17.02.23, Hasty, The Medieval Risk-Reward Society

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Wojtek Jezierski

The Medieval Review 17.02.23

Hasty, Will. The Medieval Risk-Reward Society: Courts, Adventure, and Love in the European Middle Ages. Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2016. pp. ix, 260. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1303-2 (hardback) 978-0-8142-7461-3 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Wojtek Jezierski
University of Gothenburg

In a narrow sense the main focus of Prof. Hasty's thought-provoking book is the agonistic aspects of the chivalric culture in the High Middle Ages and the complete dedication of courtly romances' authors and characters to the pursuit for perishable and temporal resources such as adventure, love, joy, and worldly reputation. On a more global level Hasty's book explores the emergence and transhistorical transformations of the cultural engines of incessant sociopolitical comparison and competition and their role in the long individualization process, stretched between the ancient warrior societies, through chivalric culture, and well into the modern conceptualizations of parameters of selfhood by Martin Luther, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, and Mark Twain.

Chapters 1 and 2 ("Cultural Action" and "The Medieval Self as Bankroll") set the stage and some general assumptions for Hasty's mode of reading of the classics of the chivalric literature treated in the book as a form of cultural action (8-16). Taking inspiration from game theory, Hasty develops his own notion of cultural action as an ongoing, framed play of risks and rewards which one cannot afford not to play. In such a game an individual self becomes a resource fully investing its skills and strategies in expectation of pay-offs but taking into account the game's ineradicable element of chance and uncertainty and hence likelihood of loss. In the ensuing brief overview of the rules of cultural action in the antiquity as rendered in the warrior competitions at Troy in The Iliad, in the Old Testament at the walls of Jericho, in Rome in The Aeneid, and in Jerusalem in St Paul's letters, Hasty argues that before the fusion of Christianity with the imperial idea, the investments and outcomes of cultural action were fixed in isolated domains with little compatibility between different fields of action. The Christian notions of self-sacrifice and speculative devotion in hope for heavenly reward, here exemplified mainly by St Paul and St Augustine's The City of God, were in Hasty's view a game-changer. An all-encompassing, competitive self-dedication of an athleta Christi modeled on sports and warfare was incorporated into a global, imperial frame in which risks and investments applied in one cultural field could be translated and exchanged into rewards in another. The emerging medieval self was beginning to conceive of its activities as a way of balancing a bankroll.

The main bulk of the book (chapters 3 through 6) focuses on the twelfth- and thirteenth-century canonical chivalric authors and their renditions of the pursuit of the mutable, material cultural resources. Within the stabilizing, bipartite parameters for cultural action provided by religion and empire, Hasty interprets courtly life and its literature as a domain in which a radical re-direction of religious pursuits and self-dedication took place. The author shows how the general attitude of risk-taking and total engagement of the self was being growingly applied to a global struggle for perishable, worldly goods and how the seemingly base resources of esteem, joy, love, and adventure were being elevated through the vernacular poetic discourse. Chapter 3 ("Rules of the House") addresses the classical topic of the public and representational character of courtly societies; a context in which esteem and joy constituted the most desirable goals and products of cultural activity, which Hasty traces in the works of Otto of Freising and Walther von der Vogelweide. In chapter 4 ("The Poetic Action") Hasty explores the competitive aspects of courtly poetry, by addressing its prominent self-conscious character revealed in the prologues, excurses, and in-text reviews of other poets' works. The author uses those breakings of the fourth wall and meta-discourses in a row of chivalric writers' works as an occasion to peek on the self-instituted and joy-oriented means of assessment of poetic action. In a highly competitive and volatile courtly environment, poets, just like their protagonists, had to fully invest their potential and engage into ongoing negotiations of the relationship with their audiences in order to at least temporarily overshadow their past and present rivals.

Chapter 5 ("Adventure as a Cultural Wager") opens with the discussion of the embodied and emotive implications of engagement with imaginary action in narratives based on psychological studies of literature reception through fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagining) scanning. Basing on this, Hasty treats the protagonists' actions in chivalric literature as emotional and imaginary rehearsals of actions which its audience may have considered to undertake in their own lives. Empirically, the chapter engages with the figure of a knight errant and the conditions and compulsion of investment of the self in the adventurous, indeterminate activity which could boost one's position at the court. The author shows how in the context of limited cultural resources, particularly honor/êre, the competitors' actions (chivalric knights and poets) were driven by the logic of zero-sum game, in which one party's success almost always resulted in vanquishing of the opponent. The author contrasts Bernard of Clairvaux's critical monastic view of the total self-investment in the pursuit of the worldly values expressed in his De laude novae militiae, with different renderings of such self-interested pursuits highlighted through a comparison between Chrétien de Troyes's Érec et Énide, and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival. The complementary chapter 6 ("Love as a Cultural Wager") discusses courtly love as ceaseless play in which the totally immersed protagonists and poets simultaneously considered themselves to be players and the played elements in a high-risk game. Through the analysis of Marie de France's Lanval and Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, Hasty demonstrates what consequences the love game could have for the imaginary political order represented at the court. The last chapter ("The Modern Self in Play") fast-forwards through the post-medieval mutations of the individualizing risk-reward attitude liberated by the chivalric literature and the different ways it was applied in the emancipatory projects brought about by the classical texts of Reformation, Enlightenment, and modern liberalism.

It may seem that Prof. Hasty's book addresses many well-researched topics and salient elements of the essentially public and highly competitive nature of chivalric poetry, explored not only by students of medieval literature but also by historians. For instance, in his analysis of Rules of the House, understood as moves in the game of symbolic and ritualistic means constricting and enabling certain political or social actions in courtly milieu, Hasty occasionally (70-78) comes--perhaps inadvertently--very close to Gerd Althoff's notion of Spielregeln. Hasty's interests greatly overlap with Althoff's in regard of how the 'unwritten rules' of politics in the High Middle Ages informed the protagonists' actions in vernacular literature, and how the early and high medieval appropriation and hijacking of symbols and rituals from the ecclesiastical domain could become fundamental trendsetters in the secular public sphere. [1] However, it is clear after reading of The Medieval Risk-Reward Society that Hasty brings a great deal of new and very instructive approaches and themes to the table. The author cunningly explores concrete structural affinities discussed by the chivalric authors between the different modes of courtly self-investment and similar cultural moves available in other social domains. The examples run from metaphorical parallels between courtly love and political service, or between engagement in adventurous activity and mercantile moneylending or high-risk gambling. In his tracing of these structural affinities, Hasty nicely demonstrates both the context-specific and the general ideational preconditions for how conversion of capital could occur between different cultural domains. Similarly, by churning out the competitive elements of chivalric poetic performance and their synchronic and diachronic discussions and comparisons--vis-à-vis their recent and contemporary peers as well as ancient predecessors--Hays excellently exemplifies the pre-modern mechanics of creation and reproduction of publics by means of supposing, postulating, and responding to discourse. [2]

It is not always clear what target readership Hasty and his publisher aim at with this book. Some passages, like the discussion of the Investiturstreit, Gang nach Canossa, or the persuasive but sketchy analyses of The Illiad and The Aeneid, may strike an initiated scholar as somewhat cursory, even if mandatory given the general concept of the book. Other parts (chapters 1 and 7) may require some acquaintance with the history of ideas and modern philosophy, although Hasty is keen to introduce these problems with necessary lucidity. What The Medieval Risk-Reward Society above all offers are useful analytical distinctions and ways of reading chivalric literature in the general structure of cultural competition informed by stakes, odds, wagers, and uncertain profits oriented towards the material, temporal, and mutable cultural resources. This consistently applied risk-reward approach is not only commendable and suggestive but seems also to be potentially transposable to other medieval genres, such as historiography or hagiography. There is much in this book that will be of interest to students of courtly literature in general, scholars engaged in medieval translation studies, literary criticism, and those studying medieval and post-medieval conceptions of selfhood.



1. Gerd Althoff, "Spielen die Dichter mit den Spielregeln der Gesellschaft?," in Mittelalterliche Literatur und Kunst im Spannungsfeld von Hof und Kloster, Ergebnisse der Berliner Tagung, 9.-11. Oktober 1997, eds. Nigel F. Palmer, Hans-Jochen Schiewer (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1999), 53-72; Gerd Althoff, "The Rules of Conflict Among the Warrior Aristocracy of the High Middle Ages," in Disputing Strategies in Medieval Scandinavia, eds. Kim Esmark et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 313–-332.

2. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (Zone Books: New York, 2005), 90.

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