Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lady Alice and the Then and There

When I was young it was common to hear or read about two broad classes of people: introverts and extroverts.  My family and most of my peers seemed to suggest that I myself was an introvert.  I absorbed the impression that that was not particularly good, and might even be bad.  But I got a reprieve from one of the first memorable serious books I read in my teens.  It was a widely read work of sociology by David Riesman: The Lonely Crowd.  This book, as I remember, recast the introvert and the extrovert in a new jargon more fitting for the book’s larger social vision: the “inner-directed” and the “other-directed”.  More importantly, to my mind, it added a third category: tradition-directed.

The tradition-directed type was, perhaps not surprising, the most traditional.  Riesman attached it to earlier historical periods, such as the Middle Ages, in which religion was powerful and marked by recurrent ritual, and in which industrial and agricultural life operated according to long established customs and routines.   To the tradition-directed the conservative structures of society, especially the family, were all important.

Being “tradition-directed” seemed a whole lot better to me than being an “introvert”, and I was willing to sign on the dotted line with one slight verbal adjustment.  I thought even then, and certainly think now, that the better term would be “history-directed”.  For by the age of ten I had discovered history.  The graph of human experience has a horizontal axis and a vertical one.  The horizontal axis stretches wide to embrace all of contemporary human life in its extraordinary anthropological diversity.  I think of the vertical axis as the historical one, reaching as far back into the human past as can be knowable, pointing as best it can in the direction of the unknown human future.

In my part of the world, as in so many parts still, the landscape was denominated by the vanished dead—Appleford’s Mill, Miller’s Fork, the Thompson Forty.   Nobody living really knew who Appleford, Miller, or Thompson were.  And there were the dead without names, in the small, wild and overgrown country cemeteries and, at least as I imagined them, lying beneath the artificial tumuli of the Indian mounds built upon the Ozark meadows a hundred years or for all I knew a thousand years before I arrived, but still vital to my experience.

One index of our current national crisis of confidence comes in a form of the statement that the next generation of Americans will be the first to enjoy a level of material life less comfortable than that of their parents.  Really?  I suspect that some will, and some will not.  When I compare the material circumstances of my grandparents with those of my grandchildren, the incline of “upward social mobility” is vertiginous.  But there were people in the fourteenth century who must have felt the same way.

Consider my favorite centennial, Geoffrey Chaucer.  (He died in the year 1400).  Chaucer came from a fairly modest background, but he got a lucky break by being admitted to the service of one of England’s greatest families.  His own conspicuous abilities—only one of which was being one of the world’s finest poets—won recognition in high places and greatly improved his offspring’s prospects.  I started out on a tick-infested mountaintop, but I have a granddaughter with an honors degree from a leading university and a high-flying job in social media.  But Chaucer, who started off as an upscale intern, had a granddaughter who became a duchess!  
Lady Alice in life...
Alice de la Pole, eventually Duchess of Suffolk, was born in 1404, the daughter of Thomas Chaucer, the poet’s son.  She died in 1475.  By then she was a Lady of the Order of the Garter, a club considerably more exclusive than Skull and Bones—and you can see why I mention that particular bastion of super-selectivity.  Upward social mobility, whether in the fifteen or the twenty-first century, fits into a groove along the horizontal axis.  But how different are things when we look at the vertical axis, that of the historical change that ever accompanies historical continuity.  A big step in Alice’s march to social splendor was the first of her three marriages, which took place when she was eleven years old. (The Wife of Bath was married five times, even with a slightly later start—the age of twelve.)  It was very common in aristocratic circles for women to be married before the onset of menstruation.  It was all about the money.

...and death

Alice’s last and surviving husband had built for her a funerary monument that is one of the most remarkable in England.  It is in St. Mary’s Church, in the lovely Oxfordshire village of Ewelme.  The burial place is of a fairly rare type sometimes called the “cadaver tomb.”  We see the Duchess in beautifully carved stone from two points of view.  Atop the catafalque she lies finely clad, wearing her prestigious decoration.  Behind a stone grill beneath she lies as a hideous and decaying corpse—food for worms.  There was a popular medieval story called “The Three Living and the Three Dead,” cognate in spirit to the pictorial narrative of the “Dance of Death”.  Three hideous corpses or skeletons appear in terrible confrontation before three rich fellows full of carefree life.  “As you are now, I once was,” says a voice from the bones.  “As I am now, you must soon be.”  Some attitudes to the here and now in the fourteenth and the twenty-first centuries might not be all that different.  Attitudes concerning the hereafter—that’s a different matter.