My post on historical novels (and the responses to it) have got me thinking a bit more about the difference between modern and medieval mentalities, or rather, the differences that historical novelists need to contemplate and possibly find ways to express. This is my first attempt to say what I think the most important differences to note are (please join in with your own suggestions in the comments). I also want to suggest some possible mental exercises/thought experiments to help both historians and novelists contemplate these differences
1) An acceptance of hierarchy, injustice and inequality.
This is often a difficult modern concept to unthink: how could people accept the subordination and oppression of peasants, slaves, women, etc? I find memories of childhood (the more traditional the better) useful here (and I dont think its a coincidence that childrens historical novels often stand up better than adult ones). You have to do what you are told, however unfair it might seem, because you are a child and they are adults and thats just how it is. And most children dont spend most of their time raging against this, both because they dont know that things could be different, and because there is no conceivable way to change the system. Instead, they spend any spare mental energy working out how to get along in this unfair system, or how to cheat it without getting caught, or dreaming about a better world, or waiting for something to change, or just enjoying whatever good bits there are. Transfer that to the medieval subordinated adult, and that seems to me a basic template for how you might react to a society that is biased against you. Most of the time, most of the oppressed dont rebel: thats a basic historical fact.
2) Love and marriage
Modern thought also tends to have a problem with the concept of love in the Middle Ages, because were so used to thinking of love as essentially between equals, whereas Augustine describes marriage as a certain friendly and true union of the one ruling, and the other obeying (On the Good of Marriage c 1). The best descriptions of relationships in historical novels manage to combine both timeless feelings and historical social realities about relationships. I always remember, for example, Gillian Bradshaws The Colour of Power, where a husband realises he has fallen in love with his wife of many years only after she has disappeared and is in danger.
3) Lack of control
A few weeks ago I was briefly on the Brough of Deerness, a rocky peninsula in Orkney on which some enthusiast built a chapel. The current archaeological view seems to be of the buildings around it as being a secular complex rather than a monastic one, but it has a lot of similarities to many other early monastic sites. As I stood there, it occurred to me that the prevailing feel was not one of solitary tranquillity (though there were only the four of us on the rock). Even though it was a lovely sunny day, the wind was still whipping up the waves enough to make it pretty loud: I didnt feel so much serene as conscious that if we werent all careful there could be a horrible accident. And I started wondering whether the spiritual effect of such places wasnt more about the power of Nature/God and ones own insignificance than the peace of Nature/God.
Much of modern life is about our attempts to control our lives: we believe we can determine what will happen to us. Part of the stress of bereavement, disease, being a victim of crime, unhappy relationships and even failure to get the job we want is the realisation that there are some things we can do nothing about. Life in the pre-modern world made such events far more common. Its not just natural disasters and disease (although Robin Flemings “Bones for Historians: Putting the Body back in Biography,” in Writing Medieval Biography: Essays in Honour of Frank Barlow, ed. David Bates (Woodbridge, 2006), 29-48, is an eye-opening read on the topic), its also collapsing buildings (Carolingian balconies are terrible for this) and wars and many other unknowns. Whether this all made medieval people more fatalistic, or more realistic or more superstitious, youll just have to decide for yourself, but the attitudes of modern people in such situations outside their control are worth looking at. (Theres an interesting recent study on Hurricane Katrina for example).
4) Qualities of violence
Ive recently been reading William Ian Miller, Humiliation: and other essays on honor, social discomfort, and violence (Cornell University Press, 1993), which includes some interesting attempt to make parallels between medieval and modern emotions. He comments (p 55): Many of our judgments about quantities of violence…might turn out really to be judgments about qualities of violence. The medieval world was almost certainly more violent than the modern western world (though its hard to produce definite metrics) but the quality of the violence was certainly very different. Violence was more visible, for example, whether public beatings or animals being killed in the farmyard. A novelist has to reflect this difference, without making his or her characters seem impossibly callous in modern terms. One useful trick, it seems to me, is to recalibrate the expected set-point for violence. If a novelist includes some throwaway lines about beatings or deaths (and writing allows one to downplay such events more easily than visual media), they can nevertheless still have set pieces of particularly gratuitous or brutal violence. After all, medieval people could still be shocked by violence, if it was excessive in their terms.
5) Types of racism
The big difference between medieval and modern racism is that the former is not predominantly about skin colour. Instead, its the more basic idea that all foreigners are strange and have bizarre habits, with foreigner expandable as necessary to encompass anyone coming from more than X miles away. Although medieval racism could lead to war atrocities (e.g. English versus Welsh) or opportunistic killings (attacks on Flemings in London), not much of it gets to the level of later European racism, with lesser breeds treated as subhuman. We also need to take care not to read back the current hierarchies of undesirables into the Middle Ages: Id argue, for example, that the Carolingians were probably more prejudiced about Greeks than Muslims.
In the comments on my previous post on historical novels, Morgan said: I have yet to find a believable religious character in a historical fiction novel. I think it may be here that the historians and the novelists tasks differ most. While historians may be trying to ascertain what medieval people actually believed, I think what novelists mainly need to do is to produce plausible Christian personalities. Most of the time people do not express their religion through talking about their beliefs, but through their religious practices and also through their personal behaviour.
The biggest mistake a novelist (or indeed a historian) can make is to think there is only one kind of Christian (or one kind of true Christian). Everyones faith is marked subtly or less subtly by their own personality. My husband and I have been attending church and Christian events together for more than twenty-five years, and we would probably be very close doctrinally. And yet his faith is not quite my faith and his God is not identical with my God. Its a simplification to see a believers idea of God as simply a reflection of his or her own personality, but it is true that their concepts cannot help but be marked by their own sense of themself and of the world around them. The complacent, the fearful, the kind, the cruel, the lover of rituals and those who find rituals meaningless all have their own vision of God.
One of the hardest aspects of studying religion (whether for a historian or a novelist) is also trying to get to grips with the viewpoint of the religious zealot or ascetic or fanatic. Its tempting, even for the religious among us, just to imagine such people as being fundamentally alien and personally warped, but thats come to seem too simplistic to me. The most useful book on religious history Ive ever read is Peter Browns The body and society: men, women and spiritual renunciation in early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988). In this, Brown looks at a religious practice that seems totally alien to almost all modern people (celibacy) and explores the differing reasons that various late antique and early medieval Christian groups had for practising it. Browns great skill is that he can make such viewpoints intelligible, fitting them into a system of thought. It was reading him that first made me think about asceticism as a positive rather than a purely negative phenomenon.
I think in the same way that one of the most useful exercise a historian or novelist can do is try and get in touch temporarily with their own inner fanatic. (And I would argue that anyone dedicated enough to do a PhD or write a novel does have a touch of the fanatic in them). Firstly, there is the sense that a particular project you are doing is of true importance: it is a goal that you are deeply committed to. And from that springs the discipline to persevere at that project even when it is difficult and to give up things in order to achieve that goal. It is a mini modern version of asceticism: if you persistently find that you would rather go to the pub or read a book or talk to friends than get on with your study or your writing, you are not going to achieve much.
Aligned to that commitment to a project, there is also normally also a desire to write the best history or novel that you can. If you are serious about your research or your fiction writing, you are likely to come to be contemptuous or even angry with those who are content to be second rate historians or novelists (especially if they are more successful than you). Why cant they be bothered to check their sources properly or write without clichés? Why are they damaging the reputation of the craft or the genre? Its in the moments when you fantasize that Xs book should be publicly denounced as rubbish and a copy symbolically torn into shreds (or used as toilet paper) that you start coming near the concept of fanaticism. Its misleading to see all fanatics as simply negative, as being against things. Its the searing, clarifying vision of the one true path that is what can justify the rejection of everything and everyone else.
I think most historians and novelists have at some time have had a vision of that true history, that great novel . If we imagine such feelings intensified to extend to something that affects ones whole life and ones eternal future, its a useful way of considering what motivates at least some religious zealots.
Those are the different mental aspects of the medieval past that I currently think are most important for novelists to try and get right. In contrast, there are some mental differences that are less important for novelists, even if they are real changes from the past. Though Im aware of studies that show cognitive differences between preliterate/prescientific people and modern thought, these tend to occur when considering abstract problems in a way that isnt really relevant to most situations in novels, (except historic detective novels). For an example, looking at Russian peasants, see here. (Although maybe novelists should start looking through their novels and see whether instead of some common class nouns, such as animals, colo(u)rs, people, they would be better off with a more specific term).
Another tricky problem for novelists is sensory perception. The medieval world was undoubtedly smellier than ours, the night darker (no light pollution), the cold feeling more bitter, etc. And yet people adapt to such things: after a while in a noisy neighbourhood, you no longer hear the traffic. The novelist must perform a double trick here, working out what are noteworthy sensations from a different sensory baseline. Paradoxically, too much historical knowledge may be a disadvantage here, because a novelist may become tempted to show off the knowledge they have.
The historian, presenting medieval mentalities for a modern audience, has one great advantage. They can always painstakingly build up explanations and analogies for how and why a historical character might feel or behave. (For one good example of this, see Michael Clanchey, Abelard: a Medieval Life). The historical novelist doesnt have the luxury of explanation: they must somehow make such mentalities comprehensible by implicit means. Its not surprising that they usually fail: what is impressive is that they occasionally succeed.