Solving the "History Problem": How can I "know" a Medieval work of literature if I don't know Medieval culture?

        Every well-prepared and theory-aware student who undertakes the study of literature knows that one cannot read and interpret it without knowledge of the culture from which it emerged.  Even modern literature arises from specific cultural subsets of "modern culture" that give it important layers of meaning, like linguistic coding referring to gender, class, or race, intertextual relationships with other literary works, or even allusions to contemporary events which, to later readers, might be thought obscure enough for a footnote or a full-scale interpretive essay.  Historical chance wears away our links to the past like a capricious glacier grinding down memory and memory's aids, gradually destroying even the books (or DVDs or Internet sites!) on which the literature was preserved until only rare copies can be found of works which once were famous.  The further back we reach, the more of this "glacial erosion" has occurred.  Students see the most tangible evidence of this process in the footnotes which gradually accumulate in "moraines" at the bottom of the page as passing time renders more and more linguistic meanings and significances obscure or completely unknown for the modern reader.  The great divides occur in eras of linguistic change so great that scholars rename the language, as when political and technical events brought about the mass popular literacy of Modern English (c. 1650-1700), the vastly increased literacy of its transitional predecessor, Early Modern English (c. 1450-1650), the relatively reduced vernacular literacy of Middle English (c. 1250-1450), and the largely oral performance of Old English (c. 450-1250), a language whose entire surviving poetic record in scribal manuscripts is available to modern readers in a six volume print edition.

        For this reason, students of Medieval literature often tread extra cautiously when trying to read and interpret primary sources.  The language is different, but more importantly, the culture from which the language arose was different.  Patience, curiosity, carefulness, and persistence are the most common distinguishing characteristics of successful researchers in this era.  Patience with what one does not know, aided by curiosity driving one toward the next discovery, keeps one from growing rash and careless or abandoning the effort before it has revealed its rewards.  Sometimes, it helps to have some help in the form of readable modern guides whose limitations are well-known enough to make them safe.  Often, they appear in clusters or pairs, one side correcting the worst imbalances of the other side, as in the case of C. S. Lewis's The Allegory of Love (1937,  809.02 L67) and The Discarded Image (1964, 809.02 L67d), D. W. Robertson Jr.'s A Preface to Chaucer (1962, 826.2 C49Srob), and two essays by E. Talbot Donaldson, "Designing a Camel, or Generalizing the Middle Ages"  (Tennessee Studies in Literature, 1977) and "Chaucer the Pilgrim" (PMLA, 1954).  [Discarded Image is still in print in paperback, and the other two books are available in affordable used paperback editions.]  What follows is a brief suggestion about how to read these works as a group to benefit from their strengths and avoid succumbing to their weaknesses, and a final recommendation for those who seriously want to know what we can know about Medieval culture, language and literature from primary sources.

        Lewis was trying to package "medieval culture" in a way that would highlight its differences from and relations to the modern world, which he fairly well loathed.  It's a dangerous way to think, but I do it too in 240 and 330, so I can not blame him.  The main problem with The Allegory of Love was its thesis that if poets wrote about adulterous erotic love as if it were the highest psychological and spiritual achievement of their culture, those poets were in some sense telling the truth about their cultures as historians, sociologists, anthropologists, or even newspaper reporters might.  Many a C20-21 film has been made about human contact with intergalactic aliens, but so far, no wars have been fought or romances consummated with them in any reliable public forum.  Robertson's reaction to this in Preface was to deny any possibility that these erotic flirtations might have occurred in fact, and to insist that they all were meant to be read through the lens of strict biblical exegesis as coded warnings about the perils of the behavior they appeared to praise.  In a revised edition of Allegory, Lewis retreated from some of the more extreme claims of the first edition, and Lewis' Discarded Image, something of a corrective response to Robertson's argument, puts Christian belief squarely in the center of his imagination of Medieval consciousness, while still allowing that a secular world went about its business at the same time.  The problem with all three of these books is that they can lead the reader to over-generalization, i.e., the assumption that there was no social or psychological or spiritual diversity in Medieval cultures, and that (worse still, probably) that there was no significant difference between French C14 medieval culture and English C14 medieval culture, or between London's court literary scene (say) in 1385 and that same geographical region's cultural mechanism for producing literature in the next year.  We know American culture is different from year to year, from region to region, from person to person, but Lewis's and Robertson's projects, even while they are snapping us out of our complaisant ignorance about "the dark ages," created an implied homogeneity in that "Image" or that "Chaucer" which one has to work hard to resist.  I don't think they intended it, or all of its effects, but the more they persuade, the more that flattening of differences takes effect.

        The shortest antidote or counterbalance to Lewis and Robertson might be Donaldson's "Designing a Camel, or Generalizing the Middle Ages," which is something you can get in photocopy from an interlibrary loan service: Tennessee Studies in Literature, 22, (1977) pp. 1-16. His other major essay about too-easy assumptions, 'Chaucer the Pilgrim," is available online:  The first essay cautions against what assumptions of historical uniformity of belief and behavior which the "glacial erosion" of data and familiarity encourages by making difficult our access to first-hand acquaintance with the evidence of lived experience in the era.  The second reacts against C19-20 critics who read Chaucer as a literary "realist" who somehow anticipated nineteenth-century fictional realism five hundred years before the fact.  "Chaucer the Pilgrim" is Donaldson's name for the persona who introduces the other pilgrims in the "General Prologue" of the Canterbury Tales, and who tells the comic satire "Sir Thopas" and the moral allegory "Melibee" when called upon for a tale by the Host.  Donaldson reasonably points out that we need not believe a masterful poet is telling the truth when he says he's too fat to succeed in love, too simple-minded to invent facts, and such a bad poet that the only rhyming narrative he can think of is halted by the Host's scatological exclamation that "Thy drasty rhyming is not worth a turd!"  In both cases, Donaldson's corrective responses to the over-generalizations and simplifications have been generally accepted by all scholars and his reasoning will help us take what is most valuable in Lewis and Robertson and the earlier historical-realist critics without falling victim to their errors in "practicing history." 

        The better but much more laborious and time-consuming way to use Lewis while not being blinkered by him is to go after primary source documents of some specific place and time and construct a sense of cultural history on your own terms.  While working as a graduate student at Brown, I chanced to have a library carrel next to the printed translations published by the Camden Society and "Pipe Rolls" reprints of parliamentary, royal, and regional papers from Medieval and Renaissance English history.  Camden was an Elizabethan "Antiquary" whose Britannia (1586) and Annales (1589, 1625-7) gave scholars the first fairly reliable survey of historical sites and documents that survived H8's "disestablishment" of the monastic libraries--the society was named in his honor to support an early C19 move to disseminate widely the founding historical documents of the nation, like Sir Thomas Wyatt's diplomatic correspondence with Henry or royal proclamations and decrees, etc.  The "Pipe Rolls" series was named for the peculiar cylindrical storage devices for unbound parchment charters and estate records, and they go back even further into the C13-15 era.  Just plugging along, dipping into them on a daily basis for an hour, establishes some familiarities with the kinds of things the surviving documents actually talk about, and it helps one reach around modern intermediaries like Robertson and Lewis and into the primary sources that they got to look at in the originals.  Other reprint and translation series of these primary sources of daily Medieval life are available from the Early English Text Society series (E.E.T.S.), and the Tudor Translations series.  I especially recommend, as a starting point for figuring out late-fourteenth-century and fifteenth-century English life, F.J. Furnivall's Fifty Earliest English Wills, which is available online (  In these wills, English men and women from all social classes lay bare their possessions and social relations as they designate which of their moveable goods and lands should be given to their surviving heirs, friends, and acquaintances.  In Goucher's library, all EETS volumes are stored in the same adjoining shelves at 820.6 E16 in the Dewey cataloging system, which makes it easy to browse their hundreds of titles for objects of interest.  Their prefaces, written by major scholars of the period, contain a wealth of contextual information that allows the modern student to benefit from our predecessors' long hours deciphering texts written in difficult scribal hands on centuries-old manuscripts that usually were unique survivals of the texts in question.

        If this seems like a lot to ask of oneself in return for opening the door to the literature of the past, consider the previous era's method, before facsimiles and reprints of rare manuscript materials had been published.  In the C19 and early to mid-C20, study of Medieval literature and history required extraordinary commitments of time, money, and effort.  Each summer when the school year ended, you would betake yourself to the Public Records Office (PRO) in London, or to various county libraries and archives.  Once you had made friends with the archivists and set up your note-taking station, you would work through the accession books or card catalogs and read your way through a county or city's "mulch" of the past until you could say you kind of lived in it.  All sorts of documents would be mixed together because families would deposit their troves of old deeds and family papers in the local or city or parish libraries when the heirs finally got fed up with it taking up attic space.  That's where Chaucer's "Book of the Leon" (only mentioned in the "Retractions") is probably hiding, sandwiched between some land charters and laundry lists from a fifteenth-century petty aristocrat's family estate.  The PRO in London is where Leslie Hotson found the record of Christopher Marlowe's death inquest in 1925, and in 1928 Edward Hicks was poking about in Warwickshire and spotted the court records that suggested Sir Thomas Malory was a big-time hoodlum and jailbird. 

        These days, with some serious information overload coming at us from electronic media like this web page, fewer and fewer people do that, though Cambridge still encourages that kind of "up to your eyeballs in parchment" research.  From the college library, and from the Internet, you can get at a surprisingly large collection of such original primary sources in translation and some in the original languages at Paul Halsall's "Internet Medieval Sourcebook":

        Again, I wouldn't spend my whole summer reading this material when you still are trying to wrap your mind around the literature, itself, but it's good to give it some regular brief attention and practice following "threads" of curiosity from document to document.  Sometimes even small details have the power to vividly recall distinct moments in the past when some real individual sat with pen and ink composing on the page.  I still remember seeing Wyatt use a semi-colon in one of those ambassadorial letters to Henry VIII and thinking "son of a gun--he knew the mark but used it differently!"