Medieval Dishonesty

Richard Nokes wonders about medieval honesty:

“I’ve started thinking about… medieval texts, and I’m having trouble thinking of ones in which honesty is portrayed as an important virtue. Sagas are basically out as an entire genre, given the praise of trickiness of the heroes. Patient Griselda’s husband may be the Christ figure, but he’s also a terrible liar, as are many other of Boccaccio’s characters. Unless I’m forgetting something, I can’t think of a single Canterbury Tale in which honesty is a virtue. I assume that somewhere in saints lives are those praised for their honesty, but all I can think of is Judith.

I’m not trying to suggest that honesty was not a medieval virtue, but I suspect that it was not a particularly important virtue. Loyalty, fidelity, piety, chastity … these seem to be the prime virtues of the literature. Liars are punished in the Inferno, but nothing like traitors are.”

Nokes is right, and the reason is because western medievalism was heavily shame-based by post-Reformationist standards. Doctrinal examples abound: Anselm’s satisfaction model of Christ’s death (emphasizing atonement to restore God’s honor) contrasts with the later Protestant penal substitution model (advocating atonement for the sake of justice). And naturally, the more “honor-shame” your outlook, the more lies and deceptions become acceptable.

When we say that honesty is a western virtue, it needs to be qualified with the cliche that everything is relative. Medieval Europe may have valued honesty more than places like the Mediterranean did, but to later Protestants — and certainly to today’s secularists — they seem pretty, well, “medieval” indeed.

(Hat-tip: Stephen Carlson for the reference.)


5 thoughts on “Medieval Dishonesty

  1. You probably didn’t bother reading < HREF="" REL="nofollow">here<>, Stevie. The question is what the <>socially acceptable<> forms of lying are. In shame-based societies there are many.

  2. There is the famous passage in Romans ‘Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?”‘Because in an honour-shame society , it is a sin to lie, even if it enhances the honour of people regarded as due the greatest of honour.

  3. “It was socially acceptable to break the commandments?”It wasn’t considered a breach of the commandments.It is probably not an accident that the commandment does not simply say “do not lie,” but rather do not bear false witness against a neighbor, which offers more wiggle room.

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