When Shame discovers Danger, the vilein, asleep in the Garden of Delight, the rose that he should have been guarding having been kissed by Amant, she scolds him in the following way:
In this small scene from Guillaume de Lorris's portion of The Romance of the Rose, Shame upbraids Danger for being atypical, for not acting the stereotype. Her perception of the truthfulness of this stereotype is widely shared, and not only by literary characters. The dominant culture of the Middle Ages, the culture of the feudal aristocracy, not only expected but also required that vileins, churls, always fulfil their stereotypical role. In fact, the stereotypical vilein, as the repository and exponent of what can be called, with deliberate ambiguity, "villainous" behavior, defined negatively the courtly and chivalric ideals of the aristocracy. To put it another way, the stereotypical figure of the vilein was a crucial component of feudal aristocratic ideology, using the fifth of the six definitions offered by Terry Eagleton in his introduction to the concept: a group of "ideas and beliefs which help to legitimate the interests of a ruling group or class specifically by distortion or dissimulation."2 Furthermore, this need to
It is true that medieval writers never seem to tire of those old saws, that even a man of high station can act like a vilein, that gentility might be found even in a cow shed. But these exceptions only confirm the rule: the vilein as stereotype behaves in exactly the opposite way from a courtly and chivalrous man; the vilein lacks courtesy, good manners, discretion, largesse, magnanimity, and so forth. Even in his physical appearance the vilein, because of his gross and filthy ugliness, embodies the opposite of the courtly ideal. The Romance of the Rose, because of the formalism of its allegory, makes explicit a fundamental stylistic opposition between vilein and courtier. Amant achieves entry into the Garden of Delight, is invited to join the dance of Mirth's beautiful companions, and finally becomes the God of Love's man because of his courteous manners. Villainy is one of the figures depicted on the outside of the garden wall, one of those excluded from the company of Mirth, and it might be argued that all the figures depicted there represent "villainous" behavior or situations. It is the stricken Amant's courteous behavior and words, not any moral qualities, that win over the God of Love to him:
Arguments have been advanced that courtliness is in origin and in essence ethically inspired, and that it functioned as a profound civilizing force in the Middle Ages and beyond. The position is well articulated by Stephen Jaeger, who writes that "courtesy is in origin an instrument of the urges to civilizing, of the forces in which that process originates, and not an outgrowth of the
Moi's perspective forces us to consider any expression of courtly values in a context of material practices designed to maintain a concentration of social, economic, and political power in the feudal class. This ever-present material context moves out from the shadows whenever the figure of the vilein appears, even in courtly discourse. But the idea that courtly values serve only to mask the true bases of feudal power, and further, were fabricated only in order to effect this disguise, oversimplifies the ideological situation. The emphasis of scholars like Jaeger and Keen on "men and ideas," to use Jaeger's phrase, forces us to consider alongside Moi's insights that any expression of courtly values also resonates with the genuine ideals and aspirations of certain individual people, no matter how distorted these may have become. The human origin of ideology is too often marginalized and even occluded by the institutional focus of those who most often write about ideology, by what is, in fact, their own ideology.
Perhaps all ideology begins at the frontier of idealism and necessity, distorting the former in order to accommodate the latter. Confronted with the vilein, or the subject of Moi's analysis, the woman, the genuine idealistic desires and values of courtly culture reach a limit or boundary beyond which they cannot pass. But what lies beyond that boundary in both cases, although unembraceable within these ideals, must of social and economic necessity be accounted for and controlled. Simply put, both women and vileins are needed. Moi demonstrates that courtly love should be understood as an ideological construct because it works to dehumanize women, by means of idealization, in order to establish male control over them. By the same token, the dehumanization of the vilein by means of a distorting stereotype, an inverse idealization, can also be interpreted as an axiom of courtly ideology. Moi with her Lacanian perspective argues that this need to dehumanize the woman exposes unconscious, unsatisfiable yearnings in the male-based courtly culture and, thereby, its fundamental hollowness and illegitimacy.10 In the case of the distorted courtly perception of the vilein we witness the treatment of those who cannot be included within the ambit of the courtly yet who cannot be ignored because of their vital economic role. At the very least this distortion allows us to observe what
This paper will examine the treatments of three particular vileins in two late fourteenth-century Middle English romances, Octovian and Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle and offer each treatment as evidence of a specific aristocratic anxiety. A basic assumption for my argument is that medieval romance is so closely identified with aristocratic ideals and the courtly style that, if we choose to look, we can discover not only explicit expression of those ideals but also underlying assumptions, thoughts, and feelings. Stephen Knight argues that we can find in medieval romance idealized justifications for aristocratic attitudes and behavior and use of power.11 Nevertheless, one must still bear in mind that even in a literary genre as saturated in aristocratic ideology as medieval romance, generic constraints as well as economic and political conditions are such that unadulterated ideological statement is impossible. In fact, one might say that the figure of the vilein in medieval romance is a site at which the disjunction between ideology, history, and genre becomes highly visible.
The main vilein character in Octovian is not in any legal sense a vilein. Rather, he is a Parisian bourgeois who, while on pilgrimage in the east, buys a child from two desperados. The child happens to be Florent, one of the two lost twins of the emperor of Rome. So a situation is established in which the innate gentility of Florent bumps continually into the bourgeois attitudes and expectations of his apparent "father," and the ensuing confrontations are really quite funny. On one occasion father decides that son should learn a trade, so he sends him off with a brace of oxen to be trained by a butcher. On the way Florent sees a gentil fawcon being offered for sale by a squire and, forgetting his purpose, decides that a straight exchange, oxen for falcon, would be a good deal. The outraged father rewards his bewildered son with a beating, but alas, to no effect. Florent protests:
Clement's wife, Gladwyn, pities Florent and begs her husband to let their other sons learn a trade instead, adding that
On another occasion father sends son off on an errand, to bring forty pounds to his step-brother. This time the boy spies a feyre stede and inquires if it is for sale and for how much. The owner says he will sell the horse for thirty pounds, but Florent, enamored of the beast, protests that the price is too low. He insists that the owner take all the forty pounds, or rather his father's forty pounds, and proceeds to bring the horse home and stable it in the hall. Of course what is being portrayed here is what we would call these days Florent's genetic predisposition toward aristocratic values and attitudes, which his stepmother finally perceives after the horse episode, as father prepares to beat son one more time. She pleads with her husband:
In fact the gap between Florent and Clement in regard to blod is a chasm. Florent, of course, is an emperor's son; Clement is a bourgeois, but his name is Clement þe Velayne, and this is not a trivial point. This is also his name in the French source, although this fact is not provided there as immediately as it is in the English.13 According to Frances McSparren, the most recent editor of the poem, Clement is a figure of fun in the French as well, but he is also portrayed as a "prosperous and substantial figure, who represents the pragmatic, bourgeois point of view, and much more is made of his rejection of the assumptions and values of knighthood than in the English."14 In the French, then, Clement gives voice to what Raymond Williams calls an emergent culture.15 Despite the insistence by some, including McSparren and Derek Pearsall, that the English Octovian is intended for a bourgeois audience, I think the poem reveals, relative
Florent's coming out, as it were, occurs when he insists on fighting the Saracen giant who is menacing Paris. He dons his father's rusty war gear, and Clement tries to hand him the sword, beginning his career as his sidekick:
When Florent tells his true father, the emperor, whom he has never met, that he feels more affection for him as a father than he does for Clement, the only pathos we are to feel is that generated by the reconciliation:
Clement is portrayed as unrelentingly ignoble. He does not belong in aristocratic society. With his concern for money and his ignorance of courtly style, he serves as a caricature of the emergent mercantile/artisan class. Therefore he can be regarded as wholly separate from the aristocrats, including his foster son, who take such pleasure in his antics. Calling him the Vilein reveals a typical dominant strategy of conflating all below one's own station into a single underclass denominated by the lowest rank therein. However, behind the confident division of those who fight from those who work, and the demeaning of the whole latter group as vileins, lurks the fear of this mercantile/artisan class who dominate urban life. The ability of this group to generate cash must have inspired loathing and envy in the feudal aristocracy. Those who work can, in the right circumstances, turn a profit from their labor. They can make money. If they cannot be constrained to turn this surplus over to their betters, with this money they can purchase the trappings of power, and perhaps, eventually, power itself. Through the figure of Clement the Vilein the writer of Octovian would mount an ideological defence against this threat. He ridicules the "natural" insufficiencies of the emergent middle class and reminds his readers of its villainous roots. The threat remains, of course.19
The English Octovian's concern for promulgating aristocratic values is also apparent in the romance's opening scenes where we find another character from the lowest portion of society. Octavian and his empress are an infertile couple. Much is made, especially in the northern version, of the need to produce an heir, and of the emperor's anxiety over his failure in this regard:
It is probably no accident that the supposed progenitor, who is merely a garçon in the French, is a fellow much given to energetic stoking of ovens
The mother-in-law offers the cook's knave a reward to creep into the empress's bed while she sleeps, and, no genius, he accepts. Then she conducts her son into the chamber, and he, not a candidate for the Dean's List himself, immediately assumes that he has been wronged. In the French the garçon is taken away and quietly exterminated, but in the English the emperor kills the knave on the spot by cutting off his head, another detail not in the French.21 The mother-in-law plays upon her son's fear of sexual impotence, and he responds savagely to what he thinks he sees. We glimpse here the possibility that the vilein, perhaps because of his very earthy uncourtliness, may have constituted a sexual threat to the feudal lord. The scene reveals a fundamental insecurity about love as well as sex. The vilein can be a sexual threat only if the woman is complicit in the outrage. Octavian and all the other males at Rome who judge her, including her own father, never question the empress's guilt. The emperor, by the way, having slaughtered the knave, mercifully allows his wife and the twins to be banished rather than killed, and eventually one of them, Florent, ends up in Paris.
The treatment of the two vilein figures in Octovian reveals both the most obvious aristocratic fear of those from below, that they will acquire economic power, and the most obscure, that the vilein might become a sexual rival. Each is interesting and deserves more investigation, but the remainder of the paper will concentrate on another aristocratic fear that I suppose might be situated between the other two, being neither as obvious as the economic threat nor as obscure as the sexual. As surprising as it may seem, the aristocratic class regarded the vileins as a group as a political threat. The disparity between the power of the feudal class and the relative powerlessness of the vileins makes such a fear seem preposterous, but in fact I think the aristocrats were haunted by the prospect of power falling into the hands of anyone from outside their own class, but especially the vileins. Only aristocrats could be trusted to use power moderately, correctly, because only they were naturally inclined to be merciful. Vileins, by nature unmerciful, would always use power for destructive ends.
There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the "villainy" of those at the lower end of late medieval English society extended beyond vulgarity and repulsiveness to rapacity and violence, and that vileins could act upon these impulses not simply as individuals but as a group. In the harmonious myth of the medieval social order known as the three estates, the vileins are simply "those who work." In return for the physical sustenance provided by their labor, they
But what occasionally manifests itself in the literature, sometimes as a response to specific historical events, is another vision of society, not compatible with the estates myth, in which those who occupy the lower reaches of society must be suppressed in order that society be protected from their violent and destructive instincts. It is a vision of society based on fear and antagonism, not harmony. The most virulent expression of this vision may well be Book 1 of John Gower's Vox Clamantis, a response to the Peasant Rising of 1381.22 In the phantasmagorical dream vision of Book 1 the dreamer Gower watches in horror as roaming bands of peasants metamorphose into varieties of ravening beasts asses, oxen, swine, dogs, cats, foxes, birds, flies, frogs. Each of these hordes in turn bloodthirstily slaughters the apparently defenseless great men of the realm until finally they are defeated through the grace of God.
Book 1 of Vox Clamantis was probably added later to the original work which follows in typical Gowerian prolixity. This original work is estates satire of the usual variety. The peasants who appear only briefly in Book 5 are accused of harboring resentments against the free, of being in need of forceful checks to keep them in place. But their primary fault is laziness; they are the antithesis of what they should be according to the estates myth. The peasants of Book 1, however, are murderous non-humans. There is no balance in the presentation of them. They do not respond to any grievance, real or imagined, nor are they driven by some external force or tricked by unscrupulous leaders into violent murder. Rather, they simply reveal their true nature by changing into ferocious beasts.
Gower's frightful and frightened, if not paranoid, portrayal of the lower classes responds directly to the events of 1381. There was real bloodshed during the Rising and certain unpopular groups and individuals were attacked by the rebels. There was the apparent threat of widespread upheaval. And when they met with Richard II at Smithfield the peasant leaders presented him with proposals for political change. Whether one follows David Aers in regarding the vilein political agenda as essentially radical or agrees with Richard Firth Green that it was essentially conservative, what must have been clear at the time is that the vileins and their allies were attempting to become part of the political
In fact it had achieved proverbial status in later medieval England as it had in France and probably elsewhere. Jere Whiting provides ample evidence in his collection of proverbs that it is folly to give power to one of low degree.25 Not always is an explanation provided as to why it would be folly, but when such an explanation is forthcoming, it often has to do with the natural cruelty of vileins, their propensity for violence. In a passage from Malory the proverb is given and then explained:
Lydgate frequently refers to the cruelty of the lower classes, which is always unleashed by attainment of power: "What thyng mor cruel in comparisoun / Or mor vengable of will and naht off riht, / Than whan a cherl hath domynacioun."27 One of his most extended expressions of this idea occurs Book 4 of Fall of Princes where he recounts the story of Agathodes, The Low-born Tyrant. Agathodes is the son of a potter who parlays his great beauty into high estate, eventually becoming the Duke of Syracuse. And from this high position he falls, being proud, lecherous and not just for women and cruel. With much to choose from in his moralization of this story, Lydgate focuses on the connection between low birth and a violent, unmerciful disposition. The point is made in a general way at the tale's beginning:
A clearer statement would be hard to find. The line from Chaucer that surely comes to mind here is one of his favorite dicta: "Pitee renneth soone in gentil herte." Gentil is glossed "noble in character" by Riverside for these instances and both Davis's A Chaucer Glossary and the MED support this reading.29 However, in light of the well-established unpitying nature of vileins of all sorts, and the natural mercifulness of the nobility, we shouldn't be so quick to disambiguate gentil in this famous line in order to situate the sentiment it expresses in a semantic sphere concerned only with character; we exclude thereby a hint, if not an outright commendation, of social inequality in Chaucer's text.
If we bear in mind these attitudes about the vilein's propensity toward violent behavior that will inevitably reveal itself upon the acquisition of political power, I think we can appreciate the anxiety that resonates through the light, almost slapstick romance known as Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle.30 Three of Arthur's company, Gawain, Kay, and Bishop Baldwin, are forced to seek shelter in the castle of a carl notorious for his inhospitable treatment of guests. At the outset Kay's unmannerliness serves as a foil for Gawain, who, like the Gawain
There is no known source for the poem, and it may well have been made to serve as an eponymy for the place name Carlisle: a poetical answer to the question, who put the "carl" in Carlisle?32 This delightful possibility shouldn't obscure the importance of the Carl's position in this story. There is more at stake in this romance than the Carl's personal transformation. The fundamental social
The Carl's assertion that he lacks corttesy proves to be no idle boast. He obviously lacks the courtly demeanor and style, what with his "chekes longe and vesage brade, / Cambur nose . . . mozth moche" and so on, not to mention an appetite that matches his size: he drinks his wine from a nine-gallon bowl. Besides his beautiful wife and daughter he keeps company with some ferocious beasts who momentarily threaten the visitors. We learn later that the Carl used these animals to slaughter his guests, whose bones are stored in a charnel house in the castle (529-37). The Carl's castle then represents a place where the violent and destructive nature of the vilein holds sway; carllus corttesy is force and violence and it is antithetical to the social intercourse of courtly society. In this poem, then, we have an upside-down world where the vilein is in control.
In narrative structure Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle is almost an inversion of the common romance narrative type known as the "Fair Unknown."33 In fact we could call it a romance of the "Fair Known". In the usual pattern, to use Stephen Knight's loaded terms, an "incursionary thug" forces himself into an established court and acquires power, possessions, and eventually the chivalric style, which all turn out to fit his true noble ancestry that is eventually revealed. In Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle Gawain, representing chivalric values, comes to a court of an "established thug" where such values are despised. Outright violence would be useless against the Carl's huge physical size and strength, his capacity to control wild beasts, and his uncanny ability to read minds, so Gawain employs the power of courtesy, that hallmark of the aristocrat. But courtesy, in fact, turns out to sanction both violence against a rival, the Carl, and sexual acquisitiveness. Because he courteously perseveres and succeeds in all the tests Gawain achieves that which Knight says is usually allotted to the Fair Unknown: a woman, the carl's beautiful daughter, a prized possession, a white palfry for her to ride upon, and honor, which accrues to him for having successfully transformed the Carl and thereby cleansed the castle.
Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle reveals a romance response to the unsettling idea of vileins in power. It confirms that the antisocial behavior characteristic of that group would remain unchanged by the acquisition of power, and that the harmonious relations of idealized feudal society would be replaced by relations based on applications of brute force. Moreover, in its fairy-tale-like resolution it reveals the desire that, however things may appear, power will finally reside with the naturally courteous, open-handed aristocracy who alone are fit to govern. Although he protests all the while, Gawain, in effect, kills the Carl. And it seems clear from the poem that the Carl, in effect, wants to be killed, because he is really an enchanted nobleman imprisoned in a carl's body. Gawain does not change the Carl into something new but rather returns the enchanted aristocrat, the rightful possessor of the castle, to his original shape, position, and behavior from which he had been so grievously shifted. Courtesy is more
By its magical ending Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle attempts to confirm the position of the aristocratic class in the face of perceived political opposition. In a less magical world such easy resolutions are harder to come by. Compared to the awesome power of the Carl, Gawain's courtesy seems a puny weapon. Although aristocratic desire and the generic opportunities of romance enclose the Carl and finally dissolve him, he is for a time, with his huge and powerful body and malevolent attitude, with his castle and his beautiful wife and daughter, a specter from an aristocratic nightmare.