Heavenly dew: crying in the Middle Ages

When we think of the Middle Ages, what comes to mind tends to include epic battles, knights and their ladies, a lack of hygiene and perhaps even brutality. However, scholars like Johan Huizinga have painted a contrasting picture, describing medieval people as wracked with uncontrollable emotion...

So did people really cry in the Middle Ages? And if so, what did they cry about? Hetta Howes, who is writing a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London, investigates…

 

Real men do cry

The idea that ‘real men’ don’t cry permeates modern culture, but some of the most heroic fictional medieval characters don’t just get teary – they weep. In the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, one of the main characters, King Hrothgar, sheds tears of gratitude when Beowulf rescues his people from an evil monster. At the end of the poem, when a dragon kills Beowulf, his warriors are “disconsolate/and wailed aloud for their lord’s decease”.

Their communal tears become a sign of their love for him, and proof of his virtuous character. Nevertheless, it is clear that outpourings of emotion have their time and place, and should be limited. Earlier in the poem, when King Hrothgar mourns the death of one of his friends, Beowulf warns him: “It is always better/to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.” When it becomes excessive, crying is self-indulgent and prevents proper action – in this case, violent vengeance.

King Arthur, another famous British king and hero, cried often. Medieval printer William Caxton published Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in 1485, which records the mythical adventures of Arthur, Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table. Tears flow freely in this book, soaking it in nostalgia for a better time.

Arthur weeps when he goes to war against his old friend Sir Lancelot (who, unfortunately, has slept with his wife); Sir Gawain cries “heartily” when Arthur announces that Guinevere must be executed for this transgression, and when she is led to her execution (spoiler: Lancelot will save her), there is “weeping and wailing and wringing of hands” from both lords and ladies. There is more of the same when King Arthur’s dying body is taken away to Avalon.

These are, of course, fictional tears, but they reveal something about actual medieval readers, too. King Arthur and his knights were national legends; clearly Malory didn’t think that describing their emotion would detract from their status. Rather, the tears in the book are testament to the deep feeling and sincerity of the protagonists, as well as King Arthur’s popularity.

Le Morte d'Arthur, novel by Thomas Malory c1405. Caption reads: Arthur and the strange Mantle. Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

 

Tears of devotion

Tears are not only spilled from grief, joy and gratitude; they are also shed for love in literature of the Middle Ages – the best and most enduring medieval romances are peppered with emotional outbursts. Marie de France was a female poet who lived in England during the 12th century, and she penned a number of fictional knightly adventures. In one of her poems, Milun, two lovers are separated for years and can converse only by letter. When Milun’s lover receives one message from him, she cries so much that she can no longer read the words: “And when she saw her lover’s name/she kissed it a hundred times, crying,/before she could read further.”

Similarly, in Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, the lovers cry continually (and excessively) both from joy at being together and sorrow when they are apart. Tears are a way of signalling to readers that the love being described is the real deal.

However, one of the most documented causes for crying in the Middle Ages centres on a slightly different type of devotion. According to early Christian authorities, the ‘best’ type of tears by far were those shed for God: St Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th-century French abbot, felt he had to excuse his copious tears when his brother died, because such tears suggested a lack of faith in God and heaven. In a sermon addressed to his fellow monks he asked them to excuse his tears, for he feared withholding them would make him bitter: “Flow on, flow on my tears, so long on the point of brimming over […] let my tears gush forth like fountains, that they may perchance wash away the stains of those sins that drew God’s anger upon me.”

This taps into the idea that tears can purge our negative feelings – the ‘have a good cry’ philosophy. Jesus himself, according to the Bible, shed a tear when his friend Lazarus died. This became a famous relic of the Middle Ages – numerous churches claimed to possess the tear by the 13th century.

c1140, St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a Cistercian monk who commanded great influence in 12th-century France. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Gift of tears

Tears can also “wash away the stain of sins”, according to medieval Christian theology. Priests were carefully schooled on how to provoke tears from people giving confession, as proof that their guilt was real and that they deserved forgiveness.

‘The Gift of Tears’ was a religious phenomenon of the Middle Ages, whereby a good Christian might be overwhelmed with tears when thinking about Christ’s suffering on the cross. This gift allowed its recipient to feel closer to God, and marked them out as special. One famous beneficiary of this gift was Margery Kempe: born in Norfolk in 1373, Margery dictated her religious life into a spiritual autobiography – one of the first of its kind in English. According to The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery’s crying was “so loud and so wonderful” that it made people astonished – in fact, sometimes it was closer to wailing or roaring, and Margery is chastised by a priest for disrupting a church service with the noise.

Because of the frequency (and volume) of Margery’s crying, it received mixed reviews: “And as soon as she perceived that she should cry, she would keep it in as much as she might, so that the people should not have heard it, for it annoyed them. For some said it was a wicked spirit vexed her; some said it was a sickness; some said she has drunk too much wine […] Other spiritual men loved her and favoured her the more.”

Not everyone believed that Margery’s tears were real. They thought she might be faking for attention, purposefully setting herself apart as chosen by God. This was a real concern for Christians in the Middle Ages, for, as St Peter Damian said in the 11th century, artificial tears “did not come from heavenly dew, but had gushed forth from the bilge-water of hell”. How could you tell if tears were really from God, if someone was faking or, worse, if their tears actually came from the devil?

Sinful woman wiping Jesus's feet with her tears. (Photo by: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

Crying certainly had its place in medieval culture, but it was thought that tears should have a limit – excesses of emotion were perceived as self-indulgent, even blasphemous. However, acts like communal mourning allowed people an emotional outlet, and symbolised love and respect for the person being grieved.

As today, medieval people were well aware that tears could be feigned, and were not always trustworthy. However, medieval literature and theology continued to portray tears as proof of sincerity – real love, real grief, real joy, real faith and real guilt. Tears of pure, true feeling were not scorned but rather idealised as the ‘dew’ of heaven’s garden.

Hetta Howes is writing a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London on the subject of water and religious imagery in medieval devotional texts by and for women. To find out more, click here.

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