What Men Can Learn From Medieval Literature (Tristan)

What Men Can Learn From Medieval Literature (Tristan) by Charles Sledge

This is a guest post from Tristan who is a student from Germany as well as a dedicated reader. Tristan enjoys a great variety of topics. Including science, economy, and religion. He believes that masculinity and self improvement can be found in the studies of history, philosophy, and the great works of art, as well as in an good old boxing match or sword fight. In this post Tristan gives a brief history of the medieval ages as well as what men can learn from them. Enjoy.

Ah, the Middle Ages.

Maybe no other time in history was so relevant for the course of the world, and is yet so badly known. It seems, like you have only two sides in this discussion: The one dreams of the Middle Age as an Golden Age, a time of clear roles and ways, chivalry and faith. The other side sees it as some kind of mistake, an age of stagnation, fanatics and violence.

Both judgments are based on an lacking historical education, blindness and a quick jump to unjustified conclusions. We are talking about roughly a thousand years of history, and you can get very different impression, depending on which century and country we are looking at. Like every culture, we can understand the values, viewpoints and problems of an era through their literature. So, lets have an short look at the literature of the Middle Ages.

A Short Definition of The Middle Ages

To put it short, the Middle Ages is the general term used to describe the time between the end of the Classical antiquity and the Renaissance. The term itself emerged out of the condescending views the Renaissance had on this era. They saw the Middle Age as exactly that. A filler. A filler between the great antiquity and its rebirth. So, for a long time, and still today, many think nothing really happend in this time period, no progress, not in technology, politics or science. This is factually wrong.

Many see the fall of the Western Roman Empire [476] as the beginning of the Middle Age, and it is a good starting point. We can separate the Middle Age in three periods:

Early Middle Ages: [5th century to the 10th century]

This time overlaps with the late antiquity, Middle Ages started sooner in some parts of the empire, especially areas close to the “Limes”, the western border of the empire. The Roman Empire, was just a shadow of its former glory. The degeneration inside the empire, weakness and decadence and the catastrophes from outside its borders – the huns and the migration periode – destroyed this one great nation. Many empires rise and fall in this time.

The Merovingians ruled the Franks since the late 5th century. They emerged as one of the most powerful successors of the Roman Empire. The Carolingian dynasty under Charlemagne united great parts of Europe and he became the first Holy Roman Emperor. [800] The Holy Roman Empire existed – at least on paper – till Napoleon ended it 1806.

The Downfall of Carolingian Empire separated Francia in East- and West Francia. Germany and France are the successors of this separation. In England, the power vacuum that the Romans left behind, was filled by the Anglo-Saxons. They ruled England since approximately 450 until the Normans defeated them. They laid the foundations of the nation England.

The Viking Age was another great impact on the Early Middle Age. The fearsome warriors raided many cities, monasteries and settlements in all of Europe. They founded the Normandy [North-Man] in northern France, and conquered England in 1066 under William the Conqueror. This ended the Viking Age, as well as the Early Middle Age in England.

The Christianization of Europe slowly was completed, but it took several centuries, and many heathen traditions survived for most part of the Middle Ages. Islam emerged, and its conquest not only ended the antiquity in the Mediterranean Basin definite, but also separated Europe and the Middle East. Its conquest also spread to Spain. Over more then 770 years the Reconquista fought slowly against it, till Spain was free from Islamic Rule as a whole in 1492.

High Middle Ages: [11th, 12th century. Depending on the country the 13th as well]

The prime part of the Middle Ages, of knighthood, feudalism and Courtly love. Many cities were founded in this time, science and education bloomed, and more and more people could read and write. The Holy Roman Empire lost its Hegemony, new kingdoms like England, Poland or Denmark emerged.

This is also the time of the Crusades. [11th till 15 century] The First Crusade was  proclaimed to help the Byzantine Empire against Seljuk Turks. It was not clear, what Pope Urban II. exact intentions were, but the First Crusade ended 1099 with the conquest of Jerusalem. Four “Crusade Kingdoms” were founded, which were finally lost in the year 1291.

The Arab world of this time not only saved the knowledge of the Greek-Roman antiquity, but also connected with India and the Far East [Via the Silk Route]. They developed Algebra, and high mathematics. Medicine, Astronomy, Philosophy. This opened the West an entire new world to explore, and the increase of knowledge in many fields were dramatic. The Mongol Invasions meant a disaster, and caused terror in great parts of Europe. Eastern Nations especially the Kingdom of Hungary and Bulgaria didn’t recover for a long time. Like the Romans who were unable to fight effectively against the huns, the European knights feared the mongols.

Late Middle Ages: [13th century till 15th century]

The Late Middle Ages were in great parts a slow downfall of the Middle Ages. Climate Change had a strong negative impact. The Holy Roman Empire was in a crisis, the king lost more and more influence, and smaller lords and clerics gained more and more power.  This time lacked an real superpower in Europe.

The Pope lost power after the Western Schism, and the Kingdoms in the Middle East were lost. Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans, which opened the gates to Europe for them. The Black Death killed more than one-third to one-half of the population at that time. We don´t have exact numbers, but we are talking about at least 20-50 Million victims. Germany for example, lost around 40.000 settlements completely.

Devastating wars also fall in this time. Especially the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses in England. The advances in technology – muskets already existed for centuries, but were for a long time inaccurate and little useful weapons – the devastating effect of the longbows in the Wars of the Roses and the social changes after the plague and many other reasons ended the time of chivalry.

The end of the Middle Ages had many reasons: The Imperial Reform ended the classic Feudalism in the Holy Roman Empire. The Protestant Reformation ended the “Old Church” and separated the Roman Catholic Church from the many new originated reformist movements. Printing opened a way to mass produce information. This weakened the monastic orders and clerics, who had an monopoly on writing, for large parts of the Middle Ages. And of course the discovery of America, that started a whole new chapter in history.

I end this short an incomplete overview here, I hope I could interested you to learn more about this 1000 year long era.

What Is A Knight? What Is Chivalry?

To describe what chivalry is, we need a long time. Like manhood, it is a big word, misused, too big to be satisfied by one answer. We just have a quick look. Historically, the word knight developed from the Old English word: cniht [Servant]. It is related to the German word: knecht [servant, bondsman] In Germany the word is “Ritter”, developed from the Old German word: “Riter” – Rider.

This can be dated back till the Roman Emprie: Equites, lower aristocracy on horses. So, a knight was a heavily armored warrior on a horse. He is a low Nobleman, and bound to his lord. He fights for his lord, therefore he gains land and probably a small castle. He is the master of the peasantry and collects taxes. [In natural produce]

Horse, Lance, and Sword are his status symbols. (Ax and Spear are “just” tools, although they have been used a lot.) Sword are expensive Weapons that need a lot of care. And you want a good sword, your life depends on it.

In his real core, a knight is a man, that has specialized in warfare. For many knights, this was just a burden, some of course appreciated it. All high ideas and ideals we have of chivalry are a product of the High Middle Age: Slowly, the warrior cast, shaped values and morals. For example, it was unchivalrous to kill an opponent, who was lying on the ground.[He probably couldn’t get up without help. Knight-Armour became heavier and heavier through the centuries.] The bow was seen as the weapon of a coward.

After developing morals towards other knights, behavior for the aristocracy-court was established. Here we have things like being a gentleman towards women, table manners, and a sense for fashion. During the Crusades, religious norms were equated with knighthood. This was previously not necessarily the norm. Some theologians actually complained, that the Knights spent more time with Arthur’s stories than with religion. I wrote a few words about the downfall of knighthood before, and it is an really interesting, but a large topic. If you have an liking for history, I recommend that you read more about it!

Chivalry Today

Like manhood, chivalry is layered. Everyone tried to use it. The king want the knights to be loyal. Women want them to be nice and to have manners. The clerics want them to fight for the church. The peasants want them generous and just. And that doesn’t even cover what people today think knighthood is. But the real essence of being a knight, is the fighter. A knight is a warrior. And all other aspects are empty, if a knight isn’t a warrior anymore.

Writing And Scripture In The Middle Age

Writing had great value in the Middle Age.

Literally, since the fabrication of parchment was very expensive. For a great work you needed an entire flock of sheep. Paper was known since the 12th century, thanks to the Crusades. Writing was a skill for the clerics and monasteries. Besides from the Bible, theological Works, surviving works of the antiquity and documents for a classic education, only a few “worldly” works were written. Everything was written in latin, we only have few remains of the language in the Early Middle Age. In the High Middle Age, having books and producing them, became a status symbol at the court. The lord’s could compete with the clergy. More and more works were written down in the nations languages.

For the Early Middle Age less important, the rapid growing education gave birth to public literature. The citizens of the cities invested a lot of money and time in education. It was a possibility to compete with the nobility. (Without losing your head.) Center for this were the Cathedrals. On the court a culture of reading developed. Still, a lot of Noblemen couldn’t read. Stories were read aloud, and often part of the evening entertainment. The cultural center for literature was France and (lesser) England. Germany copied mainly french works and slowly developed their own literature. There are many different kinds of literature, we want to take an look at the most prominent one: Artus Novels.

The stories are called so, because they all play at King Arthur’s court. They have an scheme, they follow more or less strict. A young knight comes to King Arthur’s court. Someone requests help from the King, and he sends the young knight. Our Hero gains honor, maybe a wife or a castle. But the story does not end here. He loses his honor again, and need to go on “Âventiure” – adventure. After many battles he returns to the court and restores his honor. He now lives a good life as a great lord and knight.

An good example is “Erec” from Hartmann von Aue: King Arthur and his men are on an hunt. Erec, a young knight escorts Lady Guenièvre, Arthur’s wife. They are stopped by an unknown knight and his servant, a dwarf. [A person with Short stature] He uses a whip and hurts Lady Guenièvre’s Maiden. Erec tries to speak to him, but the dwarf attacks him as well.

Ashamed, he follows the knight. He meets an impoverished nobleman and his daughter Enite. He falls in love and promises to marry her. The next day he fights against the knight, and he defeats him after a long battle. He spares his life, and they all travel to King Arthur’s court. The defeated knight begs for forgiveness and Arthur is generous with him. Erec and Enite marry, Erec is rewarded with Land and a own court. End of story?

No. Erec have a long way to go. He commits a great mistake: “Verligen”

He spends days in bed with his wife, and he forgets about his duties as a knight. At some point he finally realize what he has done and he and his wife leave for “Âventiure”. Of course, his wife doesn’t fight. She is actually prohibited to speak for a long time, so she doesn’t distracts him. But she is important, because she also needs to learn. Erec fights many battles, against robbers and giants. After a heavy fight he nearly dies, and Enite thinks he is gone.

An evil lord finds her and wants to marry her, but Erec gets back up, and fights his way inside the castle. He rescue Enite and many other prisoners. Enite has shown great loyalty, she wanted to be a widow, and never marry another man. They travel again to King Arthur’s court, but this time Erec knows he doesn’t have enough honor yet.

One last challenge awaits him: A mighty knight lives in an Paradise like garden and castle with his wife. But he doesn’t act like a knight. He kills his opponents and and impales their heads on an fence. He also holds all 50 widows of this knight captured. Erec is without fear. After a long battle, he wins. But he is a better man than his opponent, he doesn’t kill him, and sends him to King Arthurs court, so he can judge him. After this, Erec becomes the great lord and knight, and is an example for many other young knights. He is know also one of King Arthur´s knights, an honor not many receive.

What Can We Learn Today From This?

Finally to the core of this article: What can we learn from Middle Age Literature today?

I will separated this in a few points

Action Is What Counts.

There isn’t much making plans in this kind of stories. They are straightforward. Take your sword and fight. For most of the Middle Ages, your intentions don’t matter. Just what you do. Your Actions are you. The formula is simple. You want honor, because you are a nobody without honor. No one respects you. You don’t get good land or meaningful tasks. So, how do you get honor? Do honorable tasks. There is no: But he is a nice guy, just a little passive. Do or do not. Your problem. And this have not changed since the year 1200. Or ever in the history of men. You need to be the one, who takes action.

Appearance Is Important.

The Middle Age is superficial. If you are a nobleman, you need to dress like one. There are many, many pages only describing clothing, horses and jewelry. Cause this is the same thought like the one about taking action. No one sees, you are a nobleman if you don´t act and look like one. Same thing counts today. Everyone tells you, looks do not matter. But it isn’t true. We are visual animals. And if your lawyer wears an good suit, polished shoes and a           haircut like a grown up person, you gonna trust him. Or, at least more than the guy that shows up in court with blue dyed hair and an Marvel Shirt.

Relationships Are Dead Serious.

During the scene in which Enite believes Erec is dead, she uses an interesting metaphor: “My heart is in your chest, and yours in mine. You are dead, so is my heart in your chest.” This is an popular metaphor. Your bond in marriage is so strong, that death or to be a long time apart, actually hurts physical. I think this kind of loyalty is a remarkable thing.

A Man Needs To Be Strong.

The characters in medieval literature are described with many positive attributes. But one thing can never be missing. To be strong and fast. To be highly skilled with the sword. No matter what other positive things you can say about him, if he lacks strength, he has an deficit. We life today in an society that forgets this important thing. A man without strength has an deficit. We value every nonsense in a person highly, but strength is seen as some minor, brutish thing. Don’t be fooled, listen to King Arthur.

Women Need To Be Beautiful.

Women need to be beautiful. Same thing. Of course, if she is only beautiful, a person of the Middle Ages will judge her as harsh as we do today. Or even harsher. But it is an simple fact. It is an fundamental trait, on which you build on. You can´t take the foundation away. The house will crumble.

There Is No Excuse For Not Doing Your Duty.

Erecs forgets about his duties, because he spends too much time with his wife. Of course we can relate to him, he is a young man, freshly married with his beautiful bride. His punishment seems pretty hard. He could die, or be crippled. But here is a point about Middle Age society. Duty and Loyalty are the greatest values a man can achieve. A knight swears his life to his lord. He will fight for him, and if he is a coward, he risks his lord’s life. And the life of his fellow knights. We don’t fight in deadly battles for our lord’s anymore; and loyalty and duty are traits, my generation [20 and upwards] spits on. But I think we can learn one great thing about Erec mistake: Duties and Loyalty towards yourself. Erec forgets to do anything, besides sleeping with his wife. Can we trust someone who forgets his daily duty? How will he behave in a crisis? The first step for success is self-discipline. Practice your swordsmanship every day.

A Defeated Enemy Is A Possible Confederate.

Erec doesn’t kills other knights. In this kind of literature there is no hesitation killing bandits or dragons. But knights are spared. Why? So he can travel to King Arthur and ask for forgiveness. And Arthur will forgive him and make him one of his knights. This behavior would make Sun Tzu proud. Erasing an enemy that is just a wild threat, like a dragon, is the logical action. And a Bandit is without honor. He will not be loyal. But a knight is more likely to be a trustworthy ally .And a much more capable one. He was an enemy once, so you will not be so blind to trust him           completely, and he will try his best, to show his value. We can transfer this directly on our lives. Sometimes, an old enemy is an better ally than your best friend. You will sleep with an open eye. And he will always have his eyes on your mistakes. Competition stimulates.

If Nobody Noticed It, It Didn’t Happen.

In another novel, the two knights stop their fight mid battle. The reason seems strange. Nobody is watching. Are knights so arrogant? Maybe some, but the reason is bigger. If nobody sees it, who will believe it? And how would the knight will defend himself against the claim that he had acted unchivalrously? You need witnesses. Trustworthy people, so no one can say otherwise. And today? If you face a situation of conflict, always bring backing. Someone to confirm what you say, and to help you argue correctly.

This collection is just a small part of the large wisdom we can draw from Middle Age Literature. I hope I could inspire you, to learn more about this interesting times.

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Charles Sledge