Life in Medieval France

Life in Medieval France

Life in Medieval France

Life in Medieval France

Excerpt

Medieval history is like a great tapestry, on which many figures-- some splendid, some humble, some sinister, and some beautiful--appear against a shadowy background. A crabbed inscription gives to some a name and a story; many remain nameless and unknown. But all are in artistic relation with the background, and a close study of its shadows reveals a thousand details that help to explain their significance.

It is this background which I have tried to describe; my concern is with neither the political nor the literary history of France, but with the elements of her medieval civilization. The background is full of detail; yet much is obscured by shadow or darkened by time, and distance that softens the familiar may add the greater emphasis of mystery to the unusual and the strange. Yet however misty and remote the Middle Ages may seem to us, however much governed by ways of thought that time has made unfamiliar, it should not be hard to study them with sympathy and comprehension. The men of medieval France were men of like passions with ourselves; they knew pleasure and pain, freedom and limitation as we do; like us they were uncertain of the road they trod, yet ever went forward in hope.

For Englishmen they have a peculiar interest. They belong to the time when England held provinces in France; when in the palaces and law courts of England French was the common speech; when English poets wrote in a dialect of French, or, first attempting the rhythms of English verse, found their matter in the romances and chansons de geste of France. In literature, in art, in learning, England is the daughter of France; if there had been no such French civilization in the Middle Ages there could have been no such English Renaissance. Indeed, a critic, writing on the life of the French seigneurial class in the thirteenth century, finds that in their passion for sport, in their rural pleasures, in the relations at once free and courteous between men and women, this medieval society resembles nothing so closely as that of the England of a generation or two ago. 'Ways of living and acting', he says, 'as well as modes of speech, once very common . . . that were originally derived from medieval France, have survived until our days only in England. The traces of them that can still be perceived help to give English life its peculiar character. But we must . . .

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