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Hearty Parlor Games From the Middle Ages : A HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE Revelations of the Medieval World; edited by Georges Duby; translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap Press / Harvard University Press: $39.95; 637 pp. illustrated)

July 10, 1988|Fredi Chiappelli | Chiappelli has been director of the UCLA Medieval and Renaissance Studies Center for 16 years. He is in charge of the UCLA 1992 Quincentenary Programs as special adviser to the chancellor. and

"We begin around AD 1000 when the documentary record suddenly becomes richer. Another turning point, no less dramatic, occurred some time between 1300 and 1350. After this, everything takes a new coloration. The change was in part accidental (precipitated, most notably, by the Black Plague of 1348-1350), yet within a few decades it (was) profoundly altered by the way people lived throughout the Western world. A related phenomenon is the shift that occurred in the focus of European development, which moved from northern France to Italy primarily but also to Spain and northern Germany. Other changes affect our sources of information, enabling us to see more clearly the realities of what we are calling private life. During the first half of the 14th Century, a large piece of the veil that previously marked those realities was suddenly torn away."

The correct approach for clarifying what "private" means is the word's manifold opposition with "public." Duby's introduction rightly interprets this opposition as being fundamentally connected with the law ("a different juridical realm," "a fundamental legal barrier," "utmost legal importance"). In fact, "before beginning to study the place of private life in what has been called feudal society, we must locate the boundary between two rival powers, one of which was considered 'public.' "

The useful but prosaic work of tracing the factual traces of domestic life by interpreting legal documents is soon abandoned for a more picturesque approach. In Duby's view, the Middle Ages revisited acquire the looks of a game reserve, where you can observe from up close the behavior of the knight, the count, the countess in their habitat. "A solitary male" is the godlike ruler of the medieval community and of the castle; it is repeatedly indicated that he is akin to the abbot (another type of solitary male) who marshals the monastery. Of course, "There was a considerable difference between the noble household and the monastery." Why? "The residents of the one did not live in such close proximity to the angels as those of the other." In turn, the lack of proximity to the angels was the consequence of habit. Boys "were sent out into the world to seize whatever they could, particularly wives." The outcome had to be that "the household was not asexual."

The female appears very busy in her territory during daytime. She knew about proximity, so "she also kept an eye on her domestic servants. When one maid became pregnant, the lady of the castle forced the putative father to marry the girl. Imperiously she punished and terrorized all the women in the house and forced them to obey her will." The irascible female is more tranquil (maybe just outwardly, see below) when she retires for a repast with the solitary male; after which they move from the "hall" to another part of the habitat, the "chamber." The public is excluded. "Gone was the wine of the feast, offered freely to guests." In case maidens happened to be in the chamber, they would "tousle and comb his hair and pick out the lice." Once the maidens were chased away from the chamber, the couple would find only "lustral water" (for religious ablutions, I trust), and--whatever the phrase may mean--"prophylactic lights." According to the author of the next chapter, Charles de la Ronciere, the attire at that point offered alternatives that can be explained by basic climactic considerations: "People sometimes wore chemises but might just as easily go naked, because it was hot."

Readers of medieval literature will learn that the concepts, principles and rituals of courtly love were used by the solitary male to quell disorder among the riotous in the household. "What we know about those rituals and their development from the middle of the 12th Century on suggests that the lord used his wife as bait, as a sort of decoy, offering her as the prize in a game whose rules, increasingly sophisticated as time went by, obliged participants--the unmarried knights and clerics of the household--to control their instincts ever more firmly." Apparently, no "prophylactic lights" were provided for them, no matter how sophisticated the rules of the game became as time went by. It is true that disorder mingled with romance at every corner. The master of the castle of La Haye was "an intruder who married a woman who had inherited the property." This quick-thinking intruder was ultimately killed by his own soldiers, all right; but normally, "If the lord was found dead in his bed, his body bloated, blame was laid at the door of the woman of the house, the mistress first of all."

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