The Early Middle Ages - Short Fiction Analysis


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The story of Munderic is actually an episode in the reign of Thierry I, son of Clovis. Munderic, a relative of Thierry I, revolts against his king, claiming that his blood makes him equally entitled to the throne. He gains followers and is besieged by Thierry I. His defense is strong enough that Thierry I resorts to guile, luring Munderic from his stronghold with false pledges of good faith and having him executed once he is vulnerable.

This episode has multiple functions in Gregory’s narrative: It is one of the historical events he is bound to include in his work, but it is also one of a series of episodes portraying the ruthlessness and administrative ingenuity of Thierry I. Although Gregory deplores Thierry I’s tactics, this attitude is mixed with some admiration for Thierry I’s strength of character. Furthermore, the Munderic episode offers an opportunity for Gregory to exercise his skill as a storyteller. The events are not complicated, but the episode stands out because of Gregory’s use of two motifs—good faith and bad faith—that are intensified by repetition. Munderic is a traitor, but he has a loyal following; Thierry I, the rightful ruler, does not hesitate to use deceit, and his envoy, Aregyselus, is able to persuade the strangely guileless Munderic that Thierry I will honor the oath sworn on the altar in his name. Aregyselus promptly betrays Munderic to Thierry I’s forces, and Munderic, finally aware of treachery, kills the messenger and dies, honorably defending himself. With no real description of his personality, one still can perceive a rather simple, straightforward man who is destroyed as much by his ambition as by the machinations of his opponent. The techniques of fiction, especially the coherence provided by the emphasis of two major motifs, elevate the episode from a mere sequence of events to the status of story.

Gregory the Great

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The anecdotes of Gregory the Great are more easily identified as fiction because the narrator himself describes them as tales he has heard from others and will now relate to his interlocutor, Peter. One such story, found in Book 1 of the Dialogues, is a conventional exemplum describing the powers of a holy man and the chastising of a thief. The latter has stolen vegetables from the monastery garden, so the prior commands a snake to guard the path. The thief, startled by the snake, tries to escape but finds himself entangled in the fence, hanging head downward. The prior dismisses the snake with a blessing and rebukes the thief, giving him the vegetables he had tried to steal.

Many scholars have commented on the naïveté Gregory shows toward these stories. He relates tale after tale, seeming to give critical acceptance to even the most preposterous. This may be, but Gregory saw as a function of the anecdote or exemplum the edification through pleasure of the least sophisticated of his audience. What appears to be naïveté, a quality one can ascribe to a politician and religious leader such as Gregory only with difficulty, is actually an absence of ironic overtones. The snake obeys a command made in the name of Christ; this is simply one of the conventions of the miracle tale. The miracle is the focus and raison d’être of the story and is the one element that cannot be called into question if the tale is to succeed.

Bede the Venerable

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The anecdotes and miracle stories told by Saint Bede the Venerable in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731; Ecclesiastical History of the English People, c. 887) are of a more sober variety than those of Gregory the Great. They are generally biographical, such as the story of Caedmon, and the focus of the miracles is on personal help—healing or the conferring of some special gift such as Caedmon’s gift of song. A good example of Bede’s narrative skill is his description of Caedmon’s painful reluctance even to remain in the hall when others were drinking and singing lest he be required to sing; this realistic touch heightens the effect of the miraculous bestowal of musical talent. Likewise, Bede’s usual narrative restraint enhances the effect of such stories, as one comes upon them as gems in a plainer matrix.

Bede and Gregory have in common their use of hagiography as the controlling convention for the stories they incorporate into their works. With Paul the Deacon, readers return to the more secular, heroic cast of story that was observed in the work of Gregory of Tours. One much-praised episode, the story of Alboin, was reworked in various versions as late as the Elizabethan period. Alboin’s career is developed at length in the first two books of Paul the Deacon’s Historia Langobardorum (after 787; History of the Lombards, 1907), but it is the story of his winning his weapons and a man’s...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The first example of the evolution of story from history concerns the death of the Ostrogothic ruler, Ermanaric, in 376, an event attested by a contemporary historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, and in the later histories of Jordanes and thus presumably in the lost history of Cassiodorus. Ermanaric had executed Sunnilda, the wife of a treacherous member of his following, having her torn apart or trampled by wild horses. Her brothers attempted to avenge her death but succeeded only in wounding Ermanaric so that he was permanently incapacitated. Later, this story becomes linked with the legends of the Nibelungs and the Völsungs and forms the background for the Old Icelandic Hamðismál. Gudrun, a well-known figure in the Nibelung and Völsung legends, urges her sons, Hamðir and Sorli, to avenge the death of Svanhildr, their sister. As in the earlier account, the death of the sister is not part of the action of the story proper but forms a powerful motivation for her brothers. The Hamðismál departs from its sources in the introduction of Erpr, an illegitimate half brother, killed by Hamðir and Sorli when he offers, with taunting speeches, to accompany them. The brothers succeed in mutilating Jomunrekkr (Ermanaric) but are destroyed by his men, realizing too late that, if they had allowed Erpr to assist them, they would have killed Jomunrekkr and survived the encounter. The focus of the lay has shifted from simple revenge to a tragedy of hubris and folly as the brothers’ wrongful violence against Erpr destroys them. The Hamðismál, an excellent example of the stark narrative of the lays in the collection known as the Poetic Edda, is brief and tightly constructed, with no word or incident that is irrelevant to the plot. The author has as well a gift for understatement, especially in Sorli’s rebuke to Hamðir: “You’d have had a brave heart [Erpr’s], Hamðir/ if you’d had a wise one:/ a man lacks much/ when he lacks a brain.”

Ermanaric figures in several heroic tales, such as the Völsunga Saga (c. 1270; The Saga of the Volsungs, 1930), the Old English Widsith (seventh century?), and the Old Icelandic Piðreks saga (seventh century?). He is usually depicted in negative situations, although some versions of the Ermanaric stories show some sympathy for his plight. The Piðreks...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The Waltharius contains the stuff of epics. Attila has taken hostages from three of the kingdoms he has encountered: Walther, a prince of Aquitaine; Hildegund, a Burgundian princess; and Hagen, a Frankish nobleman. The Waltharius, however, is not the story of war but of the ingenuity and martial prowess of Walther himself as he extricates himself from various dilemmas. Moreover, Walther is not an Odysseus; his struggles are with men, not with gods. He wishes only to free himself and Hildegund, his beloved, from the benevolent captivity of Attila, who considers him one of his best warriors. The lovers escape when Attila and his men are all intoxicated after a feast given by Walther. They reach the kingdom of the Franks only to be attacked by Gunther, the Frankish king who covets the treasure Walther has brought from his Hunnish captivity. Among Gunther’s men is Hagen, who had escaped earlier from Attila. Hagen is forced by his allegiance to Gunther to join him in a two-against-one combat with Walther, who before this was his friend, but he rationalizes his acquiescence to Gunther’s demand by means of the vengeance he must seek for a nephew killed by Walther during the battle. All three fighters survive the conflict, although Walther loses his right hand, Gunther loses a leg, and Hagen loses one eye; at the end, Walther mocks Hagen for joining Gunther against him.

The poet uses all the techniques of the epic—scholars have suggested the influence of Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553)—while maintaining his focus on personal conflicts, especially that between Walther and Hagen. In this respect, the poet of the Waltharius resembles the poet of the Hildebrandslied. The great events and personages of the migrations and the fall of the Roman Empire are simply contest and background for the central conflicts of the tales. Both the Hildebrandslied and the Waltharius are heroic lays that achieve their narrative power by concentrated focus on potentially tragic confrontations.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In the Atlakviða, Attila is given the negative role which is more familiar to most readers. Gunther and Hagen appear as the brothers of Gudrun, the wife of Atli (Attila). Atli has persuaded the brothers to come to his court, and, once they are there, he tortures them to force from them the location of the great treasure of the Nibelungs. Hogni (Hagen) is killed, and Gunther eventually dies in a pit of snakes. Gudrun takes vengeance in Aeschylean fashion; she kills her sons by Atli and serves him their flesh. She then sets fire to the hall, and all perish. The Atlakviða is as terse and stark as the other example of the Eddic lay, the Hamðismál. The poet attends to the basic matter of the conflicts—Atli’s avarice, the heroic resistance of the brothers, and the total vengeance of Gudrun.

The tales of the Goths, the Burgundians, and the Huns are primarily interesting because of their literary style, which combines narrative simplicity with compelling, dramatic situations that in and of themselves serve the purposes of characterization. The other aspect of their importance involves the way in which important figures and events of history find their way into fictional narrative, a process much more complex than this study can indicate, but one which demonstrates the interaction between fact, tradition, and the creative impulse.

History and fable (or story) come together also in one of the major Old English heroic works, the Battle of Maldon (c. tenth century). The poem has been much admired for the clarity with which it illustrates both the glory and the tragedy of the heroic ethos in confrontation with the reality of war. Byrthnoth, the leader of an English troop, permits an invading party of Norwegians to cross, at low tide, a causeway that at any other time would be impassable. His heroic and hubristic generosity dooms him and his men in the subsequent battle. They die to a man, one of the last survivors rendering in epigrammatic fashion the code by and for which they lived and died: “Heart must be braver, courage the bolder/Mood the stouter as our strength grows less!”

Battle of Maldon

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The Battle of Maldon exists for us without the opening lines, but the point at which the story begins is nevertheless lyrical in force: A young knight frees his falcon, and this, the poet says, is a sign that he will not fail his leader; the poem maintains this elegiac note throughout. Scholars have established nearly all the details concerning the historicity of the battle, but it is the work of the poet—his skill in depicting Byrthnoth’s ofermoð, hubris, and the dogged courage of his men—that makes the Battle of Maldon unequaled in tragic impact within its scope except by the Hildebrandslied.

An early passage in this study mentioned the accommodations that Christian literary sensibilities made to some of the modes of secular literature. The various hagiographical stories of the early Middle Ages are a good index to this accommodation. One might argue that the tales of saints and martyrs are not, strictly speaking, fiction, yet their narrative form quickly becomes standardized—miraculous birth, early piety, many miracles, much self-denial, fortitude under oppression, and painful martyrdom or blissful death—and, of greater significance, these tales participate in one of the major fictional modes, that of romance. No matter how gruesome the details of a martyrdom might be, the tale has, in the Christian context, the requisite “happy ending” of romance. The saint’s life or miracle is yet another aspect of the wish fulfillment that underlies the mode of romance.

One must make distinctions among the various forms of medieval hagiography. The Old English Andreas (eighth century?) or the Elene (750-785), or the Irish Navigato sancti Brendani abbatis (ninth century; The Voyage of St. Brendan, 1928), are quite different from such Old French works as Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie (c. 880; The Prose of St. Eulalie, 1912) sequence or La Vie de Sainte Alexis (1040; The Life of St. Alexis, 1912). The Old English tales have a strong heroic element and have a wider scope of action than the Old French tales. The Voyage of St. Brendan takes the form of a quest and has been linked with the Old Irish voyage tales (Imramma) such as the Voyage of Brân (seventh century) or the Voyage of Maeldune (seventh-ninth centuries). It is as much a tale of the wonders witnessed by St. Brendan and his companions as it is the story of a holy ascetic.

Voyage of St. Brendan

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The Voyage of St. Brendan relates the quest of the abbot St. Brendan and several of his monks for a fabled “Promised Land of the Saints,” an earthly Paradise. The journey is a series of encounters with strange creatures and enchanted places, but it is also a spiritual journey. Some scholars have argued that the various islands or sailing conditions, such as the Coagulated Sea (the Sargasso?) can be identified and that the Voyage of St. Brendan suggests actual journeys perhaps even to the Americas. This hint of possible veracity accounts in part for the popularity of the work all through the medieval period, but its popularity resulted as well from the writer’s descriptions of the beautiful and the strange, from the way in which monastic spirituality is unified with the quest for marvels (centuries before the Old French La Queste del Saint Graal (1225-1230; The Quest of the Holy Grail, 1926), and from the person of St. Brendan himself. His calm faith sustains his monks through all of their fantastic adventures, and even the presence of a sea monster, the leviathan Jasconius, does not disrupt the tranquil tone of the work.

The Andreas and the Elene

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In contrast to the Voyage of St. Brendan, the spirituality and piety of the Andreas and the Elene seem more vigorous and active. Andreas (the apostle Andrew) must rescue his fellow apostle Matthias from a race of cannibals. The poem graphically describes the torments suffered by Andreas once he rescues both Matthias and the youth of the cannibal race chosen to die in Matthias’s stead. Among the best passages of the poem are those that describe Andreas’s sea journeys with a mysterious boatman who catechizes him on matters of faith and who is, as Andreas slowly realizes, Christ himself. Andreas’s role as deliverer and missionary crystallizes in the image of the water from the rock, a flood Andreas...

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Cantilena of St. Eulalia

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The Cantilena of St. Eulalia is the first literary monument of the French language. In addition to its linguistic significance it also attests the adaptation of the liturgical sequence (an extended embellishment of a line of text) to the uses of lyric poetry. The poem is very brief and tells the story of Eulalia’s martyrdom in the simplest manner. Eulalia, a young Christian noblewoman, refuses to give up her faith; brought before Maximian, she persists in her resistance and is given over to be burned. When the flames do not harm her, Maximian orders her beheaded. Her soul flies to heaven in the form of a dove.

For all its brevity, the Cantilena of St. Eulalia presents a complete dramatic action that...

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Life of St. Alexis

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The Life of St. Alexis, another early French monument, deals again with the struggles of an individual. Alexis, a wealthy young man, decides on his wedding night to reject all—wife, riches, and family—to devote himself to prayer and self- denial. After a lengthy self-exile, he returns to his home and lives, unrecognized by his family, as a poor holy man under the staircase of his former home. His family only learns of his true identity by means of a letter that they find after his death. The poem ends proclaiming Alexis’s joy in Heaven where he is reunited with his maiden bride. The Life of St. Alexis follows the conventions of the flight-from-the-world, which is one of the many varieties of saints’ lives....

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Exile of the Sons of Uisliu

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The saints’ lives have been described as participating formally in the mode of romance in a period in which, for the most part, heroic tales dominated. The great age of medieval romance would begin in the early decades of the twelfth century, but as early as the ninth century and possibly even earlier, there were Celtic precursors to many of the major romances. The Irish Exile of the Sons of Uisliu has been linked with the development of the Tristan legend, and the Wooing of Etain (ninth century), also Irish, with the legend of Lancelot and Guinevere at least insofar as the abductions of Guinevere are concerned.

The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu, sometimes called the story of Deirdre,...

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Wooing of Etain

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The Wooing of Etain is the story of how King Eochaid Airem wins Etain, a princess of the fairy folk, loses her to her former mate and regains her by besieging the fairy mounds and eventually succeeding in the trials set before him there. This tale reappears in many guises, not only in the Lancelot: Ou, Le Chevalier à la charrette (c. 1168; Lancelot: Or, The Knight of the Cart, 1913) of Chrétien de Troyes but also in Pwyll, Prince of Dyved, one of the tales included in The Mabinogion (1838-1849; tales from The White Book of Rhydderch, 1300-1325, and The Red Book of Hergest, 1375- 1425), a group of Welsh tales dating from the very end of the period under discussion...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Hasty, Will, and James Hardin, eds. German Writers and Works of the Early Middle Ages, 800-1170. Dictionary of Literary Biography 148. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995. This comprehensive reference source includes information on Old High and Middle High German literature. Includes biographies of the major writers of the period, bibliographical references, and an index.

Gantz, Jeffrey, trans. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. New York: Penguin, 1981. Each chapter of this survey is devoted to a different Irish myth or saga. Includes a discussion of the Exile of the Sons of Uisliu. Also includes an introduction and notes by Gantz,...

(The entire section is 481 words.)