The Barbarity of Manners

               The subject of medieval manners must seem to most of my readers something of a contradiction in terms.  It is often seen as a barbarous age, largely devoid of the niceties that are the telltale signs of civilization.  This view is especially prominent when thinking of banqueting and food.  Hollywood has given us images of big-bearded men eating meat off the bone and being served by lusty wenches whose manners are no better.  Bones and scraps seem to be thrown over the shoulder to waiting dogs and peasants, with no thought given to the original presentation of portions and no delicacy of touch.

                Needless to say, this view is a fantasy.  The vast majority of medieval banquets, of which we are aware, were run in a highly ordered fashion with stringent requirements in terms of manners and etiquette.  In the monastic world, meals were generally eaten in silence and with strict decorum even extending to elaborate forms of sign language designed to allow easy dining while the ban on noise was maintained.  Royal banquets could be rather more raucous, yet this alone is no reason to assume that there were not stringent standards imposed and high penalties to be paid if one transgressed. 

                Notker the Stammerer, in his life of Charlemagne, relates a tale that is highly illustrative of this point.   An emissary sent by Charlemagne is dined at a royal banquet on fish with the King of Greece and his nobles.  In an attempt to get as much meat off the backbone as possible, the emissary turned his fish over, an action that was taken as the gravest offence, it being against local custom and therefore the worst of manners.  The King ordered the emissary to be put to death for such an insult, but as he is a stranger, he is allowed to make one final request before the sentence is carried out.  In a moment of splendid cunning the emissary requests that everyone who saw him turn his fish have their eyes gouged out.  As none of the lords were willing to make such a sacrifice, they did not testify against the emissary, and thus he escaped unscathed.

                There are several remarkable facets to this tale.  The first is that Notker does not seem to feel that there is anything particularly horrendous about such a vicious penalty for a breach in manners.  He notes it as being abnormal, but it is clear that such infractions were considered highly insulting and were dealt with in a correspondingly serious fashion.  Secondly it seems clear that regional manners were common and that adherence was expected from all present, even if they were from a different land or unaware of the rules and restrictions.  However, neither of them does complete justice to the story.     

                The account is, in its own way, one of barbarism.  After all, the death penalty seems a little harsh for a small breach of conduct when eating fish.  Moreover, it seems especially vicious when it is applied to a stranger; a man from a foreign land with no knowledge of local customs or law.  However, the barbarism is not in the lack of manners, nor in the manners themselves.  Indeed, both of these elements seem highly civilized.  It is, rather, in the way in which the manners are imposed and enforced.  Yet, in a way, is not a regimented society whose harshest punishments are meted out for those minor transgressions of etiquette the peak of civility?  As our forbearers were so often told during the Victorian Era, these are the things that separate us from the barbarians.

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Who we talk about when we talk about Medieval Philosophers

My guest blog for RozierHistorian can be read here.  I hope you all enjoy it.

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Reading and Re-reading: Rhythm and Meaning in Medieval Writings

Speaking to students of history (and many other arts based subjects) I am often a little surprised and astounded by the amount of emphasis that has been placed upon intensive examination and note taking.  We laud critical skills in the dissection of a text and firm methodologies intended to deal with each of its component parts.  It is not that I’m opposed to such activities in principle; indeed, I would get very little research done if I were.  Rather, it seems to remove in a single stroke the beauty, passion, and, often, meaning from a number of the sources that we are so eager to encourage others to read.

The majority of modern writing is formatted for the individual; intended for a lone reader bent in concentration and isolated from other forms of noise or distraction.  With the obvious exceptions of poetry and dramatic works, modern authors rarely write with oral communication in mind and, as such, a different conception of pattern and flow are established.

In contrast, the majority of the dissemination of medieval and classic works can be regarded as an oral endeavor.  Monastic houses would ensure daily readings for the edification of their charges, Kings and Emperors (one brings Charlemagne to mind) would order continuous readings for their courts whenever there was a spare moment.  It seems foolish to think that medieval authors did not take this consideration into mind.  Examples of philosophical works that follow the disputational style abound (Anselm, Boethius, etc.). Fiction was commonly written with oral considerations in mind; alliteration, assonance, rhythmic concerns, and many others were common motifs.

So what then occurs when our reading of such texts is done in an environment focused upon dissection? We learn, for instance, that Anselm was familiar with Augustine’s writings on the Trinity.  We learn that Augustine was more familiar with Plotinus than Plato.  We are able to draw connections that would otherwise elude us, but at what cost? Surely the beauty to be gained from reading the Proslogion with no framework in mind, no eye for detail, and a brain cleared from the clutter of critical apparatus presents us with a greater gift and a broader understanding of a work’s meaning and impact.  It is easy to worry that we miss the forest for identifying the trees.

Of course, the vast majority of the academics I interact with would tell me that the whole point of reading is re-reading.  The idea that the crucial introduction to the material ought to be unadulterated before the critical eye is focused upon it.  How though, in an era in which it is difficult enough to convince ourselves, let alone our colleagues and students, to read as much as we feel we should, can this problem be solved?

Unfortunately, this is the moment at which I admit that I do not have the solution.  Both approaches are critical to an understanding of the material with which we work and perhaps moderation is all that can be realistically posited.  Before I sign off from this inaugural post, I wanted to leave you with a few words from Saint Anselm, “Taste the goodness of your Redeemer, be aflame with love for your Savior, chew His words as a honey-comb, suck out their flavor, which is sweeter than honey, swallow their health-giving sweetness. Chew by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow by loving and rejoicing. Rejoice in chewing, be glad in sucking, delight in swallowing.”

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