Being Medieval and Civilized

Issue 4

A personal confession from Liana Vardi: A. B. Yehoshua’s novel A Journey to the End of the Millenium has been, since its publication, one of my all-time favorites. I have loved its extraordinary recreation of Europe in 999. Although the plot revolves around the erasure of polygamy from Jewish practices in the West, it is the descriptions of early medieval Paris that took my breath away and the way that Yehoshua connects the city to the trading networks of the Mediterranean. If not the entire novel then selected chapters can certainly enrich a course on the History of Paris, among others. It does not offer the complete panorama of The Hunchback of Notre Dame or the courtly intrigues of Les rois maudits.  Rather it is a miniature brought to life. In contrast stands The Dream of Scipio, a sweeping meditation on the essence of being civilized that ranges across fifteen hundred years of “French” history. There are some college courses that cover “France” from Gaul to De Gaulle. Like any good course on “world history,” these courses depend on following certain themes. One of those themes could well be the challenge to any “civilized” person or polity posed by violence and widespread death. By interweaving personal struggles to cope with the moral challenges created by the Visigoths of the 5th century, the bubonic plague of the 14th century, and the Nazi ascendancy of the 20th century, renowned author Iain Pears raises timeless questions about the relationship between individuals and the larger values that uphold civic life. His novel inspires our reviewer to imagine some other intriguing courses.

Being Medieval and Civilized

Daniel Lord Smail
Harvard University

Tucked away on a shelf in my office is a faded bookmark retrieved years ago from a package of Dannon yogurt. In their concern to enlighten the American yogurt-eating public, Dannon distributed a collection of bookmarks presenting “fun and interesting facts about history.” The back side lists a few facts that seem real enough (“Did you know the average married woman in seventeenth-century America gave birth to thirteen children?”). The first question on the front side begins innocently enough: “Why do weddings traditionally take place in the month of June?” Here’s the answer. You’ll want to share this with your friends: “In the Middle Ages, peasants took their yearly baths in May. By June, they were still smelling pretty good so June became the favorite month for weddings. Brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide their body odor!”

The “midevil period,” as students have been known to call it, is a slippery time where facts are concerned. It is not that our knowledge of the period is insubstantial. But where modern facts manage to find their way onto bookmarks, medieval ones do not. Dealing with real medieval facts is like trying to hang garden tools on a pegboard where the hooks, annoyingly, are always clattering off onto the floor. The problem lies in the pegboard, which is cluttered up with a bunch of rusty old facts about loveless marriages, unchecked cruelty, superstition, ignorance, and immobility. In the Freudian scheme of Western Civilization, the medieval pegboard, with its sad detritus, is the alter-ego of modernity. The slot assigned to the medieval is not a real historical slot. It’s the “not us” slot. It can be populated by everything that is not us. So it is hardly surprising that the good people at Dannon yogurt lost their heads while musing on baths and body odor.

The existence of all the junk cluttering up the medieval pegboard helps explain why historians often approach medieval historical fiction with suspicion or resignation. In teaching my course on the natural history of humans, I use paleofiction and movies to make the people of the Paleolithic come alive for my students. Invited to review A. B. Yehoshua’s A Journey to the End of the Millenium and Iain Pears’ The Dream of Scipio with an eye toward their pedagogical relevance, however, I realized that I have never once assigned a work of fiction or shown a movie in my medieval history courses. Sure, I want my students to connect with the people of the age. But supposing those people are portrayed as cruel, Jew-hating, heretic-hunting, unbathed bigots who rape their teenage wives and believe the earth is flat? Maybe such depictions can offer a chance to explore the full and characteristically complex humanity of medieval people (yes, some of them did hate Jews). But why can’t authors of medieval fiction buck the tyranny of medieval topoi and write about the past as it really was?

By this measure—which only a sniffy academic historican would ever think to apply to the works at hand—A Journey to the End of the Millennium is a better candidate for classroom adoption than The Dream of Scipio. Set on the eve of the Christian millennium, Journey tells the story of a commercial partnership sundered when one of its members, a young man named Abulafia, inexplicably repudiates his uncle and business partner, Ben Attar. Abulafia is based in Paris, at the northern apex of the family’s commercial network. While there, he falls in love with and marries an Ashkenazi woman, Esther-Minna, and the two settle down in her brother’s house. Esther-Minna, however, is jealous of her husband’s annual trips to the south, and deeply distressed by the marital customs of the distant uncle, for, in the manner of the Andalusian Muslims among whom he lives, Ben Attar has taken two wives—two beautiful wives with kohl-darkened eyes, dressed in perfumed silks, and hidden from prying eyes by their veils. Fearful that Abulafia, too, might acquire a new conjugal ardor, Esther-Minna and her brother cajole and coerce him into the act of repudiation. Ben Attar, who cannot rest in the face of this attack on his partnership and his dignity, sails north to Frankland in a quest to restore relations with his nephew and match wits with the meddlesome wife. He brings along his two wives, his Muslim partner, a rabbi to act both as legal counsel and spiritual guide, and a cargo of goods, condiments, and a pair of young camels. Ben Attar arrives in Paris in 999, loins girded for the legal jousting that ensues.

“This is not my period.” So goes the mantra of historical over-specialism, and in truth the year 1000 CE is about as distant to me, a student of the fourteenth century, as is 1789. But apart from the gold, which Ben Attar in his exotic dreams associates with Latin Christendom, something that never would have occurred to anyone of the age, the novel has the ineffable aura of verisimilitude. The peasant vintners who appear in the novel don’t sleep in bedrooms; they unroll their bed mats where fancy suits them. The Andalusian visitors, accustomed to speaking Arabic, have to communicate via translators and hand gestures. At the end of the novel, the cargo that is stowed in the hold of the ship for the return trip consists of slaves, the only valuable cargo that Frankland has to offer the discerning customers of the south. Above all, the characters feel right. In medieval historical fiction, characters are often drearily modern in their psychological make-up. Yehoshua’s characters belong to the period, with all the thrill of difference that that implies. When the troupe arrives in Rouen, and Ben Attar’s idolatrous young slave, a black African, casts himself before the gilded image of a god with arms outstretched, the spectacle is unnerving. But such is Yehoshua’s skill that you intuitively feel how right it is to prostrate oneself before idols.

The novel’s most valuable historical message springs from Yehoshua’s exquisite sensitivity to the cultural clash involving two peoples divided by language, ritual practices, foodways, and marital customs. These two peoples, of course, are Andalusian and Askhenazi Jews. Of less moment to the protagonists are the many habits of life they share with each other as well as with Christians, such as the necessary complementarity of the sexes, the immutable rightness of order, and the paramount importance of hospitality. Such things are so profound as to be scarcely noticed at all. Appropriately enough, Yehoshua sketches out the common habitus of medieval Europe with little fanfare. Given the dark tendency in the classroom today to harp on persecution, intolerance, and the clash of civilizations, it is well to remember what Yehoshua has to teach us, and what we, perhaps, ought to be teaching our students.

The Dream of Scipio is a beautifully complex novel in which the civilizational crisis represented by World War II is sketched over a second, the traumatic visitation of the Black Death in 1348, and these in turn are layered over a third, the barbarian invasions of the fifth century. Three tales, one for each era, weave in and out like a fugue as the protagonists encounter a recurring moral challenge: How is civilization to be preserved in the face of its impending collapse? Pears’s reply is to square the circle: “It is the civilized who are the truly barbaric.” The novel’s cheerful indifference to the unity of time is made possible by a unity of place, for the three tales are set in and around the city of Avignon, allowing Pears to create a scholarly palimpsest in which Olivier de Noyons, the poet-protagonist of 1348, uncovers legends and even a manuscript left by Manlius Hippomanes, the philosopher-bishop of mid-fifth century Provence, and Olivier’s poetry and his own tragic history are in turn rediscovered by the scholar Julian Barneuve on the eve of World War II.

This is a novel about morality, not about history. The history itself is uneven. At times, Pears hits the mark. The arcane subject of Neoplatonic thought is portrayed with some skill, as is the mutability of historical memory. The most vivid example of the latter involves the figure of Sophia, Manlius’s philosopher-mentor and Platonic lover who morphs into the hermit-saint known to Olivier in 1348, and eventually becomes the saint to whom the good women of Julian’s village bring their tales of broken hearts and marital infidelity. But Pears’s deftness at handling the intellectual apparatus and the large moral questions that dominate the novel is offset by a surprising clumsiness when it comes to portraying the lived experience. Academic nitpicking is a dismal thing to read (did they really use coins to buy herbs in fourteenth-century Avignon?) so I shall limit myself to one example, the understanding of obesity. Pope Clement, who makes a cameo appearance in the closing stages of the novel, is greasy and fat. He has thick, pink jowls and fat, ringed fingers. As the obesity action committee has long since pointed out, fatness, in our culture, has unfairly become a symbol for all kinds of bad things, including hypocrisy, self-indulgence, intemperance, and cruelty. That’s what fatness means to us. In the premodern world, you had some of that too. Yet fatness was mostly associated with raw power. As we make Clement’s acquaintance for the first time, we are peering at him from behind the shoulders of the rabbi Gersonides, but we don’t read the pope’s obesity through the rabbi’s eyes. We read it through modern eyes.

Anachronisms like this are unsettling; they jerk readers, momentarily, out of the past. The minor characters of this novel are pastiches woven from the tired old threads that have sustained the fabric of medieval fiction for a century or more. The comte de Fréjus and his love-lorn young bride, Isabelle, are the worst of the lot, but there are others. When Manlius’s antagonist, Caius, declares truculently “The truth is told to me in the Bible,” who, exactly, is speaking? Certainly not a character from the fifth century. They didn’t even have bibles in the fifth century; the compilation we are familiar with did not come into existence until the fourteenth century. Leaving aside that pettifogging detail, the person speaking here is not a fifth-century Caius. It is some bible-thumping evangelical from twenty-first century America, unhappily transported, along with his belief in biblical inerrancy, into the fifth century. By this sleight of hand Pears is telling us that the barbarian, once again, is hacking at the foundations of civilization. Put that way, I suppose I agree with him. But the observation comes at the price of polluting the past with the effluvia of the present. The bible-thumping evangelical doesn’t belong in the fifth century. He is a creature of modernity. Let him stay where he belongs.

The anachronisms found in The Dream of Scipio constitute an irritant more than a fatal flaw. You could probably dodge them with a few well-designed teaching moments. What makes the novel problematic for use in the classroom is that the course for which it is most appropriate does not exist. Few courses in history are so explicitly philosophical as to invite students to ask big moral questions about civilizational crises. We have courses about the fall of Rome. We have courses about the crises of the later middle ages. We have more than enough courses about the Nazis. What we lack is a course that tackles all three at the same time. But maybe Pears is right. Maybe we should be teaching a course like this rather proffering the same old tired survey. I have long dreamed of teaching a course built around the travel memoirs of Patrick Leigh Fermor. In a similar manner, I could readily imagine a course designed ex novo to illustrate how the traumas of the twentieth century do not constitute a harsh new melody so much as new lyrics set to the same musical refrain. Used in this way, The Dream of Scipio, irritants aside, could offer a thoughtful new scheme for the teaching of history.

A.B. Yehoshua. A Journey to the End of the Millennium: A Novel of the Middle Ages, trans. by Nicholas de Lange. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 1999, 352 pp.

Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio, New York: Riverhead Books, 2002, 416 pp.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,