist but no facts. The answer in this complicated question in the end was yes to all three options.
This leads to an interesting approach we have not addressed and that is immersion. There are a great number of groups who research various eras in history and try to recreate what was made at that time. Some recreate the Battle of Hastings, others the Civil War, and others Viking homesteads. A number of books survive on the way things were made in past centuries. A modern painter can use the same formula to make paint and gesso found in The Craftsman's Handbook: "Il Libro dell' Arte" by Cennino d'Andrea Cennini, circa 1370 to 1440, and experience creation in another century first hand. Yet in the end, we are left with the interpretation of what the color should look like, based upon primary sources that may or may not have faded over time.
Literature, sagas, stories and poems are written down and told throughout the centuries. They are not stagnant. But like the paint on paper, the embroidery on the cloth and the carvings on the rocks, they do not remain unchanged. The popularity of the tale of one battle may lead to even more embellishment on the part of the writer. It is only human nature to paint the good benefactor in a golden light and the evil king as a monster. Enhancing the bravery of a victorious army may make other invaders think twice before engaging them in battle. Survival is the ultimate, at any cost.
In the end, no form of interpretation or investigation is truly accurate of the way a culture lived. We are left with a giant puzzle with some very large pieces, some of them missing. It is admirable that a person might put all of his faith and trust in the piece of the puzzle he has found and sees it as the Holy Grail of that culture. It is more realistic to observe that 'grail' as a piece of a large place setting that is only complete when many complex pieces are put into proper place and perspective.
History is not merely a pile of dusty, dry bones. Neither is it a horde of jewelry in perfect condition. It is not a fragment of tile nor a poem about Pangur Ban penned in the margin of a manuscript. It is how the people who made these things adapted to change and whether or not they survived or disappeared into the dust. It is their story. The investigation of conflict and reaction provided by the writer experiencing these events, tempered with the realization on the part of the reader that the story may contain a large dose of interpretation as well as fact, can lead to a more balanced view of culture and history.
Backhouse, Janet. The Lindesfarne Gospels. Phaidon. London. 1994
BrainyQuote. Quotations of Friedrich Nietzche
Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf, A Verse Translation. Daniel Donoghue. Norton. New York. 2002. 3-78
Copyright 2008 by Kathleen Roberts. <karobert at unm.edu>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of publication.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.