Personality in the Middle Ages

Disclaimer: This is not one of my most authoritative posts. The initial idea came from my early grad school notes, which is why the big ideas are marked as coming from my professors and not from books. I may not be of great use in answering questions, but if you have some, send them in and I’ll do my best.

One of the most interesting ideas I learned from my first graduate medieval lit class is that psychology and personality were never driving forces for literary characters in the Middle Ages. The concepts of “psychology” and “personality” did not exist in the Middle Ages and really did not exist until the 18th C. Nothing was thought of in political [1] or psychological terms—everything was identified in terms of what’s best for the community and what’s moral, right or wrong, good or evil. The term “personality” as we use it today does not enter the English language until the 18th C, which my professors emphasized was an idea of an industrial society in which humans find themselves isolated despite being in large groups.

The OED lists “personality” as meaning “The quality or collection of qualities which makes a person a distinctive individual,” first appearing in 1710. As a psychological term, it first appears in 1930. The word “personality” does appear in the English language as early as 1425, but this definition refers to qualities that make a human distinct from an animal, thing, or idea. [2]

Character Motivation

A character in medieval literature is highly unlikely to be driven by interiority. If a character is evil-natured, it is not the result of psychological trauma or social problems. He simply is. Mordred does not develop into a cruel character over the course of an Arthurian tale—he is born that way. I’ve yet to find a medieval work that gives Mordred a developed descent into evil the way that so many modern works do.

This does not mean a character is never motivated by what happens to him. Cruel habits can be learned. Just as being raised by good parents credits a child with goodness, so being raised by bad parents can credit a child with badness. However, take for comparison the portrayal of Sir Gawaine in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King versus Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poor qualities of T.H. White’s Gawaine are the result of a mother who taught him to adore her completely, but gave him nothing in return. This resulted in him developing a mistrust and even fear of outsiders and an insecurity of abandonment from growing up impoverished. These ideas would have been foreign to medieval literature. Sir Gawain of SGGK is pure by nature, and though he learns a lesson about the risks appropriate to knights and the value of truth-telling, his nature remains unchanged.

In medieval literature, inherent goodness is always noticed. In Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval, though ragged, uneducated Perceval blunders his way into Arthur’s hall, Arthur rebukes Kay for treating Perceval harshly: “You’re very wrong to mock this lad: that’s a very grave fault in a gentleman. Although the youth is naive, he may well be of good birth; for it’s a matter of upbringing, and he has learnt under a bad master.” [3] Soon, Perceval is on the same footing as all the other knights.

In Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, Gareth makes a similar appearance. Gareth arrives with several other men, so he doesn’t come in looking like the lowest of peasants, but nobody knows who he is. Gareth asks Arthur for only food and drink while he stays, but Arthur begs him to ask for greater gifts because “this is but a simple askyng; for myne herte gyvyth me to the gretly, that thou arte com of men of worshyp—and gretly my conceyte fayleth me but thou shalt preve a man of ryght grete worshyp.” [4] Gawain, Lancelot, and Arthur all recognize Gareth’s inherent nobility without knowing who he is. Kay does not recognize it, but Kay is a jerk.

The idea of inherent nobility being recognized despite a character’s circumstances is continued even through Victorian literature. The Victorian novel is filled with characters descended from the aristocracy who are born into undesirable circumstances, yet speak with high-class diction. These characters always find their stations by the end of the novel. Understanding the medieval (lack of) definition of personality can help new readers understand why many medieval characters seem a bit stereotyped and what medieval readers expected from their fiction.

  1. I expect there will be a great deal of contention over this one. Remember that absolute monarchy did not exist, affiliation to one’s country was of secondary importance to affiliation to God, and the state was a loose, poorly-defined thing. A medieval political concern is usually best understood as relating to a large community.
  2. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “personality.”
  3. De Troyes, Chrétien, “Perceval,” Arthurian Romances, trans. D.D.R. Owen, (London, Everyman: 1991), 387.
  4. Malory, Thomas, “Sir Gareth of Orkeney,” Le Morte Darthur, ed. Stephen H.A. Shepherd, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 178.


Personality in the Middle Ages — 5 Comments

  1. “Kay does not recognize it, but Kay is a jerk.” Laughed pretty hard.

    Slightly (or very, very much) off-topic, but I always hear from fans of other periods of history that they could never study medieval history because of all the religion, as if everyone and everything being religious somehow ruins the entire experience for them. I’m not sure that these people understand history; to me, understanding historical events and cultural/intellectual developments through a different lens than my own is the point. It’s exciting and fulfilling.

    But more than that, I think these people are fooling themselves on several levels. The “personality” of the fifties is vastly different from our own, as is the personality of the eighteenth century, the Renaissance, the time of Alexander the Great. People simply thought differently, in ways and for reasons that other modern people fool themselves into thinking are very much like our own. And even so, every population in human history has a lot in common with us anyways; to quote Joan Evans: “…however misty and remote the Middle Ages may seem to us, however much governed by ways of thought that time has made unfamiliar, it should not be hard to study them with sympathy and comprehension. The men of mediaeval France were men of like passions with ourselves; they knew pleasure and pain, freedom and limitation as we do; like us they were uncertain of the road they trod, yet ever went forward in hope.” (From Life in Mediaeval France.)

    I also think that the discussion of personality and conceptions of personality could benefit from looking at individuals of the middle ages. For instance, so far as I know, Roger Bacon gave Albertus Magnus the title of Magnus, but when Albert first visited his university, Bacon was rather furious and accused him of, essentially, being only a scholastic, even though he had a reputation as being an alchemist (and possibly a wizard). So evidently, the medieval man had some budge room as concerned his conception of the personality of others, certainly more than some old-fashioned scholars of the Renaissance might tell you.

    • Agreed. I think that perhaps the archaic language used in films and books can sometimes give the impression that people in the Middle Ages were without the array of passions and emotions that we all have. Even though the question “What is Albert’s personality like?” would have made no sense to someone in the Middle Ages, it certainly doesn’t mean (as your quotes most aptly demonstrate) that people didn’t have personalities. I need to do some posts on the ways people did express understanding of personalities.

      You’ve hit on the reason why I do posts like “Tiny Siege Engines.” One of the reasons I love Jean de Joinville’s writing is for his vivid accounts of personal events, both serious and humorous. I should dedicate a series to facepalm-worthy moments of medieval literature.

      It is interesting that people who love other periods of history will avoid the Middle Ages because of the religion. I could understand doing so if someone had a sincere and educated hatred for Catholicism, but I’ve never actually met such a person. The Middle Ages were no more or less religious than most other periods, though I suppose they often seem so since religion was more homogenous than in some other periods.

  2. Interesting. I wonder if part of it was from the difference in writers between then and now. Even a relatively untalented writer today usually has the advantage of years of education and a couple centuries of serious investigation into psychology (though only recently called that) with which to flesh out his or her words, whether writing fiction or non-. While there were of course a handful of very talented medieval writers (Chaucer, I suppose) many more were monks and such, for whom writing was a part time responsibility, and who often had moral axes to grind. I dare say that *people* were conscious of personality, though in different words, even if most *writers* were not.

  3. To an extent, I think it is a literary trope more than a philosophical one. We like to see conflict interior to the characters, sometimes to the exclusion of external conflict. Thus the psychological novel like the works of Jane Austen, Conrad’s Lord Jim, etc.

    Medieval and classical biographies have character descriptions, as do the heroic tales, but they are also oriented towards external action. At best, they describe character habits that suggest internal strife, like a habit of visiting the chapel to pray at night and the occasional plea to God, as Asser says of Alfred.

    Perhaps it was the industrial revolution that caused the change, or more e tensi e literacy and writing about common people for whom classical and heroic tropes fell flat. It’s something to think about.

    I believe some study of this idea of psychological development has been done on the rise of the novel, starting in the early 1600s with Dafoe etc.

  4. “The Victorian novel is filled with characters descended from the aristocracy who are born into undesirable circumstances, yet speak with high-class diction. These characters always find their stations by the end of the novel.”
    I wondered about that when I read Oliver Twist. It seemed like Dickens was trying to inspire sympathy for the poor, but for some reason he needed to do it with a character who came from a rich family.

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