Umwelt and mentalité: Using Literature as Evidence of Lost Historical Ways of Thinking
Interpreting early literature poses unique challenges for students who mainly have studied Modern or Post-Modern literature. When reading works from your own era, you can take for granted all sorts of things about the context of the work that authors assume readers know: economic relationships, politics, social norms, typical dress, and the key terms used to construct human relationships. In addition to the OED's definitions of a word's historical meanings, cultures "overcode" important words with special implications, as when a 1950s American female of marriageable age is called "nice" or "not nice," as opposed to the use of "nice" in a completely different way to describe a Medieval or Elizabethan English female of the same age.
To help you discern patterns of evidence that might lead to insights about these early works, it might help to treat authors and characters as very complex but predictable wood ticks. No, I'm serious. You are looking at evidence of creatures who are so strange to you that, if you treat them like Twenty-First Century Americans, you will almost always miss the significance of what they are saying and doing. You need a way to detect the internal rules by which they are operating, the codes they are reading and obeying. To do this, it might be helpful to consult the oft-cited work of the biologist, Jakob Von Uexkull, A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds (1934). Von Uexkull's attempt to show readers what the world looks like to a wood tick resulted in his explanation of the tick's vastly restricted sensory-response programming, so restricted, in fact, that it responds only to three stimuli, which must be experienced in the correct sequence, and it responds to each stimulus with one, and only one, response. Nevertheless, evolution has constructed the tick's ability to read the world, and to respond to it, so that it succeeds often enough to survive. The first stimulus is the smell of butyric acid which mammals produce, to which the tick responds by releasing its hold on a branch. The second, tactile contact, turns off attention to smell and causes the tick to move vigorously around until it detects heat. The third, detection of heat, causes the tick to stop moving horizontally and to start burrowing and boring. This is Von Uexkull's description of the tick's "umwelt" or view of the world constructed entirely by only three stimuli:
"The tick hangs motionless on the tip of a branch in a forest clearing. Her position gives her the chance to drop on a passing mammal. Out of the whole environment, no stimulus affects her until a mammal approaches, whose blood she needs before she can bear her young. And now something quite wonderful happens. Of all the influences that emanate from the mammal's body, only three become stimuli and those in definite sequence. Out of the vast world which surrounds the tick, three shine forth from the dark like beacons, and serve as guides to head her unerringly to her goal. To accomplish this, the tick, besides her body with its receptors and effectors, has been given three receptor signs, which she can use as sign stimuli. And these perceptual cues prescribe the course of her actions so rigidly that she is only able to produce corresponding specific effector cues. The whole rich world around the tick shrinks and changes into a scanty framework consisting, in essence, of three receptor cues and three effector cues - her Umwelt. But the very poverty of this world guarantees the unfailing certainty of her actions, and security is more important than wealth."
Similarly, authors and characters in early literature exist within psychologically constructed filters which constrain their views of the world so that they can attend to the particular kinds of coded information that enables them to survive efficiently. An English Medieval knight sees events differently from an English Medieval merchant because the knight lives in a different mental world from the merchant, though both are "Medieval." Of course they share enough overlapping world-elements that they are able to communicate and to form part of a recognizable culture, and that is what most beginning early literature readers notice, what characters have in common which is different from our world. The expert reader can perceive the telling differences which make one Medieval person different from another. When a poet tells you what a knight does and says upon encountering an opponent or a lover or a lord, do not accept that information as ordinary, but ask yourself what those behaviors and words mean about the way the knight sees the world. Remember that geographic changes sometimes create great differences in world perception. An English knight described by Chaucer or Malory likely would see a different world than a French knight described by Marie de France, especially because they live in differing eras of the Middle Ages. Marie's "Medieval knight" differs from Chaucers, as Chaucer's "Medieval knight" differs from Malory's, and you can learn much from in those differences.
If the "wood tick"'s "umwelt" seems to grotesque, try the notion of "mentalité" used by anthropologists like Levy-Bruhl. In both instances, the analyst tries to think from the point of view of a mental universe created differently from her/his own. The trick is getting past the apparent similarities of distant objects and learning to discern differences among them. Try reversing the process and imagine how Chaucer or Malory would tell one Goucher student apart from another. Based on what they attend to in their own mental worlds, what would they notice and what would they probably never think to observe?