The following excerpt, translated from the French title The Meaning of desire – sado-masochism and Courtly Love by Emmanuel-Juste Duits, explores the considerable overlap between sadomasochism and courtly love. If anyone has a better translation please feel free to submit it.
Sadomasochistic dominatrix and courtly dominatrix
Wearing leathers, her long black hair tied by a braid, her legs sheathed, hard and inquisitive glance, surrounded by the colors of the night, this image is represented by the dominatrix.
What common features would she have with the ‘courtly lady,’ of a gentle and wise appearance, with a high hat surmounted by a veil, hidden by her long robe embroidered with pink and turquoise hues?
Imageries opposed, or similar realities?
In courtly love and SM it is easy to see the similarity of the terms used, symbolic gestures, and even certain practices. The dominatrix officiates in a “dungeon,” a space furnished with the often Gothic character where arched windows open, with walls of stone, impressive chains, iron doors. She receives servants and, just as in courtly love, the classical sexual act is just out of reach. Inaccessibility and distance are law.
But let us begin with the trait which gives its title to these two queens: domina /dominatrix. Why ? By their haughty character and magical power (mana), they dominate man who readily recognizes himself as a vassal. The first troubadour, Guillaume IX, one of the most powerful lords of the kingdom, called himself a vassal of his lady. The domnei (the chivalrous male lover) is admitted during a kneeling ceremony where he receives a ring as a pledge of fidelity and absolute obedience.
It thus becomes a genuine act of serving (in the medieval sense), ironically reversing the older chivalrous act of force and instituting a new male submission by the Middle Ages! But what does female domination sung by the minstrels consist of? What does this word hide, far beyond a capricious will and the arbitrariness of desires? It is evident that the courtly lady develops moral and intellectual qualities which are far from evoking sadism and the violence unleashed by tyrannical instincts. She is supposed to be cheerful, welcoming, and witty. This may also be appropriate, in some respects, to the real dominatrix who demonstrates self-control and respect for her subjects.
What is the fascinating virtue that invests the feudal overlord (suzerain)?
Patriarchal societies advocate a so-called “natural” order which contains a set of coherent values, which are linked together and enslave us to the family, to a warrior and vengeful God, to the father, to the country, and to the enterprise. And also a supposedly natural place is there attributed to woman. According to this perspective woman is passive in essence, which is expressed in her sexual posture but also in her “intuitive and receptive” mind and in her social role which consists of the conservation of society and the exclusive breeding of children in the tradition. How all this goes together!
But the domina, however, has enough inner strength to overthrow this aesthetic prescription. Only against the inertia of a medieval society imbued with manly values – or against a modern society that insidiously demeans it – does it come to the fore and assert itself as sexually and mentally active. Whether it is the “black” domina of SM or the “white” domina of the courtly love, it escapes the function devoted to women “by nature and by God”. Neither mother, nor good wife, nor receptacle of penetration. Neither soft nor fragile, nor manipulative, demanding, and tyrannical.
Today’s society spreads the image of such free, strong and unleashed women, as if a new femininity was dreaming on the fringes of our collective consciousness. In the teenage version, these are the Spice Girls and the Amazons in Hard Rock Leather, or Catwoman and other practitioners of the martial arts. Ideal for millions of girls who, for now, do not seem to assume this girl’s power. Moreover, what should such a slogan hide to be truly revolutionary? The modern woman risks confusing liberation, especially a positive but limited external one, with psychological, erotic and spiritual liberation.
[It] has the merit of showing the radical difference between the purely material independence of the wonder-woman serving a social function, and dominating it, which rejects most norms of productive and sexual “utility.” The true dominatrix fascinates not by her brutality nor by her sadism, but by her intellectual, erotic and aesthetic autonomy. She sculpts and invents her own norms, and attributes to herself the decision and the action – without necessarily denying them to men, even if a fundamentally amorphous character would characterize it, according to the founder of Scum.
This interior and mental power constitutes the focal point of our two figures of dominas. They are also cruel. When Lancelot returns from a thousand sufferings, his body broken and his wounds exposed, Guinevere pretends to reject him because he hesitated for a few moments before one of his most mortal trials. At their reunion, these adulterous lovers of the Arthurian cycle finally spend a night of love and their sheets are covered with the blood of the knight who cut a finger by forcing open the grid that separated him from his mistress … Thus, the courtly eroticism has sometimes taken a cruel turn. Guillaume IX, the first troubadour, tells a very edifying story. Disguised as an innocent clerk, the hero of the song crosses two noble ladies, married moreover, who find him to their taste and collect him in their lodgings. He pretends to be mute. Here is what Agnes says to Ermessen:
“We have found what we are seeking. My sister, for the sake of God let us lodge him, for he is truly mute and never by our plan will be known. So the hero finds himself in the ladies company, fed capons near the stove, thinking “When we had drunk and eaten, I stole myself as they pleased. Behind my back they brought me the wicked cat and felon; One pulled him along my side to the heel dragged by the tail without waiting. She pulled the cat and he clawed at me: they made me more than one hundred wounds.” Agnes to Ermessen, “Sister, he is mute, it is veryclear; let us prepare for the bath and take advantage of his presence.” “Eight days and more I remained in this furnace. I took them as many times as you will hear: One hundred and eighty-eight times (…) I cannot tell you my pain at all.”
We shall not count all the courtly songs in which the lady finds herself cruel, pitiless, capricious, mocking, and in which the poet seems to delight in suffering inflicted by the woman whom he adores. Lancelot, the best of knights, will have to suffer public humiliation: to obey his queen Guenièvre, he will behave cowardly in the biggest tournament of the country for a whole day, wiping away the least gossip and taunts of the least grooms, and weak riders. Like Sacher-Masoch, loving implies accepting suffering, which is the pledge of true love.
Courtly love – a precursor of SM?
If the dominatrix inflicts suffering, the courtly lady also submits her servant to various trials: show her valor in the tournament if it is a knight, restrain your primary sexual desires, sing, make beautiful verses, respect the Secret, take many risks to stealthily observe her when she strips herself and goes to the bath, traveling alone and undergoing severe deprivations to increase its valor
In SM as in courtly love, one recognizes the classical scheme of the work in the dark, the ego being worked over by the confrontation with his fears, the tests involving a physical or moral danger. According to Jung, this phase is to be found in any evolutionary process, whether it be therapy or alchemy, the “matter” of the soul is to be tarnished and then melted with some violence.
To learn to be silent, to wait and to hold one’s desires, to wander, to feel alone, to suffer in one’s flesh, to enjoy only a few caresses and many blows, all this seems necessary to those who wish to acquire a little individuality! But to fulfill this individualizing function, the tests must have a profound meaning: they correspond in particular to the meeting of elements (tests linked to water, fire, earth, air – suspension, vertigo …), (Black, silence, abandonment, dismemberment, suffocation …), the overthrow of social values and the image of oneself (one finds in this class of the transvestite, the inversion of roles, the boss playing the slave … ).
Once encountered, trials need to be understood in order to integrate into one’s person: hence the role of the possible therapist and verbalization, and the need to know symbolism. By his poetic asceticism, the knight-troubadour will attain, as the initiate, a modified state of consciousness. Is this not what many songs testify to? Raimbaut d’Orange (1147-1173) has no suspicion of being taken for mad when he evokes this internal metamorphosis:
“Here is the opposite flower on the rocks among the mounds.
Flower of snow, ice and jellies,
Who bites, who tightens and slings. (…)
For in me all is reversed,
And the plains seem to me mound,
The flower springs from the frost,
The hot in the flesh of the cold slice,
The storm becomes singing and whistles
And the leaves cover the stems.
So glad I am that I do not seem to be baseless in any place. ”
Within the middle classes of our society, the possible dangers are fortunately more limited than in the twelfth century. The brigands swarm less than in the medieval forests, and the suburbs do not compete with the court of miracles, in spite of our “savages.” The voyages are made in the warmth of the TGV, and do not allow us to appreciate either the dark night of the great forests, nor the disturbing howling of the animals, the bite of the cold, or the warmth of the horse. We are impoverished in “real” feelings, far from a formative confrontation with reality.
Apart from a few medical examinations and the pitiless irruption of the illness, which reminds us of the essential realities, we float in a rather abstract universe of social appearances. Some prefer to tear the veil and seek the meeting of elements by practicing sports, mountaineering, hang-gliding, diving … others find the ardor and ethics of combat by the martial arts. Finally, the sadomasochist makes it possible to taste somewhat forgotten sensations, and to return to reports that are both more refined and rough, perhaps more true and symbolic than what we experience under our social masks.
Thus the trials demanded by courtly love presented themselves in a less bloody light than in SM because medieval society itself had enough risks and dangers. Obviously, the excretory aspect that can be associated with SM – uro and scatophily – remains totally foreign to the courtly universe. The courtly love demands lose in intensity what they gain in extent. They involve a global character: the aim is to seek constant improvement and to modify one’s behavior on a daily basis.
The sadomasochistic game, for good reason, tends to unfold in a delimited field, with its instruments, its world, its well-defined witnesses . Once the session is over, the adept risks becoming a citizen again, sometimes an excellent cog in the company, an efficient executive or a faithful husband. SM is generally compatible with
Standards of liberalism; Once again, it resembles a therapy, with similar advantages and disadvantages: falling from anxiety and better adaptation to the business or family!
If it is true that the DM allows for some improvement of self, it does not push to fight for political justice. On the other hand, courtly love is in conflict with social integration. Many poems of troubadours could be discovered chanting a dispute of the religious or political order, especially from the Albigensian crusade. Bernart de Rovenac (1242-1261) accuses the lords (“I have a great desire to make a sirventès, powerful and cowardly men … although it seems madness to you, I am more pleased to blame you by telling you the truth – that is to say, pleasant things while lying … “); Guilhem Figuera (1215-1240) attacks the Church (“(…) Deceitful Rome, who are from all evil the guide, top and root, so that the good king of England was betrayed by you … Rome Rome, to weak men, you eat away the flesh and the bones and guide the blind with you into the pit … “). As for Peire Cardenal, he addresses a very insolent petition to the creator:
“A new sirventes I want to begin
that I will recite on the Day of Judgment to him
who created me and formed of nothing
If he thinks I am reproaching myself for something …
and I will make a good proposal
that you bring me back from where I left on the first day
or that you forgive my sins
because I would not have committed them if I was not born (…) ”
Courtesy requires politeness, generosity, hence refusal of injustice. The appearance is beautiful only if the inner life strives towards the ideal. As an alchemist can succeed in the Great Work only if, in addition to his technical competence, he possesses moral qualities, so a troubadour is worthy of love only if, in addition to beautiful verses, he succeeds a few great gestures. The knight must correct the wrongs and fight against errors, false pretenses, both in and around the world. Here we find the socially subversive aspect of courtly love.
The difference is therefore essential between sadomasochism and courtly love. The domnei pursued a high, almost superhuman ideal, symbolized by the Grail and the Crusade, or by a state of poetic and mystical creation. The pain was on the way an inevitable companion, but it was not a goal, and was not inflicted “for pleasure.” The artist who has to struggle to perfect his creation and the knight who crosses distant lands
necessarily confront a thousand sufferings. They aim at a result and a work that transcends their individuality and can be offered to others. Their project is both personal and altruistic.
The courtly scene assumed its full meaning when it was accompanied by an effective verification of the acts and creations of its various protagonists. Despite the physical distance, it involved a mutual “surveillance”, by interposed reputation. A noble knight, a renowned lady or a well-liked troubadour were supposed to perform actions and works of brilliance, worthy of being reverberated from castles in progress. It was a question of the two lovers fighting against social and psychological baseness, of integrating the elements and the many facets of the human soul (masculine-feminine, hardness-softness, dependence-independence …), and finally to dis-identify from the social comedy.
In some respects, one might compare the gradual initiation of courtliness with that of master-disciple in the secret schools of the East. In courtly love as in esoteric schools, the meaning of these various tests, in addition to the magical integration of the elements, will be to find one’s true being. It is only after this work of inner self-esteem that authentic encounter with love is possible. There is no other way to isolate the essential love – that which is addressed to the whole person of the beloved, to her soul, if you will – to eliminate all that is addressed to what this person is not, that is to say, synonymous with his physical details.
And there can be no lovers of joy absolutely purified other than this desire which is exalted and satisfied with the mere presence of the beloved, the only feeling of the spiritual communion existing between her and him and whose embrace of looks is indeed the sign. Courtly love, like evolutionary SM, a complete loving path, with its own rituals and a form of pleasure, is quite different from the so-called “normal” sexual games.
These approaches prove that love and the couple can give themselves an end in addition (or beside) to procreation. They draw attention to one aspect of love relations, particularly revolutionary for the current mentality: the incandescence of pleasure achieved without recourse to the sexual act.
Today, when the classical aspect of sexuality is over-emphasized in relation to sensuality and erotic play, this will surprise. It would no doubt be necessary to recall in our “liberated” period a reality: relationships other than penetration are possible and satisfying, even for straight men! Courteous love like the SM invites us to question the distinction between the sensual and the sexual, and the new forms of relationships open to us. But what precisely was the love of courtly love, and where did it come from? We shall see that it remains a historical enigma.