5. How do you introduce lais to students?
One set of questions I ask students who look at in these stories are: Who are the heroes? Who are the good guys? and who are the bad guys? And I ask them to look at how are kings portrayed, because kings are the big winners in political power over the central Middle Ages. Monarchs go from being relatively weak in the 10th century in the wake of a whole series of invasions which shatter the political order of western Europe. These are invasions by the Vikings, the Magyars. Theres some invasions also from the south from the Islamic kingdoms of North Africa and on the Iberian peninsula. And these invasions have an immensely disruptive impact on Western Europe.
The kings see their power eroded because they cant provide effective defense for their people, and so power tends to devolve to local lords who can provide some sort of defense. And these lords live in castles. And when the invasions are over, they immediately start fighting with one another for dominance. And the challenge to kings across the central Middle Ages is to get control of these lords and to extend their authority throughout their kingdom.
Monarchs are successful at getting control of the nobility and extending their power particularly over the 12th and the 13th centuries. But interestingly enough, in these stories, kings dont look very good. Theyre definitely mistreating their vassals, and, in fact, the heroes of these stories are vassals of the kings, and thats the social origins of this literature. This class of regional lords is really the driving force behind creating this very interesting new courtly culture.
These stories were clearly a way for people to debate what is appropriate vassal behavior, what is appropriate kingly behavior. How should kings act? Similarly, whats the appropriate behavior of a vassal, and what are the political implications of that behavior? If the king is bad, do you try to overthrow him? Is that whats being recommended to vassals? What kinds of behaviors are being proffered as the appropriate and praiseworthy, noble, chivalrous way to act? How does that affect this project of the increasingly powerful monarchy? Does it contribute to it? Does it frustrate it? Does it suggest an alternative political form?