Monday, May 2, 2011

Medieval Characters

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Pauly Lantvit

The Big Question

Medieval Literature is similar to the opera. Most teenagers won’t even consider broadening their horizons to new and different styles of art. But, once they open up and dig a little deeper, teenagers will acquire a respect and knowledge for medieval culture, philosophy, and might discover something about themselves that makes them a unique individual. Many characters in medieval society were sheep because they let themselves be defined solely by their role in society. But, others chose to break out of the ordinary and take the risk of being individuals in a highly contumacious and closed-minded culture. The following sections will examine how three characters from different literary pieces display their own signs of individuality. The seafarer, Beowulf, and the wife of Bath are very interesting characters because in addition to being individuals, they are very distinct from one another as far as their reason’s for their separation from society.

The main character In the book, “The Seafarer”, is humorous fellow. He is not funny like a comedian, but he is funny because the sea makes life enjoyable to him even though he is in the freezing cold and in exile. During the medieval times, Anglo Saxon warriors considered mead-halls to be their home because there was a sense of security, gifts given to them by their lord, an abundance of savory food, entertainment, and favorable company. The seafarer could not have a more opposite view of what he considered home. He says “But there isn’t a man on earth so proud, so born to greatness, or so graced by God, that he feels no fear as the sails unfurl… no rewards, no passion for woman, no worldly pleasures, nothing, only the ocean’s heave.” (Pearson). With that being said, the seafarer has just separated himself from most every other man in the medieval world. Nothing that the Earth provides could make him as happy as the sea. The seafarer goes on with the story and talks about how the Earth has lost it’s glory and pleasures. Then, the seafarer especially distances himself from the society when he says

“A brother opens his palms and pours down gold on his friend’s grave, strewing his coffin with treasures intended for Heaven, but nothing golden shakes the wrath of God. For a soul overflowing with sin, and nothing hidden on Earth rises to Heaven”.

Also, the seafarer disagreed with almost everyone else’s religious beliefs, which at this time was seen as a huge sign of irreverence and disrespect to God. On one hand, the majority of people think that a lot of money, gold, and treasures was a ticket to those pearly white gates. However the seafarer has a different opinion of Heaven. He believes that in order for someone to get into Heaven, they must direct their thoughts to where home is and then pray to God for permission to rise to eternal life. In short, the ocean is the seafarer’s home and it will lead him to the Kingdom of God, whereas everyone else believes riches and treasures are the tickets to Heaven.

Although some may argue that in the epic tale Beowulf, the main character, who the work of literature is named after, is solely defined by his role in society as a warrior, he is clearly the most greedy and stalwart individual in the history of British Literature. However, Beowulf is a modern day super hero. Every Dane in Herot fears the murderous beast, Grendel, and the men are just waiting for their time to come when the monster thrashes his way into the sleeping quarters and eats them alive in their slumber. The only Danes that survived were those who could run away the fastest. But, Beowulf has the mighty strength to kill Grendel with his bare hands. Even after Beowulf has sent Grendel to a writhing death, the Danes try to stab Grendel with swords, but their iron could not scratch at his skin because the monster had put a spell on the men’s blades. By showing off his super human strength, it sets Beowulf apart as a heroic individual. He is also an individual because he is the greediest warrior in the world. Beowulf makes this blatantly clear when he hangs Grendel’s arm on the wall as a trophy for everyone to see. When he fights against Grendel’s mother, he must kill her by using a sword that was “hammered by giants” and “so massive that no other man could lift it.” (Pearson) He also displays his desire for esteem and riches before his last battle against the dragon when he says

“I’ve never know fear, as a youth I fought in endless battles. I am old, now, but I will fight again, seek my fame still, if the dragon hiding in his tower dares to face me…no one else could do what I mean to, here, no man but me could hope to defeat this monster. No one could try. And this dragons’ treasure, his gold and everything hidden in that tower, will be mine.”

Clearly all that Beowulf cares about is fame and fortune. This key fact makes him different from the typical knight of his time because knights were supposed to uphold chivalrous values such as integrity and unobtrusiveness.

The wife of Bath exhibits the most individual traits out of all three characters. She goes against anything and everything society tells her she must do in order to uphold the image of an ideal woman. The wife of Bath has already had five husbands throughout her life. This already goes against what people believed about marriage and the Church. The everyday person thought that because Jesus Christ only attended one wedding, then so should a woman not be married more than once. The wife argues her view of marrying more than one man at different times when she says

“ Abraham was a holy man and Jacob too, as far as I can see and each of them had more than two wives, and so did much another holy man. Tell me where, in any time, did God on high expressly prohibit marriage? I pray you tell me; or where did he command virginity?” (Chaucer)

She twisted the words of the Bible around so that she was justified in her decision to marry as many men as she wanted. The wife of Bath also argued that to have sex for pleasure rather than just for the purpose of procreation wasn’t a commandment, therefore it’s not really worthy of going to hell for. Even though the wife has a legitimate rebuttal for her decisions, it’s unfortunate that she was looked upon as a harlot by the members of her community and was still ostracized for her practical beliefs.

Characters in medieval society were considered individuals for a number of different reasons. Whether it is the wife of Bath’s promiscuous views of sexual relations and marriage, the seafarer’s necessary means for salvation, or super human strength and egotism of Beowulf, they were all individuals in their own right. It is this key factor that makes Medieval Literature so interesting and entertaining to people from six hundred years ago up until present day readers.

Sources Cited

Pearson Education. Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes; the British Tradition. New JerseyPrentice Hall, 2000

(the title needs to be underlined)

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. New York Bantam Books, 1964

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