"He made his confession and told all his misdeeds": The Rise of the Internal Consciousness between 1100 and 1500
Thomas J. Tobin[References]
The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 marked a shift in the manner in which the Roman Catholic Church saw the role of the everyday faithful in relation to the sociopolitical aims of Mother Church--a shift away from public shame and justification by trial toward private guilt and justification by penance. The genesis of this change in Church policy can be attributed to several different areas, such as the economic need to raise funds for the Crusades, the political necessity of maintaining a short chain of command between the Deity and the peasant, and the social benefit derived by the fabrication of a self-policing individual conscience. It is in this last result--the internalization of the sense of wrongdoing--that I am most interested. The development of the concept of the individual conscience is easily traced in the history of the period, as Austin Poole has done. I argue that this shift in the medieval weltanschauung is equally evident through close readings of literary texts representative of the period between the early eleventh century and the late fifteenth.
The Song of Roland, composed before the edicts of the Fourth Lateran Council, may be seen as a control text, exhibiting all of the attributes of the public-shame/justification-by-trial trope. In texts from each of the three centuries following the eleventh, when The Song of Roland was presumably written--namely, Perceval, Tristan and Isolt, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight--the public sphere is successively augmented more and more fully by a private, inner psychology. This is not to say that there is no evidence for the existence of private thoughts and motivations before 1215, but that there was little value in publicly acknowledging such motivation; I believe that the internalization of penance led to the increasing valuation of the individual conscience, and that this is manifest in the texts I shall study.
Before a discussion of the manner in which these texts help to inculcate the “new” idea of the individual conscience, it may be helpful to define the terms involved in the change: “shame,” “guilt,” and--perhaps most importantly--“individual.” The idea of shame is the grounding ethical indicator for the society in which the author of Roland writes. Shame is essentially a public process; it necessitates the codification of any behavior into acceptable and not acceptable. Because there are few private actions which shame does not preclude or encourage, the system by which the actions of an individual is judged is based on the approbation of a larger authority--God or a group of peers. Erik Erikson, writing in Childhood and Society, posits the dichotomy as “autonomy vs. shame and doubt” (251). Although Erikson’s study is not specific to the medieval period (indeed, it is the result of a long psychoanalytic practice), his ideas seem relevant to such a discussion. Erikson defines the balance required by a shame-centered culture: “Shame supposes that one is completely exposed and conscious of being looked at” (252), while this is balanced by the sublimation of ethical subjectivism to “the principle of law and order” that “apportions to each his privileges and his limitations, his obligations and his rights” (254). This entirely public medieval ethos can be seen in the practices of the tournament and justification by trial in cases of dispute. I posit that this view of the nature of the relation of the individual to the group is the basis from which gradually evolves the “new” concept of the individual, private conscience.
The individual conscience is driven, by the time Gawain is written, not by shame, but by guilt. Guilt is the internalization of codes of behavior, thus creating a self-policing function within the individual: a conscience. Social stigma are still in place, but only in vestigial forms: the court of law deals with a much narrower scope of issues than did the tournament. The idea of trial is internal; ideally, the individual is swayed toward right action not by the collective disapprobation of his or her peers, but through the compunction of “universal truths” (Vinogradoff 35). Justification is no longer based on individual cases, but on precedent and internal codification of behavior. Erikson says that the individual “can gradually develop a sense of moral responsibility, where he can gain some insight into the institutions, functions, and roles which will permit his responsible participation” (256) in any situation.
Such a shift from public justification to internal moral responsibility is posited by Erikson in terms of psychological states reached during adolescence (shame) and adulthood (guilt). However, when this argument is applied to the same sort of shift between the time of Roland and that of Gawain, an interesting distinction must be made in defining the term “individual.” Robert Hanning, in The Individual in Twelfth-Century Romance, posits that the defining factor in the literary individual is “depiction of the inner life,” (15) which motivates each character to respond subjectively “and in sharply differentiated ways to a given narrative situation” (14). While I agree with Hanning in principle, his notion of individuality is static, and needs to be augmented if it is to be useful in my analysis of the changes occurring in the texts under study. Another definition of the developing individual consciousness occurs in John Benton’s “Consciousness of Self and Perceptions of Individuality.” Benton argues that the marks of the “internal voice” to be found in twelfth-century prosody are conventionalized, agreed-upon, public constructions. It may be of assistance to quote Benton at some length: "Though there is a perfectly good Latin word for “self,”. . . there is no medieval word which has anything like the meaning of “personality,” and persona was still defined in the twelfth century primarily in its etymological sense as a mask held before an actor. . . . [A] medieval person could never verbalize the idea of having a “personality.” (Renaissance and Renewal 284) A synthesis of Hanning’s and Benton’s arguments produces an interesting working definition of “individual”: a psychological concept that develops more fully as the “inner life” begins to replace public notions of proper conduct. In other words, the individual qua character becomes differentiated, as time progresses, from “the individual”--a conceptual means of defining the self and its role in social encounters.
The Song of Roland
Composed some time after the Vita Caroli of 830 (Sayers 7-8)--most likely in the late eleventh century for William the Conqueror--The Song of Roland comprises the narration of the events leading up to and including the Battle of Roncevaux. The written Song includes and embellishes upon what appears to be an already-established oral narrative tradition, in which the characters of the geste become stronger, more prolific in battle, and nobler with each re-telling. The Emperor Charlemagne has somehow crept into the Song, even though Charles the Great was not present at the historical battle (Sayers 11).
All of this evidence of successive embellishments leads me to argue two things regarding the portrayal of the individual in The Song of Roland. First, the supernumeration and repetition of the heroic qualities of the principals in the tale point to the assumed familiarity of the reading/listening audience with the weltanschauung presented by the author. Second, the addition of mythic figures, especially Charlemagne, into the narrative reveals the structural hieratism of the author’s view of the relationship between the individual and society.
In The Song of Roland, the “rules” of social behavior are assumed to be known to all characters in the text, Christian and Saracen alike. The opening laisse points to the author’s familiarity--and the characters’ familiarity--with the conventions of knightly behavior:
Carlon the King, our Emperor Charlemagne,
Full seven years long has been abroad in Spain,
He’s won the highlands as far as to the main;
No castle can stand before his face,
City nor wall is left for him to break,
Save Saragossa in its high mountain place;
Marsilion holds it, the king who hates God’s name,
Mahound he serves, and to Apollyon prays:
He’ll not escape the ruin that awaits. (1-9)
Here, in miniature, is the central conflict in the entire story: Christian versus pagan, warrior against warrior, type against anti-type. Notice that in the opening laisse, the author describes the actions taken by Charlemagne--his military victories--and the public, known attributes of Marsilion--the worship of his false gods. It is also interesting to note that in this encapsulation of the central conflict, there is no mention of Roland, about whom the entire poem is eponymously composed. There is no need to explain the internal motivation of any character, because the social structure rigidly dictates the rewards and penalties for almost every act. We can see this social determinism at work most strongly in two scenes: Count Ganelon’s betrayal of Roland to Marsilion, and the description of the battle between Roland’s forces and the first wave of Paynim attackers.
When Ganelon betrays Roland to the enemy, it is presented three times in succession, with the language of the portrayal only slightly changed in the second and third laisses of the scene. This repetition reinforces two ideas: first, that the scene is important to the continuation of the story, and second, that the scene takes place according to a ritual or prescribed form. The scene is repeated, admittedly, so that a listening audience might remember it better. I am more concerned, however, with the idea that Ganelon’s betrayal takes place according to a ritual. The laisses read:
“Truly, Count Guénes,” then said the King Marsile.
“I have in mind your right good friend to be.
Of Charlemayn fain would I hear you speak.
He’s very old, a hard life his has been;
Two hundred years and more I know he’s seen;
In lands so many his body he’s fatigued,
Hard strokes so many he’s taken on his shield,
Rich kings so many he’s brought to beggary--
When will he weary of fighting in the field?”
“That’s not his way,” said Guénes, “in the least.
None knows the Emperor, or looks upon his mien,
But says of him: ‘A right great man is he.’
Howe’er I sounded his praise and his esteem,
His worth and honour would still outrun my theme.
His mighty valour who could proclaim in speech?
God kindled in him a courage so supreme,
He’d rather die than fail his knights at need.” (520-536),
The Paynim said: “I marvel in my thought,
At Charlemayn, that is so old and hoar!
I know he’s lived two hundred years and more.
In lands so many his body he’s foresworn,
Sharp strokes so many of lance and spear has borne,
Rich kings so many beggared and brought to naught--
When will he weary of going to the wars?”
“Never,” said Guénes, “while Roland still bears sword;
There’s none so valiant beneath the heavens broad,
Oliver, too, his friend, is a brave lord;
And the Twelve Peers whom Charles so much adores
Protect the vanward with knights a thousand score;
Charles is secure, he fears no man at all. (537-550),
The Paynim said: “I marvel in my mind
At Charlemayn whose head is old and white.
Two hundred years, I know, have passed him by.
In lands so many he’s conquered far and wide,
Lance-thrusts so many he’s taken in the strife,
Rich kings so many brought to a beggar’s plight--
When will he weary of going forth to fight?”
“Never,” said Guénes, “while Roland sees the light;
‘Twixt east and west his valor has no like,
Oliver, too, his friend, is a brave knight;
And the twelve Peers, in whom the King delights,
With twenty thousand Frenchmen to vanward ride:
Charles is secure, he fears no man alive. (551-563)
I may, perhaps, be excused the length of the above quotations if one keeps in mind my assertion that it is a ritual--a prescribed mode of speech, made not for the enlightenment of the individual participants, but made repeatedly so that all present--in this case, Marsilion’s assembled host--can hear the important details of the conversation. In other words, Marsilion acts, in this instance, as a mouthpiece for his troops, and Ganelon as mouthpiece for his own interests. It is worth noting that the speech is repeated, in its three essentials--Charlemagne is over two hundred years old, when will he stop fighting, not while Roland lives--three times, ostensibly so that those directly in front of, to the left of, and to the right of the conversation all have an adequate chance of hearing the details and registering their approval or disapproval. Indeed, there are many instances in which disapproval of a plan is given only after a second--and sometimes third--repetition of a proposed plan (cf. 1082 ff. when Roland refuses to blow Oliphant only after Oliver urges him three times).
As the treachery of Ganelon is presented publicly, so is the battle prowess of Roland. Roland’s public character is two-dimensional; he fits a type. As Frederick Tupper claims, “the significant phrase of the Chanson de Roland [is] ‘Roland is brave, and Oliver is wise’” (37). Instead of a description of each encounter with the enemy, the author supplies us with a generic description of the force and might of Roland in battle. There are an even dozen scenes in which the following--or lines closely resembling these--are written:
Against Chernubles he spurs his steed in haste,
Splits through the helm with carbuncles ablaze,
Through steel coif, and through scalp and brain,
‘Twixt the eyes he cleaves him through the face;
Through the byrny close-set with rings of mail,
Right through the body, through the fork and reins,
Down through the saddle with its beaten gold plates
Through to the horse he drives the cleaving blade,
Seeking no joint through the chine carves his way,
Flings horse and man dead on the grassy plain. (1325-1334)
Instead of the individual acts of war, in which one would assume each encounter to be unique, Roland’s battles acquire a certain sameness: each Muslim is split in half, along with his horse. Again, the repeated element takes on the tone of ritual; this is how war is to be waged, and neither side plays by any other rules. By repeating the stylized depiction of Roland in battle, the author casts Roland as a type; the sublimation of “rules”--whether in political dealings or on the battlefield--is inherent, with no need to explain individual motivation, because of the commonly-known nature of the conventions of public accountability.
There is, however, a depiction of the individual in the Song, which come during the heat of battle. One of the Paynim horde vanquishes one of the Peers in combat, and it causes a stir among the Christians (1510-1550). Indeed, the individual, when he acts contrary to the publicly expected outcomes, is seen as a freak, and must be explained back into conformity: “Were he but Christian, right knightly he’d appear” (899). The only way in which the French can countenance the death of one of their champions is to see it as consequent to the Muslims’ not fighting fairly: “Yours is the outrage, yours is the lying boast!” (1592). Both of these examples of the public-character convention raise one other issue important to Roland: that of the place of the individual personality in the weltanschauung of the twelfth-century author.
There are few characters represented in The Song of Roland who do not follow socially-prescribed methods of behavior. The character whose actions most closely suggest an independently-willed personality is Charlemagne, but his actions can be explained in two ways: he is obeying a higher directive than society--God, or he is so old that his experience of the social conventions is broader--allowing him a greater range of socially-acceptable possibilities from which to choose.
The directive-from-God explanation may be supported by a number of examples in the text, most notably the dream sequences in which Charlemagne receives his battle plan from an angel:
Straightaway an angel with whom he was wont to talk
Comes, with this summons, in answer to his call:
“Ride, Carlon, ride; the light shall no come short!
The flower of France is fallen; God knows all;
Thou shalt have vengeance upon the heathen horde.”
Some psychologists today would describe Charlemagne’s dream-conversation--erroneously, in this case--in terms of transference of the will to the persona of the angel. However, the Song author uses the directive from God not to explain Charlemagne’s already-internal decision making, but to legitimate the source and nature of Charlemagne’s apparently irrational decision. In other words, as leader, Charlemagne is forced into the position of espousing the social order, while at the same time needing to break that order occasionally to ensure the smooth workings of the state. Charlemagne pushes on, even though night is falling, because he has been assured by God of his victory. A miracle occurs; the sun does not set until the battle is concluded (2458 ff.). Again, it is not Charlemagne’s decision to wage this battle, and the author even inserts Charlemagne’s lament “how weary is my life!” (4000) when he is ordered in the closing laisse by God to succor a town. Charlemagne is clearly not meant to be an actor, but an agent of God’s will.
Even in instances where Charlemagne is not directly commanded by God to do a certain thing, his independence of “self” is explained away by the author as the result of long experience of the social conventions. Charlemagne, by dint of his two-hundred-plus years, has become a keen observer of all of the codes of behavior possible: he is what will become known in later centuries as an aesthete. This “mythic identity” is illustrated early on in the Song, when the king puts up the Paynim messengers for the evening:
The ten white mules Charles sends to stall anon;
In the great orchard he bids men spread aloft
For the ten envoys a tent where they may lodge,
With sergeants twelve to wait on all their wants.
They pass the night there till the day draws on.
Early from bed the Emperor now is got;
At mass and matins he makes his orison.
Beneath a pine straightaway the King is gone,
And call his barons to council thereupon;
By French advice whate’er he does is done.
The king is described as doing, not as thinking. His actions are done automatically--sending the envoys’ animals to be watered and fed, erecting a tent, gathering servants, going to Mass, and then promptly convening his court. All of these things are described as naturally following one on the other, “straightaway.” Charlemagne’s experience of proper and courteous behavior is so extensive that he no longer need think for himself in such matters; he does the “right” thing at once. A final note about Charlemagne may help to establish the tone of the author toward the expression of internal, personal individuality: Charlemagne does not make his own decisions in matters of state, though he may be the sole proclaimer of law. Charlemagne relies on the advice of his barons and lords for the construction of policy. It is precisely this convention of public pride and shame that Chrétien de Troyes begins to subvert in Perceval.
Chrétien de Troyes, in writing Perceval circa 1160-1190, reflects the tenets of a new code of individual guilt, as will the decrees of the upcoming Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The main narration deals with Perceval’s “training” in the courtly ways of knighthood--a topic that Charlemagne in The Song of Roland learned completely only after two hundred years of observation. The codification of “courtly” behavior allows Perceval to demonstrate his progression in worth and honor through his reactions to a series of trying situations. He is shown eventually to have embraced the “new” courtly ways when he reencounters the lady whom he had wronged in the beginning of the tale, and is given a chance at making restitution.
Because de Troyes puts forth an argument in favor of the internalization of conscience, his narrative differs from that of the Roland poet. Due to the relative novelty--at least in print--of the newer system, de Troyes must first establish that he knows how the old system works. The older, public-shame-driven world view that can be seen in The Song of Roland is effectively parodied in the young Perceval’s first encounter with the lady. The author then puts the old in play against the new, pointing up disadvantages in the old system by re-enacting scenes--in this case, Perceval meets the lady a second time--to show the “proper” manner in which knights are to behave, to be motivated. This rather pointed method of highlighting the basic tenets of the new consciousness is extremely didactic, and indeed takes the form of a “lesson” or moral tale, ending with Perceval finally recognizing God’s higher message through the tutelage of his uncle the hermit.
Perceval is shown to be a holdover from the “old” system of public identity in his response to the knights riding through the forest: [The knight] rides at full speed up to the lad, greets him, and reassures him with the words: “Don’t be afraid, young man!”--”I’m not,” says the lad, “by the Saviour in whom I believe! You’re God, aren’t you?”--”Not at all, by my faith!”--”Who are you then?”--”I’m a knight.”. . . “Now if only I were just like you, formed the same and all shining!” (376) Perceval’s naïveté is ascribed by the knights to his ethnicity: “You may be perfectly certain, my lord, that the Welsh are by nature more stupid than grazing beasts” (377). This slanting dig at Perceval’s nature can be read as an implicit comment on the social system wherein one’s actions are predicated on a fixed, public response pattern (á la Roland). Perceval, when faced with the knights, falls to the ground and “recited the whole of his creed and those prayers which his mother had taught him” (376).
This passed-down, learned-by-rote mode is shown to be of lessening use to the practitioners of the newer, more internalized system of social interaction, particularly in Perceval’s first encounter with a lady. “By my head, I’ll kiss you first, whoever it may upset,” says the youth, “because my mother told me to!”. . . “My mother also told me,” says he, “that I should take the ring on your finger but do nothing else to you. Now let’s have the ring! I want it.” (382) Instead of interpreting his mother’s instructions about the proper conduct of a knight, Perceval merely apes his mother’s advice verbatim, and causes the lady shame and disgrace, even though he is following the letter of his public code of behavior. The lady’s knight, upon returning, will not believe that anyone could be so churlish as to persevere in the old manner, even though the lady had protested her shame and displeasure (385).
However, the new system of guilt-based individuality seems yet a novelty to de Troyes, based chiefly on the scenes with Kay the seneschal at Arthur’s court. Kay’s transition from public to private personality has been a rough one, and he is at pains to display his contempt for the new ways of thinking. On the other hand, Perceval is eager to learn the “proper” way to think and behave, and thus becomes set up against Kay’s stubborn insistence on the public justification. Arthur puts the central conflict of Perceval into words when he chastises Kay: You’re very wrong to mock this lad: that’s a very grave fault in a gentleman. Although the youth is naïve, he may well be of good birth; for it’s a matter of upbringing, and he has learnt under a bad master. He can still turn out a worthy vassal. It’s churlish to make fun of others and to promise without giving. A worthy man shouldn’t undertake to promise someone else anything at all that he cannot or does not wish to give, lest he incur the ill will of that person who, without the promise, is his friend, but who, having received his promise, is anxious for it to be made good. (387-388) The new way of behavior about which Arthur speaks is still conscious, still didactic, and is placed against the foil of the old system not working. Arthur must instruct Kay about the new, “proper” manner of behavior, that is predicated on the internal integrity of the gentleman: the highest bond is that of promise: a private bond between two individuals. Kay’s public outburst against Perceval shames him, because it is not done privately.
Kay receives his rebuke from Arthur directly, but Perceval learns the same sorts of lessons through his experiences. After Perceval has accumulated knowledge of secular courtly behavior, he is enough equipped to make amends to the lady whom he had wronged at the beginning of the story. The Haughty Knight of the Heath, who had punished the maiden for her supposed role in the dalliance between Perceval and herself, challenges Perceval, and Perceval confesses:
My friend, you may know quite certainly that she has done her penance; for I’m the one who kissed her against her will and to her great sorrow. And I took her ring from her finger: that’s all that happened--I did nothing more. I also ate, I admit, one of the pies and half of another and drank as much of the wine as I wanted. (426) The Haughty Knight of the Heath is surprised that Perceval has confessed: “that’s an amazing thing you’ve said, admitting to this affair” (426). The Haughty Knight is amazed because of Perceval’s private confession; Perceval is now motivated by personal, internal guilt about his actions. His confession is private, made only to the parties wronged, not in front of all of his peers. The trial by combat is replaced by a man-to-man agreement to settle the score. Perceval proves his innocence in a single fight with the Haughty Knight (427 ff.). The conclusion to be drawn from this change is that Perceval is now bound by his new mode of consciousness to teach it to others, because not everyone is yet behaving according to this new mode.
Because Perceval is primarily a didactic work, wherein the new idea of an inner guilt-driven consciousness must be taught to its readers/listeners, the tale ends with a summation of the moral to be learned. This fabliaux ending comes in the form of Perceval’s visit to his uncle the hermit, who instructs him in the final--and most important--aspect of the new “chivalry”: the internalization of the individual’s relationship with God. That Perceval is instructed by a secluded hermit, communing with God individually, is itself significant. That the hermit is Perceval’s uncle points to the nearness and more private nature of the manner in which the sinner must confess his sins; just as Perceval admitted his guilt to the Haughty Knight, he must do the same for God, and is admonished to go to church every morning, and to be shriven--privately--at least once a year (460). Perceval is also taught a powerful prayer, to be spoken only in times of extreme danger (460), yet another private way for the individual to communicate with God. This stress on penance and introspection will come into its own in Tristan and Isolt, where the code of chivalry becomes the established norm, and the tale is not as didactically phrased as is Perceval.
Tristan and Isolt
Gottfried von Strassburg need not have been as didactic as Chrétien de Troyes because enough time had passed for the idea of an internalized self-policing conscience to take hold as the accepted psychological norm. Tristan and Isolt was written in 1210, five years before the Church formally codified in the edicts of the Fourth Lateran Council what had, over the previous two centuries, already become accepted practice. By the thirteenth century, the replacement of shame with guilt was nearly complete, and the author of a tale could rely on his audience’s knowledge of and familiarity with the precepts of guilt, just as the Roland poet assumed his listeners’ knowledge of shame.
Thus, von Strassburg confronts his reader with the trials of an individual, as had de Troyes before him, but with one significant difference: Tristan’s thoughts are made plain to the reader in order to explain his motivation. The internalization of motivation is an important area of difference because it points to a shift away from didacticism toward the more aesthetic concerns of the guilt-based individual; just as Charlemagne was an aesthete of shame-driven social codes, Tristan is an aesthete of guilt-based social codes. The nuances of Perceval’s personality are few, and only sketchily delineated. In contrast, Tristan’s motivations and doubts are complex; his story is less deterministic, containing many divergent possible consequences of Tristan’s choices. Tristan operates within a more complex web of consequences--all of which have personal, internally-meaningful resonance for Tristan; though he is courtly, and can behave toward the public good, he always regards his own internal sense of justice as the barometer of his actions and thoughts.
The story line of Tristan and Isolt conveys almost immediately the divergent possibilities for Tristan’s life. When the young Tristan plays chess with the sea captain, he opens the way for his own choices, motivated by his internal consciousness. The game of chess is at once a literal and allegorical representation of the modus of the internal consciousness:
Thus Tristan sat and played chess with the strangers, and they looked upon him, and marveled much at his gentle and courteous ways, and yet more at his skill in tongues, for scarcely might they tell of what land he came, so many foreign tongues he spake. All the terms of chess fell readily from his lips, and he taught them much they did not know before. (99) The fact that while Tristan is in command of his immediate situation--the game of chess--denotes his acceptance of internal, self-motivated decision-making. He is responsible for himself on the chess board. However, Tristan cannot be responsible for himself in the public sphere, because he is chaperoned by his companion Kurwenal (97-98). The text is clear about the necessity for Tristan to learn to use his own internal judgment in the public realm; Kurwenal is cast off from the ship after he and Tristan have been kidnapped (100). The allegory of the chess game begins to take place when Tristan is set down in Cornwall, and must shift for himself. Although he relies on God, praying “that Thou wouldst look upon me, and be gracious to me, and show me how I may come where I shall find folk” (101), the first action taken by Tristan in Cornwall is a self-reliant, interior one: “Then he bethought him that he would climb one of the cliffs which were near at hand” (101). Thus is posited the central conflict of the chivalric gentleman: a metaphoric chess match between the individual’s will and the caprices of fate.
This mindset had been accepted, and was considered the norm against which behavior was measured; Frederick Tupper, in Types of Society in Medieval Literature states that the chess-book gained popularity as a handbook of behavior during the late twelfth and early thirteenth century: If we may judge from the changing names of the pieces, chess, in the days of its oriental origins, was simply a picture of war. Later, when it came into Europe. . . it seemed to represent. . . the relation of the various classes of men to each other and to God. (20-21) Tristan operates according to his pre-defined role (the name of his “piece”), but has the freedom to act as he wishes within those parameters. This balance between the public and private spheres marks Tristan and Isolt as the control text for the newer guilt-based system of identity. Two examples may serve to show the internal consciousness in opposed action to fate: Tristan’s trickery when he enters Dublin as a minstrel, and his ruse in obtaining the magic dog Petit-criu for Isolt.
Tristan has himself put adrift in a small boat off the coast of Dublin; he is dressed in mean rags, and falsely tells the Dubliners who come to rescue him that he is a wounded minstrel: “and well skilled in all kinds of music” (124), who had been set upon by pirates at sea. Tristan’s story is backed up by his skillful playing on his harp, and he is taken to the queen to be healed of his wound (126 ff.). Through such trickery, Tristan is able to receive the medicine for his wound, even though he received the wound in slaying the queen’s brother Morolt. When the princess Isolt at last discovers this deceit--after Tristan had escaped and returned as an envoy of his king Mark--she wishes to kill Tristan, but is held in check by her mother Queen Isolt’s pledge to protect him. Tristan’s deceit is thus legitimated, because “One must turn one’s mantle as the wind blows, and who knows but what he may be come hither for your honor?” (152). Tristan’s ends--the marriage of princess Isolt to King Mark--are noble, and well-intentioned. Therefore, his means--posing as a minstrel--are justified in the long run. Because internal motivation is the deciding factor in determining the social acceptability of an action, Queen Isolt and Princess Isolt weigh Tristan’s motives, not his actions, in deciding to spare his life.
Likewise, Tristan uses his knowledge of courtly codes to exact an open-ended promise from Gilân: If Tristan can rid Gilân of his foe Urgan, Gilân promises to give Tristan anything he desires (201). Tristan, having drunk the love potion intended for King Mark, has fallen in love with Isolt--forbidden him because she has married Mark. Gilân’s magic dog Petit-criu has a bell around its neck "which rang so sweet and clear that when it began to chime Tristan forgot his sadness and his sorrow, and the longing for Isolt that lay heavy at his heart." (200) Though Gilân does not wish to part with his magic dog, Tristan holds him to his promise of “whatever I possess” (201), after Tristan has defeated Urgan. In this example, there are clearly two sides to the internal conflict, for both Tristan and Gilân. Tristan pits his own wits against the guilt that Gilân would feel if Gilân were to break his oath. Gilân must subordinate his desire to keep Petit-criu to the larger, and more important bond of his promise. When Arthur, in Perceval, tells Kay that the most sacred bond is that of promise, Kay is meant to take that lesson to heart. However, by the time Tristan and Isolt is written, people had figured out how to abuse that system to their own benefits. Using trickery to gain a good end becomes, in Tristan and Isolt, an admirable thing. The dangers of doing so are shown, as well, in the shape of the love-drink, meant to bind Mark and Isolt. This trick goes awry, and leads to the eventual downfall of the principal characters. The implicit comment on the proper uses of wit and deceit is one of caution. The internal consciousness of Tristan is guilty, but Tristan does not allow that guilt to trouble his psyche, because he is still rooted enough in the public sphere that his actions must be explained not only to himself, but to others, in the end.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Gawain poet, writing circa 1380, takes the internalized notion of the psykologos a step further than von Strassburg, in that Gawain posits a new, wholly conventional individual character. The story of Tristan and Isolt is made tragic because of an unknowing error, a caprice of fate. The Gawain poet shows that the guilt-based consciousness has been assimilated and accepted fully by medieval culture because he artfully uses irony to point to the possible faults in the new system. While Tristan’s deceptions may be possibly explained away as necessary for his honor (he is responsible for the safety of his men, for instance), the only time Gawain is false, it is to save his own life, and it burdens him with guilt. The Gawain poet also points very early on in the narrative to the vainglory and folly that the new system of consciousness produces: Gawain must be provoked to accept the Green Knight’s challenge; the vestiges of the old shame-based system are shown to interfere with the proper functioning of guilt. In this manner, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is comparable in kind to The Song of Roland, where an accepted social system is shown to have its weaknesses.
Gawain himself is a re-mythologizing of the individual. Just as Charlemagne merits his own mythos in the Song of Roland, Gawain is presented as an embodiment of the Celtic sun god, Wª (Berington 307), and thus is imbued with his own fantastic elements: the story is set in winter, when the sun wanes in intensity; it is interesting to note that Gawain’s challenge begins after Christmas--close to the winter solstice, after which the sun’s power increases. Gawain, as an individual, guided by his own internal sense of honor and guilt, is so versed in the ways of courtesy that he is seen as an example: “Each man whispers to his neighbor, ‘Now we can watch the finished arts of courtesy. . . since we have given welcome to a knight who is the paragon of good breeding’” (350). Gawain instructs those in his host’s castle, but not didactically: the servants take it upon themselves to watch Gawain. The process of the sublimation of the “rules” of courtly behavior is not seen as necessary to be taught to Gawain, unlike the cases of Perceval and Tristan, whose education in the finer points of chivalry are delineated in their stories.
When Gawain is tempted by his host’s wife, he displays the proper command of etiquette required to at once rebuff her advances, yet not offer offense. hen she surprises him in his bedchamber, he defuses the situation with tact, giving wit for wit in the combat of dalliance: “Good morning, sweet lady,” said Gawain cheerfully. “Everything shall be done to me as you like, as I am well content, for I yield myself as your prisoner, and pray you for favor. . . . will you then grant me a boon and release your prisoner for long enough to let him get up and out of his bed and get himself dressed? (357) Gawain trusts in his own rhetorical skills to stay within the bounds of gentility while he refuses the lady’s advances. This is the height of self-control; the internalization of the passions has taken place to such an extent that the lord can trust Gawain in bed with the lord’s wife. Indeed, even the wife soon sees that Gawain’s trust cannot be broken through sexual advances, and says “Even if I were the loveliest maiden on earth, he left his love-making behind him when he set out on this journey” (359).
Gawain makes a bargain with the lord; they promise to exchange whatever they get during Gawain’s stay at the lord’s castle. When the lord gives Gawain the game from his hunts, Gawain repays the lord with kisses on the cheek (363-373); neither breaks his promise. However, when the lady gives Gawain her charmed sash, purported to render the wearer impervious to weapons, Gawain does not give it to the lord when the time comes for the exchange (374); Gawain breaks his word. This sets up his encounter with the Green Knight, who is really the lord at whose castle Gawain had been staying. The Green Knight wounds Gawain by nicking his neck--a token punishment for having broken his word. The promise that Arthur spoke of to Kay in Perceval is shown to be the root and underpinning of all courtly behavior; the bond of the oath regulates wit, deceit, and dalliance, and thus is shown to be the primum dictum of the internalized consciousness.
The social system depicted in the Song of Roland is one in which a single concept underlies the manner in which individuals relate to one another: the oath. Throughout the upheavals in the social construction of identity that follow in the next few centuries, it is the notion of keeping one’s word that regulates the interaction among men and women. Alongside this constant develops the internalization of the meaning of “a promise.” For Roland, a promise is a public pact, to be sworn in the company of others, and to be enforced by the public shame of breaking one’s oath. For Perceval, one’s word is still a publicly-given declaration, but it may be redeemed in private, with only the aggrieved parties knowing of it. For Tristan, a promise must be kept, but that does not preclude a witty person from playing tricks using the confidence of others. Gawain, finally, views an oath as deeply personal, sworn by one person to one person; the enforcement of a promise is due to the guilt suffered by the oath-breaker.
In other words, the characters in each of the four works I have studied mirror the historical development from a public-sphere idea of the individual, based on shame and the approval or disapproval of one’s actions by one’s peers, to an individual consciousness, based on an internalized sense of guilt and the approval or disapproval of the conscience.
Back to the top of the page References
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