The Legend of Cleopatra by Geoffrey Chaucer (1386)

And as for me, thogh that I can but lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte
And in myn herte have hem in reverence;
And to hem yeve swich lust and swich credence,
That ther is wel unethe game noon
That from my bokes make me to goon.

(The narrator describing his love of books in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1380s)

The Legend of Good Women is a long-ish poem by the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 to 1400). Like so many poems from the period, it features a dream vision i.e. the narrator falls asleep and then has a supernatural fantasy (in this case of the god of Love) which is described in a naturalistic manner. Chaucer wrote three other dream vision poems (The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls) and it was a very popular genre for other poets of the period (for example, William’s Vision of Piers Plowman, written by William Langland about a decade earlier).

In the prologue to the poem, after he has fallen asleep, the god of Love appears to the narrator (pretty obviously Chaucer) and reprimands him for giving a negative image of women in a) his translation of the long French poem, The Romance of the Rose ‘that is an heresye ayeins my lawe’, and b) his portrayal of the fickle and inconstant Criseyde, in his very long poem, Troilus and Criseyde. The god of Love demands that Chaucer correct this breach of manners by depicting women from myth or legend who have lived well according to the medieval religion of courtly love i.e. lived and died for Love. Who have been ‘Cupid’s saints’.

This is meant to be a poetic version of the real-life story behind the commissioning of the poem, for it is said that Anne of Bohemia, the wife of King Richard II, expressed the same sentiments of gentle disapproval and so laid on Chaucer the commission of writing a poem in praise of women and hence The Legend. Nice, if it’s true.

Courtly love

In the Middle Ages the cult of Courtly Love arose, stemming supposedly from the south of France and spreading to all the courts of Europe. Courtly love wittily and sophisticatedly reworked the format and rhetoric surrounding Christian saints and, indeed, the Christian religion itself, into a mock-serious ‘religion’ centred around the adoration of a courtier knight or poet for his semi-divine mistress or Lady.

Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. To quote my review of Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995):

The twelfth century saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service of a noble knight to an aristocratic lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

As it spread, the cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address recommended to courtiers who wanted to play this sophisticated game. As the Dutch historian of the late Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga, put it, back in 1919:

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life.
(The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, Penguin paperback edition, page 105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

And so Chaucer is reprimanded by the stern god of Love for having been discourteous to women as a whole in his portrayal of Criseyde, and must – by the rules of Courtly Love – atone to all noble women for this transgression.

A ‘legendary’

The structure of the poem is based on the ‘legendary’, a well-established medieval format of a collection of lives of saints. Thus each section of the poem is the courtly love equivalent of a saint’s life, except that these saints died not out of devotion to the Christian God, but as martyrs to the god of Love.

Thus, for example, the very title of the legend of Cleopatra invokes Christian rhetoric in a light, sophisticated play on ideas: Incipit Legenda Cleopatrie, Martiris, Egipti Regine, meaning ‘Here starts the legend of Cleopatra, martyr, queen of Egypt.’ She was, quite obviously, not a martyr to the Christian religion, which didn’t exist when she committed suicide (in 30 BC); but viewed through the prism of Courtly Love, she and any number of other fine ladies from pre-Christian myth and legend were martyrs to the religion of Love.

The Legend of Good Women devotes a chapter or legend to each of nine virtuous women from myth and legend, being:

  1. The legend of Cleopatra
  2. The Legend of Thisbe
  3. The Legend of Dido
  4. The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea
  5. The Legend of Lucretia
  6. The Legend of Ariadne
  7. The Legend of Philomela
  8. The Legend of Phyllis
  9. The Legend of Hypermnestra

Unfinished

Like Chaucer’s most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, the Legend appears to be unfinished. The Retraction or Apology for the Canterbury Tales mentions 25 legends and we only have nine, so maybe some are lost or maybe he never completed it. The balade embedded in the prologue mentions several women — Esther, Penelope, Marcia Catonis (wife of Cato the younger), Lavinia, Polyxena and Laodamia — who don’t appear in the legends we have; were they meant to be included?

At the end of the Prologue the god of Love indicates that the nineteen women who are attending Queen Alceste must all be included in the poem (though he doesn’t name any of them):

Thise other ladies sittinge here arowe
Ben in thy balade, if thou canst hem knowe,
And in thy bokes alle thou shalt hem finde;
Have hem now in thy Legend alle in minde.

It’s discrepancies like this which lead scholars to conclude the poem was abandoned. Whether the poem’s state is due to Chaucer becoming bored with it is uncertain, but it is now regarded as very much a lesser work, despite being popular when first written. The legends are a bit repetitive, with the same high-minded behaviour tending to recur again and again, so that it lacks the drama of Troilus and and the wonderful variety and vivid characterisation which is key to The Canterbury Tales.

Iambic pentameter

The poem is among the first works in English to use the iambic pentameter, which Chaucer later used throughout The Canterbury Tales. A pentameter is a line with five beats:

When I consider how my light is spent

Lines of poetry can be divided up into units surrounding a beat. A long time ago, the Greeks categorised all this and called these units ‘feet’. When you write a line of verse it naturally has strong or emphasised or accented syllables, and weak or soft or unaccented syllables, and a moment’s reflection makes you realise there’s a certain amount of variety to these.

For a start, a ‘foot’ can have one, two, three or possibly more syllables. And the accented syllable can come first, second, third in the order of these syllables. All the possible permutations were defined and named by the ancient Greeks two and a half thousand years ago, which explains why we still use unusual (Greek) words to describe them.

A Wikipedia article lists all the possible permutations of beat within a foot, with their Greek names. By far the most common ‘foot’ in English is the ‘iamb’, where the unit has two syllables and the emphasis falls on the second syllable. If you emphasise the syllables in bold you’ll get it straightaway:

When I consider how my light is spent

Or just:

di dum di dum di dum di dum di dum

It is a pentameter because it has five beats. It is a iambic pentameter because each of the beats comes in a pairing with a softer, unaccented syllable, which comes before it. The accent falls on the second syllable of each unit or ‘foot’. di dum.

Anyway, the point is that, even if he didn’t introduce it to English poetry, Chaucer was the first poet to write extensively in this metre. With the vast examples of Troilus and the Canterbury Tales, he helped to establish it as the basic, default metre for English poetry, which it has remained ever since.

Reading Chaucer’s verse

The single most important thing to do when reading Chaucer’s medieval verse is to pronounce the final ‘e’ in every word – then the lines will scan as five-beat pentameters. Here I’ve bolded the e’s which need to be pronounced, not the beats.

The moste party of thy tyme spende

Don’t pronounce these e’s as eee, but as schwa, or ‘er’.

The most-er party of thy tym-er spend-er

Now the line has five regular beats and is a iambic pentameter (nobody minds that it has a final unstressed syllable dangling at the end, this dangling syllable is very common in Chaucer’s verse and gives it a nice bouncy feel).

If you do this with all the lines (unless the e comes before a vowel, in which case don’t pronounce it), they all become regular, and the thing comes into focus as a jolly rhythmic canter (s is pronounced as z in this excerpt) (and now I am bolding the syllables to emphasise):

Of good-er wommen, maiden-ez and wyv-ez,
That weren trewe [don’t pronounce the e because it is followed by a vowel: so true-win] in lovinge [omit the e] al hir lyv-ez.

Obviously there are other differences in pronunciation between Chaucer’s English and ours but I’m not writing a book. If you just pronounce the e’s, emphasise the beat and pause at the end of every line, it will start swimming into focus. Above all don’t worry if you don’t understand half of it. Don’t stop to look up individual words. Get into the swing and the rhythm first and the general gist will emerge. Years ago I was taught how to pronounce it and remember most of the principles but, listening to myself say it out loud, I suddenly realised I sound a bit like the Swedish chef from the Muppets, especially if you really pronounce those final e’s.

The prologues

Actually there are two prologues, one scholars think was the original (Prologue A), and a second one which survives in just one copy and critics think was a later version, maybe composed when Chaucer revised the poem some time in the 1390s (Prologue B).

There’s a lot of overlap but also passages unique to each prologue. The solution (well, a solution) is to have an edition like the old OUP Complete Chaucer which is big enough to print both versions side by side. To compare and contrast, if you’re feeling scholarly: or just to jump from one to the other to make sure you catch everything he wrote.

They both begin with a characteristically invocation of the importance of ‘olde bokes’ from which we study and learn. Book learning.

Than mote we to bokes that we finde,
Through which that olde thinges been in minde,
And to the doctrine of these olde wyse,
Yeven credence, in every skilful wyse,
And trowen on these olde aproved stories,
Of holinesse, or regnes, of victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry thinges,
Of whiche I may not maken rehersinges.
And if that olde bokes were a-weye,
Y-loren were of remembraunce the keye.
Wel oghte us than on olde bokes leve,
Ther-as ther is non other assay by preve.

Lightly translated:

Then must we to the books that we find
Through which the old things are kept in mind,
And to the doctrine of these old ways
Give credence in every skillful ways
And believe in these old approved stories,
Of holiness, or reigns, or victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry things,
Of which I need not make rehearsings.
And if that old books were put away,
Lost would be of memory the key.
Well ought we, then, in old books to believe,
Because there is no other way to prove.

In praise of the daisy

As soon as the poem has got settled in it turns into an extended passage in praise of the humble daisy.

Now have I than swich a condicioun,
That, of alle the floures in the mede,
Than love I most these floures whyte and rede,
Swiche as men callen daysies in our toun.
To hem have I so great affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whan comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam up, and walking in the mede
To seen this flour agein the sonne sprede,
Whan hit upryseth erly by the morwe;
That blisful sighte softneth al my sorwe,
So glad am I whan that I have presence
Of hit, to doon al maner reverence,
As she, that is of alle floures flour,
Fulfilled of al vertu and honour,
And ever y-lyke fair, and fresh of hewe;
And I love hit, and ever y-lyke newe,
And ever shal, til that myn herte dye…

It barely needs translating, but:

Now have I then such a condition
That, of all the flowers in the meed,
Then love I most these flowers white and red,
Such as men call daisies in our town.
To them have I so great affection,
As I said before, when comes in the May,
That in my bed there dawns for me no day
But I am up and walking in the meed
To see this flower against the sun spread,
When it uprises early in the morrow.
That blissful sight softens all my sorrow,
So glad I am when I am in its presence,
To do it all manner of reverence,
As she that is of all flowers the flower,
Fulfilled of every virtue and honour,
And always alike, fair and fresh of hue,
And I love it and ever like new,
And always will until my heart dies…

Why is it so effective? Because it has a sweet and touching innocence without being naive or sentimental. Plus the language of Middle English has an intrinsic simplicity about it, a simplicity of vocabulary, for example, a pure English which was to become increasingly cluttered with new-fangled foreign imports and made-up words as we move into the Renaissance but, back in Chaucer’s time, feels simple and fresh.

But it’s also important to note that this passage is the product of tremendous poetic sophistication. Many Italian and French poets had already written poems in praise of various flowers – there is a vast epic poem named The Romance of the Rose – and Chaucer has read them and knowingly references lines and ideas from them. He tells us as much:

For wel I wot, that ye han her-biforn
Of making ropen, and lad awey the corn;
And I come after, glening here and there,
And am ful glad if I may finde an ere
Of any goodly word that ye han left.

For well I know that you have here-before,
Of making rope and led away the corn,
And I come after gleaning here and there,
And am full glad if I may find an ear
Of any goodly word that you have left.

If you think about it, praise of flowers is very compatible with the ideas of Courtly Love. It is a soft and beautiful subject very appropriate for a feminised court (as, for example, grittier stories of knights and wars, anything from the bloodthirsty ancient world, emphatically were not).

So popular did the cult of flowers as a kind of sub-category of Courtly Love become that we have records of courts dividing into factions who, in a witty, sophisticated spirit, staged debates about the relative merits of different flowers.

There are records of debates between defenders of the flour and defenders of the leaf. In the hands of this culture everything becomes allegorical, symbolic of something else, and so the flower came to be associated with beauty and sensual pleasure which is intense but, alas, fleeting; whereas the leaf symbolises fidelity and endurance – and so these debates and poems displayed the participants’ skill and graciousness, but always circled round to alight on a firm Christian moral.

An entire medieval poem survives on the subject – The Floure and the Leafe – and Chaucer references this cult, too:

Ye lovers, that can make of sentement;
In this cas oghte ye be diligent
To forthren me somwhat in my labour,
Whether ye ben with the leef or with the flour.

You lovers, that can write of sentiment,
In this cause ought you to be diligent
To further me somewhat in my labour,
Whether you are with the leaf or with the flower.

That poem is invoked half a dozen times, with Chaucer humorously clarifying that he is not coming down on one side or other of the Great Debate, but wishes to speak of ancient stories from well before the Great Strife began:

But natheles, ne wene nat that I make
In preysing of the flour agayn the leef,
No more than of the corn agayn the sheef:
For, as to me, nis lever noon ne lother;
I nam with-holden yit with never nother.
Ne I not who serveth leef, ne who the flour;
Wel brouken they hir service or labour;
For this thing is al of another tonne,
Of olde story, er swich thing was begonne.

And so the Prologue wends its lazy way, weaving a complex tapestry of references to ancient authors, to the cult of the leaf and the flower, praising the daisy but also praising a Grand Lady or muse figure to whom the narrator speaks.

The narrator describes rising early one May morning and going out into the fields to kneel down ‘Upon the smale softe swote gras’ and admire the sweet daisy (‘The Empress, and flower of flowers all’) and its lovely scent.

He hears the birds singing their songs and imagines they are taunting the hunters who hunted them in winter and lay traps for them. Some of the birds are singing lays of love in honour of their mates, some sing in praise of St Valentine, on whose day they met, and they nuzzle their beaks against each other. Any who have erred promise repentance. And the gods Zephyr and Flora give to the flowers their sweet breath.

This is all a magnificent preparation, sweet and sensitive and beautiful. For after this hard day admiring flowers and listening to the birds, the narrator makes his way home, has his servants rig up a couch in a little arbour, and there he falls asleep, and at this point the Dream Vision commences:

The Dream Vision

The narrator dreams he is in a meadow and sees come walking the god of Love, with two small wings and holding two fiery darts. He is holding hands with a queen, dressed in green with a fret of gold about her hair and a white crown, looking, in other words, very like his beloved daisy. The narrator says people say the god of Love is blind but this god of Love is looking at him very sternly and makes his blood run cold!

The queen is named ‘Alceste the debonayre’. Behind them come ‘ladyes nyntene’ in attendance, followed by a vast concourse of other women, making up maybe a quarter, maybe a third of the world’s population! (At the very end of the Prologue, the god of Love suggests that the figure is 20,000. Small world.)

It is at this point that the ladies spy the daisy the narrator is worshipping and stop to sing a ballad with a repeated refrain. Each verse lists a number of famously beautiful women from antiquity and tells them to hide or retire, because none of them can compare with the lady they are accompanying i.e. Alceste. In one version of the prologue the refrain runs:

Alceste is here, that al that may desteyne.

The other version has:

My lady cometh, that al this may desteyne.

Where I think ‘desteyne’ means ‘disdain’ in the sense of triumphs over or puts all that – all those other women – in the shade. The second version feels fractionally better, more powerful.

Now this entourage notice the narrator and call him over to them and the god of Love proceeds to reprimand him for translating the Romance of the Rose and writing Troilus and Criseyde and generally portraying women, and love, in a bad light. Why has he shown women in such a negative light?

‘Why noldest thow as wel han seyd goodnesse
Of wemen, as thow hast seyd wikedness?’

Couldn’t Chaucer find in all his fancy books stories of women who were ‘good and trewe’? After all, he has no fewer than sixty books in his library, telling of ancient Greeks and Romans, featuring many stories of women who preferred to die than betray their love, who preserved their virginity, or were faithful to their husbands, or were dutiful in their widowhood. This is a fierce indictment.

But then queen Alceste intervenes on the narrator’s behalf, reminding the angry god of Love (at great length) of the mercy of great kings and even of beasts, such as the noble lion. Such should be the mercy the god should show this errant servant who was only translating matter out of old books. (You can see how the intercession of a compassionate queen softening the wrath of a stern ruler echoes the role assigned to Mary in Catholic theology, interceding on the part of us poor sinners; a posture which could also be mapped onto countless medieval courts, where hard-headed kings and princes could (possibly) be softened by appeals for mercy from their queens.)

Alceste proceeds to plead the poet’s cause and it becomes clear (if it wasn’t before) that the sleeper and narrator of the vision is Chaucer himself, because she cites his many works which do speak favourably of love, to wit, The House of FameThe Book of the DuchessThe Parliament of Fowls, the story of Palamon and Arcite (i.e. the Knight’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales). And ‘to speke of other holynesse’ he has translated the popular medieval philosopher, Boethius.

Alceste concludes her defence of Chaucer by promising that, if the god of Love forgives him:

“Now as ye been a god, and eek a king,
I, your Alceste, whylom quene of Trace,
I aske yow this man, right of your grace,
That ye him never hurte in al his lyve;
And he shal sweren yow, and that as blyve,
He shal no more agilten in this wyse;
But he shal maken, as ye wil devyse,
Of wommen trewe in lovinge al hir lyve,
Wher-so ye wil, of maiden or of wyve,
And forthren yow, as muche as he misseyde
Or in the Rose or elles in Creseyde.”

Out of reverence for the queen (and obeying the Courtly Love injunction to cede to your Mistress’s requests), the god of Love quickly and graciously forgives the narrator, who promptly kneels and delivers his own justification. Chaucer grovellingly points out that he never meant to do any harm. He only repeated what his source authors wrote. His purpose was only ever to promote ‘trouthe in love’ and to warn his readers away from falseness and from vice. ‘This was my menynge’.

By which point I’m realising that this has turned into a court case, or a trial, comparable in structure to the debates about the floure and leefe. It has the same formal structure of accusation and two figures arguing for the prosecution and the defence.

Anyway, Chaucer is still wittering on when Alceste, rather winningly, tells him to shut up. No pleading can influence the forgiveness of a god, which proceeds by his own grace alone. And she then proceeds to itemise the penance Chaucer must undertake:

“Now wol I seyn what penance thou shald do
For thy trespas, and understond hit here:
Thou shalt, whyl that thou livest, yeer by yere,
The moste party of thy tyme spende
In making of a glorious Legende
Of Gode Wommen, maidenes and wyves,
That weren trewe in lovinge al hir lyves;
And telle of false men that hem bitrayen,
That al hir lyf ne doon nat but assayen
How many wommen they may doon a shame;

“For in your world that is now holde [considered] a game.
And thogh thee lyke nat a lover be,
Spek wel of love; this penance yive I thee.

“And to the god of love I shal so preye,
That he shal charge his servants, by any weye,
To forthren thee, and wel thy labour quyte.”

And she concludes his penance with a sudden surprising reference to the real world.

“Go now thy wey, this penance is but lyte.
And whan this book is maad, yive hit the quene
On my behalfe, at Eltham, or at Shene.”

Chaucer is grovellingly grateful. The god of Love is amused and tells him of the high ancestry of this forgiving queen, for the first time explaining why it is Alceste of all ancient women who accompanies him. It is because, according to legend, Alcestis was the wife of Admetus, king of Pherae in Thessaly. To prolong his life, she offered to die in his stead. Later she was rescued from hell by Hercules.

Thus she is an eminently fitting figure to herald a book about feminine loyalty and ‘trouthe’ unto death. What is not in any ancient version of the story is the association the poet goes on to make between Alceste, queen of women, and the daisy, queen of flowers whose colours, as we observed above, she is dressed in (green and white and gold).

The god of Love concludes the vision with two points: first, he indicates (as mentioned above) that all nineteen of the unnamed escorts of Queen Alceste should appear in this poem he has to write. Lastly, he tells Chaucer to start with Cleopatra. He gives no strong reason, just the general thought:

“For lat see now what man that lover be,
Wol doon so strong a peyne for love as she.”

‘Let’s see what man would ever suffer for love as much as she did!’ In other words, Cleopatra is arguably the most eminent example from the ancient world of a woman who died for love.

The Legend of Cleopatra, approach

And she hir deeth receyveth, with good chere,
For love of Antony, that was hir so dere.

Well, after all the buildup (the Prologue is about 800 lines long), the actual legend of Cleopatra is disarmingly short, a mere 126 lines long.

I’ve read the several Plutarch biographies which underpin modern knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra (Julius Caesar, Antony) and Suetonius’s life of Augustus, as well as half a dozen histories of the period but there’s not much point applying them here. This is an entertainingly cartoon version of the story, short and simple with sweet medieval details and phrasing thrown in.

In fact this lack of historical rigour is something the author was conscious of and expresses through the god of Love, who is made to explicitly order Chaucer to keep his legends short and sweet:

“I wot wel that thou mayest nat al hit ryme,
That swiche lovers diden in hir tyme;
It were so long to reden and to here;
Suffyceth me, thou make in this manere,
That thou reherce of al hir lyf the grete,
After thise olde auctours listen to trete.
For who-so shal so many a storie telle,
Sey shortly, or he shal to longe dwelle.”

“I know well that you may not it all rhyme,
What such lovers did in their time,
It were too long to read and to hear.
Suffices me, you write in this manner,
That you rehearse of all their life the great,
Following what those old authors liked to treat.
For whoso shall so many a story tell,
Should say shortly or he shall too long dwell.”

The Legend of Cleopatra, plot summary

After the deeth of Tholomee the king, regned his daughter, quene Cleopataras. Out of Rome was sent a senatour to rule Egypt and he was named Antonius. He abandoned his legal wife, the sister of Octavian, because he wanted another wife: ‘For whiche he took with Rome and Cesar stryf’.

Antonius was brought to such a rage and tied himself in a noose (the noose of fate), ‘Al for the love of Cleopataras, That al the world he sette at no value.’

Cleopataras loved this knight for his ‘persone and of gentilesse, And of discrecioun and hardinesse’. So they got married.

The narrator complains that, as he has so many stories to write, he doesn’t have time ‘The wedding and the feste to devyse’ so he’ll get right to the point:

And forthy to th’effect than wol I skippe,
And al the remenant, I wol lete hit slippe.

Octavian was infuriated by this marriage and so led a host of brave Romans against Antonius.

Interestingly, the longest passage in this short poem is a vivid if cartoony description of a battle at sea, the decisive Battle of Actium. The description keeps talking about ‘he’ as if referring to one person, but translations indicate it is a generic pronoun, like ‘one’, and best translated as ‘they’, thus describing the behaviour of countless sailors in incidents from the battle.

And in the see hit happed hem to mete —
Up goth the trompe — and for to shoute and shete,
And peynen hem to sette on with the sonne.
With grisly soun out goth the grete gonne,
And heterly they hurtlen al at ones,
And fro the top doun cometh the grete stones.

In goth the grapnel so ful of crokes
Among the ropes, and the shering-hokes.
In with the polax presseth he and he;
Behind the mast beginneth he to flee,
And out agayn, and dryveth him over-borde;
He stingeth him upon his speres orde;
He rent the sail with hokes lyke a sythe;
He bringeth the cuppe, and biddeth hem be blythe;
He poureth pesen upon the hacches slider;
With pottes ful of lym they goon to-gider;

And thus the longe day in fight they spende
Til, at the laste, as every thing hath ende,
Anthony is shent, and put him to the flighte,
And al his folk to-go, that best go mighte.

As:

And in the sea it happened that they meet —
Up sounds the trumpet — and to shout and beat,
And urged them to set on with the sun.
With grisly sound out booms the great gun,
And fiercely they hurtled all at once,
And from the top down came the great stones.

In goes the grapnel, so full of crooks,
Among the ropes, and the shearing-hooks.
In with the poleaxe presses one and another;
Behind the mast one begins to flee,
And out again, and drives him overboard.

One stabs himself upon his own spear;
One tears the sail with hooks like a scythe;
One brings a cup, and bids them to be blithe;
One pours out peas, so on the deck they slither;
With pot full of lime they fall together;

And thus the long day in fight they spend
Til, at the last, as every thing has end,
Anthony is beat and put to flight,
And all his folk run off as best they might.

Chaucer follows the sources so much as to say that it was the flight of Cleopatra’s fleet which plunged Anthony into despair but jumps over all the events which followed in order to get straight to his suicide. He laments the day that he was born and runs himself through the heart with his sword. Unlike Plutarch and Shakespeare’s Antony, Chaucer’s one conveniently dies on the spot.

Knowing she will get no forgiveness from Caesar, Cleopatra flees back to Egypt, ‘for drede and for distresse.’ And now we come to her suicide, but first Chaucer repeats the moral mentioned in the Prologue, that all men who make great boasts about the sacrifices they’ve made for love, should observe how it’s really done.

Ye men, that falsely sweren many an ooth
That ye wol die, if that your love be wrooth,
Here may ye seen of women such a trouthe!

Cleopatra is so bitterly pained with lost love and despair that she gets her workmen to build a shrine with all the rubies and fine stones of Egypt. She has Antony’s body laid in it, along with plenty of with ‘spycerye’. Then has a pit built next to it and gets all the serpents that she owns put into it.

And then Cleopatra delivers the point, the message, in an extended speech – for she says that on the day they were married she swore an oath to be with Antony night and day, and as he suffered wele or wo, to accompany him, to bear all with him, ‘lyf or deeth’.

“And this same covenant, while me lasteth breath,
I will fulfill, and that shall well be seen.”

She made an oath, a covenant, a promise and now – far excelling most women and all men – she will fulfil it unto death. And so she jumps naked into the pit full of snakes (!). Immediately the snakes began to bite her and she received her death ‘with good chere.’

“Was never unto hir love a trewer quene.”

Thoughts

It’s not worth wasting time pointing out the many facts Chaucer has simply dropped, he’s in a hurry to get to the only bit that matters for the purposes of his royal commission, the moment of Cleopataras’s outstanding fidelity to love:

And forthy to th’effect than wol I skippe,
And al the remenant, I wol lete hit slippe.

True to his commission, Chaucer has exonerated Cleopatra. She is not at all the wicked, oriental seductress, the Egyptian whore who seduced a noble Roman away from his family and duty, as depicted in Augustan propaganda and later male, Roman accounts.

On the contrary, in this brisk telling of her story Cleopatra emerges as an epitome, a role model of fidelity unto death, a type of fidelity no man could ever aspire to. And not just included in a collection of loyal women, but carefully and deliberately placed as the first in the list, the loyalest and truest of all the loyal and true women of antiquity. A role model for love.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

For practical purposes I date the Middle Ages from the Norman Conquest of 1066 until about 1500, and so exclude all texts from and histories about the Dark Ages, thus excluding my reviews of Anglo-Saxon poetry or the Icelandic sagas which, although written in the 13th century, refer to events before the Conquest.

Medieval art

Medieval texts

Medieval poetry

Modern histories of the Middle Ages

The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919)

There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. (p.91)

I’ve recently been looking at paintings from the ‘northern Renaissance’, namely works by Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century.

This prompted me to dust off my old copy of this classic text on the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book was originally published in Dutch by the historian Johan Huizinga in 1919, then translated into English in 1924. Its subtitle is: ‘A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’.

The most important thing about this book is that it is not a chronological history of the period. Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters.

These have titles like ‘The violent tenor of life’, ‘Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime’, ‘The vision of death’, ‘Types of religious life’ and so on. As we process through these themes and ideas, anecdotes and quotes, slowly a composite ‘portrait’ of the culture of fifteenth century northern Europe emerges.

In fact, I’d forgotten that there is a direct connection to van der Weyden et al because, in the Preface to the English edition, Huizinga explains that his study originally started as a systematic attempt to understand the cultural and social background to the art of the van Eyck brothers and their contemporaries – precisely the artists I’ve been reading about in Craig Harbison’s excellent introduction to The Art of the Northern Renaissance (1995).

Burgundy and France

When I first read this book as a student in the 1980s I found it bracing to read a work about the Middle Ages which emphatically wasn’t about England or Britain. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century. As it happens, I’ve just read a few pages summarising the history of the Duchy of Burgundy in a book about the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. The most obvious thing about it during this period was that it was extremely fragmented, divided roughly into the area which is still called ‘Burgundy’ in modern France and is down towards Switzerland – and a northern coastal region comprising most of modern-day Holland and Belgium.

The other thing I took from my first reading all those years ago was the comedy names of the rulers of Burgundy in this period:

  • Philip the Bold (1363-1404)
  • John the Fearless (1404-19)
  • Philip the Good (1419-67)
  • Charles the Bold (1467-77)
  • Mary (1477 – 1482)
  • Philip the Handsome (1482-1506)

This time round I much more understand the context of Huizinga’s point that one of the purposes of giving these rulers grand surnames was to incorporate them into the only social theory the age possessed – Chivalry; that the names are ‘inventions calculated to place the prince in a nimbus of chivalrous romance’ (p.92).

Permanent war

Europe was almost continually at war. There were no real nation states in the way we’re used to today. Britain, for example, was a very fractious country. For the earlier half of the century the English were in a state of permanent war with the kingdom of France, the latter stages of the so-called Hundred Years War. The cause of the war was simple: successive kings of England claimed the throne of France; successive French kings rejected the claim.

The war’s high point, from the English point of view, was the Battle of Agincourt, fought on 25 October 1415, a famous victory for young King Henry V. Sadly Henry failed in a king’s main duty to rule long and leave a male heir. He died aged 35 in 1422, leaving the kingdom to his baby son who grew up to be the hapless and mentally unstable Henry VI. This explains why, despite rallies and counter-attacks, after Henry V’s death the tide of the war was broadly in favour of the French and they had eventually won back all their territory from the English (with the tiny exception of the coastal town of Calais) by the time a final peace treaty was signed in 1453.

In fact, it was complaints about the huge losses of lands in France suffered by many ‘English’ aristocrats as a result of these territorial losses that helped destabilise the English throne and trigger the series of dynastic disputes which we refer to as ‘the Wars of the Roses’. These were in reality a series of conflicts between dynastic nobles scattered between 1455 and 1487. And also, throughout the fifteenth century, the English (as in centuries before and after) suffered intermittent attacks from the Scots, who periodically invaded and ravaged the North of England – though this doesn’t feature much in this study of the Continent.

Instead Huizinga’s book is dominated by the conflict between the fragmented kingdom of France and the rising Duchy of Burgundy. From 1380 to 1422 France was ruled by Charles VI who, in 1392, went mad, without warning murdering four of his knights and nearly killing his brother. He became convinced he was made of glass and that his enemies were out to shatter him. Power devolved to competing cabals of nobles and France fell into anarchy. (The plight of France helps explain Henry V’s victories.) France’s ongoing misrule was exacerbated by the Hundred Years War which amounted, in practice, to unpredictable attacks and destructive rampages across the land by brutal English armies.

No wonder the Duchy of Burgundy, located away from England in the East, was able to rise to relative power, by allying or at least declaring peace with England, and protecting the trading wealth of its coastal ports in what is now Holland.

Two theories

Medieval society had broadly two theories to explain the world: Christian dogma and the code of chivalry. That was it. No science, no medicine, no economics, no political science, no sociology or linguistics or anthropology, no hard or social sciences at all. Again and again Huizinga emphasises the sheer ignorance of the age.

1. Christianity Christian teaching gave a comprehensive account of the creation of the universe, of the nature of the world, of all life forms and of the human race, along with a timeline which extended back to the Creation and forward to the End of the World when Jesus will rise to judge the dead, who will be consigned to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. In order to escape an eternity of hellfire you had to devoutly follow Christian teaching. It was a complete and imaginatively convincing cosmology.

2. Chivalry As to everything else people saw around them, the behaviour of human society, this could be summarised in the other major theory of the time, Chivalry. Huizinga quotes from a wide selection of 15th century poets, historians and chroniclers, and goes on to point out that:

The conception of chivalry constituted for these authors a sort of magic key, by the aid of which they explained to themselves the motives of politics and of history. The confused image of contemporaneous history being much too complicated for their comprehension, they simplified it, as it were, by the fiction of chivalry. (p.66)

At its broadest chivalry taught that everyone was born into a fixed position in an unchanging society made up of minutely defined orders or ranks or ‘estates’. The peasant majority existed solely to produce the food eaten by the myriad employees of the Church, and by the aristocracy and the king. The ‘middle classes’, the burghers and business men in the newly expanding towns, had no exact place in this ancient schema and were seen as a reluctant necessity of life; to some extent they had forebears in the merchants described in the Bible, but they had to be kept in their place. This was done, for example, by strict sumptuary laws which defined exactly what they and their wives were or were not permitted to wear. Because the best clothes, food, living quarters, art and lifestyle were – self-evidently – restricted to the most noble, virtuous, dignified and deserving in society – the aristocracy and the court.

But, as part of the intricate interlacing of ideas so typical of the late medieval mind, the court, in exchange for these obvious material benefits, had to be paragons of nobility and display for everyone the courtly virtues of dignity, charity, kindliness, forbearance and so on.

As the Middle Ages – say from 1100 to 1500 – proceeded, the depiction and understanding of these virtues (as of so much else in medieval thought) became more and more elaborate, defined in courtly protocols and etiquette which were enhanced and added to by each generation of writers until there were written rules prescribing every possible type of behaviour and clothing and speech which should be used on almost every conceivable occasion.

The lack of theory

Maybe the most though-provoking idea in the book (for me) was this notion that, Chivalry was all they had to think about society with. Lacking any other notions of human nature, lacking our modern ideas of biology or evolution, lacking the post-Enlightenment idea that there have existed numerous and hugely varied societies which themselves have changed and evolved over time, lacking the post-Industrial Revolution idea that technology drives social change with ever-new gadgets leading to ever-rising standards of living — all these modern ideas are predicated on CHANGE. But the central determinant of medieval thought is precisely that THERE IS NO CHANGE. God has made the world as perfect as it can be. Bible chronology explains the entire history of the world right up to its apocalyptic end. Christian teaching is all you need to live well and proceed to Heaven.

This explains why, for example, when medieval artists paint Bible scenes and stories, the characters are always wearing medieval clothes. Because the world HAS NOT CHANGED. The medieval mind can imagine no change, it has no theory of the gradual evolution of society and manners. People must always have dressed like they do today. (Huizinga makes the interesting point that it is only with the Italian Renaissance that artists began to depict the saints in classical togas, thus for the first time setting them aside and apart from the everyday familiarity they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. In medieval art Roman martyrs and saints had worn medieval costume.)

The one glaring exception to this idea was the age-old one, as popular in the late Classical world as in the medieval world, which is the notion of steady decline from the first, primordial perfection of the Garden of Eden to the present sad and lawless days. The world hasn’t changed but Oh how behaviour and morality has lapsed and decayed!

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

Lacking any modern understanding of human nature and social dynamics, medieval thinkers, artists and writers were astonishingly dim about the world around them. So, for example, Huizinga makes the fascinating point that, lacking any theory of technology, commerce or economics, the chroniclers of the Duchy of Burgundy explained the notable wealth and success of the court of Burgundy not through the (to us obvious) point that the coastal towns of Antwerp and Bruges and so on were at a geographic nexus between Britain to the West, the Baltic to the East and France to the South and so the merchants there made fortunes as middlemen for vast matrices of trade, fortunes which the Duchy then taxed and lived off – none of this could be understood by contemporaries. Instead, every single chronicler accounts for Burgundy’s wealth in terms of the nobility and virtue of its ruler. Chivalry, nobility, Christian morality – these and these alone are what accounts for an entire nation’s rise or fall.

The chroniclers of the fifteenth century have, nearly all, been the dupes of an absolute misappreciation of their times, of which the real moving forces escaped their attention. (p.56)

And this explains why all the chroniclers and historians and priests, in their sermons and pamphlets and books and works have one message and one message only – since the world depends for its continued wealth and stability on the virtue of the prince, of the noble ruler – ALL of these books without exception start, focus on and end with earnest, heart-felt pleas to the ruler and prince to be Noble and Virtuous and to Rule Well. We are all depending on you.

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

Chivalry was a kind of mass wish-fulfilment, the casting of all human behaviour into stereotyped and idealised patterns, which had tremendous psychological importance for all educated people of the time and many of the commoners. For Chivalry’s exaggerated formality and romantic ideals attempted to hold at bay what most people actually saw around them – which was appalling random acts of violence, sickness and death.

Only by constructing a system of forms and rules for the vehement emotions can barbarity be escaped. (p.105)

With no effective medicine, anybody could fall ill at any time, or suffer a scratch or wound which became infected and they died. Countless women died in childbirth. Countless children died pitifully young. Countless millions starved to death unrecorded and unlamented. Millions died horribly in the repeated epidemics of plague which swept across the known world. And countless millions lived in villages or towns where any day, out of the blue, soldiers in armour arrived and started killing, raping and burning everything, for reasons concocted in the faraway courts of London or Paris or Dijon, and which the victims would never hear about or understand.

For the rude and common people, only the incredibly ornate and complex set of Christian customs, practices, beliefs, festivals, penances, sacrifices, masses, saints and relics was all that stood between them and the constant spectre of complete disaster. Huizinga mentions a host of medieval superstitions – that you couldn’t fall ill on any day when you heard Mass (quite a strong motivation to attend as many as you could) or that any patron saint sighted during the day would protect you for that day (and hence the outside and the porches of churches being crammed full of statuettes of saints.) I particularly liked the idea that you don’t actually age during the time it takes to attend a Mass – the more you attend, quite literally the longer you will live.

The same was of course true for the educated aristocracy, but overlaying the boggling complexity of Christian teaching was this idea that the nobility should also aspire to Perfect Ideals of Gentlemanly and Courtly behaviour. Almost nobody did, and many rulers were instead paragons of greed, unpredictable rage and the most primitive rivalries and revenge. But the increasingly convoluted protocols of Chivalry which came to determine almost every element of an aristocrat’s life and thought and behaviour, were all the ruling class had to call each other to account, and to try and restrain themselves with.

(In a typically illuminating aside, Huizinga points out how the worlds of chivalry and theology overlapped in the figure of the archangel Michael, who is generally portrayed in armour, wielding a sword against the rebel angels. As the leader of the loyal army in heaven, he was the first knight – and thus the two worlds of divine angelology and worldly knighthood were neatly merged.)

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Complexity as a defence mechanism

This explains why forms, patterns, orders, ranks and definitions ramified all over medieval society like weeds. Everything had to be nailed down with a meaning and a place in what was aspiring to be the Total System. Numerology played a large role in all this, numbers conveying a potent magic power, especially if they invoked any of the myriad numbers from Holy Scripture: the three of the Trinity recurs in all sorts of contexts: the human body is seen as made of four humours for each of which there is a key bodily fluid which determines one of the four human character types; all of the colours are given multiple religious symbolism, eventually becoming so complicated entire books can be written about them. Saints multiply like rabbits until every day in the year was the Special Day of at least one saint if not several.

I remember laughing years ago when I read an early medieval sermon which asserted that there needed to be two holy testaments (the old and new) because humans have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs so – you know, there just have to be. Like so much medieval reasoning, it has a sweet and childish flavour. The Middle Ages took the many numbers present in Holy Scripture and vastly expanded them:

  • the One God who created the world and all things in it
  • the two-persons in the duality of Jesus, man and God together
  • the Holy Trinity, the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity)
  • the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), the four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell), the four points of the cross, the four seasons, the Four Evangelists, the Four Elements and their summation – the fifth or Quintessence
  • The Five Wounds Christ received on the Cross (one each in hands and feet and the spear in his side), the Five Planets of the Solar System (plus Sun and moon makes seven)
  • the seven supplications in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount), the seven penitential psalms, the Seven Deadly Sins which are represented by seven animals and followed by seven diseases, the seven attributes, the Seven Sages of antiquity
  • the Nine Worthies were nine historical, scriptural, and legendary personages who personified the ideals of chivalry, typically divided into three groups of three – three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus) and three Christians (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon)
  • the Twelve Disciples, the twelve months of the year, the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, the twelve companions of Lady Rhetoric (as devised by George Chastelain, historian of Philip the Good in the 1460s)
  • the Fourteen Auxiliary Saints, the 14 Stations of the Cross
  • 33 is the estimated age of Jesus when he was crucified. Stephan Kemperdick’s book about the Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden informs me that one strand of medieval theology thought that 33 is the age that all the dead would be when they are resurrected on the Last Day. If it was the optimum age for the Son of God so, by analogy, it must be the optimum age for a human being.

In fact Huizinga, in his brilliant chapter on ‘Symbolism in decline’, makes the harsh but true point that numerology is actually pretty boring. It is the deeper and often vaguer symbolic correspondences which the medieval mind loved to make between almost every aspect of the natural world and some part of Christian Theology or the Christian story, which are more accessible and more profound.

For example, consider the holly and ivy which grow in northern Europe (I have an abundance of both in my own garden): the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood they caused. The beauty and simplicity of much of this kind of symbolism lives on to this day, especially when it is about the natural world.

Everyday things like plants and flowers, as well as classical stories and pagan myths, legends and imagery, all of it was easily taken over and incorporated into the vast system of Christian concordances because, to the medieval mind, everything was connected – because it all shines forth the wonder of God. A medieval author explains how the walnut symbolises Christ: the sweet kernel is his divine nature, the green and pulpy outer peel his humanity and the wooden shell between is the cross (p.198): there is no end to the ability of the medieval mind to find a religious symbol or analogy in everything around us.

Thus every day was marked out and divided, for the ever-growing number of religious orders of monks and nuns and so on, by precise hours at which their rituals had to be carried out. On the professional side, this gave rise to countless Rules for the different religious orders prescribing their behaviour for every minute of the day. The secular equivalent is the innumerable ‘Books of Hours’, beautifully illuminated manuscripts whose purpose was to give meaning and resonance to every hour of every day.

Huizinga explains the nature of what was known at the time as ‘Realist’ philosophy (but which we would nowadays called Idealism). This amounts to the notion that every idea is Real, has a precise definition and a place in an infinitely complex hierarchy, all underpinned by theology and, ultimately, God the Creator.

The creative result of this mind-set is a symbolical way of thinking, where almost every everyday occurrence or object can be related to deeper (or higher meanings). His explanation of the internal logic of this approach is fascinating enough – but it is riveting when he then goes on to draw out the connections between this mindset and the prevalence of proverbs (which crystallise everyday behaviour into idealised patterns), to the emblems and mottos chosen by aristocratic households, and their connection of all these with the complexity of heraldry, which had a more-than-decorative purpose for the aristocracy which commissioned it. For them it was a visible embodiment of the ancestors, of their family and its values and achievements. Their world is made up of a dizzying array of vertical hierarchies of meaning.

Wherever it looked the medieval mind constructed a vast and intricate ‘cathedral of ideas’ (p.194). Lacking any ability to genuinely understand the world or to change it, the medieval mind delighted in finding (spurious) patterns everywhere in the natural world, and in creating dizzying edifices of intellectual patterning to fill their (otherwise empty) heads.

Scholasticism

Hence the mind-boggling complexity of medieval theology which, over succeeding generations, set out to codify and order every conceivable thought anyone could possibly have about any aspect of Christian theology, the ceaseless multiplication of saints, feasts and festivals, religious orders, shrines, relics and so on. The late medieval world overflowed with meaning all of it, fundamentally, spurious.

It was this tendency to over-elaboration that later generations satirised with examples of the great debates which were held over ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’, and dismissed as barren ‘scholasticism’. Much of this was gratefully abandoned even by the Catholic Church in light of the great Reformation which came in the early 16th century.

The gap between theory and reality

But for Huizinga what is entertaining is the vast gap between the theory of Christianity as pursued into endlessly remote corners of mental complexity – and the reality of a Church which was in a parlous state. At the top the Catholic Church was tearing itself apart, beginning with the period of the so-called ‘Babylonian Exile’ from 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes ruled from Avignon in the South of France. When Pope Gregory XI ended the exile and moved back to Rome, half the Curia (most of the French cardinals) refused to go with him and set up a separate Pope of their own. This period became known as the ‘Great Schism’ of 1378 to 1417 when two, and then three, separate popes claimed God-given rule over the church, while merrily excommunicating and damning their opponents.

On the ground all across Western Europe, peasants and town-dwellers, dismayed by this perplexing collapse of central authority, mainly experienced the Church via the immense corruption of an institution devoted to fleecing them with all kinds of religious taxes, penances and indulgences – one of the great themes of the literature of the age.

Courtly Love

The will-to-complexity explains the gorgeous edifice of Courtly Love which grew up intertwined with the complex ideas of Chivalry. Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. The cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address.

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life. (p.105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating and curlicuing this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

Anxiety and hysteria

The terrible realities of a life without any medicine or science were compounded by the awful fear of the living hell awaiting almost everyone after death. Everyone was badly stressed by this appalling plight. And this helps to explain why, when anybody anywhere was seen to threaten the controlling orderliness of Christianity and Chivalry, they acted like a kind of lightning rod to the anxieties of an entire culture. For a threat to any part of the fixed and repressive structures of medieval society was a threat to ALL of it and therefore a threat to the entire mental and psychological paraphernalia which was all these people had to stave off bottomless fear and anxiety. Threatening complete collapse.

It is this extremity of anxiety which they felt all the time which explains the (to us) extraordinary hysteria which was let loose in the various witch hunts and trials. Helpless old women or sassy young women who stepped out of line, or in fact had often done nothing at all, could quickly find themselves short-circuiting the anxiety of an entire culture, instantly blamed for every bad harvest, illness and death which had happened anywhere near them. And not just blamed a little, but immediately transformed into omnipotently evil associates of Satan and his demons, complete with magic spells and malevolent familiars. Huizinga mentions the ‘vauderie d’Arras’ from 1459 to 1461 in which 29 townsfolk were accused of witchcraft (10 of them women) of which 12 were executed (8 women).

The same went for heretics, for anyone who dissented from the crushing orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Once again a threat to any part was a threat to the whole ornate edifice of belief which sustained everyone and so even a small threat prompted hysterical over-reaction.

And for such a complete subversion of the fragile state of things, only the most extreme form of punishment was suitable – something so terrible that it would terrify anyone who witnessed or heard of it to go anywhere near this kind of transgressive behaviour. Heretics were hunted down, entire communities wiped out, and, like the so-called witches, their leaders very publicly burned at the stake.

Waning and decay

The terrible conditions of life, the almost continual warfare, the terror of hell, the ubiquity of witches, heretics and enemies of society, the only certainty being early death and a strong possibility of an eternity of hellfire – explain Huizinga’s title.

Huizinga doesn’t see this as a society on the brink of the exciting ‘rebirth’ of the Renaissance as we latecomers, looking back over the centuries, are tempted to see it – but as an age which was exhausted with permanent war and religious terror. An era of fathomless pessimism and permanent nostalgia for the olden days which must, must surely have been better than this. And an age, above all, which has thought itself out. Every detail of life has been cemented into the vast cathedral of analogies and concordances, of symbolic types and correspondences which crust the whole thing together so that no new thought is possible.

Early on he makes the brilliant point that the two are connected – that writers of the Middle Ages were so damn pessimistic precisely because they couldn’t see any way out of the dead end of dried-out theology and tired literary forms (all those thousands of allegory and romance).

We ‘moderns’ have two hundred years of accelerating technological change behind us giving us the near certainty that things will always be changing (and at an accelerating rate) – better medicines, laws, technologies, the spread of human rights, equality, feminism etc.

But the medieval mind not only had no theories of social change, their political ideas – such as they were – forbade social change of any kind, because Society – along with its ranks and positions – had been laid down for all time by God. Change was not only subversive, it was blasphemous.

Thus they not only had no mental wherewithal to envision a better future, at a deep level they weren’t allowed to; in their future there was only the certainty of continuing decline from the former Golden Age, combined with fear of the end of the world and the threat of an eternity of hell. No wonder the age was so pessimistic!

Unexpectedly critical

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is how critical it is of medieval society, thinkers and rulers. You expect a scholar who’s devoted his life to a subject to be enthusiastic about it, but Huizinga is bracingly critical, if not downright insulting, about the culture as a whole and many of its leading thinkers and writers.

The mentality of the declining Middle Ages often seems to us to display an incredible superficiality and feebleness. The complexity of things is ignored by it in a truly astounding manner. It proceeds to generalisations unhesitatingly on the strength of a single instance. Its liability to wrong judgements is extreme. Inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency, are common features of medieval reasoning. (p.225)

The ideal of chivalry tallies with the spirit of a primitive age, susceptible of gross delusion and little accessible to the corrections of experience. (p.125)

Most of the authors of the fifteenth century are singularly prolix. (p.268)

And he has harsh words for many of the writers he quotes so liberally. Eustace Deschamps is only ‘a mediocre poet’ (p.102); most of the poets of the age were ‘superficial, monotonous and tiresome’ (p.262); ‘Froissart is the type of this extreme shallowness of thought and facility of expression’ whose mind is marked by ‘poverty and sterility’ (p.283).

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

It is only towards the end of what feels like a long, dense account of the culture of the late Middle Ages, that Huizinga finally arrives at the subject which, apparently, triggered it – a consideration of the art of van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and their contemporaries. Why is their art so good, so beautiful, if so much of the rest of late medieval culture is tired, clapped-out and formulaic?

For two reasons:

1. It is newer. Written literature stretched back to the Romans. Literary genres like history, chronicle, play, poetry, epic, lyric, satire and so on had been going for nearly 2,000 years. In medieval hands every logical possibility within these genres had been explored and done to death. Hence Huizinga’s rude comments about the poets and even prose writers of the age. The medieval intellectual system had systematised everything and all that was left was repetition without invention.

By contrast, painting was new. It had only emerged out of flat devotional panels and icons in, say, the 1200s. There was still a great deal of scope for individuals to compose and arrange even the most hackneyed of subjects – the Annunciation, the Crucifixion etc. And in subjects free of Christian content, the world was their oyster, and European painting would continue to develop at an astonishing rate for another 500 years. Thus Huizinga points out that whereas there had been erotic literature for thousands of years, there was little or no genuinely sensual erotic imagery. There’s little or no erotic imagery in the late medieval art (which has survived) but what there is has a fantastic sense of freshness and innocence. We can still sense – 500 years later – the excitement of innovation and experimentation in their paintings.

2. There is (obviously) a fundamental difference between written literature and painting. In the Late Medieval period in particular, both succumbed to the era’s obsession with detail, but with widely different results: so much of the literature, whether religious or secular, routinely turns into lists of vices and virtues – Huizinga really dislikes allegory because it is such a superficial, sterile way to ‘create’ characters out of often flat and empty ‘ideas’, little more than words.

Imagination, both literary and artistic, had been led into a blind alley by allegory. (p.303)

He quotes reams of poets and prose writers whose texts are long lists of the angels or personified Virtues they encounter, and their entirely predictable attributes and oh-so leaden dialogue. Their realism ‘remains enslaved by conventional forms and suffocated under a heap of arid rhetoric’ (p.276).

But in the painters of the day, the obsession with complexity and detail is transformed into the goal of decorating every surface, with rendering every stitch and jewel, with capturing nuances of facial expression and emotion – and this is something entirely new in the history of art.

In a fascinating passage (chapter 20, ‘The Aesthetic Sentiment’) Huizinga quotes one of the few recorded opinions of this art made by a contemporary, the Genoese man of letters Bartolommeo Fazio who admires in the paintings of van Eyck and Rogier the realism and the detail: the hair of the archangel Gabriel, the ascetic face of John the Baptist, a ray of light falling through a fissure, beads of sweat on a woman’s body, an image reflected by a mirror.

It is precisely this love of detail and its exquisitely realistic rendition, which we know aristocratic patrons of the day enjoyed, and which to those of us who love it, is precisely one of the strengths and appeals of medieval culture: its creation of wonderfully rich and decorative patterns in not only the visual arts but all other aspects of intellectual life: the rich detail and dense symbolism to be found in all medieval arts – of tapestry, illumination and painting.

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1430)

Fascinatingly, we have the opinion of Michelangelo himself on Netherlandish art, recorded by Francesco de Holanda. Michelangelo credits the technical achievement of the northerners but then criticises them for having too much petty detail and not enough of the grand sculptural simplicity which he, of course, achieved so spectacularly.

Though the eye is agreeable impressed, these pictures have neither art nor reason; neither symmetry nor proportion; neither choice of values nor grandeur. In short, this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single thing would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application. (Michelangelo, quoted p.254)

What he dislikes is the late medieval tendency to get lost in a maze of details (reflecting the complexities of the mazes of theology and chivalry). For Michelangelo all this has to be swept aside to make way for enormous, grand, simplified and epic gestures.

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

Gone are the flowers, the trees, the landscape, the roofs and towers of the distant town, the colour symbolism and elaborate folds of the stiff clothes, the sweet douceur of the faces and the sentimental tears of the mourners. But these are precisely what I like so much about the art of the northern renaissance.

Conclusion

The above is a summary of just some of the many themes discussed in this brilliant book. It is a really rich, profound and insightful account, which repays repeated rereading, even after all this time still offering up new connections and shedding fresh light on time-honoured subjects.


Credit

The Waning of the Middle Ages was published in 1919 Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen and translated into English in 1924 by Frederik Jan Hopman. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition as reprinted in 1982.

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