A Changing Society as Viewed Through Its Literature
When comparing the epic poem of The Song of Roland to the romantic literature of Ywain, the differences between the early medieval period and the high medieval period become evident. Both The Song of Roland and Ywain depicts the societies from which each story derives its fundamental characteristics. Through close observation, one is able to see the shifts in customs and mentality that make the move from the epic to the romance possible. In his chapter ‘From Epic to Romance’, R.W. Southern shows how this transformation manifests itself through changing ecclesiastical and secular thoughts and feelings.
The Song of Roland is typical of the epic poems coming out of the early middle ages. Roland shows very clearly the warrior-based society of the period. It is through, not only the battle scenes that are quite vivid, but also the way the accouterments of battle receive high mention within the poem that this is accomplished. At the start of a battle the author gives the number of forces on each side, while during the individual fights amongst the peers, he gives detailed blow-for-blow descriptions of what occurred. Also, throughout the body of the work the warriors, no matter which side they are on, have significant names for their weapons and war-horses. This holds to the ancient custom that honored weapons with special names as having magical powers that could help its bearer. The battles and heroism of the main characters, as well as the names and details given about their war-horses and weapons, were important to a society that was constantly in a state-of-battle readiness, such as Roland’s was.
Beyond the battle scenes, Roland is true to the era in its portrayal of vassalage between a lord and his liegeman. In her introduction, Dorothy L. Sayers defines vassalage as “a personal bond of mutual service and protection between a lord (seigneur) and his dependant, and was affirmed by an oath and the rite of “homage”.” The Song of Roland undeniably represents the bond between lord and vassal. For instance, when Roland agrees to lead the rearguard, although his place is usually with the vanguard, he does because of his bond of fealty to his Uncle Charlemagne. When Charlemagne offers him half the army, Roland refuses because it is more appropriate, for the greater good of the community, that the army guards the emperor. Likewise, at the death of his nephew, Charlemagne is bound to avenge Roland’s death. It is the responsibility of both the vassal and the lord to provide, among other things, this defense and revenge for one another.
Loyalty and love play a definitive role in this early medieval period. It is important to give these to one’s friends, lord, and community. However, the love of a woman is not significant here. The romantic love between man and woman is not a trait of the early medieval society; that is to come later. Roland captures the strength of love and loyalty in many ways. As previously stated, The Song of Roland clearly depicts the loyalty between a lord and his vassals. It also shows how going against one’s lord, and more importantly, one’s community went against the set code of conduct for a vassal. Early on, the writer shows the treachery of Ganelon, including the significance of this betrayal by the loss of the great Peers of Francia. The end of the poem completes Charlemagne’s revenge of Roland’s death when, for his treason, Ganelon must suffer death. However, the kings obligation is not easily accomplished because the nobles of his realm wish to have Ganelon go free instead of face Pinabel, Ganelon’s “champion”. The pain of these treacheries cuts Charlemagne to the heart, yet they go beyond just Charlemagne. They are injustices against the community as a whole. After trial by ordeal, the custom of two warriors fighting each other with God deciding the winner, the king’s revenge can proceed with the sentencing of Ganelon and his supporters to death. Eventually, although the nobles wish to let Ganelon go free because of their cowardice, the justice within the community prevails when the loyal young noble Thierry stands up against Ganelon’s champion. The love found amongst the Peers for Charlemagne becomes apparent in the way that they praise and support him. Their fealty to and defense of him is an outward sign of this love. Yet, found within this culture is another type of love that between companions of war. Through the strong friendship between Roland and Oliver, The Song of Roland characterizes the love-bond between men of the period. Both Roland and Oliver hold their companion dear to heart. In fact, the thoughts of battle-mates within Roland hold greater store than that of the female companion at home. As Southern states, “The dying Roland has no thought to spare for his betrothed, though she straightway died on hearing of his death.” This true bond found amongst such close companions is not an indecent love that may come to the twentieth century mind. It is a one of friendship, companionship, devotion, admiration and mutual experiences.
Heroism and community played a large part in the early Middle Ages, and it is only natural that they would spill over into the people’s view of religion. The society was a male oriented one, which depended upon the vassal system. At a time when the battle of Christians against pagans becomes full blown, the community stands strong. Simplistically, their idea was that of God verses the Devil and good verses evil. The deeds of a warrior are for the greater glory of the community and God. The poem symbolizes the struggle between God and the Devil at the same time acknowledging the failings of men. It gives voice to the medieval way of looking at life as black or white. The Muslims are evil and against God, while the Franks are good and are for God. It also shows how the “evils” are unforgivable and offer little flexibility. The death of Roland and his rearguard show this unforgiving nature. When Roland refuses to call for help his pride, or sin, stands in his way and dooms the rear guard. Oliver realizes this and is angry, but his loyalty to his companion will not allow him to use the horn to call Charlemagne. Once Roland made his decision, it was in God’s hands. It is an all or nothing situation, which dooms Roland for his sin. As Southern states “even they [the barons], when they meet an overwhelming foe, die. They know that they are in the right for “Pagans are wrong and Christians are right”, but they also know that a strong Pagan will beat a weak Christian.” Being a weak Christian can condemn you as much as being a Pagan can. In moving from the epic to the romance, the similarities of the culture are recognizable. Having said that however, it is startling the differences in thoughts and feelings between the two eras. Ywain also depicts the life of a “feudal” society as found within Roland. The court of King Arthur set the standards for the virtues of the people, and likewise in the medieval period court life created the standards. In Roland’s time, it is away from the court that weakens a warrior. Yet, in the court of the high medieval period, the knights become slack in their virtue. For example, in the romance it is at the court of King Arthur, away from Laudine, that Ywain falls short of his obligations. He stays to long male bonding with Gawain and forgets about his wife. It is only after his wife refuses to take him back that he realized his mistake. He must do penance in order to overcome the obstacles that take away his virtue. Southern states it well when he says “the life of the court form as a picturesque background rather than the focal point of knightly virtue: its rules sit lightly on those who aim at high things.” This is to say that the personal quests of a knight outside of court held greater significance than those generated within the court. This concept of questing is alien to the barons of Roland.
The life of a vassal is that of the life of a warrior, and as such, Ywain depicts the actions of great warriors during battle. However, the battles of knights take on a different appearance at the time of Ywain. The fact that the battle scenes are less bloody and display less emphasis on the weapons of war shows two things. First, the audience of these romances changed. The courts were no longer limited to men with women appearing rarely. Women had taken full possession of the courts along side the men. Due to this, the natural, “barbaric” tendencies of the men had to be curbed, yet they could not complete do away with them or men would not wish to read such tales. Second, the lack of emphasis on war show that the society as a whole no longer feels the need to be poised for battle at all times. An example of this security in Ywain is the disinherited sister who freely travels the lands in search of Ywain. It shows not only the growing freedoms women were gaining, but also the security of a society that is not under constant attack. One reason for this security is that after the Viking invasion Europe felt more at ease within its boarders than pervious generations did.
One of the most notable changes taking place at this time is within religion. Throughout his chapter, R.W. Southern shows how the religious thoughts of the time shifted dramatically. Christ and his mother, Mary, took on new roles in the high middle ages. Jesus was no longer the triumphant God, now he was the suffering human. As Southern states so eloquently, “it is a striking thing that the intellectual short-comings of this picture of Man’s salvation [that found during Roland's time] only became clear at the moment when the heroic view of human life being lived between the mighty opposites of external powers was dissolving before a new romanticism, and when an intense commiseration for the sufferings of the Son of God was becoming a central fact in the religious experience of time.” As people strive to understand the nature of Jesus’ sufferings, they begin a journey in search of humanity. The ecclesiastical writers at this time created thoughts that found man on a personal pilgrimage. No longer were humans static in their role of redemption, but active in gaining knowledge and gaining love of God.
To limit this new idea of seeking to the ecclesiastical writers alone is wrong. The notion of self-seeking found a home amongst the romantic writers as well. Take Ywain for instance, our noble knight is unable to obtain his goals early in life because of his lack of maturity and knowledge of life and love. In order to achieve his desires, he encounters certain stages that he must overcome, which are similar to St. Anselm’s stages of Humility. Per Southern these are “self-knowledge, grief, confession, persuasion of guilt, acquiescence in judgement, suffering of punishment, love of the punishment.” To match these stages with Ywain’s is not difficult. Ywain enters the first stage of self-knowledge as he realizes that his own blindness caused him to forget his oath. The second stage, that of grief, is when our knight’s lady wishes never see him. This grief pushes Ywain into the third stage, that of confession. He acknowledges that is was his own mistake that brought this upon him. This confession bears strong on his soul and causes him to lose himself, as he becomes a mad man. This is similar to the stage of persuasion of guilt. After his long bout with madness and his healing is complete, Ywain is now ready to enter the stage of acquiescence in judgement. Realizing the judgement made against him is fair; he begins his quest of penance. With questing comes his next stage, that of suffering of punishment. Ywain must suffer both physical pains of battle and the torment within his heart. The final stage is the love of the punishment. This is harder to see within Ywain, but can be found in his love of the quest itself. In the end, his journey brings him back to the love of Laudine. Now not only are men free to aim for higher self-knowledge, society forgives them their shortcomings. This forgiveness is a trait not found in Roland. Ywain, on many occasions does not live up to he potential, and yet he is not doomed so long as he is able to overcome his faults through humility.
Another major change taking place within this society is in the position women held. Throughout the earlier period women held little or no power within society. Occasionally you would come across a strong woman, but it was a rarity. In The Song of Roland, for instance the only women mentioned are Roland’s betrothed and Queen Bramimonda, and both have limited roles within the book. Ywain on the other hand depends heavily on women. Throughout the work, it is a woman that defines the movements in Ywain’s life. From Lunete helping him achieve his greatest desire, Laudine, to his rescuing many young ladies on his quest to regain his love, a lady is forever in the forefront. It is through these scenes that the reader can see the new power women gained. Amongst their new found freedoms, the ability to own and run lands, the knowledge of healing, the knowledge of good taste and love all fall under their domain. The new position the Virgin Mary held within the church accounts for part of woman’s new position in society. Through Mary, women now held the salvation of man. They became the reality of the humanity of man. In addition, within the courts women were obtaining real power, such as that held by Eleanor of Aquitaine. In Ywain when the writer attributes power to women, he does so because society is now open to the idea. While men still held the greater power, women were no longer completely excluded.
Love in particular takes on new meaning. It takes on the veil of romantic love, the one found between man and woman. This love, which had no place in Roland’s day, flourishes in the high medieval period. Limiting love to ones’ friends, lord or community was no longer acceptable. Yet, at the same time, love is limited. Displayed as an ultimate goal, it is in the hands of a lady to make that love attainable. Love acquires the persona of woman. As our writer states “Love ought to conduct herself thus because she is a high-born creature and it is a marvel how she would dare to descend so shamefully into vile places.” At the same time, it becomes a prison to men snared by its traps. Ywain, caught in love’s chains and tormented by it, has no choice but to accept love. Throughout the book, love haunts him. Always, it is always within site, but just beyond his reach. Like Ywain, the society begins to see love as a goal. Romantic love becomes a noble trait and just quest if one wishes to embark on it.
R. W. Southern’s ‘From Epic to Romance’ traces the shift of thoughts and feelings from the early to high medieval era. Not only does he paint the religious changes well, but also how these new ideas spilled over into the secular world. Once the twelfth century writers fueled the spark of romanticism, the epic was doomed. Southern show how the thoughts of God and a limited world made The Song of Roland a classical early medieval epic and that the new concepts in ecclesiastical and social circles illuminated the increasing romantic sentiment such as those found in Ywain.
In comparing The Song of Roland to Ywain, the society for which each derives its story becomes clear. Likewise, when keeping in mind the changing thoughts, concepts, and feelings of the twelfth century the shift from epic to romance also becomes apparent. Southern’s chapter detailed the journey that the people of the period took that made this shift possible. It is these thoughts, found within the romantic literature, which forever differentiates the high Middle Ages for the earlier ages.