Thursday, March 22, 2007

Medieval Honesty

I've been thinking a lot about honesty lately. I've had to apply for security clearance for the White House Fellow position, and the advice everyone has given me has been the same: be thorough, and be honest. I've had to look honestly in my closet for skeletons to disclose.

All this has had me thinking about honesty as a virtue. The truth is, I think I'm a fairly honest guy because I'm too lazy to remember lies -- so unless sloth or poor memory are virtues, I can't really claim honesty as a virtue in my case. At the same time I've been reading one of my favorite Tristan and Isolde accounts, Gottfried of Strasburg's. In it, Gottfried's narrator very clearly sides with the adulterous lovers, often explicitly condemning those who are trying to reveal the truth. On the other hand, both Tristan and Isolde both swear before God things that are either deceptions or shaving the truth very, very close in a legalistic way.

I've started thinking about other medieval texts, and I'm having trouble thinking of ones in which honesty is portrayed as an important virtue. Sagas are basically out as an entire genre, given the praise of trickiness of the heroes. Patient Griselda's husband may be the Christ figure, but he's also a terrible liar, as are many other of Boccaccio's characters. Unless I'm forgetting something, I can't think of a single Canterbury Tale in which honesty is a virtue. I assume that somewhere in saints lives are those praised for their honesty, but all I can think of is Judith.

I'm not trying to suggest that honesty was not a medieval virtue, but I suspect that it was not a particularly important virtue. Loyalty, fidelity, piety, chastity ... these seem to be the prime virtues of the literature. Liars are punished in the Inferno, but nothing like traitors are.

Has anyone out there done a study of honesty in medieval lit? I'd love to read it.


  1. For a social-scientific approach to honesty as a societal virtue, you might want to read Loren Rosson's bloggings on Lying and Deception throughout history.

  2. I've posted your question and a link back on Mediev-L.

    Know anything about honor?

  3. With regards to the Canterbury Tale, it makes sense that honsenty is never the main focus in the tale tell game. Since tale telling in a way is a sort of lying.

  4. Gawain's hiding of the the green girdle is a kind of dishonesty (a lie of omission) and he blames himself deeply for it. However, he claims the fault is cowardice and covetousness. Meanwhile no one else blames him quite as hard as he blames himself and Camelot frankly praises him for surviving his ordeal.

    So I think you have a point. Also to be "true" and to have "trouthe" in SGGK and elsewhere mean something different than the modern words.

    Medieval "falseness" is a problem, perhaps -- but it's often gendered feminine and it has less to do with lying than with false seeming. Though, hmm, sweet and winning words that mask true intentions are often reprimanded by satirists and moralists.

    So, lying/dissembling is perhaps a fault for the Middle Ages, but is honesty a virtue?

    St. Catherine's forthright speech might be something close to the virtue of honesty. And Cecilia's is similar. But it's still not the same as the modern sense of honesty, is it?

    And the Pardoner kind of gets burned for laying it all out on the line, doesn't he? And so does Lanval in Marie de France's Lais.

    I wonder if honesty has particularly protestant leanings?

    Anyway, interesting question! I'll be thinking about this for days!

  5. Scott, your question made me think of Averagus in "The Franklin's Tale." When Dorigen spills the beans to him, he merely smiles and says, "Is ther oght elles, Dorigen, but this?" A few lines later, he comments that "Trouthe is the hyeste thyng that a man may kepe." Of course, Chaucer isn't (as Dr. Virago points out) talking about honesty when he talks about "truth," but it's interesting that the character is less concerned with Dorigen's burst of honesty per se and more invested in the information she reveals, which he uses to steer the discussion back toward the notion of keeping one's promises, upon which the entire tale depends.

  6. Gawain seems to feel more shame at having broken his pact with Lord Bertilak than with having 'lied' -- the lie, after all, lay in his having given three kisses to Lord Bertilak and claiming that all he owed was paid, so Gawain was being dishonorable.

    So, distinguishing shame over dishonorably breaking a pledge from guilt over having told a lie is difficult here, but my sense is that honesty as we understand the term today was not a privileged virtue in society.

    In a hierarchical society, one must be particularly careful what one says, for one's loyalties are more important than honesty. I see this sort of thing in Korea each day. Loyalty trumps honesty almost every time.

    Jeffery Hodges

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  7. The only reference to honores I know are always in the plural and refer to titles/offices/privileges. Also, not sure if they are always that way in theoriginal texts, or if they are medievalists' short-hand. But my gut feeling is that, at least through part of the ninth C in Francia, there is no connection to honestas except in the very real sense of people who break oaths or switch sides losing their honores. But that could happen for any number of reasons, not least because the king was not particularly true to his men, or needed to reassign honores for social-political reasons.