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21.03.16 Kjær, The Medieval Gift and the Classical Tradition

The Medieval Review

21.03.16 Kjær, The Medieval Gift and the Classical Tradition


As the short introductory chapter to this book points out, Georges Duby, Aaron Gurevich, and other medievalists have tended to reproduce a Maussian view of gift exchange in which the roots of medieval gift giving could be traced back to the rules of reciprocity thought to be at the heart of Germanic or "folk" culture. The central argument of Lars Kjær's book, in contrast, credits the enduring influence of classical literature and philosophy in shaping medieval ideas about gifts, particularly Cicero's De officiis and Seneca the Younger's De beneficiis. Drawing on Latin and vernacular florilegia, didactic texts, saints' lives, chronicles, and romances, the focus of Kjær's book is twelfth and thirteenth-century ideas about what constituted a good or a bad gift. Although Kjær seeks to ground these ideas about gift giving within the context of practices and rituals in courtly circles in twelfth and thirteenth-century England, the book is principally concerned with the ethics of giving and receiving as reflected in classical and medieval texts.

In chapter 2, Kjær turns to the question of how the gift was treated in classical literature. Cicero and Seneca viewed generosity and giving as central features of virtue, a means for translating ethical principles into practice. In addition to describing the ideal forms of giving (giving freely, without delay, and discreetly), these Roman authors also wrote about less than ideal forms of giving, including gifts that were instrumental, made to elicit praise, humiliate others, or entrap the receiver. Classical authors showed a great deal of anxiety about the potential for gifts to corrupt. Although some late antique Christian polemicists, like Lactantius, argued that only Christian giving aspired to be pure and non-reciprocal, Kjær underscores just how much the Bible and classical philosophy shared in emphasizing the centrality of intention in giving and in condemning selfish materialism. Early Christian writers sought to appropriate many of the ideas of Cicero and Seneca about giving, as demonstrated by Ambrose's De officiis, which sought to supplant Cicero's work of the same name. Yet the bishop's views on giving also represented a notable departure from Cicero by emphasizing charitable giving to the poor and grounding his arguments with quotations from Scripture.

As Kjær shows in his next chapter, the moral advice on gift giving in Seneca's De beneficiis (as well as a group of pseudo-Seneca works) proved to be of great interest both in monastic and princely circles during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This can be seen not only in the marginal notations that medieval readers made in copies of these texts, but also in the abbreviations and adaptations of Seneca's practical moral lessons, particularly in the florilegia (mostly composed in Latin, but increasingly, during the thirteenth century, appearing in French translation) that made Seneca's views on generosity accessible to a Christian audience. In this regard, Kjær draws an intriguing connection between the Florilegium angelicum and Henry I "the Liberal," the count of Champagne who was known for his generous patronage of religious institutions. This text was most likely composed by the count's chaplain, Nicholas of Montiéramey, and among the eloquent sayings it included were Seneca's practical advice on giving, including the dangers of prodigality.

Chapter 4, "Writing Generosity," explores how classical ideals about gifts were incorporated into Latin didactic texts, saints' lives, and chronicles. The chapter uses John of Salisbury, William of Malmesbury, and Matthew Paris as case studies. The courtier-clerk, John of Salisbury, showed an intimate familiarity with classical writings on gift giving. In his own writings about political life, he explored the variables that determined, as he put it, "whether gifts (munera) are splendid or sordid," such as "who gave them and why and, sometimes, upon the timing, the location or the manner in which they were given" (68). With his deep classical learning, William of Malmesbury wrote about the histories of the kings and bishops of England and devoted much attention to the role of gifts, arguing that historically, materialism and prodigality often led to disastrous kingships (or episcopates), whereas discerning generosity toward others and austerity with oneself were the true marks of virtue. Meanwhile, the Benedictine monk and chronicler, Matthew Paris, was biting in his criticism of the materialism of King Henry III's court, comparing it (using a classical analogy) to a prostitute hired out for gain. For Matthew, good kings were incorruptible; they could not be won over by gifts; when they did receive gifts, they focused on what inspired the gift, not its material value. According to Kjær, all three authors viewed gifts "not just as neutral instruments for political and social control but as potent indicators of vice and virtue" (96).

The complex figure of Thomas Becket is the focus of chapter 5, "Sanctifying Generosity." Kjær gives examples of some of the competing images of Becket that emerged during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in terms of the vexing issue of gifts. Had the archbishop been an indulgent materialist, guilty of excessive worldly largesse? Or was he someone whose spiritual virtue had been reflected in his charity and indifference to worldly things? Drawing on various classical models, Becket's defenders and hagiographers focused on his motivations and internal disposition in giving and receiving gifts, his good judgment in who he was willing to receive gifts from, and his own moderation with regard to his material needs. Herbert of Bosham, for example, "rescued Becket's worldly largesse from condemnation by focusing on the way Becket inwardly related to the riches that surrounded him" (114). In John of Salisbury's portrayal, meanwhile, Becket carried "all the attributes of a Christianised Stoic philosopher able to use the world but without being of it" (109). In short, hagiographers reframed Becket's "worldly generosity as evidence of his spiritual virtue," thereby making the case for the compatibility of wealth, generosity, and piety (101).

Chapter 6 considers the ethics of largesse as depicted in medieval vernacular romance literature. Here too, Kjær's principal interest is in establishing the classical roots for medieval ideas about generosity, in this case, the role of largesse as a chivalric virtue. Some medieval romances, such as the Roman de Thèbes, Roman d'Enéas, and Roman de Troie, were reworked stories from antiquity in which the "classical dialectic between good and bad generosity" was a central theme. (131). The ideal of largesse among the medieval aristocracy, as reflected in romances and vernacular didactic literature, highlighted the importance of the giver's intention, the danger of becoming overly attached to material gifts, and the ideal of giving without hope for future reward. Although there are again parallels here with classical texts, Kjær acknowledges that classical texts were rarely direct sources for the authors of medieval romances. In fact, ideas about generosity found in medieval lay aristocratic literature are quite distinct. The notion, for example, that generosity is tied to one's lineage and can be proof of one's nobility stood in tension with the classical idea that largesse is a learned virtue and the product of a moral education. The mutual obligations inherent in lordship, including the idea that one could purchase loyalty, were also at odds with the notion of the ideal gift being free, selfless, and pure. In that sense, Kjær demonstrates the degree to which classical ideals were transformed in romance literature.

A final chapter, "Performing Generosity," examines medieval ideas about generosity and how those ideas might have influenced practices. The advice given to medieval princes and kings about the giving and receiving of gifts reveals how these practices were thought both to reveal a ruler's character and shape his rulership. As a mini-case study, Kjær examines the gift register recording the gifts received by King Henry III during the Christmas celebration of 1234-1235. Whereas in his introductory chapter Kjær appears sympathetic to Philippe Buc's view that descriptions of ritual should not, in Kjær's words, be read as "accounts of what actually happened, but pedagogic and political constructs" (8), Kjær quickly returns to reading texts as windows into social practices in his analysis of King Henry's gift register in this chapter. In Kjær's view, the king's register contains clues about practices at the royal court relating to the redistribution of gifts, the king's moderation in receiving gifts so as to avoid appearing greedy, and his eagerness to give swiftly. For Kjær, the royal gift register raises tantalizing questions about the access that the king and members of his court had to classical ideals about gift giving.

One of this book's virtues is in drawing much needed attention to parallels between classical and medieval ideas (and anxieties) about the giving and receiving of gifts. By narrowly focusing on the treatment of the gift in classical literature, however, Kjær tends to understate the significance of a long Christian tradition of reflecting on the multivalent forms and meanings of giving and receiving, generosity and hospitality, and materialism. Although Kjær includes a brief discussion of Ambrose, the book largely bypasses the rich biblical, early Christian, late antique, and early medieval approaches toward gifts, including earlier Christian adaptations of classical literature's treatment of the subject.

Also relatively absent from the book is a discussion of how the specific economic and religious context of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries might have shaped attitudes toward gifts. How did the shift from a traditional gift economy to a profit economy, for example, reshape understandings of gifts? By seeing classical ideas and texts as the central forces of influence on medieval gift-giving practices, the author also overlooks crucial contemporary developments relating to religious reform and the ideals of humility, voluntary poverty, and charity. Kjær seems to draw a distinction between charity and the types of gift giving and hospitality that are the focus of his book, but those distinctions are not always clear. Never mentioned in the book, for example, is what André Vauchez and others have termed the "charitable revolution" of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, marked by an outpouring of alms (which could take many forms) and charitable service to institutions and organizations, ranging from parishes, friaries, religious houses, military orders, bridge brotherhoods, and confraternities, to leprosaria, hospitals, and "tables for the poor."1 As Spencer E. Young has shown (in a book not cited by the author), theologians at the early University of Paris were working out a theology of almsgiving that probed the meaning of charity while also grappling with the mechanics of proper giving.2 These theologians' ideas about proper and improper almsgiving (the importance of intention, the value of giving without delay and without expectation of reward) very much align with the classical and medieval ideas about gifts discussed in this book, as do thirteenth-century sermons that addressed almsgiving and that sought to persuade listeners not only to be more charitable and generous, but to give in the right way.

Nonetheless, Lars Kjær has made a significant contribution to the existing scholarship on the emergence of a culture of gift giving during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by underscoring the extent to which medieval writers reflected on the complex meaning of gifts, the dangers they posed, and how to give well. Many of the medieval anxieties expressed about gift-giving, as Kjær shows, echoed points that had been articulated by classical philosophers and writers. Drawing on an impressive range of Latin and vernacular medieval sources, Kjær demonstrates both how relevant these classical ideas about generosity and gifts were to medieval authors and how eager those authors were to adapt and transform those ideas.

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Notes:

1. André Vauchez, La spiritualité du moyen âge occidental (VIIIe-XIIIe siècle), 2nd edn (Paris: Seuil, 1994), 118.

2. Spencer E. Young, "Laundering Money and Souls: Theologians and Almsgiving at the Early University," chapter 4 of Scholarly Community at the Early University of Paris: Theologians, Education and Society, 1215-1248 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 131-167.