資料彙整   /  概念  /  [英]中世紀戲劇:4. The Veil of Christianity
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提供者:劉雪珍/ Cecilia Liu

The Veil of Christianity in the Literature of the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages is mistakenly thought to be a period of barren intelligence, a void somewhere between the glory of the Roman empire and the bright awakening of the Renaissance. Much of this line of thought is due to the lack of literacy and scientific progress in the period. Truly, old English works are few and far between, but as the age progressed, a wide diversity of literature emerges--poetry, prose, laws, histories, and records. Most of these were religious works, or sponsored by the church, but not all. The medieval period, stretching approximately from the late seventh century to the early sixteenth, is bound together under one constant--Roman Catholic Christianity. But beneath this "veil of Christianity" many legends were being formed and passed down, as old pagan traditions became assimilated into a newly Christian society. The two religious forms were becoming intertwined. They seem at this time to be tolerant of each other, not entirely distinct. A peoples habits and thought processes are not easily changed, and being that the Anglo-Saxons of Britain were not Christians until the mid-600''s, a period of transition can be expected . At least, a fascination with their pagan ancestors existed, at most, the practice of the old ways. Examples of a fascination with magic, worshipping more than one god-like figure, and a continuing love for worshipping goddesses, exist in many texts written in the medieval period. The following will be used to illustrate the wild world lying under the all-encompassing curtain of Christianity: Morte Darthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, "A Gest of Robyn Hode," Everyman, and The Second Shepherds'' Play

           In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine was converted from the old polytheist religion to Christianity. Most of the Roman empire soon followed suit, including the island of Britannia, home of a people called the Britons. Approximately one hundred years later, Rome withdrew from this small island, leaving it near defenseless against the invading Anglo-Saxon tribes.Soon, these wild warriors took over this place we call Great Britain, forcing the defeated Britons up into the hills near Wales. Supposedly, this was when a myth began to develop among the Britons, as stories were told of a King called Arthur, who fought bravely against the pagan Anglos, Saxons, and Jutes. The Arthurian legend was written as a true history by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136, steadily increasing in popularity in both England and France. In 1470, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Morte Darthur, drawing from existing tales of Camelot, such as Geoffrey''s. With characters such as Merlin, Morgan La Fee, and Mordred, it is apparent that the ways of magic (and necromancy) were known and explored by some medieval British. Though we are not given in the Norton Anthology the selections where these characters take prominence, it is mentioned in the prelude to the selections that "The Arthurian milieu attracted to itself all sorts of diverse motifs, such as the remnants of primitive pagan religious rites, heavily moralized Christianity..."(345)--these two aspects of the story flow side by side, and although Morgan La Fee and Mordred are evil characters, Merlin is well loved, and the good Christian Arthur studies with him as a child. The existence of magic far beyond Christian miracles is accepted as truth, at least within the Arthurian legend. This does not mean that every medieval village had a sorceress in their midst, but literature always reflects the society within which it emerges. Morte Darthur is the story of a people who are Christians, officially, politically, and in most cases at heart. Yet the paganism and sorcery lying within the story is tolerated and respected. The society in which Malory writes this story is Christian as well, politically and spiritually--could it be that they tolerated and respected paganism and magic? Perhaps the separation of the two is not necessary, and was not complete at this point in time. 

           Another similar instance of magic can be found in The Second Shepherds'' Play. This time, the magic worker is up to no good. Stage Direction for the character, Mak: "He draws a magic circle around the shepherds and recites a spell" and then Mak says, 

"About you a circill 
As round as a moon 
To I have done that I will 
Till that it be noon"(328). 

           And this, in a play about the nativity! Later in the play, as Mak and Gill are pathetically trying to explain why their newborn baby looks a lot like the ram that the shepherds are missing, Mak cries out "He was taken by an elf, I saw it myself, when the clock struck twelf, was he forshapen"(339). In other words, he was stolen by a fairy and changed into a ram. This, it would seem, is an example of a fairy folklore that exists alongside Christianity, fairies who are certain to be very magical creatures. 

           Magic is one pagan tradition that persisted throughout the Middle Ages. Another tradition, changing at the time, reflected the transition from worshipping the unseen forces in the world as many gods, to one, omnipotent God. Although the people were Christians, they took the separation of spiritual powers far beyond the creation the trinity. The specific powers or emphasis given to each saint carries on even into today''s Catholic tradition. The medieval period may have had some of this (although many of the saints were not yet born!) but in their literature, many immortal and powerful creatures are found. Chaucer''s Green Knight is one example. He comes at Christmastime, all green, and embroidered with butterflies and birds, with absolutely no weaponry, just an axe and a holly bob. The similarities to the pagan god of yule, the holly king, cannot be overlooked. He is certainly an mortal, standing there speaking with his decapitated head in his hands. He asks Gawain to start the journey to him on All Hallows Day, which is the first day in the pagan new year. The green chapel is another inclination of old pagan worship, done outside in a grassy meadow, or other beautiful place of nature. The chapel of this Knight is described as a mound, covered in grass, with a stream running by. Gawain even cries that it was built in "hell''s own style," --my goodness, is nature so evil? And let us not forget that he tells Gawain that Morgan le Faye lives at his house, and gives him his might! He (and therefore Chaucer?) even calls her a goddess. Yet, neither are portrayed as evil in this story. Everyman provides another instance; God sending death for Everyman sounds a lot like Zeus sending some god of lower stature to do his bidding. Everyman being such an obvious allegory, though, this is a bit of a stretch. But it is worth noting that he refers to God as Jupiter (373), the leader of the Roman panthenon of gods, in pre-Christian times. This again implies that perhaps the two forms of religious thought do not have to be completely separate. There are strong enough similarities for them to coincide and complement each other, and for an entire people trying to make the Christian transition, maybe this complementing was necessary. The age of forceful patriarchy and witch- burning is not to come about for several hundred years. 

Everyman also contains the following passage: 

"Have mercy on me God almighty, and stand by me thou mother and maid, Holy Mary!" 

This leads to the next tradition, the worship of the female aspect of God. In both current Catholicism and that of the medieval period, Mary is worshipped with more fervor even than God or Jesus. Church after church was (and is) erected in her name. Her likeness graced statues and stained glass with as much frequency as Jesus'' bloody head. The worship of Mary is fervent, institutionalized, and approved of by the Christian church. Is she not a goddess? For instance, in the poem Adam Lay Bound (291): 

"Ne hadde the apple taken been, the apple taken been, ne hadde never Oure Lady ybeen hevene Queen" Mary, queen of heaven. The author says nothing of Jesus, he just thanks God that sin entered the world so that Mary would become the object of worship. The ballad "A Gest of Robyn Hode" declares that Robyn loved "Oure dere Lady" more even than the father or the Holy Ghost.Certainly, he hated the patriarchal leaders of the church, "these bishoppes and these archebishoppes" are his enemy. Robin Hood''s people were the farmers and the woodsmen, the people close to nature. The tale of Robin Hood is thick with pre-Christian myth and tradition, but he is a good Christian, as the poem tells. Once again, the two traditions go hand-in hand. Mary simply took the place of the female aspects of the spirit that were once worshipped as Roman or Anglo-Saxon goddesses. 

           Paganism existed in the Britain of the Middle ages, full of spiritual beings, full of magic, alive with heavenly power existing on Earth. It has been the nature of the Christian men in power through the ages to, for fear, deny their people the knowledge of the un-Christian richness in their ancestry, and so the traditions that were not masked as Christian are lost to students of Christian history and literature. But it seems this period had not seen such extensive discrimination. The two ways of the world were not quite so separate then, and matters of the occult were not yet labeled as evil. Even now paganism and Christianity are deliciously intertwined, as people are now free, at least in the U.S., to explore the many interpretations and understand their own backgrounds. Therefore we can see the wondrous diversity that lies beneath the veil of Christianity in the literature of the medieval period. It was not a time void of intelligent pursuit, but a time of beauty, faith, and magic. 


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