The Evolution of Arthurian and Medieval Romances

GOT Arthurian literature comparison collage v1b

Nowadays people complain that Game of Thrones, The Shannara Chronicles or any other modern dark fantasy is too violent. ‘Everything on TV is too violent.’ And then they go Helen Lovejoy from the Simpsons: ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?!’ But did you know that there was a plenty of violence in all the medieval romances where George R.R. Martin, Terry Brooks and countless other fantasy authors have taken inspiration from?

sir gawain and the green knight iii
This medieval drawing depicts a scene from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where Sir Gawain uses the latter’s axe to cut off his head. The Green knight’s head speaks a prophecy before the (now) headless horseman rides off.

We think that this is something recent. That authors in the good old days did not shock their audiences with vivid descriptions of brains splattered all over the stony ground (or wherever it was they did battle), and depraved carnal acts.
They knew better than that!

Well, boys and girls, that’s not how it went down. That is how the late 18th and 19th century writers would want you to believe (and some contemporary novelists) but in reality, medieval romances were filled with carnage and sex.

Just read Le MorteD’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, written at a time when England was embroiled in a violent civil war and you will see what I am talking about. Or better yet, read Chretien de Troyes. You do not have to go through all of his poem, just pick one at random dealing with the legend of King Arthur, and you will see nothing romantic about this legend. That is because our concept of romance is VERY DIFFERENT from what the medieval people saw as romance.

The more I revisit medieval romances, the more I fall in love with them (all over again). They are gory, sadder, than anything written recently. In a way, they were trying to copy their predecessors, Greek and Roman writers.

chretien de troyes
Chretien de Troyes

The way that Chretien, Sir Thomas Mallory, and several other medieval authors portrayed these legendary figures left a lot to be desired. And I do not mean this in a bad way. Arthur was a flawed character, his knights were less than perfect. Whoever wrote “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” perfectly shows this. Sir Gawain sleeps with the Green Knight and (spoilers) after finding out that it was all a trap by the magical Green Knight (whom he previously chopped his head off), he gets angry but his anger turns to regret as he begs his opponent to absolve him.

Chivalry was one of the core tenets of medieval society. People aspired to be greater than their ordinary selves. This code of conduct was reserved for the rich, and only a select class of rich people. Aristocrats, Kings, and Queens, were seen as the moral arbiters of society. They were held to a higher standard than anyone else, people lived and died by their example.
But we are all human; we make mistakes. Some people learn from their mistakes, others refuse to accept any responsibility and continue to make them.
The Arthurian characters erred many times. Most of them picked themselves up and did their best to rectify their mistakes by becoming better people starting with them admitting they had done something wrong.

Arthur death Edward_Burne-Jones.The_last_sleep_of_Arthur

What the 18th and 19th century monarchs were smarter than their predecessors was in their approach to these figures. Rather than aspiring to live up to their example, they took a step back, read between the lives, examined their lives and used their failures as a way to reinforce their moral codes unto society.
What Victorians ended up getting was a morality play set in a pristine place that was ruined by human vice.

A Yankee in king arthur's court book cover

Out of all the writers of this era, the only one that didn’t follow this formula was Mark Twain with his science fantasy novel ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ Originally intended to be satire, the author’s brutal depiction of the medieval era and use of sarcasm is truer to the medieval romances that popularized this legend than anything his contemporary Victorians wrote.

Gone was the sex and violence and acts that were too much for the Victorians to handle. Gone was also the political commentary. Some scholars believe that Sir Thomas Mallory used the Arthurian legend to criticize the two major branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty that had plunged England into a bloody dynastic civil war that lasted over three decades.
Victorian writers did not want their audience to read between the lines. It was okay if aristocrats did it with older version of the novels that depicted a cruder and less civilized age, but not for the common populace who wanted something different (and far less complicated).

The end result is the medieval era as the new protagonist of Arthurian lore. An Eden-like setting filled with magic and beauty; the ideal place to escape.
This formula became so successful that it is still employed in TV, movies and other pop culture mediums.
To loosely quote what the character Fry from Futurama said, people do not want to be reminded of their dreary existence. They want to be spoon-fed the same old tired formula because otherwise, they will get confused or scared.

Sources:

Advertisements

Book Review: Everyman & Other Miracle and Morality Plays

everyman (1)

Art has always been a powerful medium. Some see it as a form of protest, injecting their political thought, to convince others of their ideology (or in this case, instill the fear of God in them), while others see it as another means of expression where political thought isn’t necessary.

Medieval art was no difference. What movies and TV shows are for us today, these plays were for the medieval average Joe and Jane. They were their form of escapism, a distraction from their everyday hard lives.

These plays also worked like fables. There was a lesson to be learned at the end of every tale. And like fables, the protagonist had to go through many obstacles, to realize what was truly important.

Among the few medieval plays that have survived is “Everyman” which this edition heavily focuses on. My advice is that you read every play, not just Everyman.

everyman death2

Each play is a retelling of biblical stories, with some being an original story where protagonist face some sort of obstacle they must overcome with the help of supernatural beings (like with “Everyman”). If these plays had relied solely on scary imagery, the audience would have felt little encouragement to stay through the whole event. Similarly, if the Merchant’s Guild (who financed these plays) had not thrown in something funny, the people would have felt just like they did at church.

The commons were eager for the arrival of the holiday season because it meant they would get to be part of another spectacle. Unlike movies today where you have to pay to see them, these plays were free.

At the time that “Everyman” was released, England had been embroiled in a civil war. The two major branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty, York and Lancaster, been fighting each other off for over three centuries. Although Lancaster had been wiped off, one scion remained.

Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, was seen as the new hope for the House of Lancaster. Those who had fought with his uncle and his fierce queen, fled England and joined him in exile. Henry promised that he would beat Richard and crown himself King, and marry the King’s niece, the Yorkist Princess, Elizabeth Plantagenet. Their union would bring the two sides together, thus, ending the conflict. This oath brought many disaffected Edwardian Yorkists to his side.

After Henry became King of England, there was an outbreak of sweating sickness. People were once again reminded of their stark reality. More than ever, these plays became necessary. They needed something to bring them respite from their everyday hardships.

More than escapism, these plays also offered them a sense of comfort. The common man could see himself in the protagonist, or identify with the other characters and go back home, thinking that like them, if they put enough trust in God, things would get better.

Book Review: Edward III by W.M. Ormrod

Edward III ormond

An excellent biography on one of the middle ages greatest kings, Edward III of England. What makes this biography different from others is that it offers a new perspective on Edward without the need of being condescending to other historians and biographers.

Ormrod acknowledges that many of Edward’s policies were innovative, and praises his maverick nature but he points out that much of the former were nothing new. He simply built on what his predecessors had done, altering some of their statues and regulations to ensure a more stable government.

The Edward that emerges from Ormrod’s biography is ambitious, scheming (plotting with the pope and other councilors to get rid of Mortimer) but also pragmatic and a great military commander who had a great team of administrators and above all, a man not afraid to compromise when the occasion called for it. Ormrod also puts his flaws, while a careful administrator and able leader, his taxation crippled many and there were times when he was forced to submit to Parliament’s rule and the commons’ representatives. This is not a sign of weakness, as Edward was a great negotiator and nothing he did came without a price.

The last years of his reign however after his wife and eldest son died, became decadent and this is seen through the demands of the Good Parliament that Ormrod goes over in various sections. I like the narrative, and that he went step by step explaining how each group was relevant in medieval society and how much it influenced or was affected by Edward’s policies. I only wish it had more details, it seemed as if each part was a short summary and he kept repeating himself at times. Nonetheless, it was still a good book.

The Myth of Convivencia: Nostalgic Storytelling

medieval convivencia

It is a popular myth that there was a period of religious tolerance among the three Abrahamic faiths during the middle ages which end came with the aftermath of the “Reconquista”. The Reconquista or Reconquest was the Spaniards’ efforts to recover the lands that had been taken by Muslim invaders in 711. At the time that Isabella became Queen of Castile and later her husband and cousin, Ferdinand, became King of Aragon and other territories he inherited from his father; there was only one Taifa (Moorish) kingdom in Spain. It was the last remnant of what some historians refer to as ‘Spain’s golden age’. This is none other than Granada.

While their Muslim invaders tried to do away with their culture, the more committed Spaniards pushed back. The term ‘Andalusia’ as Dario Fernandez-Morera explains in the next paragraph of his book “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval  Spain”, never took hold and in spite of the Christians and Jews submitting to their new masters, they still adhered to their cultural practices.

Al Andalusia 1024px-La_civilització_del_califat_de_Còrdova_en_temps_d'Abd-al-Rahman_III

“Medieval Christians considered the lands Islam had conquered to be part of Spain, not part of Islam, and therefore not as al-Andalus. Their chronicles refer to “Spannia,” avoiding the Arabic term. The mid-thirteenth century Poema de Fernan Gonzales which signs in medieval Spanish the deeds of a tenth-century Castilian hero, specifies that Castile is the best of the lands of Spannia and that Fernand Ggonzals fought even against the Christian kings of Spannia. In fact,  Christians in the North of Spain initially referred to Chrisian dhimmis in Islami Spain as Spani -that is, as Spaniards. “Until the twelfth century,” the historian Miguel Anel Ldero Quesade writes, “Christians, especially those in the Pyrenean area, frequently called the lands of ‘al-Andalus’ Hispani, and so did the ‘gothicists’ from the kindom of Leon, since they considered it unliberated territory.” Valve Bernejo and fellow historian Reinhart ozy have pointd out that the Latin chronicles by Christians in the North of Spain designated as Spania recisely the land that Muslims had conquered.
Significantly, these political references to the land as Spain occurred despite the fact that in the Midle Ages there was no single “kingdom of Spain.” Nonetheless, in 1077 Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile called himself “imperator totius hispaniae” (emperor of the whole of Spain). Another chronicle calls Sancho II of Leon and  Castile (1036-1072) “rex totius Castelle et dominator Hispaniae” (king of Castile and dominator of Spain.) … Christian historians as early as 754, in the Chronica mozarabica, were lamenting “the loss of Spain.” … Julian of Toledo, a prelate of Jewish origin who became bishop of all Visigoth Spain, wrote a History of King Wamba (Historia Wambae), which has been considered a “nationalistic work” defending the patria and the people of Spain in contrast to those of such “foreign lands” as Francia. Muslims themselves often used the word Sspain rather than al-Andalus … Archaeology confirms this Muslim usage: numismatics tells us that the earliest Muslim coins in  Spain, dating from the first half of the eighth century, a few years after the conquest, show on one side the name Alandalus in Arabic and on the other, for proper identification, the Latin abbreviation SPAN -that is,Spania.”
(Fernandez-Morera, The Myth of Andalusia)

Furthermore, there seems to be some misunderstanding among popular historians, who confuse religious taxation with acceptance of religious minorities. Simply put, there was no such thing as love between any of these groups. While people can point to some exceptions, these were extremely rare. For the most part, when Christian or Muslim rulers accepted peoples of a different faith, especially those the latter referred to as “people of the book” (those belonging to any of the Abrahamic faiths), it was because they offered a financial incentive (i.e. they could be taxed).

The special tax religious minorities, including the remaining few who still practiced the Zoroastrian faith, was known as the Jizyah. It can be found in the Quran, Sura (chapter( 9, section 4, verse 29: “Fight against such of the people who despite having been given the Scripture do not really believe in Allah and the Last Day, and who do not hold unlawful that Allah and His Messenger have declared to be unlawful, and do not subscribe to the true faith, until they pay the Jizyah, provided they cannot afford it, and they are content with their state of subjection …”

Furthermore, Muslim legalist scholar and Jurist, Abu Yusuf added: “After Abu Ubaydah concluded a peace treaty with the people of Syria and had collected from them the jyzya and the tax for agrarian land, he was informed that the Romans were readying for battle against him and that the situation had become critical for him and the Muslims. Abu Ubaydah then wrote to the governors of the cities with whom pacts had been concluded they must return the sums collected from jizya and kharja and say to their subjects: “We return to you your money because we have been informed that troops are being raised against us. In our agreement you stipulated that we protect you, but we are unable to do so. Therefore, we now return to you what we have taken from you, and we will abide by the stipulation and what has been written down, if God grants us the victory over them.”

While this may seem like a ‘fair’ treatment in an otherwise unfair era, you must not let the eloquence of this holy book and this Jurist fool you. In an earlier Surah, it reminds those who follow the path of Islam that they should be merciful to the unbeliever, but after a certain while, if this fails to convert them, they should turn against them and strike them down for rejecting conversion.

Quran Birmingham_Quran_manuscript“Verily, those who conceal the clear evidences and the guidance which We have revealed, after We have explained them to the people in this Book, these it is whom Allah deprives of His mercy and also disapprove all those who can disapprove, except such (of them) as repent and mend (themselves) and declare clearly (the truth which they used to hide), it is they to whom I shall tur with mercy, for I am the Oft-Returning (with compassion and) the Ever Merciful. But those who persist in disbelief and die while they are disbelievers, these are the ones upon whom be the disapproval of Allah and of the angels and of people and (in short) of all of them. They shall remain in this (state of disapproval) for long. Their punishment shall not be reduced for the, and no respite shall be given to them. And your God is One God, there is no other, cannot be and will never be one worthy f worship but He, the Most Gracious, the Ever Merciful.” (Quran, Sura 2, verses 59-63)

In her biography on Isabella, Kirstin Downey mentions the violent end that Jews suffered in Granada in 1066, at the supposed height of Spain’s golden age of religious toleration. As preached in the Quran, if a non-believer refuses conversion, he or she should no longer be treated with mercy. In this case, upon suffering an economic collapse, Muslims looked for someone to blame and who better than foreigners whom all of a sudden, it was forgotten how they were also affected by this crisis, and that in spite of facing continuous discrimination by their Muslim peers, they still followed the law.
Specifically, Muslim commons targeted Jews.

“In 1066, Muslims rioted and destroyed the entire Jewish community in Granada, killing thousands more, in fact, than the numbers killed by Christians in the Rhineland at the beginning of the first Crusade. In the twelfth century, the Muslims expelled the entire population of Christians living in the cities of Malaga and Granada and sent them to Morroco.” (Downey, Isabella: the Warrior Queen)

No Jew was spared. Neither were Christians who were captured in raids and sold off to slavery. Of the few that managed to escape and tell the tale is of Georgius of Hungary. After he became a priest, he wrote a memoir where he revealed the horrific details that he and his fellow Christians went through.

“In all the provinces, just as for other sorts of trafficking, a particular public place is held for buying and selling human beings, and places legally assigned for this purpose. To this location and public selling ground, the poor captives are brought, bound with ropes and chains, as if sheep for slaughter. There, they are examined and stripped naked. There, a rational creature made in the image of God is compared and sold for the cheapest price like a dumb animal. There (and this is a shameful thing to say) the genitals of both men and women are handled publicly by all an shown in the open. They are forced to walk naked in front of everyone, to run, walk, leap, so that it becomes plainly evident, whether each is weak or strong, male or female, old or young (and, for women,) virgin or corrupted. If they see someone blush with shame, they stand around to urge those on even more, beating them with staves, punching them, so that they do by force that which of their own free will they would be ashamed to do in front of everyone.
There a son is sold with his mother watching and grieving.  There, a mother is bought in the presence and to the dismay of her son. In that place, a wife is made sport of, like a prostitute, as her husband grows ashamed, and she is given to another man.  There a small boy is seized from the bosom of his mother, and his mother is separated from him. There no dignity is granted, nor is any social class spared. There a holy man and a commoner are sold at the same price. There a soldier and a country bumpkin are weighed in the same balance. Furthermore, this is just the beginning of their evils …
Oh how many, unwilling to bear the crisis of such an experience, fell to the depth of desperation! Oh how many, exposing themselves to die in various ways, fled into the hills and woods and perished because of starvation or thirst, an there’s also this final evil: taking their own hands against themselves, they either wrung out their own lives with a noose, or hurling themselves into the river, they lost the life of their body and spirit at the same time.”

As noted above in Georgius’ memoir, virgins were in high demand. Many of the Sultans’ mothers happened to be Christian women who rose through the ranks, becoming chief concubine or legal wife of their lord and master, the Sultan. Boabdil, the last Sultan of Granada fought with his father over his new favorite concubine who had been sold off into slavery to the Sultan. As it happened in such environments where women have to compete against one another so they could become the highest ranking woman in the harem, earning power and respect that they would not have otherwise (unless they were born in the aristocracy); Boabdil’s mother, Aixa felt threatened by his father’s (Abul-Hasan Ali) new concubine, Isabel de Solis. A beautiful Castilian who was the daughter of nobleman Sancho Jimenez de Solis, she was kidnapped by border raiders led by the Abul-Hasan Ali’s brother. Being the first to notice her beauty, he gave her as a present to his brother who was captivated with her on the spot. As a result, Boabdil and his mother sought to undermine her influence. When this didn’t work, they sought the aid of the Catholic Kings.

1492 Granada TCK
Conniving and astute, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, gave him his support, finding it easier to play the Nasrid dynasty against one another so when the right moment came to strike and recover the last piece of lands the Muslims had taken from them, they’d have an easier job doing so.
Their plan worked. As the old saying goes, Isabella and Ferdinand’s arduous campaign and plots paid off. On the 2nd of January 1492, Boabdil, the last Nasrid Sultan of the last Taifa Kingdom in Spain, surrendered to his once allies turned adversaries.
Isabel de Solis returned to Castile, re-converted to Christianity and lived a quiet life. The same cannot be said for other women. Many had to convert to Islam and adapt to their new surroundings. Boys for their part also faced many struggles. Some like Suleiman I -known as Suleiman “Muhtesem”, “the Magnificent”- former slave, Ibrahim, managed to rise through the ranks and become members of the aristocracy and were free to reconnect with their families, even inviting them to live with them. But once again, these cases were rare and the families had to convert and adopt Islamic practices or else, they wouldn’t be allowed to live with them.

As part of this religious harmonious society, Jews,  Christians and Zoroastrians were segregated. If the person was sickly, a priest, old, a woman or child, he or she would be exempt from paying the tax. Able-bodied men -unless they weren’t financially stable or joined the military- would be obligated to pay the tax if they wanted to be left in peace. However, they could not hold certain offices or walk on certain parts of the street or put their business in a place where it competed with local Muslim businesses.
Also, religious minorities were prohibited of living in the same neighborhood as their Muslim peers. The dead were also segregated. Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians had to have separate cemeteries.

One aspect that is often criticized of medieval Europe is the treatment of conversos of Moriskos, that is, Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity. Rarely, the same attention is given to the religious minorities that converted to Islam. As their counterparts in Christian Europe, these new converts were always seen with suspicion (and envy whenever they rose higher than their Muslim peers). Ibrahim, the aforementioned favorite of Suleiman I is proof of that. Jealous of his rise, they convinced Suleiman that he was a threat. Suleiman, threatened by his former slave’s popularity, believed them and he ordered his execution.

High or low, converts or still part of the religious minority; regardless of how productive they were or how much they achieved, they were never seen by their Muslim peers as their equals.

In his dissertation, Spanish scholar Eduardo Manzano-Moreno criticizes the proliferation of this myth, stating that it is nothing more than wishful thinking.
“El de Convivencia es un concepto que ha sido poco elaborado.”
(The concept of Convivencia is a concept that hasn’t been fully elaborated.)

He is right. “Convivencia” is a symptom of nostalgic story-telling. It is how some wish to remember the past instead of accepting it as yet another complicated era of human history.

Sources:

  • Downey, Kirstin. Isabella: The Warrior Queen. 2014.
  • Fox, Julia. Sister Queens: The Noble Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile. Ballantine Books. 2012.
  • Fernandez-Morera, Dario. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain. Intercollegiate Studies. 2016.
  • The Quran (Modern English Translation)
  • Manzano Moreno, Eduardo. Qurtuba: Algunas Reflexiones criticas sobre el califato de Cordoba y el mito de la Convivencia. Awraq n7, 2013. ( http://www.awraq.es/blob.aspx?idx=5&nId=96&hash=ac20943d589408c5a0a3cd2c1e0908a4 )
  • Tremlett, Giles. Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen. Bloomsbury USA. 2017.
  • I also recommend my co-author’s blog where my article is linked to her take on this subject. HERE