Exploring Ancient World Cultures
Essays on Medieval Europe

Literature and the Middle Time

Gerald Seaman

The Renaissance invented the Middle Ages in order to define itself; the Enlightenment perpetuated them in order to admire itself; and the Romantics revived them in order to escape from themselves. In their widest ramifications 'the Middle Ages' thus constitute one of the most prevalent cultural myths of the modern world.

-- Brian Stock, Listening for the Text.

The Middle Ages is a time of hypothesis wherein one of the most hypothetical concepts is time. The present essay addresses time as a conceptual and historical problem, in literary, religious, and practical terms. The interested student will find here valuable information on the origins of French literature, how the Middle Ages got its name, theological and everyday measurements of time, and the relationships of myth and fiction to genealogy in the founding of aristocratic families and feudal dynasties.

Somewhere between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance there was a middle time. During this period, the French language was born from the cradle of latinity. The ninth century, in fact, provides us with the first testimonies of what will become the language of French literature. Indeed, in the year 813, the emergence of the importance and widespread use of vernacular language in Europe is marked by the Council of Tours which, by giving priests the right to pronounce sermons in the common tongue ("rusticam"), particularly in French ("gallicam") and German ("teudiscam"), sought to mediate a crisis in preaching by closing the linguistic gap that had developed between the clergy and the lay people. Moreover, on 14 February 842, the Strasbourg Oaths renewed the military and political alliance between Louis the German and Charles the Bald (grandsons of Charlemagne) against their older brother Lothair. Although Charlemagne's empire was soon to be divided among the three brothers at the treaty of Verdun in 843, the Strasbourg Oaths remain a significant document in the history of Europe because they contain the first extant examples of "romana lingua," or the French language in its most primitive form. No more than forty years later, the Sequence of Saint Eulalia was composed, providing us with another fragmentary example of the state of the French vernacular at its very beginnings. By the eleventh century, "romana lingua" had become the language of great literary works such as the Song of Roland and the Life of Saint Alexis which now serve as the basis for the canon of French literature.

The Middle Ages of French literature begin, then, in the middle of those 1000 years or so which precede the Renaissance. Beginning in the middle, of course, is an anachronism only our modern perspective allows. In this respect, the very expression "the Middle Ages" is anachronistic. As Nathan Edelman has pointed out, "of old expressions like 'the middle ages' and 'le moyen âge' there remains only the form. Their original meaning is no longer appropriate, for we cannot view the medieval period as an enormous intermediate gap, abruptly severing modern times from Antiquity" (58). The Middle Ages, it seems, is the hypothesis of a post-Renaissance, that is to say modern, society. Indeed, the expression "media tempesta" does not appear in written form until 1469 when it is found in a letter from the humanist-bishop Giovanni Andrea (Edelman 78). The French term "moyen âge" and the English "middle ages" do not appear until the seventeenth century, with variant perceptions on how to categorize the different stages of this middle time. Should it be broken into periods? One to cover the period from 700 to the year 1000? Another to cover 1000 to the Renaissance? In fact, it is not until 1798 that the French Academy "declares the Renaissance to the be the upper limit of the Middle Ages" (Edelman 63-69). The persistent classification of the period into Low and High Middle Ages is surely a legacy of this debate. Umberto Eco, in an essay which attempts to portray modern times as "neomedieval," claims that the term Middle Ages "defines two, quite distinct, historical periods: one that runs from the fall of the Roman empire in the West to the year 1000, a period of crisis, decadence, violent adjustments of peoples and clashes of cultures, and another that extends from the year 1000 to what in our school days was called Humanism, and it is no accident that many foreign historians consider this already a period of full bloom; they even talk of three Renaissances, the Carolingian, another in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the third one, the Renaissance proper" (73).

The French literature of the Middle Ages begins to flourish during this "second," post-Antique, historical period which may have been a period of renaissance and not a middle time at all. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the literature of this period, specifically the literature of the twelfth century, is profoundly concerned with time, its own, of course, as well as the time of the ancients, a history which, in many ways, it sought to reclaim. A period of great development and achievement in written works of "romana lingua," the twelfth century produced a genre unique to literary history by the linguistic coincidence of its language and form: "roman," translated as romance. The period from 1150 to 1165 is marked by the appearance of the four so-called "romans antiques." The first three of these romances are anonymous (the Roman d'Eneas, the Roman d'Alexandre, and the Roman de Thèbes), while the fourth, the Roman de Troie, is attributed to Benoît de Sainte-Maure. In the last third of the twelfth century Chrétien de Troyes composed his five romances of King Arthur, master works which, in the case of the Chevalier de la Charrette (circa 1177-1179, referred to by many as Lancelot), and the Conte du Graal (circa 1181-1190, also known as Perceval) gave rise to copious and divergent continuations and served as starting points for the elaboration of properly medieval myths (the love of Lancelot and Guenevere, the holy Grail) which still retain a certain dynamism in today's popular culture. Chrétien's other romances include Erec et Enide (1170), Cligés (circa 1176), and the Chevalier au Lion (circa 1177-1179, also known as Yvain). Along with the Charrette and the Graal, these romances serve as fundamental texts for the understanding of the cultured aristocracy of the twelfth century and, as is particularly true in the case of the prologues, provide us with important insights on the activity and method of composition of this medieval author.

Whether they are concerned with ancient violence (the Roman de Troie and the Roman de Thèbes), historical characters and the origins of powerful military and political states (the Roman d'Eneas and the Roman d'Alexandre), or whether, as Erich Auerbach has said of the works of Chrétien de Troyes, they seek a "self-portrayal of feudal knighthood with its mores and ideals" (131), these twelfth-century romances are linked by a basic concern for the secular past and a vision of history which, in a world where daily life was imbued with Christianity, diverges from the historical vision of medieval theologians, that is to say salvation history. For theologians, time was not conceived of as the period recording the events of human beings. Rather, the world was split, like the Old and New Testaments, broken off from the past and beholden to a future independent of time because related to the ultimate intervention of God. For the individual, the impossibility of knowing whether the path ahead would lead to salvation or damnation, together with the inability to measure the proximity or distance of Christ's intervention, must have contributed to the Christian symbolic interpretation of the world as well as to the division of time into canonical hours. Under the Benedictine Rule, for example, one might say that time was literally spent waiting for God, with the canonical hours --matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, and compline-- devoted to prayer and other spiritual activities (Duggan 128).

The theological relationship to the past was concerned with history as the projection of the divine into the world of human beings, and to the interpretation of this intervention as word, event and phenomenon. Time, for Christian culture, was essentially eschatological, that is to say it followed an irreversible linear progression which would culminate with the coming of the Messiah, a process that moved "from Creation, through the Incarnation, Epiphany, and Resurrection of Christ to final moments in the Second Coming and Last Judgment" (Duggan 131). Life, on earth, the present as we might see it, during which time is measured, was not independent from an afterlife and had no sense unless viewed as a moment in the history of our salvation. However, when it became interesting, indeed some thought imperative, to calculate the proximity or distance of the end of the world, people began to measure the time of events in that final period of human existence prior to the Apocalypse. In daily life, of course, it was also very practical to measure time. Despite this impulse for measurement, time did not become mechanized until relatively late in the Middle Ages. The earliest mechanical clocks date from around 1250; before them there were water-clocks, hour-glasses, sundials, uniform-length candles, and the sun to measure time.

By contrast, agricultural society regulated itself according to the cycles of the harvest. Time here corresponded to seasons and the regular repetition of natural phenomena. This view of time had the double characteristic of being both the most widespread in the Middle Ages and perfectly distinct from the theological vision of time. It was a relic of the secular, pagan, past and it divided months according to different agricultural labors, in a modification of the antique model that divided time according to astronomical symbols associated with human characters (Gourévitch 110). The idea of time as cycle was also fundamental to the world view of the ruling aristocracy of the Middle Ages. In this connection, ancestry and genealogy became touchstones for the legitimacy of social rank. This local time, then, was at once chronological and historical, with the lives of deceased ancestors taking on an historical significance for the future conduct and custom of the clan. Feudal lords used this view of time as a method of justifying their own power and prestige, such that the ability to trace one's own lineage to a distant ancestor, preferably one heroic and distinguished, became an integral part in establishing the legitimacy of dynastic power and right. History, for the medieval clan, then, was the history of old families and feudal dynasties.

This conceptual model of history had a profound impact on literature as well. According to R. Howard Bloch, "when aristocratic families begin to fictionalize themselves [in chronicles], they do so, first of all, in terms of a heroic foundation in a mythic past." (145). Drawing this essay to a close, two twelfth-century texts portray this dynastic relationship to the past in a particularly striking way: Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, circa 1136), and Wace's vernacular adaptation the Roman de Brut (circa 1153), both of which were precursors to and influences on Chrétien de Troyes' Arthurian fictions. Each of these texts served definite dynastic ideological interests in that they presented antiquity as the point of departure for the legitimate genealogy of British kings, starting with the reign of Brutus in approximately the eleventh and twelfth centuries BCE, passing through Julius Caesar, Constantine, Utherpendragon, and Arthur, and finishing with the Saxon domination of the British in the late seventh century CE. Although neither work traced a complete lineage from antiquity to the twelfth-century kings of Britain (in this case Henry I and Henry II Plantagenet for whom the works were composed), the genealogy they did establish, fictitious by its very nature, nonetheless presented itself as the motor of history, such that the leader who was able to appropriate and control the ancient past attained power over the medieval present. There is an essentially literary aspect to this kind of history, representative of broader medieval trends found in Chrétien de Troyes and beyond and referred to as "translatio imperii" (the translation of empire) and "translatio studii" (the translation of knowledge). Literature, time, and power (both secular and religious) converged in these figures, and we might conclude by emphasizing that they lent authority to narratives that self-consciously fictionalized history for personal and political ends. The impact of these operations on western culture cannot be underestimated and it is perhaps best illustrated by a final example. In The Quest of the Holy Grail (1220), the lineage of Galahad is traced through Lancelot, the daughter of the Fisher King, and all the way back to Joseph of Arimathia. Though it seems a harmless idealization, such a move in fact shows us how a myth can be created to authenticate historical narrative. In this sense, medieval and modern times are not so different, and the Grail itself provides us with an illuminating instance of how text, genealogy and history can be manipulated in the service of religious and political agendas: in this case, the Christianization of the medieval warrior class with all that that entailed.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Bloch, R. Howard. "Genealogy as a Medieval Mental Structure and Textual Form." La Littérature historiographique des origines à 1500. Vol. XI/1 of Grundriss der Romanischen Literaturen des Mittelalters. Eds. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, et al. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universittsverlag, 1986. 135-156.

Duggan, Joseph J. "The Experience of Time as a Fundamental Element of the Stock of Knowledge in Medieval Society." In Gumbrecht, et al. 127-134.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. Trans. William Weaver. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

Edelman, Nathan. "The Early Uses of Medium Aevum, Moyen Age, Middle Ages." The Eye of the Beholder. Ed. Jules Brody. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974. 58-81.

Gourévitch, Aaron J. Les Catégories de la culture médiévale. Trans. Hélène Courtin, Nina Godneff. Paris: Gallimard, 1983.

Stock, Brian. Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.


Copyright © 1996. Gerald Seaman. This file may be copied for educational and personal use
on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
It may not be sold for profit without the written permission of the author.