Here is a short essay that I submitted as my final paper to my Medieval Literature class. Although not very extensive, I believe it highlights a few topics that kept creeping up on us as our studies continued. The first is the connection between politics and literature. Although some texts would want to trick you that there is a separation among them, I find that this is never the case. As we can never separate the culture of language of a piece, we cannot separate the political implications either.
This is not to say, however, that we must look at texts from a political lens. I am trained in the “text in itself” method so cannot suggest any other prism of interpreting writing other than examining the structure, metaphorical resonance, language and relating it to the content. Knowing about the certain political structures surely enriches our experience (though I don’t believe is essential in every case).
The second concept that kept being a topic of conversation is about the control that is exerted over our bodies by the higher power structures. In medieval readings this may be the court, in feminist readings this may be the institution of marriage (see The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and in more abstract works the change in the body may be employed as the singular metaphorical tool (see The Metamorphoses by Franz Kafka).
Politics, as it is inseparable from the human experience, have a way of creeping into the unseen depths of literature and changing both the content and the structure of the material. The formation of the centralized state, therefore, has produced itself in literary works all around the world; including Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, the Knight with the Lion and France’s “national epic” Chanson de Roland. As they are the best representatives of this transitional period, their roots are tied together in the way they represent how the newly emerging state controlled, transformed and to a certain extent, conquered the pre-existing feudal law.
While they are both cynical in the way that they express their ideas about the new system, one can say that Chanson de Roland is far more representative than critical; while The Knight with the Lion mocks and satirizes the new system to such a point that its content pushes the limits of parody.
The first thing one sees when looking at Chanson de Roland is an unyielding, self-sacrificing hero (or martyr) that held honor above all else. However, when we look more closely, we see the depiction of a system that is falling apart because it is trapped between the de-centralized feudal tradition (with a weakened king who relied on knights and barons for power) and the rise of the absolutist monarchical state (which flourished both in economic and military prowess).
In many ways, it would have been possible to imagine a Roland who embodied all of the characteristics of feudality. However, the text prevents that from happening when it clearly shows, especially in Ganelon’s trial, that the “code of honor” the knight exercises is simply not enough anymore. Although there is a certain realization in Chanson de Roland about how the centralization of the state is demolishing old traditions and inventing new ones, it is not hard to see what the text still holds holy: masculinity, honor, chivalry and strength.
The Knight with the Lion, on the other hand, mocks those characteristics many times and in many ways, firstly in the opening scene where we meet a weak (almost comical) king, who can only be an inch of Charlemagne’s shadow. The petty quarrels knights have are about etiquette and not about the topics Roland’s friends would like to associate themselves with. The most striking moment in the text is, however, when Yvain goes into the woods to “go mad,” as if it would not have been appropriate for one to lose his mind in front of loyalty. This scene both mocks and criticizes the new regulations about “decency” and “constraint.”
So, one might ask, what is this new idea of “restraint” (which Yvain takes and transforms after adopting it from Roland) tell us about the state’s intention about Knighthood in general and the human body in particular?
Because the state needed the feudal knight to part with his freedom, they imposed ideas of “etiquette” and “cleanliness,” all in an attempt to tame the body and de-militarize the knights while they were training central armies of their own. The limitation the state exercised over the body almost became a guarantee of perfection; a perfection which is so impossible to reach that the ones who try can only end up with their own internal castration.
Written for my “Medieval Literature” class in 29.05.2015.
Image by: Ant Rozetsky