Medieval Morality and Reality

By Hope Patterson ’17, intern in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library

Before I arrived at Dumbarton Oaks for my summer internship with the Medieval Library, I had absolutely no experience reading medieval Latin texts. I had read plenty of classical Latin and a bit of late medieval English, but not medieval Latin. In fact, many of my assumptions about the era derived from watching HBO’s medieval fantasy show Game of Thrones. The characters’ utter disregard for morality shocked me: the men and women on the show often had no respect for the laws of their king or of their religion, and their choices resulted in some of the most heinous acts of violence on television. I expected the translations of medieval Latin literature that I was tasked with reviewing this summer to depict a similarly brutal, immoral world. I quickly learned, however, that the brand of medieval morality depicted on Game of Thrones differs vastly from the reality of the medieval era.

Even religious devotees do not offer much hope of moral leadership in Game of Thrones. Here, members of an all-female monastic order, the Silent Sisters, function more as custodians of the dead than as givers of moral or spiritual guidance.

Even religious devotees do not offer much hope of moral leadership in Game of Thrones. Here, members of an all-female monastic order, the Silent Sisters, function more as custodians of the dead than as givers of moral or spiritual guidance.

In reality, medieval writers did not disregard morality at all: they idolized it. They consistently used narratives and stories to dictate moral lessons to their readers. Each of the three upcoming DOML volumes I’ve revised this summer exhibits a propensity toward moralization. The first, an account of the lives of early church fathers and the miracles associated with their relics, promises physical healing as a surefire reward for spiritual faith. The next, Carmina Burana, is the largest collection of medieval Latin poems in history. Though a number of these poems have to do with love and springtime, a much larger number are concerned with the worldly decline of morals and the negative effects of such a fall. My most recent project, The Moralized Ovid, managed to transform the stories of a classical poet banished by Emperor Augustus for immorality into shining examples of moral behavior.

At first, I found the moralizing tendencies of these authors to be a bit misguided. But then it occurred to me: don’t we do the same thing today? If I drop a plate of food during my lunch hour in the Refectory, I would likely blame it on bad karma, not to my inherent lack of coordination. If a homeless man is forced to sleep on the streets, some would make the case that it is because he possesses no work ethic, not because he is the victim of mental illness or a crippled economy. Just like the medieval authors whose works comprise the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, contemporary readers tend to  see outcomes as evidence of moral victory or failure in order to protect themselves from  from uncertainty. In doing so, we allow ourselves to take comfort in the fact that we deserve everything we get: successful people must harbor good morals, and unsuccessful people must harbor ill morals, or so we convince ourselves. Perhaps our way of thinking is not as different from the medieval way as we would like to think.

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