Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Nature of Friendship in the Middle Ages and the Internet Age

     O, what a tangled we weaved when the world wide web was first conceived!  It seems like things were so much simpler years ago but were they really?  While doing some research on Edward II for my studies and thinking to compare him to other monarchs, one is confronted with the issue of his homosexuality or intense friendships with men.  For, when Edward launched a campaign against the Scots, he had his bastard son Adam Fitzroy with him.  Clearly he had recreational sex with a woman he did not have to.
     The problem with Edward was not so much the nature of his relationship with Gaveston, since the concept of sexual orientation did not exist in the Middle Ages, but the fact that he promoted his favorites, many of whom were commoners,  in his court to the exclusion of nobles who were entitled to the privileges that went to these men.
     There has been some question about the nature of the friendship that existed between Philip Augustus of France and Richard I, otherwise known as the LionHearted and hero of the Crusades, while they were overwintering on Sicily on their way to the Holy Land. 
    Richard, who was the son of Eleanor of Aquitaine with Henry II, was raised in what is now France and did not speak English.  He spent only about 6 weeks of his life in England and actually despised the land.  He drained the country of its resources to finance his wars on the continent.  Richard along with his older brother, Geoffrey of Brittany, often conspired together and with Philip Augustus to take Henry's throne.   The friendship between Philip and Geoffrey was close enough, as Roger of Hovedon reports, that when Geoffrey died in Paris, Philip was so stricken with grief that he attempted to throw himself into the grave.  He had to be restrained from doing so. 
     It was this same Roger of Hovedon who reported on the astonishing love between the King of France and the Duke of Aquitaine.  He wrote that they liked each other so well that they slept together and ate off of the same plate, and even drank from the same cup.  Perhaps they did not trust each other not to poison the food; a king must always be on guard against assasination, but it is not likely to be that. Roger wrote that there was such a passionate liking between them that was astonishing.
    For many of us in the Age of the Internet, where often our closest friends are people we have never met or even spoken to over the phone, the physicality of the friendship must be part of what discomfits us about them.  That and it seems in the industrial West, men are not allowed to experience strong emotions especially about other men. 
     The only relationship from way back that mimics the way we often experience friendship today that leaps to my mind is the friendship between Raphael di Urbano and Albrecht Durer. They probably met once when Durer took his second tour of Italy but the friendship went on mostly long distance through letters and exchanges of artwork.  It is interesting because Raphael, who lived in Florence and Rome around the time that Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo, was not friends with these other artists.  Leonardo and Michaelangelo did not like each other either; it seems that being rivals for commissions and accolades in the same sphere made friendship impossible.
     A few years back I joined an online community and made some friends there who, although I have never met them, I 'talk' to every day.  While I was writing and rewriting this article, I decided after all these years to ask for their phone numbers and actually speak to them for real.  It seems strange going through these stages where you talk to a point where you trust each enough to trade 'real' names (one thinks back to mythologies where real names had to be hidden because this knowledge would give someone power over you) and from there to reach a point where you ask if they would like to see what you look like.
    On most summer days, you could fire a cannon down the road and not hit anyone but you can see through windows people who are seated in front of a computer screen.  I suspect this is how many people experience friendship today.  How many people are on Facebook now, talking to someone they know in the 'real world' who is just a few doors away, rather then just shutting off the computer and getting together for coffee and chat?  Too many, far too many.
      Richard and Philip had a closer friendship than seems possible in an age where so many people are living out their lives in a virtual setting. It was up front; it was personal; they could smell the farts and hear the belches; there was no possibility to hide who you are except whatever could remain hidden in your heart.  While I am unwilling to share a bed with my friends (sorry, girls.), in an age where friendship often lacks a human touch, I can appreciate the honesty of a friendship like that.  Inhabiting a landscape of  Sockpuppets and  Avatars, it would be nice to know exactly who you are talking to some days.
       Philip caught dysentery and, disappointed with Richard after Richard massacred the inhabitants of Acre whom he had sworn an oath to spare if they surrendered, he went home.  I wonder if Philip was disappointed in his friend for swearing an oath he had no intention of keeping and killing those people after they surrendered.  One wonders if he said something about this to Richard and Richard countered with something like, "I did what needed to be done while you were lying there like a dying swan.  Don't be such a pussy." Or whatever the Medieval he-man equivalent would be.  Whatever words were spoken between them, Philip went home, leaving his army behind to help complete the capture of Jerusalem.
    Philip went home and took most of Normandy which belonged to Richard, a risky move since by decree from the Pope you could not declare war on someone who was fighting in the Crusades.  He had to wait until Richard died to take most of Aquitaine and Anjou, too.  When you quarrel in the 'real world', there are sometimes consequences.
    People feel freer to behave as badly as they want to on the Internet because it often seems like the penalty for abuse is so slight.  On the internet, if you say something in an unguarded moment, you can be deleted, removed from a friends' list, your emails get blocked.  It is so easy to offend on the Internet because you do not have body language and tone of voice to help the other person decide how to interpret what you say.  You really have to be more careful around Internet friends if you want to keep them.  At least in the real world, if you unintentionally offend, there is the opportunity to run into the other person at the grocery store or while walking the dog and redeem that friendship which does not exist on the 'Net.
       So, in conclusion, with Edward and Gaveston, Philip and Richard,  there was scratching of hairy backsides, there were noxious winds, there were greasy fingers at the dinner table while gesturing wildly and talking but it was so personal in a way that rarely happens anymore.  I may not understand it all but I can respect it for its warmth.