A Sample from My Intro…

Following is a sample from the introduction to my dissertation, Fortune’s Friends: Forms and Figures of Friendship in the Chaucer Tradition. I am particularly proud of this bit because it shows how absolutely bat-shit crazy this project has been and why I probably should have begun with the introduction years ago instead of saving it for the homestretch.

The treatment of the friendship tradition in pre-modern literature often traces its roots to Laurens J. Mills’ One Soul in Bodies Twain: Friendship in Tudor Literature and Stuart Drama, which collects literary references to the topic of friendship, arguing for the rebirth of classical notions of amicitia in the English Renaissance. [1] As Daniel T. Lochman and Maritere López have pointed out, Mills’ work paved the way for a literary approach to friendship with a more narrow focus on the constructedness of both the ancient traditions and pre-modern reactions to them.[2] Mills argues not that Middle English literature was uninterested in friendship but that the medieval treatments of friendship “in its purity and for its own sake” were quite rare.[3] He presents four hypotheses as to why friendship was not treated in medieval literature as it was in classical or Renaissance literature. First, he points to the lack of general literacy and the relative paucity of books available for a first-hand account of the classical treatments. Second, he argues that those who had access to the classical sources of friendship were predominantly concerned with other matters governing worldly relationships, such as the church and the world to come. Third, he maintains that the feudal organization of society privileged hierarchal relations and left little room for meaningful contact among equals, and finally, he points to the teutonic roots of medieval society that suggested an alternative genealogy of social organization built around the kinship network and the family. Each of these four arguments might be forgiven their outdated and over-generalizing view of medieval Europe. Still, what becomes clear even in the outline of Mills’ approach to the medieval is that he is not so much interested in understanding how medieval friendship might appear in the literature of the period as in how classical forms of friendship appear in medieval texts. Consider his introduction to John of Salisbury’s adaptations of Ciceronian friendship: “If one were to look for the one man in the Middle Ages who most nearly approached the ideals of the humanists, he would turn to John of Salisbury, ‘the greatest classicist of the Middle Ages.’”[4]

Still, Mills’ work has rightfully endured because of the capaciousness of its source materials and for Mills’ capacity to present the ideal friendship tradition in the colors of each period. Even as his generalizations about medieval society pale upon closer scrutiny, his sense of the place of friendship within the medieval English tradition has gone largely unchallenged for three-quarters of a century. For Mills, medieval friendship emerges most recognizably in the two forms of spiritual friendship and the sworn brotherhood. Each of these forms are rooted for Mills with one foot in the classical tradition of idealized friendship and another in the peculiarities of medieval culture. The tradition of the spiritual friend follows more narrowly the tradition I have described above: from Aristotle and Cicero, through Ambrose and Augustine, and into the spiritualized friendships described by Aelred and the English mystic Richard Rolle. For his depictions of sworn brotherhood and friendship’s relation to the court of love, Mills turns to the romances, the Roman de la Rose, and the Ricardian poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and Thomas Usk. “Not before the end of the fourteenth century,” Mills asserts, “was there a desire on the part of writers in England to exalt friendship, particularly that of the classical tradition, for its own sake. It was secondary and subservient to theological propaganda, subject to the conditions of a feudal system, negligible in contrast to the claims of steadfast love.”[5] The one exception he permits and the one with which he concludes his chapter is that of John Lydgate’s Fabula duorum mercatorum. I explore the irony of this choice more fully in my chapter on Chaucerian romance.

For the purposes of the Introduction, however, I take Mills’s lead and briefly explore one of the quintessential forms of medieval friendship and how its status as peculiarly “feudal” – to use Mills’s term – keeps it and the broader medieval practices of friendship at the margins of the friendship tradition in the West. For a medieval audience, sworn brotherhood was a readily recognizable form of friendship that could be found as a common feature throughout romances, folklore, and exempla. It appears in a number of Middle English romances, such as Guy of Warwick, Sir Tristrem, Athelston, Eger and Grime, Sir Amadace, and Amis and Amiloun. More than a mere literary projection, sworn brotherhood has roots in historical practices. Sworn brotherhood in the West carries some resonances with the Eastern Christian rite of adelphopoiesis, a ritual of making brothers.[6] Both relationships establish lifelong bonds of faith, amity, and mutual aid to people who might be excluded from traditional networks of kinship and marriage. As Joseph Lynch has demonstrated for the period between the third and the ninth centuries, such bonds of spiritual kinship became a fixture of private life in medieval Europe and carried important public consequences.[7] Still, sworn brotherhood is a notoriously difficult topic to track in the sources, and where evidence for its practice does exist, the glimpse offered by those sources is scant at best. Maurice Keen and K.B. McFarlane’s essays on the topic of sworn brotherhood provide important historical background, revealing some of the social, economic, and political functions of these bonds.[8] Keen emphasized the importance of literary texts like the chivalric romances as sources for understanding the “curious relationship which in the Middle Ages existed between men who called one another brothers-in-arms.”[9] As Keen reminds us, “To be a man’s sworn companion in such matters involved one not only in the risks he ran as a soldier, but in all that affected his honour, his fortune, and his emotional entanglements.”[10] One year after Keen described the importance of sacred vows within the chivalric expectations of both military service and courtliness, McFarlane published a contract from July 12, 1421, in which two soldiers pledged to become sworn “freres darmes.”[11] McFarlane described their relationship as a “business-partnerships,” arguing that such arrangements were merely economically efficacious not, as Keen would have it, expressive of the affective bonds between two men.

Richard Firth Green has noted how literary scholars might find it difficult to think of the sworn brotherhoods of medieval romance in the economic terms that Keen’s and MacFarlane’s sources suggest.[12] The sworn brotherhoods of medieval romance, after all, do not appear to be mere partnerships but suggest a deeper affiliation than what might interest or be preserved in legal records. In his capacious and sustained treatment of medieval male-male relationships, C. Stephen Jaeger describes sworn brotherhood as part of a wider medieval courtly and ecclesiastical practice of ennobling love. As Jaeger writes, “It is a form of aristocratic self-representation. Its social function is to show forth virtue in lovers, to raise their inner worth, to increase their honor and enhance their reputation.”[13] Richard Zeikowitz has elaborated on the possible affective and intimate aspects of sworn brotherhood, arguing that the ideal for chivalric conduct, and sworn brotherhood in particular, promotes male-male intimacy.[14] More recently, Tison Pugh has argued that, the sworn brotherhoods of Chaucer’s fictions are consistently undone in order to express an overriding distrust of such relationships and the risks of queer encounters that they might promote.[15]

I take up Chaucerian romance in Chapter Four, but I dwell with sworn brotherhood here because it often stands in the history of friendship as the quintessentially medieval representation. The few scholars who address medieval friendship within the longue durée of the friendship tradition in the West tend to follow Mills in placing spiritual friends and sworn brotherhood within the same tradition that runs from classical antiquity, through the Renaissance, and into liberal republican models of friendship in modernity. As such, the medieval tradition of friendship is often represented as belonging to the chivalric ideals of the knightly classes or the pious and communal regimen of the cloister. One consequence of this is that medieval friendship is presented in a radical alterity to anything we might recognize as a modern expression of true or genuine friendship. It is at once too performative, too rhetorical, too public, and even perhaps too chaste to be accounted as real. The recent critiques of friendship as represented through social media reveal well the suspicions we harbor towards a friendship that is too open with what is meant to be intimate and too scripted for a relation that is purported to be idiosyncratic and genuine.[16] To illustrate how radically other the performance of sworn brotherhood is to the modern imagination, consider the following scene from the recent television series Crazy Ex Girlfriend.

The romantic musical comedy is a send-up of rom-com tropes as well as a parody of musical genres. The show follows the misadventures of Rebecca Bunch, who has abandoned her life in New York and moved to West Covina, California in an attempt to reunite with a former boyfriend she saw on the street one day eleven years after their last encounter. In her attempt to wrest her ex, Josh, from his current love interest, Rebecca must also constantly assert that she has not, in fact, moved across the country to follow a boy but was rather looking for a change from her stressful, unfulfilling, and depressing life in New York. She quickly becomes friends with a co-worker named Paula, who finds herself in rut of her own, refuses to believe Rebecca’s stated reason for being in California, and ultimately becomes her accomplice in the pursuit of true love. As Season Two of the show opens, though, Paula realizes the insane lengths to which she has gone in helping Rebecca, whose affections for Josh have subdued, and she decides to establish some boundaries for their friendship. Recognizing that she would do anything for her friend and that she simply cannot trust herself to refuse Rebecca’s requests, Paula writes a contract stipulating the parameters for their activities, their outings, and even their conversations. In short, their friendship can no longer be about Josh.

The scene in which this friendship contract plays out is wonderful for its ironies. Rebecca is an ivy-educated attorney, but it is Paula the paralegal who has composed the document and presented it to her friend as a kind of restraining order that will allow them to be together in their friendship. Of course, the result of this contract is that it puts an immediate and deep strain on their friendship. While the two friends used to spend their time together in the office talking about the latest developments with Josh and meet outside of the office to implement their schemes, they increasingly find that they have little to talk about, few shared interests, and no common goal. Not only does the scene establish the new dynamic in their friendship – Paula will no longer be the exuberant yes-woman jumping at the chance to please her friend but will assert her own place in the friendship – the scene also inaugurates a new sub-plot for Paula. Having shelved her desire to complete law school in order to raise a family but now matching wits with a successful lawyer, Paula decides that she will re-apply for law schools. While this decision should be a catalyst for the two friends to bond over common experience, it drives a further wedge between them. Rebecca neglects writing a recommendation letter, never offers to help Paula study, does not consider other ways she could help Paula manage her new schedule, and is eventually left in the dark about Paula’s decision to have an abortion. Increasingly, they appear together less and less and move into new friend groups. The public and legal establishment of their friendship ultimately destabilizes that friendship.

What is it about the friendship contract in Crazy Ex Girlfriend that has this effect? The scene strikes me as being analogous to the public oaths and legal bonds of sworn brothers. What works as absurdity or irony in Crazy Ex Girlfriend is precisely what we would identify as aspects of medieval friendship as represented by sworn brotherhood. In other words, these are the very aspects of friendship that are not friendship:  publicly pronounced, legally obliging, and formally scripted. In modern practice, to circumscribe friendship is to make the friendship circumspect. Gregory Jusdanis elaborates these aspects of modern friendship when he describes it as “an institution that does not resemble an institution.” He writes, “Friendship too posits its own worth within itself. It is a legally, religiously, and economically inconsequential affiliation. There is no fixed beginning or end of friendship, no rite celebrating its appearance, and no covenant sealing its existence. We are free to enter into and leave it without any social, legal, professional, or religious sanctions.”[17] The friendship contract in Crazy Ex Girlfriend violates what appears to make friendship most worthy as a modern relation in Jusdanis’s description. It amounts to a public statement that Paula and Rebecca can continue to be friends only so long as their friendship is not about Josh, but rather than freeing their friendship from the weight of Rebecca’s obsession, the friendship contract defines its very limits. It inaugurates a new beginning to the friendship and threatens a possible end. It makes apparent all of the consequences of the relation and makes explicit the legal, social, and profession sanctions of its maintenance. The publicity of this contract also marks its irony. What had remained strictly between Paula and Rebecca throughout Season One suddenly becomes public knowledge. For the contract to be legally binding, after all, its signing must be witnessed and notarized. While the contract may not reveal all of the details of Rebecca and Paula’s schemes, conversations, secrets, and rendezvous, it makes plain that Paula and Rebecca had engaged in legally and morally dubious activities in their previous pursuits of Josh. The contract also suggests something practical and episodic about friendship that simultaneously recalls the adventures of courtly romance and calls attention to the very form of the show. Much as sworn brothers can part ways after each adventure assured by their oaths that they will find mutual aid and support for any adventures to come, Paula looks to put the Josh cycle in the rear view of their friendship and move on to future adventures. While it is common enough in medieval romance to seek the aid of a friend in a time of need and to part afterwards, such a utilitarian approach to friendship smacks of insincerity to a modern audience. Was Rebecca merely using Paula to follow Josh, get advice, and have a sympathizer? Was Paula simply caught up in a desire and enjoyment that she could not find in her marriage? The diminutive qualifiers are as important as the verbs in such questions. True friendship, so Cicero and Aristotle would assert, is never merely or simply anything: it is complete in its actions and commitments. I do not want to push too hard on this analogy, but I think it works well to expose the presumptions about modern friendship that Jusdanis, Nehamas, and Vernon have elaborated more systematically in their respective works and establishes the way that medieval friendship is often received as something outside the Western tradition of friendship even when it takes forms that might be most assimilable to that tradition.

In the past two years, two important comparative and transhistorical treatments of friendship have been published:  Gregory Jusdanis’s A Tremendous Thing: Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet and Alexander Nehamas’s On Friendship. While each of these works compelling narratives of the friendship tradition in the West, neither offers much help in understanding what friendship looked like in the Middle Ages. Jusdanis offers only two examples drawn from medieval sources, and in Part One’s largely chronological survey of the Western philosophical tradition of friendship, Nehamas hits the usual suspects:  Augustine, Aelred, and Aquinas – although he does note that exceptions to the medieval Christian skepticism of friendship can be found in medieval poetry.[18] For his part, Jusdanis seems largely suspicious of the rhetorical and formal nature of medieval expressions of friendship, writing about Aelred “In their correspondence monks like Aelred spoke of ardent passion for their companions, longing to embrace and kiss one another, and grieving about the friend’s absence. But these emotions may also be expressions of a particular mode of writing, as their authors did not necessarily distinguish, as we do, between sincerity and rhetoric. We should be cautious, therefore, about reducing human sentiment to signs or seeing signs as human sentiment.”[19] For Jusdanis, Aelred is an exemplar of amicitia Christiana, which placed its firmest commitments in God rather than “fellow feeling.”[20] Similarly, the bond between Roland and Oliver is, for Jusdanis, part of a recurring trope in Western literature wherein stories of conflict and martial prowess “reflect on the brittleness of friendship” but “these emotions and gestures, denoting passionate friendship, are part of the rhetorical tradition of the chanson de geste rather than simply manifestations of inner feeling.”[21] On their own each assertion of being attentive to the rhetorical function of friendship within medieval genres seems sensible, but when taken together as the only two examples of medieval friendship in the entire work, the caveats seem overly cautious and perhaps expressive of a bit suspicious.

As the respective works of Jusdanis and Nehamas demonstrate, the subfield of friendship studies is presently undergoing something of a flourishing. Current work on friendship draws from the fields of comparative studies, philosophy, and the social sciences, where the place of friendship and affective support systems has become the locus for re-evaluating public policy, labor ethics, and political activism. Since the publication of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, the study of friendship in literature has been bound to important and transformative developments in queer theory and studies of gender and sexuality. [22] In medieval studies, this interest has largely followed on the heels of John Boswell’s controversial studies of male-male relations in premodern culture. Throughout the late 1990s, historicist reclamations and revisions of “traditional society” approached friendship as a pivotal relationship for understanding questions around the formation of the subject and also the relation of friendship to romantic love, marriage, sex, and kinship networks. With the growth of interest in the history of emotions, the cultural studies of affect, and the analysis of the ideological underpinnings of para-institutional affiliations, the time seems apt for a re-evaluation of medieval friendship.

[1] Laurens J. Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain: Friendship in Tudor Literature and Stuart Drama (Bloomington, IN: Principia Press, 1937).

[2] Daniel T. Lochman, Maritere López, and Lorna Hutson, Ed., Discourses and Representations of Friendship in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1700 (Surrey: Ashgate, 2011), 9.

[3] Mills, 16.

[4] Ibid., 24. Mlls cites A.C. Krey, “John of Salisbury’s Knowledge of the Classics,” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, Letters (Madison, 1910), 948.

[5] Ibid., 70. Mills begins his subsequent chapter with a reiteration that learning and literature were handmaids to theology in the Middle Ages and asserts once more “There never existed, therefore, in English or Irish literature of the Middle Ages a real penchant for the friendship theme of classical provenience. It did not, in general, occur to the people of the Middle Ages that such a social ideal as friendship might be worshiped in the abstract or embodied in actuality” (76).

[6] John Boswell’s controversial Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe examines this ceremony as it appears in more than fifty Greek and Slavonic manuscripts from the eighth through the sixteenth centuries, arguing that it constituted a “gay marriage ceremony” and sanctioned same-sex erotic and sexual relationships (280-281). In his discussion of the ritual, Alan Bray points to Pierre Chaplais’s Piers Gaveston: Edward II’s Adoptive Brother as the seminal work on sworn friendship (84). A symposium on ritual brotherhood produced a cluster of essays in the journal Traditio. In her extensive introduction to that volume, Elizabeth A.R. Brown traces the scholarship on adelphopoiesis from a seventeenth-century edition of the rite produced by Jacques Goar and a discussion of it in Charles du Cange’s 1668 Dissertations historiques, entitled “Des Adoptions d’honnevr en Frere, & par occasion des Freres d’armes” to a recounting of a similar ritual performed by a Syrian archbishop in Jerusalem in 1985. Brown, “Introduction,” Traditio Vol. 52 (1997): 261-283.

[7] Joseph H. Lynch, Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.)

[8] K.B. McFarlane. “An Indenture of Agreement Between Two English Knights for Mutual Aid and Counsel in Peace and War, 5 December 1298,” and “A Business-Partnership in War and Administration, 1421-1445,” in England in the Fifteenth Century: Collected Essays (London: The Hambledon Press, 1980), 45-56 and 151-174. McFarlane. Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972). Maurice Keen. “Brotherhood in Arms,” History 47 (1962): 1-17.

[9] Keen, 1.

[10] Keen, 2.

[11] McFarlane, “A Business-Partnership,” 1422.

[12] Richard Firth Green, A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 319.

[13] C. Stephen Jaeger, Ennobling Love: In Search of Lost Sensibility (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 6.

[14] Zeikowitz, 23. An older and more controversial account of the possibilities for affective and erotic intimacy in sworn brotherhood is given by John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay people in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) and Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (NY: Villard, 1994).  I am more inclined to follow James A. Schultz’s assessment that scholars of premodern sexuality need models other than conjugality for analyzing premodern erotics, “one that does not assimilate male couples of the Middle Ages to modern homosexuality but that also does not refuse them the possibility of erotic involvement.” James A. Schultz, Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 95.

[15] Tison Pugh, Chaucer’s (Anti-)Eroticisms and the Queer Middle Ages (Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2014), esp. 65-97.

[16] For a recent account see especially Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (NY: Basic Books, 2011) and the afterword in Jusdanis, pgs. 156-169.

[17] Jusdanis, 4.

[18] Nehamas notes especially the story of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas and the writings of Paulinus of Nola, examples that he seems to have culled from Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Nehamas, 31-32.

[19] Jusdanis, 98.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 71, 72.

[22] In truth, the relationship between friendship and queer desire has a far deeper history – most notably in the late writings of Michel Foucault – but the literary juxtaposition of friendship and (homo)eroticism most consistently recognizes Sedgwick’s work as the most groundbreaking intervention.


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