The Secret in Medieval Literature: Alternative Worlds in the Middle Ages explores the many strange phenomena, both in the Middle Ages and today, that do not find any good rational explanations. Those do not pertain to magic or to religion in the traditional sense of the word; they are secrets of an epistemological kind and tend to defy human rationality, without being marginal or irrelevant. At first sight, we might believe that we face elements from fairy tales, but the medieval cases discussed here go far beyond such a simplistic approach to the mysterious dimension of secrets. In fact, as this book argues, medieval poets commonly engaged with alternative forces and described their workings within the human context (both in the Latin West and in the East), without being able to come to terms with them critically. Those mysteries appear both in heroic epics and courtly romances, among other genres, and they figure more frequently than we might have assumed. On the one hand, we could conceive of those secrets as the product of literary liberties and imagination; on the other, those secrets prove to be rather serious agents intervening in the lives of the fictional protagonists. By the same token, our modern world is not all rationality and material conditions either. The study of secrets in the Middle Ages thus opens the pathway toward a new epistemology both for the people in the pre-modern age and us today.
Albrecht Classen is university distinguished professor of German studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
Introduction: The Secret in the Literary Discourse: The Challenges of Medieval Literature for Post-Modern Readers
Chapter One: Marie de France: The Lais—the Mysterious Black Ship, and Other Secrets in the World of Love
Chapter Two: Nordic Sagas and the Mabinogi: Secrets in Medieval Icelandic and Welsh Literature or: The Appearance of the Otherworld in the Human Context
Chapter Three: Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival—the Secret of the Grail at Munsalvæsche, and the Secret Inscription on the Dog Leash in Titurel
Chapter Four: Heldris de Cornuälle’s Roman de Silence: The Secret of Gender Identity and the Secret of the Self: Nature versus Nurture—A Debate Raging Already in the Thirteenth Century
Chapter Five: Secrets and Mysteries in the World of Heinrich von dem Türlin’s Crône: The Transformation of the Arthurian and the Grail Romance
Chapter Six: Secrets and the Secret World in Huon de Bordeaux Foreign and Yet Not Alien: The Good King Auberon
Chapter Seven: Secrets of the Mystical World: Mysticism and the Absolute Other in Divine Terms
Epilogue: Have We Now Found the Secret? Or are there no secrets?
About the Author
Albrecht Classen, in The Secret in Medieval Literature, explores the concept of the secret, a hidden world where things happen that are supposed to be removed from public awareness, from the knowledge of the uninitiated or protected from abuses by the masses. Specifically, in a wide variety of texts, including medieval classics such as the Lais of Marie de France and Wolfram van Eschenbach’s Parzival, he studies the function of the secret as a narrative motive and not just as an explanation for faintly mysterious phenomena. This analysis of pre-modern literary works from the perspective of strange or inexplicable incidents and objects that move the account forward is a unique approach. It is not another book about religion, magic, or mysticism but rather a fresh look at what was considered privileged knowledge and how that knowledge alluded protagonists in medieval works.
Albrecht Classen’s The Secret in Medieval Literature examines a particular phenomenon that has a place in the domains of philosophy, medicine, and theology just to name a few, but his concern is how it becomes an aspect to power narrative across the scope of medieval European literatures. Through very detailed analysis of plots, Classen demonstrates the intractable quality of the secret. It is recognized, but the authors typically do not sketch out exactly what they are. Will readers ever know? Most often the audience will never know the secret even when it appears before their very eyes as a materially represented object. Classen has discovered one of the most powerful drivers of medieval narrative, but it will remain what it is: the secret.