This article is the first of a two-part series looking at the roots of damseling, chivalry and courtly love as fundamentals in the gynocentric tradition. Part two will look at damseling, chivalry and courtly love as it appears in contemporary feminism. – PW
The dominant features of gender relations today come from old Europe in the forms of damseling, chivalry and courtly-love. Together they form the customs, in fact the essence, of modern gynocentric culture.
This holy trinity was crafted into a system of deportment by 12th century French and German aristocrats, setting a trend that spread to all the aristocratic courts of Europe. From those lofty parlors it filtered into popular culture, being transported eventually to the new world on the wings of colonial expansion.
The principle modes of transmission were expositions from upper class men and women; troubadour performances; plays; and notably a new genre of literature referred to as romance literature in which knights were celebrated for saving damsels in distress, and male lovers endured tortuous and trial-ridden tests in an attempt to secure a love bond with a beloved lady.
Nine hundred years later and romance novels remain the largest selling literature genre in the world, and we equally see the obsession with damseling and chivalry which dominate our politics, our societies, and our conversations over the dinner table.
In what follows, each of these gynocentric pillars and their historical roots will be summarized, along with references to the biological imperatives that give them their internal drive. Lastly (in part 2) an argument will be made that feminism today is nothing more, and nothing less, than a perpetuation of this medieval triad.
Let’s take a closer look at these three elements.
An excellent overview of damseling and its history was posted on Reddit in 2014 by author LemonMcAlister:
We hear a lot about the “Damsel in Distress” trope and how it is both uncreative and damaging to women as a whole. The idea that a woman needs to be rescued by a valiant hero is held up as a sexist concept created by men who view women merely as a prize to be won.
Would you be surprised if I told you this trope actually has a heavily feminist origin?
In order to explain this, we’ll need to go back in time about 1,000 years. In Medieval Europe, this was a time of rampant violence and wars with no other goal than material gain. Even long before the First Crusade, popular fiction took the form of heroic songs and epic poems much like Beowulf. They were sung in great halls and appealed mainly to a very masculine audience.
One thing many people are surprised to hear is that early legends and stories of King Arthur are exceedingly violent, gory, and action packed. Knights routinely have their head split to the shoulders, warriors are killed on almost every page, and there is even a giant who has his testicles sliced off in a fight.
The common understanding of Arthurian legend, however, is one of chivalry and courtly love. Knights fight for their ladies and for God. Love and romance is considered by most people to be a major part of the Arthurian stories.
The truth, however, is that this emphasis on love and romance, the idea that knights would fight to rescue a lady from a villain, is a later addition and was promoted by someone who can undeniably be called a feminist.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, born somewhere around 1123, was, as Wikipedia calls her, “one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in western Europe during the High Middle Ages”. She is well known for doing many “unlady-like” things such as taking up the cross for the second crusade, recruiting women from her court to accompany her, and personally leading her own army as a feudal lord.
What’s important here is that she is also responsible for the major and dramatic shift in the themes of popular fiction. Chrétien de Troyes, a poet of the late 12th century, is probably the most well-known writer dealing with this new type of Arthurian story. Some of these stories, in fact, were written for Eleanor’s daughter, Marie de Champagne.
Emphasis was no longer placed on Arthur nor did these stories focus on a thoroughly manly knight’s ability to split skulls. Arthur himself is used as a bit of a background decoration and is essentially a kindly old king that rules over his kingdom but doesn’t take much of an active part in the stories.
The focus of the stories was on love, romance, and the concept that chivalry should emphasize a knight’s utter devotion to his lady. Women also became more powerful. Far from being a prize to be won, they often helped their knights in one very important way or another.
In these stories, which are vastly different from earlier popular fiction, the love of a lady was the highest prize a knight could win, short of divine favor.
As society continued to change and we emerged from the dark ages, the stories remained immensely popular. There was no longer a need for savage and brutal warriors who could slaughter legions of people. Society’s focus was on cultural ideals such as courtly love, romance, and the chivalric service of ladies.
My point here is that the original Arthurian stories, and essentially all popular fiction of the time, treated women as nothing more than a means to social, economic, and political advancement. The stories hardly ever included women and those that were present never played a significant role in the narrative.
It wasn’t until Eleanor’s reign, and the influence she had on popular fiction, that we see the development of the “Damsel in Distress” trope. This trope, however, was created because it appealed to women. It was an effort to include women in the enjoyment of popular fiction and marked a major change in society’s values.
No longer were women merely an object, they were the entire motivation. No longer were they seen as merely a means to an end, they were the very focus of the story itself.
The “Damsel in Distress” trope is far from a misogynistic effort to treat women as prizes and is actually a result of the increased power and influence women were gaining during Eleanor’s reign. It has continued to remain a popular story telling device because it appeals to both sexes by presenting an idealized view, both of society and what a hero’s motivation should be.
The hero rescues the woman, placing himself in mortal danger, for love and love alone. Had we remained with the male dominated form of story-telling, the hero would rescue the damsel because marrying her would allow him to muster a larger army with which he could violently murder his chosen enemies. The woman’s desire to be married to the hero would not factor into the equation at all.
Damsels are in distress because there is an extremely high value placed on them and they are, in many ways, the entire motivation for the hero and the story itself. The hero rescues the damsel because he is motivated by love, not by a desire to possess a prize.
The trials he goes through are tests not of his strength and masculinity but of his overpowering love for the damsel.
The damsel is, in other words, far more important than the hero.
As indicated in that summary, the chief goal of damseling is to evoke chivalric behaviors in men. The biological drive underpinning it is our urge to protect and provide for children, behavior which is triggered by juvenile characteristics such as a rounded forehead, large eyes, and most importantly helplessness.
As elaborated in a previous article, women have been taught from generation to generation to mimic juvenile characteristics via the use of makeup and vocal tonations, along with a feigning of distress typical of children — which collectively works to extract utility from men. While women are capable of solving most of their own problems and providing for their own needs and wants, many have cultivated a posture of helplessness, damseling their way out of doing the dirty, dangerous or stressful work required to achieve those goals.
Why exert yourself when men can be manipulated to do it for you?
Different definitions have been attached to the word chivalry throughout history. To make matters more confusing, encyclopedic overviews tend to blend those different meanings into an ungainly synthesis, making the job of teasing out distinctive meanings more difficult.
While there are differing definitions, the most common use of the term today is the one we need to describe. That job is made easy by modern dictionaries in which chivalry is given two separate and radically different definitions – a contemporary definition and an archaic, largely obsolete one:
► 1. very polite, honorable, and generous behaviour, especially by men towards women
► 2. the system of behaviour followed by knights in the medieval period of history, that put a high value on honour, knightly skill, and martial valor.1
The first is the definition we are concerned with here. To be sure, chivalry has been a woman-centered enterprise for close to a millennium, and early accounts such as that by Walter Scott in the year 1818 render the meaning clear:
“The main ingredient in the spirit of Chivalry, second in force only to the religious zeal of its professors, and frequently predominating over it, was a devotion to the female sex, and particularly to her whom each knight selected as the chief object of his affection, of a nature so extravagant and unbounded as to approach to a sort of idolatry.
“Amid the various duties of knighthood, that of protecting the female sex, respecting their persons, and redressing their wrongs, becoming the champion of their cause, and the chastiser of those by whom they were injured, was represented as one of the principal objects of the institution. Their oath bound the new-made knights to defend the cause of all women without exception ; and the most pressing way of conjuring them to grant a boon was to implore it in the name of God and the ladies. The cause of a distressed lady was, in many instances, preferable to that even of the country to which the knight belonged.
“The defence of the female sex in general, the regard due to their honour, the subservience paid to their commands, the reverent awe and courtesy, which, in their presence, forbear all unseemly words and actions, were so blended with the institution of Chivalry as to form its very essence. But it was not enough that the “very perfect, gentle knight,” should reverence the fair sex in general. It was essential to his character that he should select, as his proper choice, “a lady and a love,” to be the polar star of his thoughts, the mistress of his affections, and the directress of his actions. In her service, he was to observe the duties of loyalty, faith, secrecy, and reverence. Without such an empress of his heart, a knight, in the phrase of the times, was a ship without a rudder, a horse without a bridle, a sword without a hilt ; a being, in short, devoid of that ruling guidance and intelligence, which ought to inspire his bravery, and direct his actions.
Note the references to protecting the female sex and of redressing their wrongs as hallmarks of chivalry, with men going even so far as to believe the cause of a distressed lady is preferable to that of the nation to which he belonged.
But that protection, provision and adoration is only one half the story — the other half being fulfilled by the damsel in distress. The damsel represents the vulnerable and needy child who pulls on parental heartstrings, behavior provoking the parental brain state referred to by neurobiologists. Chivalry is shorthand for the parental brain state by which men are moved to protect, provide for and adore an adult disguised as a child.
Courtly love, which was later called romantic love, is the program of cultivating deference of men toward women. It was born as a twofold movement beginning with a social shaming of men for bad behaviors, followed by a proposal that men could atone for bad behavior by worship of women through a new code of love.
The idea was launched by powerful women of the medieval aristocracy who cited the worst behaviors of the most unruly males and extrapolated those behaviors to the entire gender. Knights were particularly singled out – much like today’s sporting heroes who display some kind of faux pas – and used as examples of distasteful male behavior requiring the remedy of sweeping cultural reform.
During that time of (supposedly) unruly males, uneducated squires were said to ride mangy horses into mess halls, and rude young men diverted eyes from psalters in the very midst of mass. Among the knights and in the atmosphere of tournaments occasional brawls with grisly incidents occurred – a cracked skull, a gouged eye – as the betting progressed and the dice flew. Male attention to clothing and fashion was said to be appalling, with men happy to go about in sheep and fox skins instead of clothes fashioned of rich and precious stuffs, in colours to better suit them in the company of ladies. And perhaps worst of all were their lack of refinement and manners toward women which was considered reprehensible.
The solutions to the ‘male problem’ was posed by the French Countess Marie, daughter of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Historian Amy Kelly tells;
“Marie organized the rabble of soldiers, fighting-cocks, jousters, springers, riding masters, troubadours, Poitevin nobles and debutantes, young chatelaines, adolescent princes, and infant princesses in the great hall of Poitiers. Of this pandemonium the countess fashioned a seemly and elegant society, the fame of which spread to the world. Here was a woman’s assize to draw men from the excitements of the tilt and the hunt, from dice and games, to feminine society, an assize to outlaw boorishness and compel the tribute of adulation to female majesty.”2
Marie was among the first of a long line of reformers to usher in a gynocentrism whose aim was to convince men of their shared flaws and to prescribe romantic love and concomitant worship of females as the remedy. The remedy was referred to as love service.
Love service involved the positioning of women as men’s superiors along with a series of prescribed behaviors for demonstrating the sexual hierarchy in male-female interactions. The meta-rules for those interactions can be found in troubadour poetry and in the book The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus, who wrote it under direction from Marie in 1188 AD.
The love service at the core of courtly love replicates feudal relations between vassals or serfs and their overlords. The feudal template was transferred wholesale into love relationships whereby each women came to be approached as a quasi ‘lord’ in each male-female relationship.
Sandra Alfonsi elaborated the feudalistic elements of courtly love in her book Masculine Submission in Troubadour Lyric:
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.
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.3
Evolutionary Psychologist Don A. Monson paints a similar picture
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.4
As described by Alfonsi and Monson, the demands of courtly love bespeak unbalanced power relationships, ones that engender vulnerability in the male supplicant along with an experience of a fragile pair-bonding that hovers in the realm of tantalizing.
In terms of our biological drives, courtly love captures the imperative for a strong, reliable pair-bonding experience, albeit one that remains maddeningly difficult to gain and maintain in the face of the convoluted conventions of courtly love.
The biological and cultural complexity covered above can be summarised in a few short lines;
Damseling is the cultural codification of neoteny.
Chivalry a cultural codification of the parental brain.
Courtly love is the codification of tantalizing pairbonds.
Part two of this series will look at how this holy trinity reappears in feminist ideology and activism.
 Combination of Cambridge and Miriam-Webster dictionary definitions.
 Amy Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Her Courts of Love, Source: Speculum, Vol. 12, No. 1
 Sandra Alfonsi, Masculine Submission in Troubadour Lyric, 1986
 Don A. Monson, Why is la Belle Dame sans Merci?, Neophilologus 2011; 95: 523.