Christian Heroism in Medieval Texts
Throughout multiple medieval texts, we can notice the prevalent theme of heroism. To begin, we need to define what characteristics being heroic falls under. To be heroic means to be brave, noble or a hero/heroine. Why does Medieval Literature consistently include heroism as a major theme within its texts? A short answer to that question could be because readers love to read about heroes, they want to connect to the characters and feel like them. Although this could be the answer in this paper we will be discussing the theme of Christian Heroism across texts like Beowulf and Marie de France’s poem Lanval.
Beowulf is a famous text that encapsulates many themes that include loyalty, heroism, vengeance, generosity, and religion. However, the themes that to me were really prominent were religion and heroism. In Beowulf, the poem starts out talking about the current king, King Hrothgar. Hrothgar is a powerful, wise leader of Heorot. He holds all of the power and is viewed as a true king. Later in the poem, we are introduced to Grendel who is a beast that preys upon the people of Heorot at night. Next, Beowulf is called into town to ultimately save the day (and be a hero). Upon Beowulf’s arrival in the poem, we can notice the clash of beliefs between King Hrothgar and Beowulf. Beowulf’s constant praise to God for all of his accomplishments and nobility is different than Hrothgar’s beliefs. While Hrothgar is a pagan, Beowulf has transitioned to a Christian. Beowulf’s expressed throughout the poem that God can only give him the strength to defeat Grendel or others that get in his way. Throughout the poem, we can notice a shift in the way Hrothgar and the Danes interpret God, when they notice Beowulf rid them of their fears Hrothgar begins to attribute not only Beowulf as the protector of Heorot but also God himself. This can be recognized when Beowulf slays both monsters, Hrothgar says in his speech, “Your fame is renowned wherever men journey, my dear friend Beowulf, among all the peoples. You hold power with balance, with the wisdom of the mind. Now I shall fulfill our friendship as we earlier agreed. And you shall bring peace to your people for a long time to come, a source of strength to the heroes.” Within this quote, we can take out specific words that can be tied to the idea of a “heroic person”, words like power, balance, and strength. The idea that holding Christian beliefs to be a true hero is depicted in Beowulf, Beowulf himself attests his bravery would be nothing with the Lord. In the poem, we can see Hrothgar’s shift in religion when he says, “For it is wondrous to say how the mighty God, through magnanimous spirit, gives out as gifts to the kin of men their wisdom, lands, and rulership. He is Lord of all things.” Hrothgar begins to realize that his strength and wisdom come from God and not just his own doings.
In Lanval, by Marie de France we are shown a different form of heroism however, this heroism still can be attributed to Christian values. The poem Lanval can be summarized as the story of a misfortunate knight (Lanval) and his encounter with true love. He meets the maiden and she promises him eternal love and happiness in order for the secrecy of their love. Later in the story, queen Guinevere notices Lanval and has a plan to attract him to all of her. Guinevere expresses all of her desires to Lanval to which he declines, saying his honor and loyalty are with King Arthur. To which, the queen becomes infuriated stating that Lanval is a homosexual. Lanval, enraged by the accusation announced to the queen his love for the maiden. The Queen runs to the King and tells him Lanval tried to seduce her. The King later says a trial will be held. Throughout this time Lanvals values are shown, his honesty, integrity, and love are presented. On the day of the trial, two women show up, the men and women of the town believe that one of these beautiful women is Lanvals beloved. They are not, and Lanval continues to show his honesty to his true maiden. “My Lord,” he said, “Now rejoice! For the love of God, find your voice! Two young ladies are coming here, Very refined, so very fair. Truly this is your friend, your dear!” Lanval was quick to declare He recognized neither of them; He didn’t know them, didn’t love them. The ladies rode at a steady pace And dismounted before the King’s dais. Most of the courtiers praised them for Their bodies, their faces, their color. Either of these girls was worth more Than the Queen was now, or ever before. The older was polite and good; Sweetly she made herself understood: “Let us be given the rooms, O King, Set aside for our lady’s lodging: She comes to you with something to say.” The King has them led away Up to the rooms to join the others. About the mules, neither bothers.” On the verge of hanging Lanval continues to show his loyalty to the maiden. I find it interesting that Marie de France includes descriptions of these women. She notes that the women were very fair and refined, she states that the women we “worth more” than the Queen. The author shows us that these women were on a high level than the Queen herself, now imaging how honorable it was for Lanval to show his character and deny that neither of these women was his true love. Christian Heroism can also be recognized in Lanval by Marie de France by understanding the Anglo-Norman’s way of life, which was to be embedded with chivalry. There were three major components to the way of life for Anglo-Norman knights. These components in order included being loyal to God, being loyal to your King, and being loyal to women. By understanding the way of life of these people it is noted that being chivalrous and loyal to the most important of people around you was needed to be recognized as a knight and a good man. Ultimately, the maiden shows up and they live happily ever after but what understanding can we gain from this text about Christian Heroism? Chivarly is a key component of Christianity, Lanvals values show who he is not only as a knight but a man. “Guinevere tries to seduce him (de France 179). After refusing the queen, Lanval breaks his oath and reveals his secret lover, and insults the queen in doing so. Lanval is not only loyal to his lover because that is his duty as a knight, but he is loyal to her because she offers him wealth, much like a lord would do. In this way, the fairy queen becomes the way in which Lanval progresses the social ladder (Finke and Shachtman 489). Because of this, Lanval is now following all three codes of chivalry to become a heroic knight because the fairy queen is now acting as his lord (or god) and lover.”
Although the heroism in Beowulf and Lanval is a different kind of heroism, you can still identify that the theme of heroism was intentionally represented to show the reader something. While in Beowulf heroism is shown by defeating Grendel and having strength and power, faith leads Beowulf to be heroic. In Lanval it is less of strength in power and more of loyalty, chivalry, and honor, which are Christian identities in themselves. Marie de France intentionally created the two maidens in my opinion to show the chivalry of Lanval. It would have been a completely different poem if Lanvals true love were the only one to show up. By presenting the two other maidens it gives the reader the true idea of the power of love and honesty in Lanval. Lastly, why did Medieval authors present Christain Heroism within their texts? I think I talked about this briefly in a weekly post but I find this really interesting. To me, I feel that religious heroism was intentionally presented to show its readers, especially young men that in order to be morally good you should have Christian beliefs. Whether you want to be a noble hero who defeats great beasts naked, or if you want to have beautiful women appear out of nowhere confessing her love to you, you should be a Christian. It’s interesting to notice in literature how intentions are presented, in all literature you have to think about the audience and what they’re going to think while reading. I truly believe that both characters Beowulf and Lanval were created to in many ways spread the word of faith.
Citations:Heroism and chivalry. Legio I Lynx Fulminata. (2018, December 19). Retrieved November 15, 2021, from https://legioilynx.com/2018/12/18/heroism-and-chivalry/. Halbrooks, John. “Ælfric, the Maccabees, and the Problem of Christian Heroism.” Studies in Philology, vol. 106 no. 3, 2009, p. 263-284. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/sip.0.0031.