The Medieval Other


In an essay that looks at the ways Medieval folklore has been used and considered, Francesca Canadé Sautman, Diana Conchado, and Giuseppe Carlo Di Scipio write that: “overarching interpretations of the medieval world, rife with narrow cultural assumptions, have often put [… medieval literature] in a stranglehold. Many scholars’ deep investment in the primacy of ‘high culture’ has delegitimized inquiry into medieval folk and popular culture, which they branded mediocre, bastardized versions of high culture, and generally unworthy of consideration. As Carl Lindahl has aptly phrased the problem, ‘Past scholars viewed medieval culture as if it were governed by some social analogue of gravity, always moving downward from the privileged to the masses.’

In effect, perspectives that remain entrenched behind the ramparts of vague, all-encompassing formulas claiming to encapsulate ‘the medieval world’ into a finalized, harmonious and unproblematic whole are not helpful in unraveling the enormously complex relations between the various cultural levels and social groups that prevailed in the Middle Ages. In fact, these totalizing models have been instrumental in creating a ‘medieval Other’ for the purposes of non-medievalists, or as Lee Patterson put it, ‘The Middle Ages has functioned as an all-purpose alternative to whatever quality the present has wished to ascribe to itself.’ Folklore, which is well equipped to address discrete and very specific elements of culture while considering them in the long-term continuum and juxtaposing dissimilar types of data, articulates and illuminates the ‘unspoken’ in culture through multiple connections, and is at serious odds with such ‘elite’ dogmas.” (1) 

The relation between literature and folklore has been for too long an uneven one. The term ‘folklore,’ covering quite a range of concepts and definitions, was coined in 1846 and has since enjoyed the cordial disdain – even suspicion – of literary scholars in particular.” (2)

the presupposition of complete separation between written literary creation and oral creation/transmission does not hold up much better as a hypothesis in the distant Middle Ages than it has been shown to do in the more recent past.” (4)

“To chart folklore’s presence in medieval literature, one must eschew generally conflating orality with folklore, and, within orality, conflating transmission and composition, improvisation and invention.” (5)

The nature of oral composition is to rely on verbal skills and the art of memory; as such, it can be practiced by members of different cultural strata, such as clerics, traveling minstrels, and merchants, and it can be at once traditional and respond to change. These fluctuations – of meaning, function, and audience destination – are in themselves worthy of study.” (9)

“As stark oppositions between the merits of high culture and those of folk culture by now appear obsolete, medieval folklorists may in fact be faced with new and possibly unnerving challenges. Few if any still analyse folklore material in medieval texts as the product of some timeless, indefinite, socially indistinct collective voice or of an autonomous ‘tradition’ independent from social and cultural change. As a discipline, folklore is grounded in the cultural historicity of the documents it interprets, and recognizes the importance of long-term continua (of ideas, motifs, and beliefs) as a useful grid for interpretation. Yet new demands have been raised in particular by the fields of feminism, gender studies, and the study of sexuality …. The irrevocable closure of the Middle Ages is the price to pay for the exclusion of approaches such as gender studies, psychoanalysis, or deconstruction.” (11)

“The very discipline of folklore is being interrogated in its turn, and questions are being framed that firmly contest any illusions of a perennial, untouched, and unspoiled cultural medium. These questions make it impossible to ignore the many gulfs – social, ethnic, religious, gendered, among others – that divide the human cultural experience and inform it with multiple positionalities and readings, rather than seeing it as an harmonious elaboration self-generated by ‘civilizations’ or communities. At the same time, the field of medieval studies is increasingly interrogating its own temporal framework, raising pointed questions about the pertinence of the very term ‘medieval’ and its relation to other possible historical frames, such as the ‘premodern.’

Thus there are no simple political, economic, or social terms that characterize the culture of the medieval ‘folk’ across medieval societies or even within one nation over a period of centuries. Not only did ‘feudalism’ mean different things at different times and in different places, but the framework of social relations and the nature of social conflicts was subject to enormous changes throughout medieval history. It is often a dangerous overstatement to read transformations in forms, genres, or literary contents as correlated in broad terms to social formations and their purported attitudes or mentalités). The varied manifestations of culture did not necessarily differ from one class to another as radically as one often assumes, even though particular subcultures, such as professional (peddlers), extralegal (criminals or women medical practitioners), or possibly sexual ones were by definition less accessible, quieter, and often closed. During the central and late Middle Ages in particular, clearly defined social conflicts could occur between a wide array of groups: guild leaders and artisans, employers and employees, burgers and students, plebeians and patricians, law-abiding citizens and lawbreakers, men and women, Jews and Christians, and more. These can claim more attention from the historian or folklorist than a mere contrast between nobles and ‘others’ bequeathed to the modern age in particular by the French Revolution.

Such complications of the social web mean that one should exercise extreme caution before ascribing ‘class’ contents to a genre or specific, limited political intentions to a narrative.” (12)

Ref: Francesca Canadé Sautman, Diana Conchado, and Giuseppe Carlo Di Scipio (1998) Introduction: Texts and Shadows: Traces, Narratives, and Folklore pp.1+ in Eds Francesca Canadé Sautman, Diana Conchado, and Giuseppe Carlo Di Scipio Telling Tales: Medieval Narratives and the Folk Tradition. St. Martin’s Press: New York


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