Getting a grasp on the historical medieval mindset through fiction. Even fiction with space ships.

My latest ramblings, in which we go on a journey from Snowy New Hampshire to stark Medievalville, passing through the far future on the way.  Hopefully we’ll be ending up with a clearer understanding of what it is to think like a 14th century person.

After graduating high school, and floating around between New England and Texas in a series of low-level retail management positions, I had decided to get my 19 year old ass into a college somewhere. Any college, anywhere.

I reasoned that having a college degree and spending the time to get it was far better than wearing a Sam Goody name tag for the rest of my working days.

Thus, I sent away for a bunch of college catalogs and having received them, stared with despair at the prospect of starting a business program, or perhaps doing a degree in psychology where I could put aside my problems and help others overcome theirs.

One program that I caught on a side glance looked a bit more promising however. There was a smallish college in middle New Hampshire which offered a degree in Medieval Studies. I was a heavily into fantasy novels and playing Dungeons & Dragons and this immediately appealed to me. I could go to college, get a degree and spend four years immersed in the 5th through 15th centuries? Really? Wow.

It’s been fifteen years since that day, and I never did get a degree in Medieval Studies.  My actual BA is in Interdisciplinary Studies – a sort of design your own thing.  The official and overly lengthy title is: Anthropology and the Study of Medieval Europe.  Yup, throw that baby on a resume and watch the offers fly.

Needless to say, it did not get me in good with Mr. Trump but it was a damn good four years! What I did encounter though was a massive body of history, myth, legend and literature which to this day I am extremely glad I had to wade through. Make no bones about it, some of this stuff you do have to literally wade through. It’s worth it to come away with a huge picture of how Western society was carved into being, splinter by splinter.

baudolino

One of the best places to start is with fiction. Yes, I’m quite serious. There’s a wonderful book by Italian semiologist, Umberto Eco called Baudolino. If you’re wondering what it would have been like to dwell in the head of a Medieval man, this book is for you. Eco’s nailed the thinking process, the unabashed belief in wondrous ideas as truth, the constant conflict with Christianity at once being the savior of mankind and also the greatest limiting factor to development of the individual. Unlike many of his other (excellent) books, Baudolino doesn’t require a study guide to get through.

lmortdartur

Now that you’ve got something of an idea of what it’s like to inhabit a medieval mind, let’s move to some more fiction, this time however it is written as history, and was constructed in the 15th century. The ever popular Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory. Written while Mallory was imprisoned, this sweeping saga incorporates many of what we’ve come to think of as the Arthurian Legends. Lancelot joins the crew from France along with Merlin (the Welsh, Mryydion) and of course Arthur and Guinevere and all the rest of the gang. Malory has done what most medieval Arthurists do, which is to contemporize the players in his drama to his own age. The 5th century Arthur – who we can trace to a quasi-mythical figure in England or Wales who united the various warlords to repel the Saxon threat after the Roman legions took their flags and went home has now become the plate wearing, jousting and chivalrous hero we’ve latched on to in our own century.  Now though we’ve added a soundtrack and a big summer opening.

Merlin has been transformed from an early Druidic figure to an elderly man with magical powers in the face of Christianity. And Lancelot the French Knight has been drawn into things to satisfy the medieval need for Chivalry and the code of love. In the medieval world, It’s great to be married, but marriage is political and love is not, thus is born courtly love.  It’s forbidden, but expected that at least one of the people in a married relationship fall for someone else. Gone are the days of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where giants are conquered.  Now it’s all sex and power, which is why it’s become attractive to us as a modern society.

I wouldn’t recommend reading the complete works at first, as it contains many a list of well, lists.  Such things as tournament rosters, which might just bore your teeth right out of your mouth. If you skip those bits however and follow the human story, you’ll be blown away. If you’d like a further hint before reading it, keep in mind that 90% of this book deals with Arthur’s life, yet the title is The Death of Arthur. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

canterbury

Now that you’ve been with Arthur and Baudolino, let’s hook up with Chaucer. When I first started a class on the Canturbury Tales, I was prepared to be a bit bored. We were reading it in the original Middle English (which isn’t as hard as it sounds with a good edition) and I was prepared to spend lots of time looking up words.

What I wasn’t prepared for was sex, violence, political commentary and the foundations of modern English fiction. Yikes! Geoffrey doesn’t pull any punches in his tales, and I’m sure there’s a long history of medieval lads and lasses tittering behind closed doors with a group of their peers, as a sort of predecessor to American Pie  on cable and teenage boys staying up past their bedtime.  Chaucer was raunchy, funny and very human in telling his tales.  For this alone he’s worth reading but his insights into the 14th century mind are invaluable if you’d like to think like someone extent at that time.

Now that we’ve got the violence, sex and love triangles out of the way it’s time to get anachronistic with two more modern works of literature which are on my must-read-to-be-a-medievalist-list. The first is T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.

futureking

I first read this book when I was about 16 and it blew me away. It’s horribly anachronistic, having Merlin travel to Bermuda and many other such instances but at the same time it’s wonderfully endearing. This is the first time that I ever really felt for Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. I felt their pain in loving each other as friends and the forbidden love that could not be. The book ends with one of the most poignant moments in Medieval fiction I’ve yet to read. You may be interested to note that the book is divided into a series of shorter ‘books’, the first of which is the basis for Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.

The last bit of literature I’ll be rambling on about today is a series of four books by one of my favorite speculative fiction authors, Dan Simmons.

bcl_simmons_hyperion

The Hyperion series may at first strike you as having nothing whatever to do with the Medieval period at all until you realize that it’s an amazingly written retelling of good old Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Simmons is really something as a storyteller, taking the lives of people who exist in a fictional far future and making them as human and honest as the person next to you. What has this to do with the medieval mind? At heart it’s still a story of those of us who are lost seeking some sort of truth through a journey that is both physical and spiritual.  It’s a pilgrimage that’s being undertaken by a group of people who’s motivations have not changed since Chaucer was chewing on his quills.

I hope you’ll find these books interesting. I know that I did, in fact they form a solid literary foundation for me when I try to get into the mind of a medieval person. It’s an interesting place to be.

If you’d like to purchase any of the above titles, you can grab them at Amazon and also help support this site.  Here are the volumes I recommend.  All but the Canterbury Tales are fairly inexpensive.  Chaucer’s works deserve a good edition.

Baudolino Le Morte d’Arthur The Complete Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer The Once and Future King Hyperion Saga

[tags]medieval, canterbury tales, hyperion, arthurian legend, literature, baudolino[/tags]

5 thoughts on “Getting a grasp on the historical medieval mindset through fiction. Even fiction with space ships.

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  1. Great article, Ben! Now I need to finally read The Once and Future King and Baudolino. (I love Hyperion.) Have you read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth?

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  2. Thanks Alf. Baudolino and the Once and Future King are two very different but equally interesting books.

    I have read the Pillars of the Earth and enjoyed it. I did think that the characters came of a little simplistic but I think that’s just Follett’s writing style. They’re easy to access but about as deep as a puddle. 🙂 I have not yet read the sequel but it’s in my stack.

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  3. Hi Ben,

    Just curious if you’ve read Mary Stewart’s Merlin series (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, etc). If yes, how well do you think they portray the medieval mind?

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  4. I did read Stewart’s series, which I thought was excellent. I haven’t picked them up in oh. . . 15 years or so though.

    While I think they’re great books, I don’t remember if they give a terrific insight into the medieval mind. I’d love to pick them up and read them again (and probably will) but I’ve got a stack of 30 or so books in line ahead of them. 🙂

    -Ben

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