‘Love service’

The following account of ‘love service’ toward women during the Middle Ages is from the book Masculine Submission in Troubadour Lyric by Sandra R Alfonsi – PW.

The troubadours lived and functioned within a society based on feudalism. Certain ones were themselves feudal lords; others were liegemen dependent on such lords for their sustinence. The troubadours who were members of the clergy were also actively involved in this feudal society. It is only natural that their literature reflect some traits of the age in which it was created. Scholars soon saw striking parallels between feudalistic practices and certain tenets of Courtly Love. The comparisons lie in certain resemblances shared by vassalage and the courtly “love service.” Fundamental to both was the concept of obedience. As a vassal, the liegeman swore obedience to his lord. As a courtly lover, the poet chose a lady to whom he was required to swear obedience. Humility and obedience were two concepts familiar to medieval man, active components of his Weltanschauung. Critics, such as Erich Kohler, have found them exhibited in both the life and literature of that time.

The entire concept of love-service was patterned after the vassal’s oath to serve his lord with loyalty, tenacity, and courage. These same virtues were demanded of the poet. Like the liegeman vis-a-vis his sovereign, the poet approached his lady with fear and respect. Submitted to her, obedient to her will, he awaited a fief or honor as did the vassal. His compensation took many forms: the pleasure of his lady’s company in her chamber or in the garden; an avowal of her love; a secret meeting; a kiss or even le surplus, complete unity. Like the lord, the woman who was venerated and served was expected to reward her faithful and humble servant. Her failure to do so was considered a breach of “contract.” Most critics who support the theory that the courtly-love-service was formed by assimilation to the feudal service inherent in vassalage, credit Guillaume IX with its creation. However, the universality of these parallels cannot be doubted:

The posture of the true lover is so familiar that we have come to accept it as the hallmark. A seal attributed to Cononde Bethune represents it perfectly. This depicts in an oval cartouche, an armed knight on his knees before a lady. His body is shrouded in a mail hauberk. His head is completely concealed in his helmet. He wears spurs but no sword. The lady stands at arms length, chastely robed, her regular nonedescript features framed in long braids, presumably blonde, and between her outstretched palms the knight’s hands are placed in the formal gesture of homage. Within the cartouche, in the space above the helmet of the kneeling knight is inscribed a single word: MERCI. 1

The similarities between courtly service and vassalage are indeed striking. Although of a more refined character than an ordinary vassal, the poet-lover is portrayed as his lady’s liegeman, involved in the ceremony of homage and pictured at the moment of the immixtio manuum. His reward for faithful service will doubtlessly include the osculum.

The influence of feudalism upon courtly love was, in my opinion, twofold: it provided the poets with a well-organized system of service after which they might pattern their own; it furnished them with a highly developed vocabulary centered around the service owed by a vassal to a lord. Feudalistic vocabulary was comprised of certain basic terminology indicative of the ties which legally bound a man to his lord in times of peace and war.

1. Servitium
In Merovingian Gaul the position of the feudal lord was expressed by the verb suscipere ‘to take into one’s charge,’ while the verb commandare ‘to put oneself in the charge of’ represented the role of the vassal. The obligations accepted by the latter formed the servitium ‘service.’ This term, used in Classical Latin to denote slavery, had begun to lose this connotation by the fourth century, and during the Middle Ages, and had come to mean the duties of a freeman vis a vis a feudal lord.

2. Dominus
The Latin term dominus was used to denote the feudal lord served by the vassal.

3. Homo
h2_ufarm_1From the beginning of the ninth century, suus homo ‘his man’ became the expression by which the position and duties of the vassal were expressed. During the eleventh century, the expression homo ligius ‘liegemen’ became popular.

4. Homage
The original terms used to denote homage were vassaticum and vassalaticum. Since the old French vasselage did not carry the meaning of homage due to the feudal lord, variations on the Latin hominum appeared in the eleventh century: hominagium, hominiaticum, homagium. The word hommage became popular during the twelfth century, denoting servitium homini, the honorable service due to the lord.

5. Legalitas
The term loyaute ‘loyalty’ was used to define the bond between vassal and lord.

6. Honor
The term onor was used to designate any compensation received by the vassal in return for his services. The concept of tenure tenire was attched to this idea. During the classical age tenire meant to occupy or possess; during the feudal age, it acquired as well the meaning of a rapport between former proprietor and the person now possessing the land through certain services rendered to the former. This relationship was expressed with the verb retenir ‘to retain,’ implying the retention of the vassal by the lord in return for his services. *

It was only natural that such terms, as well as their variants, should appear within the poetic love service created by the troubadours. Feudal vocabulary provided for all aspects surrounding the love service; it was well known and popularly understood. Its usage carried with it all the connotations inherent in the concept, without necessitating further explications by the poet. An extensive examination of the poetic love-service , its vocabulary and stylistic traits, is to be found in the second part of this work. It is questionable whether feudalism may be considered as the primary source for either the poetic love-service or the theme of masculine submission. The very essence of both rests in the elevation and adoration of the woman chosen by the poet. Feudalism, with its bellicose concerns and masculine point of view, could not have instilled the Cult of Woman in these poets. Even the elevated social position held by women in Southern France and her presence as the “mistress of the manor” during the absence of her husband cannot explain the origin of this cult. It cannot be denied that much of this poetry was written to please the women who provided the troubadours with a means of sustenance by engaging them to entertain them in their chateaux. But such external social realities do not explain the origins of the internal revolution which culminated in poetic worship of woman.

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Reference:

[1] Maurice Valency, In Praise of Love, Macmillan Co. 1958

Note:

*This configuration of unequal power is the central feature of the poet-lover’s positioning of himself with regard to the love object. Drawing on the stratification and class-consciousness of medieval society, the canso describes primarily in terms of social hierarchy the woman’s psycho-sexual power to determine the outcome of the relationship. Thus the troubadour’s lady is regularly portrayed in terms denoting aristocracy, such as ‘‘noble’’ rica, franca or ‘‘high born’’ de bon aire, de aut paratge, whereas the poet stresses his own subordination, describing himself as ‘‘humble’’ umil, umelian, ‘‘submissive’’ aclin, and ‘‘obedient’’ obedien. The culmination of this tendency is one of the most pervasive images of troubadour poetry, the ‘‘feudal metaphor,’’ which compares the relationship of the lover and his lady to that which obtains between a vassal and his lord. The poet-lover presents himself to his lady in an attitude of feudal homage omenatge, ‘‘kneeling’’ a/degenolhos with ‘‘hands clasped’’ mans jonchas. He declares himself to be his lady’s ‘‘man’’ ome or ‘‘liege man’’ ome lige and refers to the lady as his ‘‘lord’’ senhor, midons. He asks her to ‘‘retain’’ retener him as her ‘‘servant’’ ser, servidor or to take him into her ‘‘service’’ servizi. According to a military variant of the feudal metaphor, the lover ‘‘surrenders’’ se rendre to the lady, declaring himself ‘‘vanquished’’ vencut or ‘‘conquered’’ conques, and asks for her ‘‘mercy’’ merce. [Note excerpted from ‘Why is la Belle Dame sans Merci?’ by Don A. Monson]

Gynocentrism in Victorian women’s literature

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The following mentions of gynocentric themes in Victorian literature are excerpted from the book Male Masochism by Carol Siegal 1. Notice the thematic continuity of this literature with the earlier sexual-relations contract first invented in Medieval Europe:

“A great deal of what [Victorian] women’s literary works had to say about gender relations may have been as disquieting as feminist political manifestos, and ironically so, in that the novels seem most anti-male in the very places where they most affirm a traditionally male vision of love. While women’s lyric poetry tended to reverse the conventional gender roles in love by representing the female speaker as the lover instead of the object of love, women’s fiction most frequently reproduced the images, so common in prior texts by men, of the self-abasing male lover and his exacting mistress. For example, in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff declares himself Cathy’s slave; in Jane Eyre, Rochester’s desire for Jane is first inspired and then intensified by his physically dependent position; in Middlemarch, Will Ladislaw silently vows that Dorothea will always have him as her slave, his only claim to her love lies in how much he has suffered for her. In several Victorian novels by women, men must undego quasi-ritualized humiliation or punishment before being judged deserving of their lady’s attention. For instance, in Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm, the fair Lyndall condescends to treat her admirers tenderly after one has been horsewhipped and the other has dressed himself in women’s clothes to wait on her. Although Victorian women’s novels do explore the emotional insecurities of the heroines, their apparent self-possession is also stressed, in marked contrast to their lovers’ displays of agony, desperation, and wounds.”

The author goes on to say that male masochism and the dominatrix-like behavior of women in much literature is continuous with courtly love literature from the Middle Ages. And whilst some libertines self-consciously chose their lowly position in relation to women, the men described in Victorian women’s novels lacked such volition and were helplessly controlled by the power of love and beauty:

“These texts also insist that the true measure of male love is lack of volition. While the heroines make choices that define them morally, the heroes are helplessly compelled by love, and not judged to love unless they are helpless. In this respect Victorian women’s fiction recovers the ethos so often expressed in medieval courtly romance that love must be “suffered as a destiny to be submitted to and not denied.” It also departs from the conventions of medieval romance in describing the helpless submission to love as an attribute of true manliness, and thus Victorian women’s fiction directly attacks the degeneration of chivalry into the self-conscious and controlled “gallantry” of eighteenth century libertines.”

Source:

[1] Carol Siegal, Male Masochism, Indiana University Press, 1995 (pp. 12-13)

Forget the ring

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Modern marriage evolved from a historical ritual designed to indenture slaves to masters, though most people have forgotten this history. However, many of the behaviors and rituals central to this history can still be discerned in modern marriage.

It’s thought that the practice of exchanging wedding rings extends far back into ancient history, with evidence of the ritual being found in Ancient Egypt, Rome, and within several religious cultures. However our modern-day practice of giving wedding rings has a very different origin and meaning, one which may make you, well, cringe a little. As suggested on the Society of Phineas blog, the ring functions as a feudalistic contract between the man and his wife:

“The ring functions as a proof of ability in the supplicant vassal’s pledge to the wife. This is true given the traditional expectation of the amount of resources to be expended in purchasing the ring along with providing for the wedding day. In this gynocentric environment, it’s total sacrilege to not present a woman with her One Ring or to present one that is substandard to her or her friends. She uses her One Ring as a social proof of her status around Team Woman (it’s a competition much like Valentine’s Day gifts), as she will not hesitate to show it off as much as possible when she first gets it if it meets with her approval.” 1

This contention finds support from medievalist scholars who show the origin of our ring-exchanging ritual is found in early literary sources and in artistic depictions of the Middle Ages. H.J. Chaytor, for instance wrote “The lover was formally installed as such by the lady, took an oath of fidelity to her and received a kiss to seal it, a ring or some other personal possession.” Professor Joan Kelly gives us a tidy summary of the practice:

“A kiss (like the kiss of homage) sealed the pledge, rings were exchanged, and the knight entered the love service of his lady. Representing love along the lines of vassalage had several liberating implications for aristocratic women. Most fundamental, ideas of homage and mutuality entered the notion of heterosexual relations along with the idea of freedom. As symbolized on shields and other illustrations that place the knight in the ritual attitude of commendation, kneeling before his lady with his hands folded between hers, homage signified male service, not domination or subordination of the lady, and it signified fidelity, constancy in that service.” 2

155190-425x282-iStock_000018156233XSmallLike the description given by Kelly, men continue to go down on one knee and are quick to demonstrate humility by claiming the wedding is “her day”, betraying the origin and conception of marriage as more feudalistic in its structure than Christian. With gestures like these it’s clear that modern marriage is based on the earlier feudalistic ritual known as a ‘commendation ceremony’ whereby a bond between a lord and his fighting man (ie. his vassal) was created. The commendation ceremony is composed of two elements, one to perform the act of homage and the other an oath of fealty. For the Oath of fealty ceremony the vassal would place his hands on a Bible (as is still practiced) and swear he would never injure his overlord in any way and would remain faithful. Once the vassal had sworn the oath of fealty, the lord and vassal had a feudal relationship.

Because this archaic contract remains current in contemporary marriages, we might also question our typical concepts of obeyance between a husband and wife. In older Christian ceremonies the women sometimes vowed to love, cherish and “obey” her husband. However, because framed within a feudalistic-style relationship the woman’s obeyance was strongly offset and perhaps overturned whereby in practice she tended to be the dominant power-holder in relation to the man. In the latter case the wife as more powerful figure is merely obeying -if she is obeying anything at all- her responsibilities as a kindly overlord to her husband. Notice here that we have switched from the notion of a benevolent patriarchy to a kindly gynocentrism which feminists like to promote as loving, nurturing, peace-loving and egalitarian.

Love service

The Medieval model of service to a feudal lord was transferred wholesale into relationships as “love service” of men toward ladies. Such service is the hallmark of romantic love and is characterized by men’s deference to a woman who is viewed as a moral superior. During this period women were often referred to by men as domnia (dominant rank), midons (my lord), and later dame (honored authority) which terms each draw their root from the Latin dominus meaning “master,” or “owner,” particularly of slaves. Medieval language expert Peter Makin confirms that the men who used these terms must have been aware of what they were saying:

“William IX calls his lady midons, which I have translated as ‘my Lord’… These men knew their Latin and must have been aware of its origins and peculiarity; in fact it was clearly their collective emotions and expectations that drew what amounts to a metaphor from the area of lordship, just as it is the collective metaphor-making process that establishes ‘baby’ as a term for a girlfriend and that creates and transforms language constantly. In the same way, knowing that Dominus was the standard term for God, and that don, ‘lord’, was also used for God, they must also have felt some connection with religious adoration. 3

Recapitulation

Let’s recapitulate the practices associated with the ring-giving ritual of marriage:

1. Genuflection: man goes down on one knee to propose
2. Commendation token: rings exchanged
3. Vassal’s kiss: reenacted during the ceremony
4. Homage and fealty: implicit in marriage vows
5. Subservience: “It’s her special day”
6. Service: man prepares to work for wife for his whole life
7. Disposability: “I would die for you”.

Is it any wonder that women are so eager to get married and that men are rejecting marriage in droves? The feudalistic model reveals exactly what men are buying into via that little golden band – a life commitment to a woman culturally primed to act as our overlord. As more men become aware of this travesty they will choose to reject it, and for those still considering marriage I encourage you to read this article a second time; your ability to keep or lose your freedom depends upon it.

[1] Website: Society of Phineas
[2] Joan Kelly, Women, History, and Theory, University of Chicago Press, 1986
[3] Peter Makin, Provence and Pound, University of California Press, 1978

The other Beauty Myth

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In 1991 Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth where she claimed women are oppressed by cultural pressure to be beautiful. What she failed to tell us is where this habit originated, and how it is essentially used to gain power over the male sex.

In human beings, various compulsions and desires come into conflict with one another, each jostling for momentary supremacy where one imperative will usurp the claims of another. That game has reached a problematical impasse during the last 800 years because, during that relatively short time span, human culture has thrown its patronage into developing, intensifying and enforcing sexual gamesmanship to the degree that our sexual compulsions appear pumped up on steroids and taken to extremes never before seen in human society (myths about widespread Roman orgies notwithstanding). The obsession with female beauty forms a significant part of the problem.

If we lived back in Ancient Greece, Rome or anywhere else we would view sexual intercourse as little more than a bodily function akin to eating, defecating and sleeping – a basic bodily function without the hype. After the Middle Ages, however, it developed into a commodity to pimp and trade, and the new cult of sexualized romance that arose from it resulted in a frustration of our more basic attachment needs – a frustration aided and abetted by social institutions placing sexual manipulation at the center of human interactions. This development entrenched a new belief that beauty was the native possession of women, and only women, and conversely that the desire to possess beauty was the lot of males alone, thus creating a division between the sexes that remains in place today.

Compare this division with the beliefs of older cultures – India, Rome, Greece etc – and we see a stark contrast, with classical cultures equally apportioning beauty to males and sexual desire to females. In ancient Greece for example males used to grow their hair long and comb it adoringly, rub olive oil on their skin and pay devoted attention to attire -the colors of the toga, the materials it was woven from, the way it was draped on the body- and there is perhaps no modern culture on earth where male beauty is more marvelously celebrated in the arts than it was in Greece.

Another example comes from the Biblical Song of Solomon, in which the appreciation of beauty and associated longing flows both ways between the man and women, whereas in romantic love beauty is ascribed only to the female, and desire only to the male – the roles are radically split. Moreover, in the Song of Songs there is no hint of the gynocentric arrangement; no appearance of man as a vassal towards women who are both Lord and deity. For the lovers in Song of Songs there already exists a God and so there is no worshipping of the woman as a quasi divinity who can redeem the man’s pathetic existence – as in “romantic” love.

According to Robert Solomon, romantic love required a dramatic change in the self-conception of women. He recounts;

They too were freed from an identity that depended wholly on their social roles, that is, their blood and legal ties with men, as daughters, wives and mothers. It is in this period in Christian history that looks become of primary importance, that being beautiful now counts for possibly everything, not just an attractive feature in a daughter or wife (which probably counted very little anyway) but as itself a mark of character, style, personality. Good grooming, as opposed to propriety, came to define the individual woman, and her worth, no longer dependent on the social roles and positions of her father, husband or children, now turned on her looks. The premium was placed on youth and beauty, and though some women even then may have condemned this emphasis as unjust, it at least formed the first breach with a society that, hitherto, had left little room for personal initiative or individual advancement. The prototype of the Playboy playmate, we might say, was already established eight hundred years ago, and did not require, as some people have argued recently, Hugh Hefner’s slick centerfolds to make youth, beauty and a certain practiced vacuity into a highly esteemed personal virtue. The problem is why we still find it difficult to move beyond this without, like some Platonists, distaining beauty altogether – the opposite error. [1]

Modesta Pozzo penned a book in the 1500’s entitled The Worth of Women: their Nobility and Superiority to Men. The work purportedly records a conversation among seven Venetian noblewomen that explores nearly every aspect of women’s experience. One of the topics explored is women’s use of cosmetics and clothing to enhance beauty, including mention of hair tinting for which there is twenty-six different recipes. The following is the voice of Cornelia who explains that men’s sexual desire of women (and women’s control of that process via beauty) is the only reason men can love:

“Thinking about it straight, what more worthy and what lovelier subject can one find than the beauty, grace and virtues of women?… I’d say that a perfectly composed outer corporeal form is something most worthy of our esteem, for it is this visible outer form that is the first to present itself to our eye and our understanding: we see it and instantly love and desire it, prompted by an instinct embedded in us by nature. “It’s not because men love us that they go in for all these displays of love and undying devotion, rather, it’s because they desire us. So that in this case love is the offspring, desire the parent, or, in other words, love is the effect and desire the cause. And since taking away the cause means taking away the effect, that means that men love us for just as long as they desire us and once desire, which is the cause of their vain love, has died in them (either because they have got what they wanted or because they have realized that they are not going to be able to get it), the love that is the effect of that cause dies at exactly the same time.” [written 1592]

Cavalier 1964What I find interesting is that since the Middle Ages, as evidenced in Cornelia’s words, we have collectively conflated male love with sexual desire as if they are inseparable, and to women’s ability to control that male “love” through a skillful cultivation of beauty. One might be forgiven for refusing to believe this is love at all, that it is instead the creation of an intense desire for sexual pleasure due to the call of beauty. Observation shows that sex-generated “love” does not necessarily lead to compatibility for partners across a broad range of interests, and may occur between people who are, aside from sexual attraction, totally incompatible, with little in common, which is why the relationship often goes so badly when there occur gaps in the sexual game.

This raises the alternative notion of love based on compatibility, on what we might term ‘friendship-love’ which is not based solely on sexual desire – in fact sexual desire is not even essential to it though often present. Friendship love is about interests the partners share in common, a meeting of compatible souls and a getting to know each other on a level playing field. However aiming for friendship-love means women are no longer required to pull the strings of sexual desire as is practiced with beauty-based allure, which ultimately frees men and women to meet as equals in power and, with luck, find much in common to sustain a durable relationship.

Nancy Friday

[1] Robert Solomon, Love: Emotion, Myth, Metaphor, 1990 (p.62)
[2] Modesta Pozzo, The Worth of Women: their Nobility and Superiority to Men, 2007
[3] Nancy Friday, The Power of Beauty, 1997