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.


Anonymous said...

Excellent article! Yes, Richard and Philip obviously felt very close to each other, maybe it was sparked by a passionate belief in the same thing rather than just being always thrown together (initially, at least) Passion is very attractive, almost irresistible, and showing passion in one sphere of life often attracts admirers, and can easily lead to real physical passion.

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.
I've posted on this subject a few times - yes, it is very easy to inadvertently offend, get crossed wires online or post something that is taken totally the wrong way, but I disagree that it's harder to redeem online friendships - depends how much offence has been caused. To date I have only ever blocked one person online (and he is still blocked - but that was deliberate, completely planned offence, nowt accidental about it) and I haven't (yet :) ) inadvertently offended someone so deeply online that they've blocked me (to my knowledge :) ).

Whereas offending someone in real life usually has a certain deliberation to it (because it's so much harder to do accidentally) that it takes a huge amount of effort to put right. You may well run into that person at the grocery store, but chances are they'll cut you dead or cross the road to avoid you!

Yes, it's so much easier to pretend to be someone you're not, to really behave badly if you want to because you are hidden behind your mask, just like at a Florentian masked ball - but the majority of people don't stray too far from their real-life personas, they just exaggerate them - it's too much effort! (which is a little worrying when you consider how some people behave online!)

One reason I try to meet up with my internet friends if at all possible is that I do like to know who I am dealing with, I like to be able to sit in a coffeeshop with them and chat face to face - not easy to do since I don't have any British internet friends, but I've met up with three people so far. And that's the other thing about the internet - you can correspond with people from all over the world, instantaneously if they're online at the same time. Unlike in Raphael's time when letters must have taken a long time to reach Durer.

Anonymous said...

And I got the Beatles song straightaway! (but I won't post it yet - give the others a chance :) )Your latin tuition is working, my dear *hugs*

Anonymous said...

You really made some good points, comparing the friendship on the internet with Middle Ages. One thing changed - the range. Now we can easily communicate with people from all over the world. In Middle Ages you had to be uncommonly mobile to know people from other countries, let alone continents and I agree with Tracy - it would take ages to deliver letters; some letters would be undeliverable, btw! Great blog!!!


Anonymous said...

Yes, the internet has changed the way we make friends--in some ways for the worse, yes, but I don't think the friends you make that way are any less true or real for all that. Like Bridget says, until recently it took days for even a letter to go 50 miles; then the phone allowed us instant access. The internet has been something else altogether.


Anonymous said...

The internet has been something else altogether.

Yes, Kristin, I agree, the internet reverses the normal progress of friendship, also the speed at which a friendship can develop. Raphael and Durer met each other, then decided they wanted to swap addresses and keep in touch.

In real life you meet people, weigh them up and then decide whether you want to keep in contact with them by phone or by letter or e-mail, whereas on the internet you can be instantly in contact with people from all over the world. You've never met them, so you have no idea of what they are really like, no secondary sources such as shared friends to check your information with - you can only go by what they choose to tell you.

Chloe said...

I just wrote a long comment and lost it to the sign-up process.


Chloe said...

I enjoyed reading your article. It provides a good deal of food for thought.

I was reminded of something that someone recently said to me about journal writing: “Even the most private thoughts written in a journal are fiction.” I think this applies to the subject because when it comes to friendships maintained through writing, it must be admitted that we present a only a version of ourselves to the people we correspond with. The measure of anonymity you mention with email writing is one interesting element of written correspondence. It allows a person to be what they wish to be, rather than perhaps what they might be in reality. This can be both an inner view of self that is every bit as real as the outer view, but it can also be fantasy (we have to do a lot of imagining when we read). A macho can be a poetic romantic - a quiet wallflower can be a psycho-demon troll. Most of us probably fall more in the middle. But anonymity allows us to lay out what we want people to know sequentially - in a sense, to ‘stage’ our persona - even if we are being completely honest. It also allows us to withhold things. There is a certain mystery and romance to writing to someone you have never met or someone you know little about (not necessarily romance as in sexual). There is a foreignness in anonymity - whether or not the person turns out to live just around the corner. But the internet allows contact with people all over the globe, so foreignness often really does mean just that. Writing creates a cocoon - a safe and private space - where people can develop relationships that are emotional and psychological. We can reveal parts of ourselves that we can’t seem to reveal to people sitting in the same room. And really, in that sense, writing creates its own fantasy world because the farts and belches are missing.

About ten years ago I met a friend of a friend who lives in Germany through email. He emailed as a lark when my friend was visiting him and emailing me from his computer. We emailed more and more frequently - seemed to ‘click’ as personalities. It was only at the end of a year that I finally met him. And through meeting him I learned an interesting and profound lesson really. Although he had not misrepresented himself to me in any way, I realized immediately upon meeting him that he was not physically a type that I would ever have been attracted to had I met him first in person. If he had shown interest in me at a bar or social gathering, I would have had a very different attitude to him than the one I now had. I got to know him emotionally/psychologically before I had the chance to ‘write him off’, and that taught me a good lesson about how much I let visual perceptions of people influence my relationships. This way of bonding turned out to be much less shallow. It forced me to see into him - past the physical - in a way I had never done before. (This makes him sound like he was somehow repulsive, which he is not. He is just a type that I probably would have just not even taken much notice of.) He became a dear friend, and is perhaps my closest friend now in some ways. I found that it was almost magical when I heard his voice the first time (he has a lovely voice). Over time, I got to know his humor and experienced his moods through writing. We still email almost everyday and I visit him almost every summer for a week or more. He is one of my best friends - and may even be my closest friends in some ways. At this point we have farted, burped, laughed and played together, just like all good friends do.

I relate this story because it illustrates the power of the written word. I don’t think this story is unique either. I think its happening all over the world. And just think how the internet has opened the world up to people who are isolated by physical impairments or geographic locations. But the anonymity can be both good and bad.. In my line of work I hear of many lonely people who meet some fraud online who is just after money or sex. So anonymity can certainly be used dishonestly too. However, the fact that people can meet and share ideas and friendships across continents is so terrific. It has the capacity to expand our knowledge of other cultures and challenge our own idea of ‘self’, and trust, and our methods of sizing up others. I don’t feel that writing should replace one to one contact, but its certainly an interesting prelude to that one to one contact, and it has been the medium of many many long and true friendships across the ages, I would guess.

The Red Witch said...

I agree Chloe, on the whole, most people are honest and it has been a good experience. It depends on what your needs are, I guess, on how much you can be taken advantage of by the unscrupulous. That is true for online relationships and real world: the emotionally vulnerable will always find their abusive counterpart until they change whatever it is in their emotional make up that attracts this type.
But your story shows that you can develop an emotional bond with someone you have never physically met.

Anonymous said...

the emotionally vulnerable will always find their abusive counterpart until they change whatever it is in their emotional make up that attracts this type.

It is a very acute comment. If you think that the Internet can solve your real life problems, make you a better, more interesting person, help you find real friends, you might be deeply disappointed. It is usually a rule that people who can cope on the Internet are also successful in real life. On the other hand, people who are somehow tormented and/or unhappy with their social lives might very easily end up having even more serious troubles using the net. In both realities, after all, the rules are roughly the same.