Important Things to Learn form Feudal Society and Medieval Literature
Feudal and Medieval Society: What Can We Learn from Literature?
What was Important or Considered Virtuous by Medieval Aristocrats?
It would appear that – based on what can be inferred from The Book of Contemplation, The Song of Roland, Beowulf, and The Lais of Marie de France – medieval aristocrats, while often appearing childish and valuing of less-than-noble virtues, also appreciated their fair share of honorable virtues as well. It must be assumed, then, that these aristocrats are comprised of more than meets the eye.
This is most obvious in The Book of Contemplation and Beowulf. In these works, we see acts of massive courage and bravery by aristocrats. Namely, the fearless slaying of Grendel and his mother by Beowulf in defense of a people he does not even call his own. “…I meant to perform the uttermost what your people wanted or perish in the process…”says Beowulf of his quest to rescue the Danes. Of course, we also see feats of generosity and modesty demonstrated in Beowulf as well: we see Beowulf giving much of his spoils from Hrothgar to his own king with no resent or disrespect. Beowulf is generous not only in this but in the previously discussed act of killing Grendel and his mother for the Danes itself. Modesty comes into play in Beowulf’s constant attributions of his victories less to himself and more to his God: “God’s will prevails…” according to Beowulf himself.
In the Book of Contemplation, we see other high-minded values extolled, for example: intelligence and (as discussed) propriety. Usama appears to place great value (and through this we must assume that his peers did as well) on intelligence. Ironically, this is best demonstrated through his examination of the “wonders of [their] intelligence.” as Usama sarcastically puts it. If intelligence were not so highly valued by medieval aristocrats (Muslim ones, at least), then the Franks’ apparent lack of it likely would not be so highly scrutinized here. Usama also appears to place value on propriety. This can easily be demonstrated in a similar manner by taking a look at Usama’s examination of the Franks’ lack of propriety. On the matter, Usama is very…frank (sorry), saying “The Franks possess nothing in the way of regard for honor or propriety.” and following by relating several stories of Frankish disregard for the safekeeping of their women – at least comparatively so with that of Muslim standards.
Of course, these honorable virtues were not all that the aristocrats of medieval times valued. As one imagines the stereotypical idea of a medieval aristocrat, a schema of less virtuous ideals often comes to mind. It is common to think of these aristocrats as assigning little value to the lives of their inferiors, often acting unfaithfully, and behaving dishonorably, among other things. These inferior values are best seen in The Lais of Marie de France – where we find numerous accounts of unfaithfulness and betrayal (which, as we know thanks to Dante, is the worst of sins) – and in The Song of Roland – where we find similarly innumerable accounts of discrimination and violence.
Starting with The Song of Roland, one merely has to open the book to find an occasion on which an aristocrat embodies the ideal of violence – a corrupt value held high in the minds of medieval aristocrats. The mindless slaying of tens of thousands of Saracens at the battle of Roncesvals can be excused as an act of war, however, the killing of equally as many innocents – in the name of Christianity, of course – during the invasion of Saragossa clearly demonstrates the medieval pension for violence. Conveniently, we can point out the value placed on discrimination by medieval aristocrats in the same two instances. The Song of Roland calls the Saracens “angry and wrathful” as they “flee” simply at the sound of Charles’ horns. This clearly demonstrates the disrespect for religions other than Christianity by medieval aristocrats, specifically those hearing the song of Roland, as such terms were intended for their pleasure (though this would likely have extended to commoners as well). As if that were not enough, such bias is clearly evident in the invasion of Saragossa and the slaying of all those who were unwilling to convert to Christianity.
The Lais of Marie de France show similarly undesirable values, however, maybe not on the same epic scale. Best demonstrated in Marie’s novel are unfaithfulness and betrayal. The best account of unfaithfulness comes in the lai Equitan (unfaithfulness can be found in almost every lai, however, Equitan is simply the most explicit and easiest to define). Betrayal, of course, can likely best be seen in the lai Lanval. This is especially demonstrative of betrayal in medieval aristocratic culture because, despite Lanval’s betrayal of the fairy mistress, she forgives him and he lives happily ever after with no consequence.
What was Considered Evil or Lacking Virtue by Medieval Aristocrats?
Since we have just discussed the things (both noble and ignoble) that were valued by medieval aristocrats, we must also then examine those which they found to be particularly evil or unworthy of their sentiment. Most obvious of these is cowardice, which is demonstrated as a poor and worthless trait. It is most clear in The Song of Roland. The Saracens are constantly portrayed as cowardly and evil (see above). After running from Charles’ horns, they receive nothing but brutal punishment, not only from the Franks but from God himself. In Beowulf, we see not the cowards punished, but the brave rewarded, thus not only placing importance on bravery, but disdain on cowardice. This is particularly obvious when most of Beowulf’s knights desert him in the face of death by dragon, while the sole remaining knight is rewarded with Beowulf’s gratitude and his kingdom.
Another trait which seems to be particularly vile in the eyes of medieval aristocrats is, rather obviously, being of a religion other that that of the author. This tends to be less of an issue in the view of Usama, who, despite having many negative (and rightly so) things to say of the Franks, still seems to hold some level of basic respect for them. This seems to be much the opposite of the sentiment in The Song of Roland, were any and every Muslim Saracen who is unwilling to convert is slaughtered – deemed unworthy even of living.
How were Medieval Aristocrats Expected to Behave?
Clearly, we cannot piece together an entire code of conduct, so to speak, based solely on the works available for the writing of this piece. However, based on these works as well as the conclusions we have come to over the course of the last two sections of this essay, we can piece together a loose set of behavioral rules they might have lived by.
It is evident through each piece in its own right that medieval aristocrats, despite living in much better conditions than their vassals, were expected to be highly courageous. This goes rather well with bravery being one of the traits or values that such aristocrats themselves valued. From the battlefields of the Franks and Saracens in The Song of Roland, to the depths of Grendel’s lake in Beowulf, to the desert battles of The Book of Contemplation and even the aristocratic duels of The Lais of Marie de France, we see aristocrats committing feats of courage (or dying in the process) left and right, so to speak.
Aristocrats were, then, expected also to protect their people. This can clearly be seen in The Song of Roland, Beowulf, and The Book of Contemplation. But what of life at home? The Lais of Marie de France clearly details the subtleties of “courtly love”. That being said, the ‘set of rules’ by which those in said “courtly love” were expected to live by seem to be less a ‘set of rules’ and more a ‘set of suggestions’. One exception seems to be honor, and Marie upholds this. It seems, in Marie’s eyes at least, that an aristocratic man is expected to defend his love. Finally, it seems that a man is expected to have only one love, as seen in many of her lais, including (but not limited to) Le Fresne, Bisclavret, Lanval, and even to an extent, The Unlucky One.
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