What the Middle Ages is teaching me about how the rich relate

I’m in Lydia Kertz’s class ENGL 466: Medieval Romance and Its Afterlives, and have found that studying the often-derided genre has developed my analysis of power and legislation of institutions that we still experience today, namely marriage, as well as how an upper class exacts power through its connections across sectors.

A public facing piece that we had to listen to was an episode of  BBC’s In Our Time podcast on chivalry. In the (only!) 40 minute conversation Melvyn Bragg facilitates, scholars talk somewhat dynamically about the regulation of knightly behavior and an “ethic of war” in the Middle Ages. To give a little background, both nobility and the Catholic Church were looking for ways to manage the warrior class’ (knights) behavior. This is where the codified aspect of chivalry comes in. Also around this time, marriage was in the process of becoming a sacrament. These were strategic moves on the part of the Church because it would allow them to exact power over the nobility and ruling class. If the church stipulated that marriages were only valid if they were born of two consenting, loving adults, then the marriages propped up to only maintain/concentrate extreme wealth couldn’t be made or were rendered invalid. This was a big point of contention between laic and cleric powers during this time.

Getting back to the content of the podcast, what really made an impression on me was when the scholars spoke about how closely related (literally) the nobility, knights, and the clergy were. Bragg converses that in European culture, “…primogenitors were banging along and younger sons were finding great wealth, great opportunities, and great power in leading the great monasteries.” So pretty much what they’re saying here is that first born nobles were the heirs to family wealth. That meant that other sons weren’t going to be given land title and had to find their own professions and livelihoods. They were well educated and well off and many went to the Church. Bragg continues, “they were aristocrats in an abbey.” To emphasize the closeness even more, Laura Ashe adds, “That’s a another thing that is often missed. That when we think of “the church” and “the knights” in aristocracy, these are not two separate entities. These are brothers, these are cousins! You know. What is an abbot? He’s my younger brother in a cassock sort-of-thing…who could use a sword because we played together as boys…this is the same class of people.” This dynamic that Ashe describes is just part of a series of ‘well, of course’ moments I’ve gotten to have reading more medieval literature. The Middle Ages were such a long time ago and the medievalism (thoughts and perceptions about medieval practices, thoughts, and dynamics –  think Shrek or Game of Thrones) that we’re presented with today doesn’t prime us to see ourselves and our society in that time period. My next connecting jump wasn’t quite to the present day, but just outside the Medieval period.

I was reminded of this podcast when Dr. Cope came into class. The connections he made between the early colonists and the conquestors of Ireland (using his terms) of course made sense, but weren’t something I’d thought about or anything that had presented to me ever before. Walter Raleigh’s double dipping in quelling Irish rebellion in 1580 and establishing colonies made total sense. To quote Ashe, “This is the same class of people.”

I think this dynamic comes up in Prince’s work in a few ways. I think of Judges: Delilah Didn’t Do It  and the Claiborne expressway. When wealthy business owners in the French Quarter were able to divert the highway from their holdings to Claiborne Ave., they were advocating to classmates, family friends, siblings from Greek life.  Prince has told us that highways decimated Black communities all across the country. Similar things to what happened in New Orleans probably took place. Local decision-makers and zoning professionals are siblings, family friends, classmates just as nobility and clerics who regulated marriage. The idea that people in private and public sectors are totally separate isn’t true, even though it’s often presented to us that way. Here’s a list presented by Revolving Door on how many congress members have taken jobs as lobbyists. The style of our government perhaps lends itself to more job flexibility and turn around than the Middle Ages, but the principle is the same. An upper class of predominantly white people (Race in the Middle Ages was more faith-based, as we’ve discovered in the Romance class, so check out this article if you want more context on race and racism in that period. It’s a quick read) is working to advance their interests, often at the detriment of Black, Indigenous and communities of color and poor communities. “This is the same class of people”

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