- The Medieval Risk-Reward Society: Courts, Adventure, and Love in the European Middle Ages by Will Hasty
Will Hasty embeds his ambitious, important study of medieval Arthurian literature into an expansive interpretation of European cultural history based in game theory. He argues that from the twelfth century onward a new mode of cultural action emerged in Europe. In this new cultural dynamic of risk-taking, the resource of the self could be imagined, in literature, as being fully invested in seeking and competing for the secular rewards of courtly adventure and love. This ‘adventurous disposition of self’ (p. 123), which is open-ended, indeterminate, and speculative, represents a cultural innovation. It differs from older cultural dynamics that were static and valued sacrifice. The medieval dynamic of risk and reward sets a precedent for modernity, but it differs from modernity, too, because it is largely communal rather than individual; the reward pertains also to the group—in this case courtly culture—which benefits with joy. The Medieval Risk-Reward Society also participates in the scholarly trend to reconceptualize the relationship between the categories of the religious and the secular in the medieval world. Stepping away from viewing these categories as either opposed to one another, or as a strict hierarchy in which the religion dominates (or oppresses) the secular world, the book explores the complex imbrication of the religious and secular in the medieval past, which, it argues, can coexist in apparent contradiction with one another.
Although the bulk of The Medieval Risk-Reward Society (chapters three through six) focuses on medieval Arthurian romances in Old French and Middle High German, framed and contrasted with religious and historical texts, the opening and final chapters create a radically expanded chronological framework. Chapter One, ‘The Cultural Action’ lays out the book’s theoretical underpinnings in game theory and in the work of the German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas, which are illustrated with a readable, parable-like section, ‘The Race of Four Cities: Troy, Jericho, Rome, and Jerusalem.’ Chapter Two, ‘The Medieval Self as Bankroll,’ uses Augustine’s City of God to frame the new medieval move, offering as illustration lucid, compelling analyses of two of the most difficult episodes in medieval German literature: from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the immediate, full efficacy of Parzival’s half-brother Feirefiz’s baptism, which he undertakes for the sole purpose of winning a desirable woman; and Isolde’s ordeal as narrated in Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Isolde. These outcomes hold even when they defy, overturn, or neglect religious norms. Chapter Seven, ‘The Modern Self,’ closes the book with excurses [End Page 97] into the early modern period (Luther), the Enlightenment, the nineteenth century (Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), and twentieth-century philosophy (‘Emancipation, Totalitarianism, and the (Post)Modern Cultural Action’).
The shift to the high Middle Ages begins in earnest in Chapter Three, ‘Rules of the House,’ which lays out the role of competition in feudal politics by presenting historical accounts of various investitures interwoven with discussions of related literature (e.g. Walther von der Vogelweide). Chapter Four, ‘The Poetic Action,’ focuses on German and French medieval courts as arenas of competition in politics, tournaments, and poetry. For this reviewer the highlights of the book were Chapter Five, ‘Adventure as a Cultural Wager’—which presents the dynamics of adventure illustrated by Chrétien de Troyes’ Érec et Énide and Wolfram’s Parzival—and Chapter Six, ‘Love as a Cultural Wager,’ illustrated by Marie de France’s Lanval and Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Isolde. The literary examples illustrating the theoretical points in Chapters Four, Five, and Six are excellent; they engage central, difficult, and often contentious issues that go to the heart of each text.
The Medieval Risk-Reward Society is an argument-driven book. It sticks...