Medieval horrors, medieval glamour

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

 

Writing The Black Prince meant studying medieval history and literature in a way I hadn’t been able to do since I was a student—my current day job is ‘Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature’, when it’s not ‘Writer of Science Fiction Novels’. But there are many parallels, actually, between the work of the SF writer and the historical novelist (being able to worldbuild a fundamentally alien environment is needful for both disciplines, for instance) and you might be surprised by just how passionate the Victorians were about the medieval period. This was the century when interest in Arthurian legends revived: Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and all that. And thinkers and artists from Ruskin to Swinburne and William Morris devoted their greatest creative energies to the middle ages. So immersing myself in the medieval period was, for me, something like a homecoming.

It’s has got me thinking about why the Middle Ages have such appeal for minds like mine. After all, ‘medieval’ nowadays is a synonym for primitive, and life without proper dentistry, central heating or—for the vast majority of the population—any life opportunities at all beyond the local village and feudal chores is hardly appealing to a modern sensibility. Still: there’s something in the period, some charisma or hook, that can’t be merely explained away as dewy-eyed cosplay nostalgia. What might it be?

Today, of course, a good deal of medievalism comes into 21st-century culture through genre Fantasy rather than history; and where that is concerned the taste seems to have shifted about from the bright-coloured idealism of Tolkien’s Middle Earth to the grim-and-gritty horror-fest of George R R Martin’s Westeros. And Burgess was adamant that his Black Prince project wasn’t going to be a rose-tinted soft-edged world. These were violent times—by modern standards extraordinary and often casually violent—stifled by a calcified social heirarchy and lacking the modern amenities that render today’s life bearable. But it’s also clear from reading Burgess's screenplay that he didn’t just think of the middle ages that way. After all, if life back then really was nothing but grime and pain, then why would we want to read about it at all? We're not masochists.

So my challnge, in putting The Black Prince together, was to find a way of balancing-out Burgess’s commitment to portraying the violence and affront of Edward's career with something that captured the allure of the historical period itself.

I’ve recently been reading Dorothy L Sayers’s translation of The Song of Roland, an edition published by Penguin books in 1957. In fact, I’m ashamed to admit I’d not previously read this classic: it’s wonderful. Though the battle it narrates took place in AD 778 the poem itself was written—we don’t know by whom—in the twelfth-century. The whole is suffused with medieval attitudes and flavours.

One passage in particular, from Sayers’s introduction, really caught my eye as an articulation of what is so compelling about the middle ages as such:

 

And so Roland rides out, into that new-washed world of clear sun and glittering colour which we call the Middle Age (as though it were midle-aged) but which has perhaps a better right than the blown summer of the Renaissance to be called the Age of Re-birth. It is also a world full of blood and grief and death and naked brutality, but also of frank emotions, innocent simplicities and abounding self-confidence—and world with which we have so utterly lost touch that we have fallen into using the words “feudal” and “medieval” as mere epithets for outer darkness. Anyone who sees gleams of brightness in that world is accused of romantic nostalgia for a Golden Age that never existed, But the figure of Roland stands there to give us the lie: he is the Young Age as that age saw itself. Compared with him, the space-adventurers and glamour-boys of our times, no less than the hardened toughs of Renaissance epic, seem to have been born middle-aged. [Dorothy L Sayers, ‘Introduction’, The Song of Roland (Penguin 1957), 17]

 

I think this struck me so forcibly because the subject of my novel, the Black Prince himself, was so extraordinarily young—he took charge at the Battle of Crecy when he had just turned sixteen years of age, and, like a Romantic poet, he didn’t live long enough to enjoy his inheritance, or his maturity. And yet his unprecedented string of battlefield successes (and his ultimate untimely end) are the stuff not of legend, like Roland, but of history. Youth! A young man in a youthful age.

The roundel at the top of this update is a detail from a stained-glass window of Chartres Cathedral. The whole of the window concerns the Legends of Charlemagne. On the right, there, you can see Roland himself, after his heroic but doomed defence of the pass of Roncevaux, blowing his mighty horn to summon the emperor’s army to avenge him. The figure on the left is also Roland, now dying, attempting to break his sword Durendal—‘Harder-than-hard’—on a ‘marble stone’ beneath a ‘fair tree fall’, rather than suffer it to fall into the hands of the Saracens (many of whose dead, as you can see, lie around him):

 

Count Roland smites the sardin stone amain.

The steel grides loud, but neither breaks nor bates.

Now when he sees that it will nowise break

Thus to himself he maketh his complaint:

“Ah Durendal! So brave, so bright, so gay!

How does thou glitter and shine in the sun’s rays! …

Now am I grieved and troubled for my blade;

Should Paynims get it, ‘twere worse than all death’s pains.

Dear God forbid it should put France to shame!” [lines 2312-37]

 

He dies, though, before he can dispose of his sword, and the poem is neither evasive nor sentimental on death, the savagery and hideousness of the battlefield and the waste of war. But it is a poem that captures the gleam of something finer too, and I hope that my novel, in its different way, manages something of the same.

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