Middle English Word of the Moment

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Fight those cliches, people!

This is a post of great insight and depth and moment, in which I say ‘hey, look, something interesting’.

A few points of interest in this Middle English Yorkshire (?) chronicle, from c. 1327 (it goes up to the coronation of Edward III)! Quite aside from the fact that it seems unaware of the (supposed) murder of Edward II in September of that year, I suspect an early date due to its entire failure to adhere to the expected narrative pattern for the last few years of Edward II’s reign.

(All quotes are by line number from Caroline Eckhardt’s EETS edition – Castleford’s Chronicle, or The Boke of Brut, EETS 305-6 (1996), volume 2 of 2.)

For a start, the Despensers are not mentioned once in the narration of the civil war (well, skirmishes) of 1321-22. Despite the fact that they are the main point of contention (or the symbol of it) between the barons and Edward, and that contemporary chronicles habitually just blame them for the whole. Unless they are pro-Edward, in which case it’s either all deeply unfortunate, or Lancaster’s fault. But that’s not the case here – the chronicler is not too fond of Edward, and Lancaster is referred to (at least in the rubrics, although they could be scribal rather than authorial) as “Saynt Thomas” (39320). It’s uncertain whether the author would have participated in the martyr-cult language, as there is a very inconvenient folio missing between the capture of Lancaster at Boroughbridge and the invasion of Isabella in 1326, but in the text as it stands there is no overt sanctification of Lancaster – he’s merely the leader of the barons, and his virtues are not extolled above those of any of the others.

So, no Lancaster-villain or (probably) Lancaster-martyr, and very little Despensers. Possibly the Despensers were mentioned in the height of their power between 1322 and 1326, but, missing folio. When the Despensers are mentioned... well, here’s the real surprise. They aren’t villains.

In Bristoln, Huge Spenser þe alde,
In Bristol, Hugh Despenser the elder
So noble a knight hade bene and balde,
[Who] had been a knight so noble and bold,
Wi3 horses draghen, his domes slik,
[Was sentenced to be] drawn by horses, his doom/sentence being such
And siþen his heide of to strik.
And then his head to be struck off.
And Huge Spenser, þe yonger knight,
And Hugh Despenser, the younger knight,
For he in lande bare him noght right,
Because he in the land behaved not rightly
Sum men said, wrang consail[d]e the kynge,
Some men said, counselled the king ill
Þai dampnede him to draugh [and] hyng,
They damned/sentenced him to draw and hang…
(Castleford’s Chronicle, 39376-383)

This comes in the context of the author’s account of the “ful grefe suffrede þat tim” by all the supporters of Edward II. It is, in fact, almost sympathetic. And, although the chronicler is not entirely sure whether young Hugh’s character is entirely spotless, he isn’t the evil evil villain of evil scheming doom that he so often becomes, and the chronicler even praises the knighthood of the older Hugh.

The chronicler goes on to tell, with equal sympathy, of the deaths of Edward II’s other principle pillars at this time: Arundel, Baldock and Bishop Walter Stapelton of Exeter. The first two were executed by Isabella (no mention is made in this chronicle of Mortimer, unless it is in that missing folio), but, upon the news of Edward’s capture, Stapelton was killed by a London mob before Isabella even approached the city. Doubtless he would have been executed anyway, but as it was, the queen was not directly responsible for his death. Interestingly, however, this chronicle makes no distinction between execution (however doubtful its legality) and mob violence. ‘Death came to each of these five men in these ways’, it says, rather than ‘four of these men were executed and the Londoners rose up against the fifth’. The manner of each is narrated as if all stemmed from a common cause.
Þe bishop of Excestre, Walter,
The Bishop of Exeter, Walter,
Þat was þe kynges tresorer,
Who was the king’s treasurer
In London, at þe strete of Chepe,
In London, on Cheapside
Smote of his heide, noght els to threpe,
His head [was] smote off, with no further ado,
Amanges rascaile of þe cite,
Among the rabble of the city
And oþer wele fele wi3 him to se.
And others very many with him to be seen.
(Castleford’s Chronicle, 39396-401)

And, for completion, the chronicler’s summary of Edward II’s character. Note that crop failure during his reign is entirely an aspect of his character as king. Poor Edward.

Þis Edwarde, als anens his lede,
This Edward, as regards his rule,
Was wis of worde ande fole in dede.
Was wise in word and fool in deed.
Ek he was ful vngraciouse man,
Also he was a full ungracious man, [lit. lacking God’s grace; possible connotations ‘unnatural’, ‘wretched’, ‘wicked’]
Wel ner in alle þinges he bigan;
Well near in all things he undertook;
He gaf him, þof it semede no3 wele,
He devoted himself, though it did not appear well,
To al kins werke manuele.
To all kinds of manual work.
Durande alle his daise wel ner
During almost all his days [as king]
Chepinge of al kins corn was dere,
Purchase of all kinds of grain was expensive,
Feldes failede, vngre was grete,
Fields failed, hunger was great,
Poueraile diede for defaute of mete,
The poor died for lack of food,
Morin of men, of bestes alsua,
[There was] widespread death among mean, and beasts also,
Alle Englande in contek and wa,
All England [was] in discord and woe,
Alle Englande in contek and strife,
All England [was] in discord and strife,
Na pes stabliste durande his lif.
He established no peace during his life.
(Castleford’s Chronicle, 39412-425)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Modes of perception or stylistic conventions?

My supervisor recommended me last week a book that he finds has received less attention than it deserves, partly because it is awkwardly titled for its contents: William Brandt’s The Shape of Medieval History: Studies in Modes of Perception (London: Yale UP, 1966). I have found myself alternately fascinated and frustrated by it.

Brandt argues that mediaeval clerical writers lacked any concept of causal correlation, that a basic characteristic of mediaeval modes of perception was that events or objects stood in isolation as entities in themselves. Consequently events, not processes, are the basic units of mediaeval history writing. Rather than a chronicles being true narratives, or even continua, they were ‘written as collections of incidents or events... the clerical chronicler simply did not see a basic continuity of action’ (85-6). In Brandt’s analysis, the events that form the basic units of the chronicle are included as if no context existed, unrelated either by the chronicler’s awareness of an underlying process or cause, or by any kind of ‘temporal dimensions’: each stands alone, ‘one particular instant in time’ (66).

Brandt’s ideas are fascinating and thought-provoking, and some of them I find very productive. In particular, given my area of study, I am happily toying with his conclusion that the world perceived by mediaeval clerical writers [Footnote: Or, as I prefer to restrict it, the world as it is organised in the chronicles of said writers.] was ‘non-temporal... Our modern feeling for time is a function of our feeling for process; time is the means of continual change. The discrete and self-contained character of action as perceived by the medieval clerk meant that the world could not be perceived as process’ (171). There are some productive ideas here. I do agree with him that the mediaeval concept of time does seem to involve a fundamental division into discrete units, although I’d add that all of these seem to bear the same relationship to each other, and can therefore function as proximate examples (for example, an incident from antiquity may be used as an example that reflects on an incident in 1274).

Where I quibble with Brandt is not over his analyses of mediaeval historical writing, but in his insistence that the results of his analysis reveal some basic mediaeval ‘mode of perception’. Brandt sets out to find some kind of mindset or perceptive frame that he might characterise as recognisably mediaeval, and he believes he finds it in certain structural characteristics of some of the most typical late-mediaeval chronicles. While the search itself may be a worthy one, it seems to have led him to exaggerate the significance of his findings. He applies the phrase ‘fundamentally antitemporal’ not to a particular style of writing, but to the mind that produces it (93).

Brandt attributes the wide variety of material and the resulting lack of narrative flow in universalising chronicles to this inability to perceive causal relationships between situations. While acknowledging that Matthew Paris seems to have been aware of the irrelevance (impertinentia) of certain of his material to what Brandt interprets as his main subject, Brandt denies that, for Matthew or his contemporaries, it could have been a major criterion in selecting that material:

When we say that something is relevant to something else, we ordinarily mean that there is a causal relationship between them. Lacking in great measure the perception of relationships, the medieval chronicler who took his work seriously, as Matthew certainly did, was hard put to know what was relevant and what was not. (47)
Although it may be a result of unfortunate phrasing, Brandt seems to imply that Matthew was conscious of a debilitating lack in his perceptual tool box which complicated his task. This seems unlikely, as a recognised intellectual lack is easily remedied. In any case, the supposition that the mediaeval mind was so hampered by its inability to recognise causal correlations as to be unable to distinguish between relevance and irrelevance is easily disproved: think genres as diverse as analyses of vices and virtues, legal treatises, mirrors for princes, and many chronicles whose scope is more specific than Matthew’s.

Brandt seems himself to be hampered by a particular mode of perception, at least as it relates to the purpose of historical writing. This is illustrated by the falsity of his supposition in comparing Matthew’s perception of relevance to the conceptual decisions that a modern historian might make in planning out a work. An historian nowadays has the luxury of selection: any material omitted may reasonably be expected to exist elsewhere in easily accessible form. We have the luxury of structuring our work around a process or an argument. We may choose a process, argue it and select the events to fit. Matthew Paris, however, is not telling a story or arguing a process, but recording events. From his point of view it is probably better that any particular event be given the benefit of the doubt in the question of inclusion – who knows whether it will be recorded elsewhere? And if it is, there is no guarantee that it will ever be available to any of his particular readers. Once such a wide variety of material is admitted, a chronological structure is likely to be more coherent than any attempt at narrative ordered by topic (as Brandt himself points out, 46). This does not mean that Matthew (or his contemporaries) was not capable of telling a story, shaping the narrative and the events to fit. The Fineshade chronicler, for example, does exactly that. [Footnote: Granted, the Fineshade chronicle is what Brandt would call an occasional chronicle, as opposed to the universalising chronicles of Matthew Paris; but if this ‘mode of perception’ were indeed as fundamental to the structure of mediaeval thinking and writing as Brandt claims, that would make no difference.]

Brandt seems throughout to view the work of the mediaeval historian through his ideas of what a modern one ought to write, which reveal themselves from time to time as condescension, fascination or mild frustration. For example, in discussing the aristocratic chronicle, he remarks as if wonderingly that ‘it aims to celebrate, not to explain, the actions with which it is concerned. An explanation that may occur along the way is never the point of the narrative’ (88). There is no reason, outside of Brandt’s expectations, why Matthew Paris, or Jean le Bel, or Sir Thomas Gray, should make explanation the ‘point’ of their writing. The mediaeval chronicle, after all, is descended from (and existed concurrently with) simple annalistic lists of events, with no commentary or expansion at all.

I would prefer to account for the lack of explanatory context in another way. Although I agree that mediaeval modes of perception doubtless differed widely from ours, in ways that still call for exploration, I would rather pin this particular difference not to authorial perception, but to modes of reading.

The mediaeval intellectual mind was well-accustomed to glossing, to extrapolating larger meaning from single points, to reading significance in juxtaposition or similarity. There is literal glossing, of course, in which the bare text of (say) a work of Augustine’s was expected to travel with one or more levels of interpretive gloss, which leant it several layers of (sometimes mutually contradictory) reading. The Bible was expected to be accompanied by the Glossa Ordinaria. Images, too, could provide a kind of gloss. An image on a page, though not directly illustrating the text, may on reflection emphasise or alter one’s reading of that same text. Texts were intended to be considered and re-considered, each page to be contemplated. A reader is, then, in the habit of taking on a certain burden of interpretation. The interpretation is naturally guided by the reader’s own cultural paraphernalia. If his (or occasionally her) copy of Mark’s Gospel lacked the Glossa, he would nevertheless have the intellectual apparatus to, say, produce a reasonable allegorical reading of a given passage, or read the appearance of a certain animal in terms of its usual symbolic significance.

In a similar fashion, in a chronicle – especially a local one – a list of events may perhaps be expected to function effectively as an aide-memoire. Exact sequences of events and dates may be forgotten, and so are recorded as the basic skeletal structure of memory. Memory’s flesh, however, the emotional weight and drama behind a certain event, or its significance to a given community – the shared cultural heart of it, in short – may be expected to come to mind far more easily, especially when prompted by the bone-like facts. Writing in Ramsey Abbey, where the death toll included the abbot, it may not be necessary to say more of 1349 than ‘hoc anno fuit magna pestilencia hominum’: anyone reading it knows what that means, fundamentally, in human terms. The year may slip one’s mind, but not its horror, whether one lived through it or not.

In this analogy, chronicle would function as text and internalised cultural memory as gloss.   The gloss is an important element in correctly reading the text, although it may be implicit rather than spelt out.  Brandt, I feel, goes too far in problematising the absence of an explicit authorial interpretative presence in the chronicles he examines.  He frets over the lack of a connecting narrative in Matthew’s account of the conflicts between Henry III and the church, finding that the chronicler sees ‘only a series of events… The things that make these struggles intelligible for a modern reader – the church–state controversy, for instance – were invisible to Matthew’ (76).

Can a man of Matthew’s sense and intellectual curiosity have been blind to the tension between church and state whose manifestations he so enthusiastically records? Perhaps instead we should say that they were not only visible, but so very obvious that he had no need to explain them.