Category Archives: Cultural History

Characters, Society and Nature in Medieval Courtly Novels

The entire chapter of Mimesis which covers the medieval courtly novel is basically devoted to the initial part of Chretien’s Chevalier au Lion. Indeed, Eric Auerbach (1946: 123-140) considered it somewhat prototypical of the literary experience it belongs to. While isolating its crucial features, he introduced the idea of ‘courtly realism’, a mimetic approach to reality which essentially celebrates feudal knighthood in abstract, absolute, almost mythologic terms.

Basically, Auerbach noticed that in medieval courtly novels a fixed and insulating frame separates the noble world of the knights and the one of common people. The knight just aims at increasing his status by overcoming the challenges entailed by wonderful adventures, which Auerbach defined as a «special and strange form of happening developed by the courtly culture». As a consequence, the description of knightly ethos is essentially unrelated to its original social function.

Accordingly, the medieval courtly novel describes a world of adventures which is built around the knights and their much needed achievements. Topographic descriptions are absolute and synthetic instead of relative and analytic, because they do not aim at defining a consistent geographical scenario. Rather they define the right path to adventure, a narrow scenario which stays the same over time so as to preserve untouched the opportunities for adventure it entails and the challenges it potentially offers to the knight who finds it.

Appropriately, courtly novelistic descriptions include people, items and events which define the introductory premises and the stage set where the adventure happens. Of course, incongruous characters or items belonging or pertaining to different social classes, on occasion fall into the spotlight. Still, such presences are typically limited to ludicrous, preposterous or farcical minor roles which novels inherited from traditional tales.

The various elements which populate these very consistent landscapes are never described in a way which refers to the actual geography, economy and society that underlie the existence of their real counterparts. Basically, the world described in medieval courtly novels simply depicts in a detailed but very abstract way the ideals and the lifestyle of the feudal knighthood. Such an assumption leads Auerbach to conclude that the idealization of knighthood based on the obliteration of its social function leads away from the imitation of reality. Finally, he stated that medieval courtly verse novels look more like an evasion into fairy tale than a poetic description of reality.

Similar remarks led Michail Bachtin to conclude that medieval courtly verse novels essentially define the borders of a prodigious world in which narrative action follows the time of adventure. Indeed, in his renowned work on Формы времени и хронотопа в романе, he noticed that their chronotope adopts a very technical and abstract idea of time and space which can be dilated and contracted at will while entailing both synchronicity and asynchrony and violating elementary spatial correlations. Time is fragmented in segments so as to subserve the description of various adventures which take place in a deformed space resulting from a subjective emotional play with distance and proximity.

Discontinuity and casual correlations prevail on causal ones, so that crucial events happen unexpectedly. The time of adventure takes over when the regular, real, normal timeline breaks, so that the world becomes prodigious and the events start following an unpredictable path. In such terms, the very concept of ‘sudden’ characterizes the whole chronotope which defines the extent and the borders of medieval courtly novels.

Indeed, adventure is the natural element in which the protagonists live, because the entire world exists and becomes ‘normal’ for them when a sudden turn of events makes it prodigious. Their identity depends on adventure and their ethics solely fit the prodigious world in which adventure takes place. The world they live in is everywhere the same and always consistent because it is filled with knightly glory based on amazing feats and exploits and the same idea of dread and shame.

These considerations may somewhat explain why Bachtin (1975 [1934-1935]: 72-233) had already marginalized medieval courtly verse novels in his earlier study on Слово в романе, where he just covered the early stages of the genre by devoting some remarks to Wolfram’s Parzival. Indeed, Bachtin assumed that the rise of the modern novel was made possible by the more intense interaction between different social and cultural levels, to be described in terms of stylistic polyphony. Based on such an approach, Bachtin tracked down the medieval avatars of the modern novel in the tradition of other genres, such as the Fabliaux and Schwanken and discriminated the medieval courtly verse novel.

Cesare Segre (1997 [1984]) criticized such view in a crucial contribution devoted to «what Bachtin did not say», that is to the medieval origins of the western novel. Segre remarked that Slovo v romane presents a very partial approach to the novel, which basically benchmarks Rabelais and Dostoevskij as paradigmatic authors. After identifying the crucial features of the genre in its modern specimina, Bachtin necessarily ends up evaluating  the early stages of its history on the basis of what followed.

More specifically, Segre observed that the differentiation of perceptual angles and emotional reactions is not necessarily reflected in the adoption of specific stylistic features, such as so-called polyphony. Accordingly, the lack of stylistic polyphony in courtly novels does not imply a related lack of different perspectives on narrated events. Indeed, medieval novelists clearly established distinctions between different character-specific visual or emotional angles which are always distant from the one of the author.

Moreover, Segre remarked that the lack of a stylistic polyphony aimed at describing the interaction between different socio-cultural levels does not reflect a limited dynamism of medieval society. Rather, the medieval arrangement of literary genres and styles plays a crucial role in defining the extent of the social and cultural positions of characters and events to be described in courtly novels. Sermons, fabliaux or jeux describe events which are related to the life of clergymen, bourgeois and characters belonging to lower classes in general, whereas the novel portrays the feudal knights, their life and their ideology.

Basically, the limited stylistic polyphony of courtly novels must be related to the fact that medieval genres reflect social and cultural standards in a very consistent way. The ignorance of such a crucial fact may lead to critical mistakes when it comes to the understanding of the reason why some features of so called polyphonic modern novels are more easily found in medieval texts which belong to different narrative genres. More in general, it can be observed that a novel must not necessarily adopt specific stylistic features so as to describe the interaction between different social classes.

To some extent Auerbach and Bachtin share a similar idea of literary realism based on the interaction between the protagonist and society. Essentially, the realism of a novel depends on the social relevance of the protagonist’s role in the story and the complexity and dialectic interaction of different social levels which emerge from different descriptive styles. Such an idea presupposes a misleading identification of reality and society which makes a novel more realistic than another because it describes a more complex interaction between the protagonist and the society he is presumably immersed in.

However, the history of the novel proved that the complexity of the described society and the richness of the described human experience are not necessarily related and proportional. In fact, novels which describe very narrow social contexts may refer to an incredibly wide and complex range of perceptual events, affective responses, emotional decisions and goal-oriented actions. Likewise, novels which focus on the interaction between a protagonist and a very complex social context may describe a limited and very stereotypical array of human experiences.

Hence, compelling evidence suggests that scholars must look elsewhere for the so-called ‘realism’ of a novel, very likely in the process which makes it possible for readers or listeners to relate their own experience to the story they are reading or listening to. Such a pragmatic change of perspective was somewhat suggested by Segre himself while discussing «the encounter of the character with the outside world (society and nature)» in the novel:

the writer cannot describe this encounter ataraxically. For him as much as for his characters, society and nature are not givens but realities in which one advances with the help of knowledge, with varying success and repeated attempts. Identifying himself and distancing himself from his characters, experimenting with various points of view, the author not only shares in the investigation carried out by his hero, but conducts the same investigation, within the spaces of his invention

(Segre 1997 [1984]: 394).

What is true for the author in Segre’s view, should be true for the reader and/or the listener as well. If authors develop the very same quest of their protagonists in the ‘field of invention’, the same should be true for readers and/or listeners who process the narrative references which the text they are reading or listening to provides them with. An ecological theory of narrative reference based on embodied semantics which has been sketched in previous contributions actually aims at describing the extent of such a quest and exploring the borders of the field of invention in which it develops, so as to redefine the extent of the relationship between novels and reality (Fuksas 2008).

According to such a theoretical framework, the search of authors and readers in the field of invention relies on a process of recognition and understanding of narrative references which is based on embodied knowledge. This process recruits previous experiences of the natural and social environment which are analogically related to the described events so as to establish congruence between perceptual events, affective responses, emotional decisions and purposeful actions. The resulting activity patterns are pertinent insofar as they can be related to significant thematic drives.

Philological explorations of  the interaction between characters, nature and society in the medieval courtly verse novels show that they describe activity patterns which do not necessarily define the borders of a prodigious, portentous and exceptional world.  The extent of the natural and social environment is proportional to the description of opportunity for actions required for the development of narrative themes. Indeed, medieval courtly novels describe effective-enough representational schemes for the planning of environmentally-situated intentional actions, according to the development of their main theme, exactly as it happens in modern novels.

Basically, characters actually interact with natural and social environment in a way which is very novel-specific and has little to do with fairy tales.  Accordingly, differences between courtly novels and so called modern polyphonic ones are not of a kind which make it possible to assume them as separated branches of the genre. Still, such different approaches to the same genre mostly differ because they basically describe different ecological niches.

Introducing his Theory of Affordances as a crucial milestone of his ecological approach to visual perception, J. J. Gibson (1979, then 1986) described the concept of ‘niche’ as a set of affordances with which an animal can effectively deal and cope. Chemero (2003) reframed affordances in ‘situational’ terms, defining them as relations between environmental features and abilities of given organisms. Accordingly, he redefined the concept of niche as the set of situations in which one or more abilities of an animal can be exercised.

Interestingly, Chemero’s definition perfectly fits the novel as a narrative system, as far as one assumes the protagonists as the animals and the stories they go through as the set of situations in which one or more of their abilities can be exercised. In such terms, the array of activity patterns performed by characters, typically protagonists, throughout the story define the extent of an ecological niche described in a novel. The set of situations in which one or more abilities of characters can be exercised is hardly the ideal one in which the character easily succeed in overcoming stakes, fulfilling requirements, performing tasks, accomplishing missions or attaining goals.

Struggle and failure are part of the process of coping with a problematic ecosystem. Accordingly, the dramatic intensity of a novel depends on the extent of the mismatch between characters’ abilities and environmental challenges. Different characters may struggle or succeed in the very same circumstances according to their variable abilities.

In some cases, different adaptation to the very same environment define the borders of different niches, to the point that multiple autonomous or overlapping niches may either conflict or merge into the very same novel. Conflicting niches typically emerge from the adoption of different character-specific perspectives for describing the very same events. Conflictual interaction between different character-specific perspectives, which define the borders of different ecological niches, determines both the extent and the complexity of the ecosystem described in a novel.

According to such premises, the absence of stylistic polyphony in medieval french novels might be related to the fact that neither the frequent adoption of perspectivism nor the (less frequent) description of items which belong to uncourtly social environments actually establish the premises of such conflictual interaction. The protagonists of medieval courtly novels are mostly knights who belong to the same ‘species’ and the same ‘race’, so that their different reactions to the environmental challenges do not define the borders of different ecological niches. Provided that they share a common idea of society and nature, they perceive the very same affordances. Accordingly, the different way they respond to the environmental challenges does not imply that their conflicting options define the borders of different realities, even when their approaches to adventure radically differ.

As Segre (1997 [1984]: 75) remarked, «all romances, not just medieval ones, constitute a taking possession of the world, as well as society». The protagonists of medieval courtly novels typically take possession of the world on the base of the very same ethos and culture, even though the action they undertake are based on decisions which reflect different emotional responses to environmental challenges. Basically,  medieval novelists seem to be interested in describing conflictual situations which emerge among conspecific individuals who adopt different positions in the very same ecological niche.

Accordingly, environmental descriptions feature very consistent «taskscapes» instead of proper landscapes, that is «arrays of related activities» rather than «arrays of related features», as Tim Ingold (1993: 154-155 and 2000: 195) has defined such a notion. Seldom the audience is provided with ‘useless’ details, eventual digression being typically crucial for a correct understanding of the emotional decision which prompt characters into action. Environmental descriptions are highly selective and reflect the adoption of a socially-inclusive narrative strategy, which is certainly recurrent in medieval courtly verse novels, but is not specific of the early stage of the genre.

Actually, it is impossible to define an historical progression of the novel from highly inclusive descriptive strategies to more complex ones. Every novel is necessarily selective when it comes to describing the interaction between characters, society and nature. Modern polyphonic novels typically adopt a a different selective option by featuring different characters which perceive variable affordances on the basis of an idea of society and nature which is not common to all of them. Still, modern novels are not always and necessarily polyphonic.

The problem is that literary criticism defined the very idea of ‘modern’ on the basis of selected novels which fit an aspiration to be modern and buried deep in the Middle Ages everything which put into question such idea of modern. But in truth medieval courtly novels and modern polyphonic ones do not belong to different branches of the same tree. Rather, they belong to the same lineage whose history is a perpetual and oscillatory process based on an irregular alternation of novels based on more or less socially-inclusive narrative strategies.

In such terms, the history of the novel looks like a long period of stasis in which events happened on a recursive basis. Somewhere and sometimes novels arise which seem very modern, but, unfortunately, they are suddenly followed by very un-modern ones. Such evidence suggests that the abused category of ‘modern’ is just the byproduct of ideological assumptions, not to mention that the very idea of post-modern likely reflect the inability of western culture to finally give up on the illusion of modernism.

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Aknowledgments

The full version of the paper, complete with a discussion of the cart episode from the Chevalier de la charrette by Chrétien de Troyes, is in print in the next issue of the International Literary Journal «Critica del Testo». Please do not quote this short version of the paper without permission.
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Bibliography

Auerbach, E. 1946
Mimesis. Dargestellte Wirgklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur, Bern, Francke.

Bachtin, M. 1934-35/1975
Slovo v romane, in Id., Voprosy literatury i estetiki: issledovanie raznyh let, Moskva, Chudozestvennaja literatura: 72-233.

Bachtin, M. 1937-38/1975
Formi vremeni i chronotopa v romane, in Id., Voprosy literatury i estetiki : issledovanie raznyh let, Moskva, Chudozestvennaja literatura: 234-407.

Chemero, A. 2003
An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, in «Ecological Psychology» 15: 181-195.

Gibson, J. J. 1986 (o. v. 1979)
The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Hillsdale (NJ), Erlbaum.

Fuksas, A. P. 2008
The Embodied Novel, in «Cognitive Philology» 1.

Gibson, J. J. 1979
The ecological approach to visual perception, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (then: Hillsdale NJ, Erlbaum, 1986).

Ingold, T. 1993
The Temporality of the Landscape, in «World Archaeology» 25: 24-174.

Ingold, T. 2000
The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London Routledge.

Segre, C. 1997 [1984]
What Bachtin Did Not Say: The Medieval Origins of the Novel, in «Russian Literature» 41, 3, 1 (April 1997): 385-409. The paper was originally published in Italian as: C. Segre, Quello che Bachtin non ha detto. Le origini medievali del romanzo, in: Id., Teatro e romanzo, Torino, Einaudi, 1984, 61-84, 71, and then republished in: Il romanzo, a c. di M. L. Meneghetti, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1988: 125-145.