I’ve been fortunate to pick up, at the same time, two books by nineteenth-century novelists about the fifteenth century. I’ve been writing about the fifteenth century myself, working all summer on a light book about the times of Jan Van Eyck.
The nineteenth century took an intellectual and sentimental liking to the Middle Ages. The century began with the Romantic rebellion against Enlightenment adoration of all things classical, led by poets like Wordsworth and Blake. Later, scholars like Ruskin wrote about the Gothic with new vigour, restoring some dignity and respect for the centuries before Galileo.
I’ve read the ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ before. It’s been a long time, and my previous reading wasn’t very nuanced. I absorbed Hugo’s brooding romanticism uncritically. The Dark Ages were wonderfully dark, Parisian alleys as mysterious and dangerous as those of Dickens’s London. It’s 1482, and benighted religion rules nations, while the guild of thieves rules the streets. Hugo has done a lot of research, and that’s what I’m attempting to mine, while still enjoying the fable in all its dense mood.
Not many see Mark twain as a medieval scholar, but he put a lot of research and care into his last work, a book about Joan of Arc. He himself placed high value on the book, and he saw Joan as a rare hero whose thoughts were free. Twain, voice of the West, saw no value higher than independent thought. The egregiously biased church prosecution seemed proof of Joan’s sincerity and independence. Twain famously spent twelve years researching the book, and from this I hope to benefit.
Joan was a contemporary of Van Eyck, and I’ve had occasion to read about her. I’m also captivated, though for different reasons. Having stumbled into so many of the yawning lacunae in medieval history, I have been struck by how documented Joan’s life was. She was a modern celebrity in the late Middle Ages.