Thursday, February 19, 2009

I'm shocked

[The Roman Theater in Mérida, Spain, constructed in 16-15 B.C. It is still in use. Photo by Håkan Svensson.]


Modern readers may react differently to Amadis of Gaul than readers or listeners did five or six centuries ago. Here are a few considerations:

Elisena and Perion

Secret amorous liaisons like that of Elisena and Perion always get our attention (Chapter 2), but a medieval fan would be shocked mostly because nobles in those days carefully arranged the marriages of their children for political and social advancement. Youths did not chose their own spouses, and love had nothing to do with it. What were these two kids thinking?

And even when they had an active hand in the arrangements, the circumstances seem amazing today. In 1469 in what is now Spain, a prince, 17 years old, and princess, 18, began to plan their marriage. Because of its political implications, the princess's brother, a king, threatened her with arrest. She was rescued by an archbishop and armed horsemen, and whisked away to Valladolid. Then the prince, disguised as a merchant, journeyed by night to Valladolid from his home in Zaragoza, narrowly escaping assassination en route.

The couple had never seen each other before, despite all their plans, and finally met face to face in Valladolid only four days before the ceremony: Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon. Their marriage created an alliance of two large kingdoms — in fact, it created the country of Spain as we know it — so they had powerful enemies both close to home and in Europe. Their reign marked the end of medieval Spain. But their wedding is remarkable only for its life-or-death political importance, not for their ages or their personal unfamiliarity with each other.

That was the right way to get married.

Naming a knight

King Perion, whose judgment I'm starting to question, should never have invested knighthood on youth he did not know well for years, even at the request of his daughter (Chapter 4). The office had too many responsibilities and sacred duties. It was also shocking, earlier, when the Child of the Sea threatened to seek someone other than King Languines to do it, because he owed loyalty to his lord the King. In any case, as King Perion admits, it "should have been done with more honors" — that is, with public ceremony. A lot of ceremony.

This was shockingly irregular, and Perion was just lucky it turned out well.

Giants, monsters, and sorcerers

Amadis of Gaul is a very Christian book. God even intervenes personally. However, sorcery and non-Biblical beings would not have shocked faithful medieval listeners. Witch hunts flourished later, in the Renaissance, when Christianity felt uneasy. Sorcery still shocks some people.

Robert Southey, who created an abridged translation of Amadis in 1803, says this in his introduction:

"Classical superstitions lingered long after the triumph of Christianity. The Spanish chronicles continually speak of augury.... The Fathers of the Church expressly assert that the Gods of the Gentiles are the Fallen Angels; and with this key, a Catholic may believe the whole of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Saint Anthony the Great saw and conversed with a Centaur, and Saint Jerome vouches for his veracity.

"Enchanted weapons may be traced to the workshop of Vulcan as easily as to the Dwarfs of Scandinavia. The tales of dragons may be originally oriental; but the adventures of Jason and Hercules were popular tales in Europe, long before the supposed migration of Odin, or the birth of Mohammed. If magical rings were invented in Asia, it was Herodotus who introduced the fashion into Europe. The Fairies and Ladies of the Lake bear a closer resemblance to the Nymphs and Naiads of Rome and Greece than to the Peris of the East."

Spain had been Roman, and the pagan Roman vision of the world survived long after Rome fell. Don't be shocked.

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