Saturday, August 25, 2012
Medievalia in Modern Times
There is a lot we owe to the Middle Ages. Though the Victorians dubbed the early Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages” because of an erroneous belief that there were no advances in science, literature, or art, these were far from “Dark” times. In fact, we continue to benefit and to use in our everyday life, that which was medieval.
Besides buttons and buttonholes, sundials, clocks, the printing press, and a host of other medieval things that we still use today, did anyone out there in the internet—yeah, I mean YOU—ever go to college? There is the familiar campus with its large quad area, perhaps grassy, surrounded by an arcade of arches and maybe even a bell tower. But this design that we know so well stems from the cloister, a monastery, where monks and nuns, sometimes the only ones in their town who could read and write, walked grounds almost identical to college campuses today. These became areas of learning (the word “college” goes back to the fourteenth century meaning a body of religious colleagues). Educated men could be clerks and they were considered part of the clerical class—religious without actually having to take vows. They sometimes wore their hair with the tonsure, that shaved bit at the crown of their heads. Eventually, all colleges and universities simply took up the same design. The bell tower also goes back to medieval beginnings when the bell was rung for the call to prayer. This was called the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. Now it calls students to class. We have monks and nuns to thank (or shake a fist at, depending on your point of view) for giving us the modern concept of dividing up the day into hours.
Have you held the door open for someone? Showed someone some courtesy? The very word “courtesy” as well as “curtsy”-- when a woman gives that little bow--come down to us from the manners you would exhibit at court. And when you give up your seat in the subway for a woman and thereby proving chivalry is not dead, you have just shown some of the medieval knightly virtues of days past.
The term “chivalry” first referred to mounted men (a chevalier is French for knight) and then it came to mean a body of mounted men (the chivalry of the King of England, for example), and eventually a code and set of virtues attributed to a proper knight. Chivalry is not dead when people defend the weak and swear not to lie. But a knight’s code took this to extremes and defended and often offended with a sword.
Chivalry aside, have you ever gotten a prescription for eyeglasses? Take a look at the paper form. See the letters on the far left that say O.D. and O.S.? Know what that stands for? Oculus Dexter and Oculus Sinister. That refers to your right and left lenses.
“Dexter” and “Sinister” are familiar medieval terms, especially if you were a herald, one of those guys who kept track of or designed the shields and blazons (what most people think of as coats of arms) for the nobility. “Dexter” is Latin for right side and “Sinister” is Old French for left. So those letters on your eyeglass prescription are referring to your right or left eye. In heraldry, it was the same. The left and right described is left and right as the bearer sees it, not from the view of the opponent.
But you can acquire a holdover of the coat of arms and badges of the past. They are called company logos, those little drawings and caricatures associated with a company name, like the little Templar knight for King Arthur Flour (which really doesn’t make much sense when you think about it) or the Michelin Tire man.
All of these are remnants from days gone by, from architectural elements of gothic arches, to today’s instantly recognizable image of the Golden Arches. Medievalia is everywhere.