Pagan pondering the Mediaeval

I’m in the process of reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and I think it has implications for the mediaeval texts beloved of modern Pagans. I’m very aware that I’m wading in to a topic I barely know about, so, I’m just waving a thing because it may need waving.

The first section of Don Quixote was published in 1605. It’s a satire on what was at the time a popular genre across Europe, namely the chivalric romance. By the looks of it the chivalric romance goes back to the 12th or 13th century, easily. There were enough texts and readers for a satire of it to make sense. The premise for Don Quixote is that the man has been driven out of his wits by reading too many of these things, and has come to believe they are true.

Chivalric fiction, as far as I can make out from this book, is all about your knight errant, who has to have some largely unrequited love interest and run around performing impossible feats in her name. The Arthurian myths are specifically referenced by the Spanish author, as being examples of this. I was aware of Chretian de Troys, (is that how you spell it?) and that Lancelot came to the Arthurian tradition from the French authors, but had no idea why. The answer, it would appear, is because this is a genre and it was happening across Europe. It’s like superhero fiction and romance combined. There’s magic in it, and mighty feats. There’s also a drawing on actual historical figures and events such that many romances of this genre are a tangle of the two, again, from what I can make out.

There are so many texts beloved of Pagans that were recorded in the Mediaeval period, and that purport to represent something older. I’ve read The Tain, I’ve failed to get through Le Morte D’Arthur, there’s all the wondrous Welsh stories, and they exist in a context. A genre that spanned the continent and centuries, full of heroes, epic fights, marvellous heraldry, lavish descriptions of costume, unlikely speeches, magic, impossible acts… and a tendency to draw on history for inspiration. Of course this does not rule out drawing on myths as well, authors are seldom averse to stealing good material and recycling it.
When we come to these texts as Pagans, it is often with our eyes to the ancient past, and what might be revealed, and not to the context of the stories themselves. I suspect the context matters. Genres tend to shape the ways in which stories are told, the elements you play up, the things you skip over. In this case it may explain both Lancelot and the grail myths, which always struck me as a bit shoehorned in. Maybe they were. But what else owes to literary habits of the time and not to the ancient Celts?

It occurs to me that we might have a better shot, as a community, at finding the truly old stuff in these stories, if we went in by first pinning down the rules, conventions and normalities of the chivalric romance genre, and then looked for what doesn’t fit. Giants and wizards, princess and challenges, they all fit the genre, from what I can see. I’m not sure we’d have much left. Of course that a thing fits in a time and place does not rule out its being older, but it does raise questions.
I know I have neither the time nor the skill to do the work that might be useful on this score, and I have no idea if anyone out there is working on this stuff, and from a Pagan perspective. So, I’m waiving and waiting to see what anyone else comes up with.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

4 responses to “Pagan pondering the Mediaeval

  • roselle

    Got only intermittent internet so hope this makes sense!

    Oh actually there’s an enormous amount to say here, psychologically, philosophically. Myths and archetypes of course preserve the wisdom of a culture and resonate on SO many levels.

    The literature and myths/tales you speak of were the subject of my degree, and I believe carry huge importance as conveyors of wisdom. The whole courtly love thing (which came from the Moors, ie Islam, via troubadours) is quite significant culturally as it elevated the feminine principle (a surprise, perhaps, thinking of our understanding of Islam) – bear in mind that until then tales celebrated the masculine principle and were mostly about warfare, and women, for men, were mostly about expedient marriages and chatteldom. This of course was followed by persecution and torturing etc of women as witches, and this suppression, as we know, was directed by the Church in fear at the old pagan archetypes, faithful to the feminine principle, of powerful women.

    C S Lewis said that the social revolution brought about by Courtly Love was bigger than the Renaissance/Enlightenment. Until then, societally, we had passion and lust no doubt but no idea of what part love might play in a psyche/culture. For a century or two in parts of Europe women were respected, revered, and adored; and yet the whole thing was also intended to be a metaphor: to allow the possibility of spiritual union with the transcendent principle by a union that wasn’t ‘merely’ physical. We’ve muddled up the spiritual intention with the personal projection in our times, and expect our loved one to be the Beloved and make us happy, fulfilled, transported etc etc. (How can one person ever do that??)

    I’m currently working on a book about the path of conscious relationship and this is part of the framework. Lots lots lots to say.

    There’s a great deal been written about all this from a Jungian and post-Jungian perspective – 100s of books, and all that I’ve read have been extremely insightful. And Robert Bly writes convincingly of the role of eg giants and witches, archetypally speaking, in our individual and collective psyches. (And the Loathly Lady, for example, is a great insight, from a psychological perspective, of the split-off parts of ourselves which need integrating – i.e. the proud young hero needs to kiss the Female Elder.) I think it’s important not to confuse the ‘witch’ in myth and legend or folk-tale with our pagan/Wiccan versions, btw.

    My own novel, ‘Imago’ (central theme timeslip/reincarnation/persecution of ‘heretics’ in C13th France interwoven with a story from late C20th Devon) also addresses the points you raise a little.

  • Anna Reith

    Chrétien de Troyes had so much to answer for! But, yes, this resonates loudly with me… not least because it formed a large part of my academic stuffs.

    He certainly consolidated the form of the romance, and it was absolutely a vehicle for satire and philosophy as much as it was important in the sense of establishing the ideal of courtly love. The fact that these stories could deal with lust and desperation – Tristan and Iseult is a good (pre-Arthurian) one, particularly the device of the love potion, which frees the lovers from the shame/stigma of their adulterous relationship, and normalizes or legitimizes (for want of a better word) their desire – also made them excellent grounds for probing the role of the establishment. The Roman de Fauvel is a notorious example of this (it’s where we get the phrase “currying favour”: from the sycophantic courtiers that groom the titular horse who rises to prominence in the French court) and, of course, when you question the medieval establishment, you’re often questioning the church.

    The fact that so much late medieval chivalric poetry, for example (I’m very big on Charles d’Orleans), features reference to pre-Christian or country customs like May gathering, greenwood marriages – all those things with the distinctly pagan union of fertility, life, and seasonal change – has, I’ve always felt, represented an undercurrent of looking back, of finding the human and the vital within these stories.

    The rules of the genre are definitely what solidified into the tropes that form the basis of fairytales – the rules of three, the challenges, the roles that nature and the enigmatic figures like the Green Knight play – and of course those tales have long and complex roots. Later chivalric romances were overlaid with Christian sensibilities – compare Tristan and Iseult’s lust with the rigidity of Arthurian morality – and a more stringent framework of courtly ideals, but the understanding of what we are, our fleshly nature and the places from which it grows, are still there, even when the extraordinary and magical creatures give way to windmills.

  • roselle

    I enjoyed Anna’s comments, and she’s addressed some of what I wanted to add (below). And I’ve been frustrated with almost no internet connection all day, and have been waiting to add this:

    ‘Internet has been so dodgy today that in my rush to respond I realise I didn’t exactly respond to what you said; or only laterally. Hours later a small addendum:

    The genre of the novel (the ‘Roman’, as it was known originally, or ‘romance’), as I’m sure you know, was born during the time I spoke of, out of the chivalric period specifically. This itself, around C11th-13th, was born from a shift in consciousness that was huge, as I said, and included and acknowledgement of the feminine principle and a more subtle spirituality.

    All of the stories you speak of were of course allegories, and the Grail stories in particular have pagan resonances, with their four element/four quality Grail ‘items’ at the heart of them: of sword/air/intellect, cup/water/feeling nature, wands or lances/fire/intuition, stone or platter/earth/body, and their psychological prescriptions for wholeness. (I wrote about this in my first book Riding the Dragon, and lead workshops in this stuff.)

    The Arthurian tales have embodied a lot of Celtic earlier stuff, as you suggest; Percival/Parsifal, for instance, more significant than Lancelot, was prefigured in the Peredur of the earliest versions of the Mabinogion, and most of the chivalric figures we now know from Arthurian stuff existed in earlier Welsh/Celtic tales, and earlier French ones too. Chretien de Troyes is relatively late. There are a few early German equivalents too.

    So yes, period, context, genre – all in there :-).’

    Synchronistically in relation to what I said in my first comment, reading Jean Markale’s book ‘Women of the Celts’ later today, I came across this, btw: ‘…when the role of women has blossomed to some extent, it has been, if only in a limited way, in periods marked by a certain rennaissance of Celtic thought: the Courtly Period in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries coincided with the reappearance of old Celtic legends in European literature.’

    And Nimue thanks for your previous post. It reminded me of the importance of rest (as one who burnt out last autumn through the 7-day working week thing) – and hopefully BEFORE exhaustion kicks in. It’s good to know one is not alone with this being-human-trying-to-get-it-right stuff!

  • Graeme K Talboys

    Have a look at John Darrah’s ‘Paganism in Arthurian Romance’. This is a huge topic I’ve been studying for years. There is a wealth of pagan material in the Arthurian romances, but it has to be teased out. Each generation of romancer was relying on material produced by the previous generation, often repeating things that did not fully understand and altering them to suit their own narrative. This happened with the Grail which began life (if oft repeated descriptions and archaeological evidence is anything to go by) as a small cauldron. The Gundestrup Cauldron (with its image, among others, of warriors being brought back to life by being dipped in a cauldron) show the power of the cauldron/grail. Cautious steps have to be taken as everything we know of Celtic myth was recorded mostly by Christian clerics, hence the dreadfully confused role of women in things like the Arthurian cycle – with both Morgan and Gwenhyfar being portrayed in the conventional Christian role as daughters of Eve, temptresses and betrayers of their men. Morgan and Gwenhyfar were far more complex than that. Both have triple aspects (Arthur married three Gwenhyfars, or married the same one three times – which reeks of ritual marriage, especially as there is strong connection between her and Myrddin, Myrddin being symbolic of the land [a very early name of Britain was ‘Merlin’s Enclosure’ which in turn connects it with the ritual and sacred versions of the game of gwyddbwyll], Arthur therefore married the land ritually). There is a book in me on the subject that I will have to get round to writing one of these days. Once I finished the other projects I’m part way through.

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