Thursday, April 11, 2013

3. everyday lives, time and society

 I have been working on a new hose (a pair of stockings in now-speak) recently. The market date is drawing close and I already start agonizing about having enough to wear.Well,  not really enough, because I do have enough, but having new things to wear, and interesting things.

Which made me think.
We try so hard to reconstruct the past. Re-creating the material world of the Middle Ages is challenging, to say the least. How was this sewn? What kind of seam was used? What kind of fabric? What is the proper construction for this time period? And so forth and so on.
But can we recontruct the mental world? How were the Middle Ages really?

 This little book grabbed my attention recently: Real Life Stories from The Middle Ages. The original is German, and I don't know whether it has been translated into other languages. Arnold Esch, Wahre Geschichten aus dem Mittelalter. Beck'sche Reihe, München 2012.
here's a short youtube video about the book

In this book people speak to us through their petitions. 'This and that happened, (but I am not guilty) can I be pardoned?'  That about sums it up. They tell us meticulously how it happened that a baby fell on the steps and died, about fights in the tavern and at the universities, about houses on fire, executions, games ending badly, jokes getting a bad turn. Basically, whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and we will hear about it through the petitions to the bishop or to Pope.

But why petitions? Why not just make your peace with it, make amends according to your abilities, and be done with it? That's what a modern person would do, or, if the crime was significant, the person would put to prison 'to make amends'.
The Medieval society was very much influenced by the Church, in fact it was penetrated by it. Religiosity determined the mind-set and the rules. You lived to make your life pleasing to God.  This explains the wealth of these petitions: 'please, can we forget about my stupid past deeds, I want my slate to be wiped clean'.

The Medieval society was anthropologically speaking a cold society. Time stood still. In a way time was circular, because you were what your parents were, there was practically no upward mobility, no change. Life repeated itself generation after generation. (more reading)

When looking at such a society from our point of view it is hard to understand what keeps a person in there. Don't they see? Can't they think for themselves? Don't they want to be, um, themselves? Where is their personality, their individuality?

One reason is of course, that one is captive of one's times. No one can escape their times, there is no way out, not even for us.  But think of a circular, cold society - it is a such peaceful and easy place to live. If you live up to the rules, you have security. You have a sense of community and you feel connected. You know what you can expect of life. (Because it won't change. It will be the same as for your parents, and your children will have the same life as you. No aspirations, no struggle... See, easy?)
(We see some religious present-day communities adhere to cold society and circular time, think Amish, Mennonites.)

Illustration for Boccaccio,  Decamerone II 4, in a 1410/40 manuscript for Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy.  Paris, Bibliothque l'Arsenal, ms. 5070.

The fascinating change into our warm society came with the Reformation. No longer were you embedded in a community which told you what to do, you were suddenly on your own. You were demanded to have a conscience and live according to your own conscience. With this development people started to make individual choices. And with individual choices came the responsibility for the choices you were making. Individualism and personal responsibility are two sides of the same coin.

According to Le Goff the perspective started to shift from with the upcoming merchant class. In Early and High Medieval times the production was mainly for use or subsistence. The rise of the monetary economy made broader trade possible, which in turn facilitated the emergence of merchant class. This of course shattered the easy three-tiered society (more reads here) where everyone knew their place. So the shift took us away from stagnating time of church into the progressive time of merchants.

These days we live in a linear time. This means there's a need to plan ahead, to make a series of significant life choices; we are riddled with lack of time and uncertainties. Yet, as a trade-off, we have our destiny in our hands. (Or so we like to think.)

In a lecture this week a professor expressed the view in the Middle Ages there were very little taboos and therefore people were spontaneous. Their mind turned on a dime from being friend to being your enemy, they laughed and cried in public, they would (and here he was referring to royalty) urinate and make love publicly. The process of civilization through the 16th C created taboos and subsequently this public exhibitionism ceased to be.

I am not sure whether I buy into this "medieval people were like children" point of view. It sounds somehow very prejudiced - or is it just me?


  1. Hello! I thought I would come and pay you a visit back.

    As to your professor's idea - I don't really hold with it either and I agree that it seems prejudiced. Perhaps the difference is this: children do not think very much about whether things are right or wrong or socially acceptable or not. Adults do - in fact they are sometimes crippled by this.

    Just because medieval adults were not concerned by things that we find socially unacceptable does not make them child-like. It just means their society found different things unacceptable. They obviously were concerned about things, e.g. aspects of sexual morality, that no longer concern us. Members of certain parts of modern Western society have no social qualms about touching members of the opposite sex in ways that medieval society would find unacceptable. Conversely, we would find unacceptable their custom of men kissing on the mouth to symbolise agreement or fealty. Are they the children for being exhibitionist or are we?

  2. That's a good point! I like where you are going with it.