What really motivated medieval minds?

Love, ambition, fame, self-interest, fear, religious conviction, physical desire for something or someone, patriotism, duty, compassion, self-sacrifice, revenge or bitter hatred.

Historians make a case for the various motivations of historical figures in order to try and understand these people themselves and then persuade their readership through their analysis as to why a particular figure acted in certain ways as borne out in the evidence of their deeds and the eye witness accounts of their contemporaries. These motivations tend to fall within a core range of basic drivers; well-known to psychologists and literary writers which most of us tend to believe control why humans do what they do.

Depending on which drivers you apply to the historical facts, a very divergent picture of the figure emerges and a very different set of emotional responses are engendered in the reader so these motivations are hugely important and often controversial in their application.

Added to these basic, commonly-held drivers there are also other factors at play. We tend to focus on the kind of society in which the individual lived and the general mores which operated during their lifetimes in order to build a personal ‘mind space’ within the wider context of their era. For the medieval period this might include the importance of spiritual beliefs whether Pagan, Christian, Muslim, Jewish or other. A particular figure may not have left any specific evidence of their religious beliefs or indication of their spiritual affiliations yet assumptions are made about what was popularly considered to be acceptable and how there actions fitted within that code.

Social factors are another facet of this process. For example, when considering Anglo-Saxon culture, many historians and commentators refer to the importance of the concept of ‘comitatus’ which most believe ran through Anglo-Saxon culture and society; that strong, symbiotic bond between the leader and his war-band which held communities together and extended beyond the warrior class to their relationship with the producers and peasants and which foreshadowed the development of the feudal system and became interwoven with chivalric values and ethics during the later medieval period.

In Viking society the emphasis is on the bond of the family unit or clan and also the cult of the warrior-hero which, again, grew from a shared Germanic culture familiar to the Anglo-Saxons. A figure is weighed against these ideals of community and courage, of individual heroism and the demands of hospitality yet their morality is also opaque and complex to the modern mind as that of their mysterious gods and myths.

How far can the psychological effects of a general belief in ‘wyrd’ or fate explain the particular actions of an individual who happened to live during these times? There is clearly a danger of imposing a structure which never had any relevance to a specific person and making a case based on this which excludes other, pertinent drivers.

Where to find clues about motivation? Personal slogans or mottos, letters, recorded words, the family structure and upbringing of the individual. Their class, gender and access to education, their religious beliefs and wider social and economic environment all provide clues but personal motivations are illusive and difficult to prove by source evidence and actions alone.

Broader factors like geography, topography, climate and economic conditions might also have a contributory effect on the personal motivations of an individual. Did a shortage of Herring lead to the Viking raids or were they due to the ambitions of men who were pushed out of their society by warring factions? Does a cold, Northern climate breed people with particular character traits which lead to associated psychological tendencies?

So many medieval historical figures seem to be so contradictory and irritatingly difficult to pin down. Single-minded fanatics who left a bloody trail of destruction behind them trip us up by writing beautiful poetry or leaving generous bequests to the poor. Ruthless generals who hung little boys in revenge for rebellion but loved their spouses and proved to be doting parents. Cold-hearted expedients who suddenly died like heroes on the field of battle and seemed to embrace their fate with courage and dignity.

It is these contradictions which make the study of history so fascinating and allow us to construct a ‘rainbow’ of interpretations which is constantly shifting against the ghosts of the other people who they interacted with. At one point we are sure that we know them and then the next moment they are gone again, beyond the veil of certainty, into their own complex mind space and ruled by motivations we can only guess at and wonder about.

This issue surfaced recently in another blog post during a debate over self-interest and ambition which is often cited as a prime motivator for many of the great ‘players’ throughout medieval history from the Anglian generals of post-Romano Britannia to the Tudor kings who eventually seized power at the end of the period.

What exactly was ‘self-interest’ to a medieval mind and did it have the same meaning and carry the same connotations as the term implies to us now in the C21st? At its most basic level, self-interest is nothing more or less than survival instinct. You take it before the other guy in order to survive and by extension, keep your family unit or clan or community or country one rung higher up the ladder than those you are competing against. Morality doesn’t apply here because it is driven by greed and aggression.

There are many instances were we look at the ruthless acquisitiveness of leading figures and assume that they were driven by massive egos and an unquestioning belief in their ‘divine right’ to have whatever they wanted regardless of the cost in terms of human suffering or economic distress. Ruthless ambition, over-weaning pride and arrogance are core motivators.

Yes, but the flip-side to this argument is that self-interest is also protective, inclusive and driven by fear or necessity. You take it first because if you don’t the other side will to the cost of yourself and your dependents. You need to strike first in order to protect you and yours from calamity. You have to be one rung higher up the ladder to prevent your family unit, clan, community or nation from being harmed, over-run, annihilated.

Fear would seem to run through medieval society at every level – fear of attack, fear of poverty and illness and old age, of child-birth and battle injuries, of falling from Fortune’s Wheel or into the gaping mouth of Hell if your sins were sufficiently terrible and even those who were blameless were corrupted by original sin and would spend time in purgatory before they might see the joys of Heaven in the Christian doctrine.

What happens when we weigh self-interest against ‘duty’? Duty is usually interpreted as a positive characteristic, particularly in a society with strong downward pressure from the top whether that be from a political leader, feudal over-lord, patriarchal figure or religious figurehead. Seen in this context self-interest becomes much more complex and morally nuanced. You benefit personally from your actions but they are tied up with the greater benefit to your overlord, king, father, older brother, Pope. You owe allegiance to these figures and also understand that failure to deliver will have serious consequences for not only yourself personally but the duty you have to your dependents. There are many, many instances during the medieval period of a whole family being ruined by the failure of just one member. The family was an inter-connected, living organism. It may have taken generations of struggle and sacrifice to reach a particular strata of social status. One person could either push the ‘family’ up to the next level or send it sliding down, down, down into a bottomless pit of shame and penury.

Beyond the immediate family there was also the extended web of those who depended upon the head or heads of the family to keep them afloat. The extended family, retainers, the servants, the affiliation, the peasants beyond the walls who tilled the fields and farmed the lands that might be taken from you or burnt in retaliation for a poor policy choice. We might consider here the burdens of the aristocracy in relation to political decision-making during the medieval period and the huge implications that their actions had for their tenants and retainers. In this context ‘self-interest’ combined with ‘duty’ and family honour on the one hand but was also tempered by the burdens of having many mouths to feed and the expectations of those who looked up the pyramid to the next source of security and gain.

You begin to sense the enormous pressure that these ‘players’ were under to achieve and excel and out-do their rivals and the heavy burden of ‘duty’ which weighed down on them especially in an age where status meant so much in terms of your life expectancy and the choices which were open to you.

Conversely did ‘duty’ sometimes combine with self-interest as a means of pursuing your own desires under a veil of morally sanctioned righteousness? Like ‘piety’ it could be applied by someone who was actually motivated exclusively by what they could achieve for themselves as a smokescreen to avoid criticism by the church, for example. There are genuine motivations and quasi-motivations at work and often it may be impossible to evaluate which can be applied to a particular individual.

This is an area where medieval women need to be considered in particular. Chroniclers and contemporary sources were largely male and often openly hostile to great ladies who appeared to wield too much influence or power over their male counter-parts. We see this in the case of the Empress Matilda and the other ‘She-Wolves’ of medieval history.

Foreign princesses like Isabella of France and Marguerite of Anjou were regarded with deep suspicion because the sources feared that they were motivated by duty to their birth family above duty to their husbands and newly acquired nation. We can see the problem here immediately. These women were sent to a strange country as the physical manifestations of alliances and treaties made between nations who were usually opposed to and deeply suspicious of one another. They were raised to be completely obedient to the will of their male relations and to see their destiny in terms of cementing alliances and promoting their families’ interests in every way possible. As soon as they were married to their new husband there was a conflict between the duty owed to their family and to their spouse. This was further exacerbated by the arrival of children who they also had a duty of care to protect and advance and whose interests they were fiercely interested in promoting. So these women were pulled in three directions at once and labelled as ‘self-interested’ if they tried to take any control over their own destinies in the midst of all these pressures. It was also more difficult for them to hold property in their own right, though not impossible, but it made them more vulnerable to losing the means by which to support themselves to the control of a male relative or the crown itself. Then, in addiction to all this, they also faced the contradictory demands of church teachings about their place in the social order and male prejudices against their abilities and rationality into the bargain!

Not so easy to dismiss Matilda or Isabella as ‘She-Wolves’ when all these factors are taken into account. It was well-nigh impossible for them to fulfil their roles to universal approval given the different interpretations of where their duties lay or for them to achieve any lasting success when their lives were so finely balanced between conflicting and powerful forces.

Even a motivation as basic as maternal love is exceedingly complex in the medieval world. The Marian cult which took such a powerful hold of personal spiritual belief in the C12th elevated motherhood to a divine vocation and changed the perception of motherhood within some Western societies. The Holy Mother became the ultimate intercessor between humanity and divine power; the perfect vessel for hope, compassion, grief, desperation and suffering love. So, earthly mothers were motivated by all these powerful emotional forces but at the same time judged as weaker than their male relatives for embodying them. Their role was to be fluid and malleable, obedient and pliant and to almost glory in their helplessness as Mary had become the icon of impotent suffering at the foot of the cross.

‘Mater Dolorossa’; the mother of tears. Women were to emulate Mary in being the intercessors and diplomats within the family who took on the sufferings of their clan and pleaded for mercy or justice or leniency when nothing else would make any difference. They were baby-making machines who had little legal control over the fates of their children and often watched helplessly as many were taken by illness and disease and poverty but were taught to accept this as the will of the Gods, or God and keep trying until they succeeded in passing their trials on to the next generation. Their lives sound pretty hopeless seen from this perspective and many undoubtedly were just this hard and unforgiving and desperately sad to witness at all levels of society.

Their essential powerlessness had a direct effect on their motivation for gaining influence and on how they administered estates and even nations when they did find themselves able to exercise authority. It is a difficult area to even discuss due to contemporary views of equality and the extra-ordinary levels of bias within the sources available to us and the intervening layers of interpretation of women’s roles in society since the primary sources were written down.

Historians generally dis-like overlaying modern social mores when considering the actions of historical figures so how do we account for the complexities of prejudice and misogeny  when looking at female motivations during the medieval period in order to get to the truth?

The Empress Matilda was famously criticised by a contemporary source for acting like a man when she exercised power. How else would a female monarch hope to exercise power within a male-dominated elite than as a male would? The pliancy and intercession that women were praised for would immediately be viewed as weakness in a female ruler. Conversely, authority and dominance would be viewed as un-feminine and criticised where the same traits would be lauded in a male.

It is hard to see how a female ruler could have received universal acclaim given the nature of popular opinion and especially considering that most of the contemporary chroniclers were based in monastic institutions which segregated the sexes as well and were reared on church teachings about women’s place in the cosmic order.

She is often characterised as being arrogant and overly conscious of her title as Empress yet she was operating in a world where male counterparts were claiming kingdoms and empires on paper which they often had no actual control over and where status was key in the game of propaganda and negotiation. Can we really blame Matilda for displaying her credentials to authority when she was fighting for power and had been lead to expect that her father intended her to inherit his crown? William of Normandy certainly had no problem with seizing on the alleged intentions of Edward the Confessor and denouncing his rival when Harold took the throne. Perhaps if William had failed in his invasion attempt history would have been less accepting of his claims? The benefits of hindsight may well play havoc when it comes to assessing the motivations of particular figures. It is often an unconscious action but can slew the reasoning and create motivations which never existed. Some commentators and historians even seem to blame a figure for losing  in the power game and retro-actively apply their ultimate failure to their previous life experience and drives.

Achieving a balance in interpreting source evidence is only one factor in trying to come to a true assessment of motivations though. Added to different mores and social structures, gender issues and religious teachings there is also deeper, and more hidden differences in perception based on the medieval understanding of science and cosmology, philosophy and ethics.

It may not seem directly relevant to us that we live in a age of mass communication, advertising, consumerism or even the popular culture which surrounds us but all these factors play an unconscious role in how we view our life and place in the world which impacts on our motivations.

How differently would we feel about risk and opportunity, about respect for the established order or whether to act on a certain date in the calendar if our world view was completely different? Medieval maps provide just one example of this. If you see the world as centred on Jerusalem how does that change your unconscious perception of your place on the planet? How does it make you feel if the centre of your universe is held by people who you view as your enemies?

In the C21st most of the world is in a constant state of flux and change. Most of us are taught to question everything and to look into ourselves in an endless journey of self-discovery. We are free to debate with other people from around the world; have access to instant knowledge and information but are also constantly distracted by multi-media formats and a tidal-wave of trivia.

By contrast, we imagine that in the medieval world that time was slower, certainties held more deeply and altered less often. This may be a mis-conception but it still has a profound effect on what many of us perceive to be the pace of their lives, the speed of their thoughts and their openness to new ideas or radical thought processes yet we know that people were willing to die hideously painful deaths for their beliefs, that heresy and principled questioning of the established belief structure continued to be a factor in societies and that war and violent upheavals were regular events across the world. Trading links often extended much further than most people are aware of and some travelled great distances and experiences very different cultural and social practices and brought ideas and thoughts back with them which influenced life in their native communities.

Medieval thought processes were also shaped by the classical cultures of Greece and Rome and the writings of the ancients were held in great regard and used as models of instruction for many aspects of life from medical knowledge to siege warfare techniques. The esteem for classical knowledge may have lead to medieval minds being unduly influenced by the writings of some ancient thinkers to the detriment of their own enquiries and again form a nuanced layer when it comes to interpreting their drives.

So many complex and inter-connected processes and ways of interpreting the evidence which has been left to us and so many different possible alternative views of what motivated these people to act as they did or fail to act as this is as essential to their story as their actions. There can be no hard and fast answers to the question of what motivated medieval minds but the journey of discovery is a fascinating one and perhaps reveals as much about our own drives and motivations as is does about the people we seek to understand and evaluate?








2 Responses to “What really motivated medieval minds?”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.

    Liked by 1 person

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