March 22: Romancing the Findern

The second half of chapter two in OUMEM focuses on the Findern Manuscript. Olson points out ways in which “provincial location, social prestige, literary good taste and creative ability are central” to the Findern and how these qualities seem to create a more “modern perception of the past” (139).

In what ways is the Findern collection a different kind of romance manuscript than those we’ve studied so far this semester? What seemed particularly striking, interesting and different, and what might Olson mean when she suggests it’s a more modern perception of the past?

Piers as a Christ-Like Figure

In reading Passus 7 and Passus 18, I am reminded of the use of plowmen in medieval literature. Like Langland, Chaucer uses a plowman to represent one of the good guys in his Canterbury Tales. Perhaps it is the assumption that a plowman works hard, is diligent, honest and relatable that makes him a suitable candidate for representing a “good” character in a story. Langland uses the plowman in an especially interesting way. In Passus 18, I got the sense that Piers the Plowman is intended to be a Christ-like figure. Passus 18 gives a detailed and recognizable story of Christ riding into Jerusalem and His crucifixion. Both stories are seen in the Bible, but Langland goes into less detail than we originally get in the Bible, and instead spends a lot of time focusing on the Harrowing of Hell, a story not depicted in the Bible but still well known. During his dream at the beginning of Passus 18, Will witnesses “Someone resembling the Samaritan, and somewhat Piers the Plowman” riding into Jerusalem (10-11). Faith explains to Will that “This Jesus will joust in Piers’s arms, In his helmet and his mail coat, human nature” (22-23). I had a difficult time knowing exactly what Faith means in this explanation, and I took it to mean one of two things: either Jesus is wearing a disguise of Piers while he jousts in Jerusalem, or Piers himself is acting as a stand-in for Jesus. Either way, it seems that Langland is using Piers in close reference with Christ, and Piers is intended to be understood as a Christ figure who helps guide Will through his theological allegory, in search of what it means to live a good Christian life.

Manuscript Illustrations and Social Media

I found our reading in the OUMEM for today particularly interesting, and in the midst of all things Middle English (which to me is very new!) I was able to relate to the aspect of images in manuscripts. After reading our assigned pages, I looked to the blog to see what others had to say. Kaleb’s post was especially resonate; text (such as a Cracker Barrel menu) can be completely overwhelming if there isn’t an interesting image to help represent said text. When reading this I immediately thought of social media today. The most popular social media outlets involve picture and video (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat). And I think we can all agree that when scrolling through your Facebook feed you’re less likely to stop and read that post that is paragraphs long unless there’s an intriguing picture associated with it. Initially I thought that modern culture’s move towards images, quick videos and minimal text was a new development. However, when I think back to the reading in the OUMEM, it makes sense that even in medieval manuscripts illustrations and design were a vital part of the manuscript experience. For those who were illiterate, images helped them understand and connect with the text, much like picture books help kids understand a story. I myself can remember being a kid and not knowing how to read, but I could identify a story and explain the plot because the images were familiar to me, and in my head I had a connection between those illustrations and the appropriate text. The text goes on to explain how to “read” illustrations in manuscripts. The best advice we get is to approach illustrations “with an open mind” and the “pious attitude that might have been expected of a person in the Middle Ages” (154).

Another interesting piece of the reading was how early Christians had anxiety about illustrations in manuscripts breaking the Second Commandment. This commandment argues against the making of graven images or idols. So scribes had to refrain from images that were too beautiful or too realistic for fear that Christian minds would “cling only to earthly things”. Hmm much like we “cling” to our smart phones and social media today. I wonder what early Christians would have to say about that . . .

Middle English all around us

In my salon group yesterday, we talked a lot about classic medieval romances that we’d studied in courses previous to this one. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Beowulf were all stories that we were familiar with and that immediately came to mind when we thought of medieval literature. This being said, we found it very odd that both Sir Gawain and Beowulf were not widely read during their time. As we mentioned in our last class, the tale of Sir Gawain disappeared for a moment in time and wasn’t read and studied near as much as it is today. My salon group found this very interesting; how could a story that is so well known, liked and studied today fail to be circulated during its time?

After watching the “Mini Documentary: Romance of the Middle Ages” I was impressed how seemingly well preserved many of the manuscripts were. It was also interesting that upon the development of the printing press and a more advanced method of printing and publishing, many printed books took on the same look and style of classical manuscripts. The documentary also discussed how beginning in the 19th century there was a peak in interest of all things medieval. Walter Scott and William Morris both used medieval plots and nostalgia, as well as some more modern writers like C.S. Lewis. I found it so interesting that in the documentary they had a copy of a book of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that belonged to C.S. Lewis. In it he kept extensive notes and even drew small pictures that helped him better understand the Middle English text. Even the 1970s film Monty Python and the Holy Grail parodies medieval romance. It seems that the influence of Middle English manuscripts is all around us to this day, not only in our written language, but even in genres and modern forms of entertainment such as Monty Python.