Religion in The Book of the Duchess

I found some of The Book of Duchess very hard to follow but one of the most interesting aspects of piece that I enjoyed was the religious and mythological references.  I found it very interesting that there is no mention of the Christian afterlife, not even in a hopeful way.  One of several references is when the man in black says “God yive me reste” (683).  Also, toward the beginning of the story during the telling of King Seys and Queen Alcyone, the speaker doesn’t mention an afterlife when he refers to their deaths even when the widow is grieving for her late husband, she does not find comfort in any Christian ideals, but instead turns to Juno from Greek mythology.  Although there is mention of helle or being damned if you commit suicide, there is no hopeful thoughts of heaven.

Like other medieval texts we have read, there is a combination of religions or spiritualities.  I find it fascinating that the line between Christian texts and Greek mythology, for example, is so ambiguous.  Texts evoke Christian God and Greek gods. Like our readings from last week that talked about Wyrd and fate, this piece refers to Fortune as a powerful force.  The mixtures of powers and religions is sometime confusing, but all in all very interesting.

Naturalistic Characteristics in The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and Deor

The found the connections between The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and Deor, including the lack of agency and the references to Wyrd to be very interesting.  Both The Wanderer and The Seafarer begin with a description of suffering and sorrow that is unavoidable, then at a turning point the speakers begin to reference the greatest of God and the goodness of salvation that will come after all the suffering.  The Seafarer begins with a description of the hardships and suffering that he cannot escape as a seafarer, as The Wanderer and Deor begin with a lament of a devastated and destructed place that destroyed building and took loved ones and kinsmen.  At the turning point of The Seafarer, the speaker rejoices in the opportunities and gifts God has given him and begins to look at his life as a seafarer as an adventure and a chance to travel which God has granted him, similarly to the turning point of The Wanderer where the speaker expresses acceptance of suffering and suggests that if one turns to God for mercy they will one day have salvation.  While both The Wanderer and The Seafarer shift from a lamenting, lonely, suffering attitude to an acceptance of the suffering, Doer lacks this happy ending. Instead of ending with a prayer to God or a hope in salvation, Doer ends with a continuation of the description of never ending decay and no hope and no agency.

These elegies, especially Doer reminded me of the naturalist literature of the mid-nineteenth century. This literature was characterized by a lack of agency and lack of control of fate, which I felt the elegies also contained. Although two of my three examples ended with an acceptance and hope for the mercy of God, the speakers still lacked agency in their sorrowful lives and looked at Wyrd as unchangeable, like naturalistic literature saw fate and nature as uncontrollable and set in stone.

Emotions as Tools

I found Rosenwein’s piece about emotions and the depiction of the history of emotions very interesting.  Something that especially interested me was theorist, Huizinga’s ideas verses Gerd Althoff’s contradicting notions. Huizinga expresses a stereotypical view on the Middle Ages and suggests that the emotions of that time were “child-like.”  Huizinga interprets the violence, directness, and passionate emotions of everyday life in the Middle Ages as childish.  Febvre took this idea one step further and announced that all emotions are irrational, violent, and passionate, however, unlike the Middle Ages, other times were able to control and restrain this natural impulse.  Gerd Althoff dismantles Huizinga’s theories by looking at ritual and conventions of the Middle Ages.  Althoff asserted that these so-called childlike emotions were not childish at all, in fact they were just part of the social function of emotions at the time and they followed the rules and conventions of the society.  Although, some examples of the expression of violent and extravagant emotions of the Middle Ages may seem foreign and even childlike to modern researchers, those emotions fit the function of emotions at that time.  Emotions like violence were used to convey, comprehend, and shift power. Just as today, emotions are used as tools to navigate through society and life, therefore, we should expect that different “tools” may be needed during different eras, cultures, and situations.  Althoff’s argument against the childlikeness of the emotions of the Middle Ages overthrows a typical stereotype that is accepted by far too many people.

Power and Virtue

Of all of our readings, I found Chaucer’s Gentilesse the most interesting. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the earthly love lyrics, and found the religious lyrics, especially the conversation between Jesus and Mary in Stond well, moder, under Rode, I liked Gentilesse the most. The “fader of gentilesse” and “the firse fader in magestee” can be interpreted as Jesus or God, however, when I first read it I interpreted it to literally mean an ancestor. On second look, I interpreted the poem to be praising God, appreciating Jesus’  virtue, and reflecting on the lack of virtue in the upper class or powerful leaders of society. The first stanza initiates the idea that true virtue is not something you are born into, it is something you achieve by the way you act. In other words, the powerful are not necessarily virtuous just because they are bishops, kings, or emperors. Chaucer states you must hold virtues and get rid of vices like Jesus did. The poem points out that although riches may be passed down (to men with vices), no man can pass down his virtue.  This reflects a flaw in society, possibly pointing to the corruptness of the rich and powerful, stating that they may have titles and crowns but they may not be virtuous. It could be considered a critique of the powerful by pointing out their flaws, one being a lack of faith and virtue, and expressing a need for the powerful to also be virtuous.

One Step Closer to “Feeling Medieval”

Evans’ first chapter crowns emotion as the “the universal language,” as the chapter is fittingly titled. Although not all languages have a word to describe a particular emotion, individuals across cultures and language barriers are likely able to feel that particular emotion. The example Evans shares describes a Japanese word, amae, which means, “comfort in another person’s complete acceptance” (2). Although the English language does not have a word that is equivalent to amae, all humans are capable of feeling this emotion. Evans further exemplifies the universality of emotion by sharing the categories of emotions on a spectrum including “basic” emotions that are naturally possessed by all humans, “culturally specific” emotions that are learned by some cultures, and “higher cognitive emotions,” which lie somewhere between basic and culturally specific emotions on a spectrum of emotions.

After reading Gastle’s historical context piece, I tried to find a connection between Evans’s emotional spectrum and medieval history and literature. The point that came to mind was the question asked during class on Tuesday, what it means to “feel medieval.” Considering this question with regard to the two articles, I imagine that Middle English literature may possess and elicit from the reader portrayals of basic emotions, such as joy, surprise, anger and fear, but also different culturally specific emotions, like the “being a wild pig” emotion of the Gururumba people of New Guinea and variations of the higher cognitive emotions (13). Gastle’s piece shares some of the political and religious problems of the medieval period, which are depicted in various pieces of literature. I look forward to using my newfound knowledge of the emotional spectrum and medieval history to attempt to better understand how “feeling medieval” actually feels.