I’ve been reading Joachim Bumke’s Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages. It was published in German in 1986 and the English translation dates from 1991. It’s an odd book. Bumke isn’t arguing that the courtly literature of the 12th and 13th centuries accurately reflected the realities of aristocratic society at that time but he does seem to be arguing that the literature does tell us something real about the period, or at the very least about the way that society viewed itself.
Like most modern historians he seems reluctant to draw actual conclusions. After he has presented masses of intriguing evidence the book just stops.
There is some fascinating stuff here though. In the 11th century western European aristocratic society was still very much an honour-based warrior society. It was Christian, but not thoroughly Christianised. It certainly had little use for Christian notions of morality. Over the course of a couple of hundred years the Church engaged in a fierce struggle to change this. The contest ended in a fairly complete victory for the Church.
The lords regarded marriage as a purely economic and dynastic arrangement. Marriages were arranged and if you didn’t like your prospective bride or groom it was too bad. Force could be, and was, used to compel agreement. The Church was having none of that. The Church’s position was that no marriage was valid unless both partners consented. By the later Middle Ages they had more or less won their point. A degree of coercion might still be employed but if you absolutely refused your consent you could reasonably expect the Church to back you up.
The aristocracy also had a free-and-easy attitude towards fornication and even adultery, at least as far as men were concerned. The Church’s position was that sexual misconduct was sexual misconduct regardless of the sex of the transgressor. The Church certainly didn’t win a complete victory on this issue but they did manage to change attitudes to a degree.
The Church also tried, with some success, to limit the endless feuding of the nobles.
The Church was acting as a civilising agent at a time when western European society badly needed such an influence. Of course it’s all a matter of balance. This was a society that was excessively violent and immoral so at that time the civilising and feminising influences of the Church were a good thing, shifting the balance in a healthier direction.
The other thing that really intrigues me in this book is the survival of an oral literary tradition possibly as late as the 13th century. The idea that you could be totally illiterate and be a poet seems bizarre today but in the High Middle Ages there were indeed poets, and great poets at that, who were illiterate. What’s really interesting is that the oral literary tradition and the written literary tradition co-existed for centuries. Some of the most important literary works of the period, such as the Nibelungenlied, certainly originated within the oral tradition. Other epic poems written at precisely the same time originated as written works.
We don’t actually know how the audience of the time consumed (for want of a better word) their poetic works. Most were presumably sung or recited but whether there was an actual reading audience is unknown. The literacy levels at the various princely courts varied widely so we have no idea how much of the audience for literature comprised actual readers.
All interesting stuff, and it’s helping to feed my growing obsession with things mediaeval.