Skip to main content

Refurbishing the Middle Ages

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

The Fool of Venus. By George Cronyn. New York: Covici-Friede. $3.00. Bertrand of Brittany. By Roger Vercel. Translated by Marion Saunders. New Haven: Yale University Press. $2.50. Peter Abelard. By Helen Waddell. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $2.50. William Marshall. By Sidney Painter. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. $3.00.

One may or may not agree with Dr. Arbuthnot’s ingenious parallel of the Gothic and the Classical as recorded by the worthy Bishop Hurd, but the growing fascination exercised by the Middle Ages may be based on grounds similar to those which underlie the attraction of Greece and Rome. Gothic and Classic are alike congenial in providing illustrations of whatever ideals one may, from time to time, admire: Wonderlands for any experience where a little knowledge is bliss. But, conversely, it is easy to forget that Antiquity was not antique, that the people of the Middle Ages were not Martians or strange to the customs of Earth.

Four recent biographies, three of them cast in the twelfth-thirteenth centuries, the other in the fourteenth, illustrate prettily the versatility with which the Middle Ages may be treated, and at the same time add to the validity of the statement that the restriction placed upon the imaginative genius of the novelist and historian is merely the extent of his readers’ knowledge. An author may use whatever setting he may desire, or no setting at all for that matter, but George Cronyn, in “The Fool of Venus,” has spoiled what is substantially an engaging yarn by yielding to what Mr. Addison would have called “a modern conceit, varnished with a little classic pedantry.” Out of Peire Vidal’s forty-five accepted and three doubtful songs, ranging from twenty-one to one hundred lines in length, and a miscellaneous legendary complement, the author has developed, and not without ingenuity, a four hundred and twenty-nine page phantasy. The medievalist will writhe in sympathy with the tortured Clio, but that is of no importance. The reader will weary at the needlessly archaic spelling, which is not always consistent. If Montpeslier, why Gallienus, and why St.-Etienne for a church at New Rome? In the end he will not know whether to ascribe “reflection,” “Ars Armandi,” “ex-odrium,” etc., to the vagaries of the author or to an overworked proof-reader. He will tire of the ineluctable “flowered arras” and at the exhibitionism of the noble ladyes (we can’t help it!) of Romance who apparently made it a practice to approve the tuneful advances of troubadours by graciously disrobing and revealing the necessary quota of alabaster as a sign and a portent. For what earthly, or unearthly, reason does Mr. Cronyn, when he does not hesitate to assure the reader that many a maid in Constantinople “will sleep with something besides a coverlet between her knees before the night is done,” have the effrontery, or something, to intimate that some verses of a chastely pleasant song (No. XXIV in M. Anglade’s edition) are of “too intimate a character to be recorded here”? Why—but let us turn to Roger Vercel’s “Bertrand of Brittany” which, with all of its cinematic (God pardon us!) jerkiness of style and of story, is sounder and more honest.

Perhaps one should not be severe upon what is, from the very first paragraph, a romantic biography; though one with a sturdy absence of romance, if we scorn the story of the two little bastards in Spain. But, surely, M. Vercel could have done something with Christine de Pisan’s suggestion that:

Premierement pour Amour fut arme, Ce disoit-il, et desir d’estre aime Le fist vaillant.

One may regret, romantically, that the keys of Chateauneuf-de-Randon were not brought to the dying rather than to the dead hero (there is equally valid evidence for this timely consolation); and one is surprised, if not indignant, after reading hundreds of reported conversations, to have M. Ver-cel say, quite brilliantly, of poor King John’s sole speech: “The words are historic, that is to say, history doesn’t acknowledge them.” Nor is it clear why the author twisted his source in recording the interview between the Black Prince and du Guesclin. The story had medieval charm as it stood.

M. Vercel, despite his interesting account of sieges, ambushes, epic combats, and the amazingly disciplined eroticism of the brigands, has really offered us nothing new about Ber-trand du Guesclin, beyond the fact that, on a summer evening, he could distinguish a golden leopard on a banner which was flapping from an abbey tower a league away. Bertrand’s bulging eyes were notorious, but hitherto the significance of their prominence has been unsuspected.   Naturally enough, the author has directed the spotlight upon his hero, but he might well have opened the shutter a bit wider and have allowed more light to fall upon d’Audre-hem, who pled just as earnestly and futilely with Henry of Trastamara before Najera, and upon Clisson, who must share with Bertrand the credit for the new strategy. Why does the well-known Robert Knolles become the rather vague Robert Knowles? Why Arouet?

Better, far better, is Helen Waddell’s “Peter Abelard,” which she has had the disarming frankness to call “A Novel” on the very title-page. She has made no effort to surround her characters with an atmosphere murky with artificiality; they speak and act as people for the profoundly simple reason that they did not speak and act as actors. One may retain the odd doubt or so concerning Abelard’s true character (isn’t that just what Abelard himself would urge?), but there is no “Yes and No” in the woman-sure portrayal of Heloise, in the artist’s picture of Fulbert and of Fulques, or in the creation of Gilles de Vannes, a stroke of genius in itself. Who could not like Gilles could not like the Middle Ages, could not like humanity. Miss Waddell always delights, but Miss Waddell is always a bit miserly. She has a unique gift for translating Latin lyrics—as the world should know by this time—but she never gives enough. The absence of Abelard’s (and Miss Waddell’s) glorious “Low in thy grave with thee” is the price exacted for a powerful ending to a thoroughly excellent book.

Cast in different mould and made of sterner material is Sydney Painter’s “William Marshall,” This book is the result of a doctoral dissertation submitted to Yale University, but its origin should not discourage the layman with a healthy interest in English history. The story of this fourth son of a minor English baron who, by his own worthiness, rose from a knight-errant to become the Regent of England, is simply, honestly, and agreeably told. There is little pretence at style, and if the admiring biographer occasionally credits his hero with undocumented merit, the scholar supplies the necessary antidote in later modifications.

Perhaps the layman could stand a bit more of the general background, and possibly a diagram or two. Perhaps the historian might be tempted to question the statement that a squire “had no opportunity to win renown,” to suggest that Paci-sur-Epte might be Pacy-sur-Eure, and to prefer Meulers, Haricourt, Sauqueville, Lillebonne, Runnymede, etc., to Meullers, Herecuria, Sackville, Lillibonne, Runni-mead. But everyone should be interested in the conclusion that William Marshall should share with Stephen Langton the honor of procuring the Great Charter, and no one who would know England during the bewildering years from 1187 to 1219 can ignore Dr. Painter’s contribution to our poor stock of knowledge.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading