Medieval Literature B. McDaniel John F. Kennedy School Berlin, Germany
Themes of Medieval Literature fall into several major categories which seem to reflect the concerns/focus of life for people in that time period.
The Seven Deadly Sins (what to avoid)
The Seven Heavenly Virtues (what to do)
Physiognomy and “The Humours”
Values of “courtly love”
The Code of Chivalry
The Seven Deadly Sins
Usually thought of as involving obsessive or excessive thoughts or desires of a sexual nature.
Unfulfilled lusts sometimes lead to sexual or sociological compulsions and/or transgressions including (but obviously not limited to) sexual addiction, adultery, bestiality, and rape.
Such "excessive love of others" rendered love and devotion to God as secondary.
The over-indulgence and over-consumption of anything to the point of waste. In the Christian religions, it is considered a sin because of the excessive desire for food, or its withholding from the needy.
Medieval church leaders argued that it could also include an obsessive anticipation of meals, and the constant eating of delicacies and excessively costly foods.
“ Greed" refers to the acquisition of wealth in particular
Forms of greedy behavior include disloyalty, deliberate betrayal, or treason, especially for personal gain, for example through bribery. Scavenging and hoarding of materials or objects, theft and robbery, especially by means of violence, trickery, or manipulation of authority are all actions that may be inspired by greed.
The definition of sloth has changed considerably since its original inclusion among the seven deadly sins. In fact it was first called the sin of sadness .
The modern view of the vice is that it represents the failure to utilize one's talents and gifts.
More simply—a sin of laziness or indifference, of an unwillingness to act, an unwillingness to care
Inordinate and uncontrolled feelings of hatred and anger.
The transgressions borne of vengeance are among the most serious, including murder, assault, and in extreme cases, genocide.
Wrath is the only sin not necessarily associated with selfishness or self interest (although one can of course be wrathful for selfish reasons, such as jealousy).
Those who commit the sin of envy desire something that someone else has which they perceive themselves as lacking.
In almost every list pride (or vanity ) is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and indeed the ultimate source from which the others arise.
It is identified as a desire to be more important or attractive than others, failing to give compliments to others though they may be deserving of them, and excessive love of self (especially holding self out of proper position toward God).
The Seven Heavenly Virtues
The Seven Virtues are:
Refers to sexual behavior of a man or woman acceptable to the ethical norms and guidelines of a certain culture, civilization or religion.
Chastity is of particular relevance to the transition from unmarried to married status.
Commonly – means being “ chaste" by having a sexual relationship ONLY with your spouse.
The practice of moderation.
Temperance was defined as governing (controlling) natural appetites for the pleasure of the senses according to the bounds of reason.
Often refers specifically to limiting the amount of alcohol one drinks.
Agape is an unlimited loving/kindness towards all others.
Believed to be the ultimate perfection of the human spirit because it is said to both glorify and reflect the nature of God.
In its most extreme form, such love can be self-sacrificial.
Comprised two parts: love of God and love of man, which includes both love of one's neighbor and one's self.
A zealous and careful nature in one's actions and work.
Decisive work ethic.
Budgeting one's time; monitoring one's own activities to guard against laziness.
The mental, and/or spiritual process of ceasing to feel resentment, indignation or anger against another person for a perceived offense, difference or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution.
The act or the state of charitable behaviour to other people.
The direct opposite of the sin of envy .
Humble – the defining characteristic of an unpretentious and modest person, someone who does not think that he or she is better or more important than others.
Humility as a religious or spiritual virtue is different from the act of humiliation or shaming.
Physiognomy was a popular "science" in the Middle Ages.
It was based on the idea that the mental and emotional characteristics of an individual could be determined from physical characteristics like physique, hair, and voice quality.
“ The 4 Humours”
A traditional theory of physiology in which the state of health--and by extension the state of mind, or character--depended upon a balance among the four elemental fluids: blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile. These were closely allied with the four elements (air, fire, water, and earth). Their correspondence is described as follows:
Description: Hot and Moist
Word used: “Sanguine”
Characteristic: Amorous, happy, generous
Description: hot and dry
Word used: “Choleric”
Characteristic: violent and vengeful
Description: cold and moist
Word used: “Phlegmatic”
Characteristic: dull, pale, cowardly
Description: cold and dry
Word used: “Melancholic”
Characteristic: gluttonous, lazy, sentimental
The "humours" gave off vapors which ascended to the brain; an individual's personal characteristics (physical, mental, moral) were explained by his or her "temperament," or the state of that person's "humours." The perfect temperament resulted when no one of these humours dominated. By 1600 it was common to use "humour" as a means of classifying characters; knowledge of the humours is not only important to understanding later medieval work, but essential to interpreting Elizabethan drama, especially the late-16th century genre known as the "comedy of humours" (cf. Ben Jonson).
Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish for, above all things, the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love‘s precepts in the other‘s embrace.
from The Art of Courtly Love , by Andreas Capellanus
Rules of Courtly Love
1. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
2. He who is not jealous cannot love.
3. No one can be bound by a double love.
4. It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing.
5. Boys do not love until they arrive at the age of maturity.
6. No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.
7. Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice.
8. It is not proper to love any woman whom one should be ashamed to seek to marry.
9. A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.
10. When made public, love rarely endures.
11. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.
12. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
13. When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved, his heart palpitates.
14. A new love puts to flight an old one.
15. Good character alone makes any man worthy of love.
16. A man in love is always apprehensive.
17. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
18. Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.
19. He whom the thought of love vexes, eats and sleeps very little.
20. Every act of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved.
21. A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved.
22. A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved.
23. A man who is vexed by too much passion usually does not love.
24. A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.
25. Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women.
Chivalry is a system of discipline and social interaction that is derived from the warrior class of medieval times, especially and primarily the class of trained warriors who participated in the Crusades (12 th – 14 th centuries).
The ideals and behavior codes governed both knight and gentlewoman
adhere to the oath of loyalty to one’s overlord
acceptance of certain rules of warfare
adoration of a particular lady for purposes of self-improvement
Chivalry has a discipline because those ancient soldiers trained themselves daily through learning and practicing the arts of attack and self defense.
These arts gave rise to the idea of control of body, mind, and speech in the Knight.
The idea of social interaction developed because the Knight originally followed carefully the orders of his superiors who were interested only in battle with those who were eligible to fight. (Civilians were not to be engaged in battle.)
From this idea of engaging only other Knights developed the idea of treating enemies and friends fairly and equally.
Men who excelled in battle were honored with Knighthood, an honor first granted by Knights only.
Later, as the honor of being a Knight grew, both Monarchy and the Church (Eastern Orthodox as well as Roman Catholic) began to participate in the selection and creation of Knights.
Ideals of Knighthood were often violated by the Knight warriors themselves.
Ideals survived as Knighthood came to be thought of as an honor to be bestowed upon those who had proven themselves worthy.
Rank and status of Knight began to take on aspects of a minor Nobility that one could achieve (rather than having to be born into). (Example: People like Sir Paul McCartney)
A Knight should be known for:
The Chivalric code has never died. It is still the basis for what are today considered “good manners” or “proper behavior” (such as women and children first).
Characteristics of the Medieval Romance
Romance – from the French romanz – means “in the Roman language” (i.e., not Latin, but the “vernacular” – the language spoken by the people)
Often contains supernatural or magical events
Resembles legends and myths
Set in a world where ordinary laws or nature are often suspended.
Idealized heroes fight the forces of evil
The basic story is usually a quest. (The hero goes on a perilous journey in search of something of great value.)
Story is old in origin and simple in structure
Writers in later times set stories in an earlier time (such as Ivanhoe or modern fantasy stories)
Events and characters come in sets of 3
When the hero dies, he takes on the features of a god or is remembered as someone more than human
The questions raised in the stories are simplistic and have obvious answers
Similar to children’s stories
Characteristics of the Romantic Hero
Very similar to the epic hero
Goes on a quest, often with companions. (Quest is a perilous journey.)
Often shows a need to impress others with his heroic deeds
Represents the ideals of heroism and leadership in his society.
Always follows the Code of Chivalry:
Honor is extremely important (prefers death to dishonor)
Shows respect for women
Is a skilled warrior
Follows the rules of combat
Always pays debts/fulfills obligations
Is concerned about the welfare of his opponent. (You must take care of a man you just injured in combat.)
Has a sense of fairness. (He won’t participate in a fight that’s heavily weighted on one side.)