Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Poor Piers.

I just translated a sentence from a small Latin chronicle. The translation came out as "And in regarding him, the son of the king was suddenly struck with such love that he formed a potent and intimate bond with him, choosing above all other mortals to entangle with him in indissoluble chains of pleasure."

And the word I translated as 'bond', 'foedus', can mean alliance or treaty, or marriage contract, or union, or sexual relationship - and when it's an adjective, it gets into moral hysteria about FILTHY and BASE and REPUGNANT and OBSCENE and UNNATURAL.

Poor Piers Gavaston. Everyone gets so steamy-headed as soon as they start talking about him. Hugh never had this problem.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

And another thought...

I walked past a shelf today (containing books, as often happens in my life) on which a title caught my eye: "Discovering the Middle Ages". As I was heading somewhere at the time I didn't stop to find out whether this was, say, a record of archaeological research, or a book on the 19C England's revival of interest in the mediaeval ("Though the Philistines may jostle you will rank as an apostle in the high aesthetic band, If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediaeval hand"[1]), but the title niggled at me. It sounded irritatingly as if, for one thing, there is only one MIDDLE AGES to discover, and that it can all be convincingly DISCOVERED if one goes about it the right way. And the combination of that with the title beside it (something about how people suddenly had the idea of being INDIVIDUAL in the 12th century) sounded even more irritatingly like it might even be a book on the people (all over Europe and elsewhere, across all those centuries) discovering their identity as MIDDLE AGERS.

Which I dismissed as an unfair judgement on a book I hadn't actually looked at very closely. But it got me thinking - I don't think I've ever come across anyone writing about the Middle Ages from the perspective of what I'm choosing to call temporal identity. National, obviously, religious, yes, social, financial, of course. But as being members of a body at a particular time in history, or as being defined as distinct from the actions of their forebears, or even descendants? Surely it's an idea that must hover around the edges of rather a lot of writing, particularly once we hit those highly visible events that cause rapid social change, oh, say, the Norman Conquest, or the Black Death. But each of those brings with it other identity factors that tend to steal the limelight: English/Norman, language, dispossession: economic crises that empower different social groups.

I suppose the instinctive reaction would be to say "oh, people in the Middle Ages just thought they were one big blob, they didn't differentiate from generation to generation". And even if one acknowledges a change in character from one century to the next, it's generally assumed, I think, that this is visible only in hindsight, that the lack of access to information about their own history made people only vaguely aware of it, a sort of mess of fable and tradition, there to inform and instruct but not necessarily something that they feel their times to be a unique part of.

But people do. We have, on the small scale, Gen X and Y, children of the nineties, sixties hairstyles and so forth. And if comic and satiric writing across the ages are anything to go by, the kernel of temporal identity - the griping against and between children these days/back in my day and the stodgy older generation - is as universal as fart jokes. Just ask Aristophanes. Once you have the basic them and us, and the sense of differentiation and movement that implies, the basic and possibly strongest form of time-based identity is there for the reaping. And repeating. And complaining about.

That doesn't necessarily lead to a larger perception of one's place in linear history, but there's no firm reason for it not to. Is this something we should be looking into? Or has it been, and I've just not noticed?

In fact, as it turned out, I hadn't looked at the book very closely at all. On passing it again later today I realised what it, and all its companion volumes, actually said on the spine: Dictionary of the Middle Ages.

Oh well!

[1] Gilbert and Sullivan, Patience, Bunthorne explaining to the audience how to best go about being "an aesthetic sham". For all those who, you know, didn't spend three years in their early teens being completely obsessed with them, which I realise is probably a substantial percentage of the population.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A brief thought on forms of memory.

If we can say that there is a time (say, the first two centuries after the Norman Conquest in England) when collective and individual memory shifted from being recorded aurally to written record. And that this involved not just a change of habits and accepted forms (though those are not to be underestimated in their effects on society) but a fundamental change in the way individual memories were shaped from childhood to be used, and therefore the capacity of each individual (generally speaking) to record and retain certain types of information. Then what are we to make of the current shift from the written to the digital, to the tendency to carry most information around on an external hard drive? More to the point, what will historians and sociologists make of it in a century or two? If, you know, we still exist by then.

Also, the change to written record had an obvious and fundamental effect on what information and how much of it is likely to survive to the next generations. The methods and platforms with which electronic information can be accessed are far more susceptible to change. Floppy disc, USB, bluetooth? Will we be able to access daily and personal records in ten years, or only the official ones that have been perforce updated as time went by? And how will this affect our perception of the past? Particularly as digitised information may prove to be more or less democratic than the book - potentially more generally and easily accessible, but literacy becomes even more essential and more complex, and more monolingual at that. The book is more lasting than the spoken word, but will the row of 0s and 1s be more or less enduring, and access to it more or less restricted by social parameters?