At the start of each academic semester I always ask my first-year students to reflect on their own conception of the Middle Ages. ‘Barbarous’, ‘disease-ridden’ and ‘superstitious’ are some of the more common descriptors used. Of course, the idea is to pick apart these stereotypes and show that the medieval world was not just a place of Monty Python-esque peasants wallowing in mud, but also a time of social and literary innovation. The possession of a sense of humour is one of the categories that is often overlooked when discussing the less pejorative aspects of medieval culture. Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium (‘Courtiers’ Trifles’, c.1182) is representative of the kind of caustic satire that found great favour in the literary circles of the High Middle Ages.
A clerk in the court of Henry II (d.1189), Map was well known in his lifetime for being a raconteur who possessed with a wonderfully sardonic wit. His Courtiers’ Trifles – a haphazard selection of stories, anecdotes and personal asides written whilst in the king’s employ – contains numerous examples of Map’s witty, sometimes brutal putdowns. Most of these were reserved for his most hated of adversaries, the Cistercian Order.
Flaxley Abbey (pictured) encroached onto the lands of the church of Westbury-on-Severn, which had previously been held by Map (source: wikicommons)
Map was not alone in showing his disdain for the Order. An anonymous poem entitled De Grisis Monachis notes that the spread of the Cistercians can be likened to the spread of animal waste (shuta). However, the source of Map’s enmity seems to have been entirely personal. His contemporary Gerald of Wales (d.1223) – who, incidentally, had his own problems with the Order – notes that Flaxley Abbey, located near the Forest of Dene, encroached onto lands that once belonged to Map. From then on, Map needed no excuse to vent his anger against the white monks, reserving an especial ire for the most famous of contemporary Cistercians, Bernard of Clairvoux (d.1153). Consider Map’s remark upon hearing that Bernard failed to miraculously resurrect a boy who had recently died:
‘”Then he was the most unlucky of monks” said I: “I have heard before now of a monk throwing himself upon a boy, but always, when the monk got up, the boy promptly got up too”. The abbot got very red, and a lot of people left the room to have a good laugh’
Walter Map was not one of Bernard of Clairvoux’s biggest fans (source: Wikicommons)
Map seems to take particular glee in recounting Bernard’s failed miracles. On one occasion, it was said a madman chased the abbot through the streets of Montpellier, pelting him with stones, after a failed attempt at exorcism. Sarcasm can also be read in Map’s anecdote concerning a failed attempt to raise a certain ‘Walter, Count of Nevers’, from the dead: ‘[Bernard] cried with a loud voice: “Walter come forth”, but Walter, not hearing the voice of Jesus, had not the ears of Lazarus, and did not come’. Even in his later years Map did not ease up on his attacks. Writing at the turn of the thirteenth century, the subprior of the monastery of St. Frideswide in Oxford notes that ‘in youth and in old age Walter Map says derisory things in verse and prose about the spread of the white monks’.
Walter Map’s insults display an extremely sophisticated – some might say ‘modern’ – comic sensibility. They are suffused with sarcasm and irony. Taken as a whole, the Courtiers’ Trifles is fascinating insight into the mind of a man who was increasingly exasperated by life both inside and outside the court. It is well worth a read.
David N. Bell, ‘De Grisis Monachis: A Goliardic Invective against the Cistercians in London, B. L., Cotton Vespasian A.XIX’, in Studia Monastica 41 (1999), 243−259
Stephen Gordon, ‘Parody, Sarcasm and Invective in the Nugae of Walter Map’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116 (2017), 82–107
Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, ed. and trans. by M. R. James; revised by C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).