The religion of love
Courtly love was not just a literary convention. It was (at least theoretically) a way of life, designed to create a courtier who was a model of wit, passion, and purity.
The long tradition of medieval courtly love was revitalized in the Renaissance by Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529), who served at the court of the Duke of Urbino in Italy — a court famed for its support of art and learning. His influential handbook of ideal courtly behaviour, Il Cortegiano (The Courtier) was translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby, one of several fine English translations which made classical and continental works accessible to readers of English.
The ladder of love
In The Courtier, there is an impassioned discussion of the nature of love, in which one of the characters, Peter Bembo, describes the way that earthly love can become elevated to heavenly love through a platonic process of stages, or steps on a ladder, beginning with the love of an unattainable, virtuous woman, and leading to love of God and all humanity.
In typical Renaissance fashion, Bembo associates these steps with the hierarchy of created nature:
And here after they had laughed a while, M. Peter proceeded. I say therefore that according as it is defined of the wise men of old time, Love is nothing else but a certain coveting to enjoy beauty. . . And because in our soul there be three manner ways to know [perceive], namely, by sense, reason, and understanding; of sense there ariseth appetite or longing, which is common to us with brute beasts; of reason ariseth election or choice, which is proper [appropriate] to man; of understanding, by the which man may be partner with Angels, ariseth will. . . .
Man, of nature endowed with reason, placed (as it were) in the middle between these two extremities, may through his choice–inclining to sense, or reaching to understanding–come nigh to the coveting sometime of the one, sometime of the other part. . .
As courtly love culture developed, a class of self-styled and avant-garde poets arose called the troubadours. Like the knights of the period they sought to devote themselves to the love and adoration of women, though unlike the knights many of the troubadours practiced a chaste kind of devotion to Ladies that did not involve sexual intercourse. The following excerpt is from the 1913 classic volume titled The Troubadours, by Rev. H.J. Chaytor, M.A.
THE THEORY OF COURTLY LOVE
Troubador poetry dealt with war, politics, personal satire and other subjects: but the theme which is predominant and in which real originality was shown, is love. The troubadours were the first lyric poets in mediaeval Europe to deal exhaustively with this subject, and as their attitude was imitated with certain modifications by French, Italian, Portuguese and German poets, the nature of its treatment is a matter of considerable importance.
Of the many ladies whose praises were sung or whose favours were desired by troubadours, the majority were married. Troubadours who made their songs to a maiden, as did Gui d’Ussel or Gausbert de Puegsibot, are quite exceptional. Love in troubadour poetry was essentially a conventional relationship, and marriage was not its object. This conventional character was derived from the fact that troubadour love was constituted upon the analogy of feudal relationship. If chivalry was the outcome of the Germanic theory of knighthood as modified by the influence of Christianity, it may be said that troubadour love is the outcome of the same theory under the influence of mariolatry. In the eleventh century the worship of the Virgin Mary became widely popular; the reverence bestowed upon the Virgin was extended to the female sex in general, and as a vassal owed obedience to his feudal overlord, so did he owe service and devotion to his lady. Moreover, under the feudal system, the lady might often be called upon to represent her husband’s suzerainty to his vassals, when she was left in charge of affairs during his absence in time of war. Unmarried women were inconspicuous figures in the society of the age.
“Thus there was a service of love as there was a service
of vassalage, and the lover stood to his lady in a position
analogous to that of the vassal to his overlord”
Thus there was a service of love as there was a service of vassalage, and the lover stood to his lady in a position analogous to that of the vassal to his overlord. He attained this position only by stages; “there are four stages in love: the first is that of aspirant (fegnedor), the second that of suppliant (precador), the third that of recognised suitor (entendedor) and the fourth that of accepted lover (drut).” 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. For practical purposes the contract merely implied that the lady was prepared to receive the troubadour’s homage in poetry and to be the subject of his song. As secrecy was a duty incumbent upon the troubadour, he usually referred to the lady by a pseudonym (senhal); naturally, the lady’s reputation was increased if her attraction for a famous troubadour was known, and the senhal was no doubt an open secret at times. How far or how often the bounds of his formal and conventional relationship were transgressed is impossible to say; “en somme, assez immoral” is the judgment of Gaston Paris upon the society of the age, and is confirmed by expressions of desire occurring from time to time in various troubadours, which cannot be interpreted as the outcome of a merely conventional or “platonic” devotion. In the troubadour biographies the substratum of historical truth is so overlaid by fiction, that little reliable evidence upon the point can be drawn from this source.
However, transgression was probably exceptional. The idea of troubadour love was intellectual rather than emotional; love was an art, restricted, like poetry, by formal rules; the terms “love” and “poetry” were identified, and the fourteenth century treatise which summarises the principles of grammar and metre bore the title Leys d’Amors, the Laws of Love. The pathology of the emotion was studied; it was treated from a psychological standpoint and a technical vocabulary came into use, for which it is often impossible to find English equivalents. The first effect of love is to produce a mental exaltation, a desire to live a life worthy of the beloved lady and redounding to her praise, an inspiring stimulus known as joi or joi d’amor (amor in Provencal is usually feminine). Other virtues are produced by the influence of this affection: the lover must have valor, that is, he must be worthy of his lady; this worth implies the possession of cortesia, pleasure in the pleasure of another and the desire to please; this quality is acquired by the observance of mesura, wisdom and self-restraint in word and deed.
The poetry which expresses such a state of mind is usually idealised and pictures the relationship rather as it might have been than as it was. The troubadour who knew his business would begin with praises of his beloved; she is physically and morally perfect, her beauty illuminates the night, her presence heals the sick, cheers the sad, makes the boor courteous and so forth. For her the singer’s love and devotion is infinite: separation from her would be worse than death; her death would leave the world cheerless, and to her he owes any thoughts of good or beauty that he may have. It is only because he loves her that he can sing. Hence he would rather suffer any pain or punishment at her hands than receive the highest favours from another. The effects of this love are obvious in his person. His voice quavers with supreme delight or breaks in dark despair; he sighs and weeps and wakes at night to think of the one subject of contemplation. Waves of heat and cold pass over him, and even when he prays, her image is before his eyes. This passion has transformed his nature: he is a better and stronger man than ever before, ready to forgive his enemies and to undergo any physical privations; winter is to him as the cheerful spring, ice and snow as soft lawns and flowery meads. Yet, if unrequited, his passion may destroy him; he loses his self-control, does not hear when he is addressed, cannot eat or sleep, grows thin and feeble, and is sinking slowly to an early tomb. Even so, he does not regret his love, though it lead to suffering and death; his passion grows ever stronger, for it is ever supported by hope. But if his hopes are realised, he will owe everything to the gracious favour of his lady, for his own merits can avail nothing. Sometimes he is not prepared for such complete self-renunciation; he reproaches his lady for her coldness, complains that she has led him on by a show of kindness, has deceived him and will be the cause of his death; or his patience is at an end, he will live in spite of her and try his fortune elsewhere.
Source: Full-text of the book is available here; The Troubadours, by H.J. Chaytor
In what we call the Middle Ages there was invented, by the stress of circumstances, elaborated by half-conscious effort and bequeathed as an unalienable habit, a new manner of loving.
To describe mediaeval love is a difficult matter, and to describe it except in negations is next to impossibility. I conceive it to consist in a certain sentimental, romantic, idealistic attitude towards women, not by any means incompatible however with the grossest animalism; an attitude presupposing a complete moral, aesthetical, and social superiority on the part of the whole female sex, inspiring the very highest respect and admiration independently of the individual’s qualities; and reaching the point of actual worship, varying from the adoration of a queen by a courtier to the adoration of a shrine by a pilgrim, in the case of the one particular lady who happens to be the beloved; an attitude in the relations of the sexes which results in love becoming an indispensable part of a noble life, and the devoted attachment to one individual woman, a necessary requisite of a gentlemanly training.
Mediaeval love is not merely a passion, a desire, an affection, a habit; it is a perfect occupation. It absorbs, or is supposed to absorb, the Individual; it permeates his life like a religion. It is not one of the interests of life, or, rather, one of life’s phases; it is the whole of life, all other interests and actions either sinking into an unsingable region below it, or merely embroidering a variegated pattern upon its golden background. Mediaeval love, therefore, never obtains its object, however much it may obtain the woman; for the object of mediaeval love, as of mediaeval religious mysticism, is not one particular act or series of acts, but is its own exercise, of which the various incidents of the drama between man and woman are merely so many results. It has not its definite stages, like the love of the men of classical Antiquity or the heroic time of the North: its stages of seeking, obtaining, cherishing, guarding; it is always at the same point, always in the same condition of half-religious, half-courtier-like adoration, whether it be triumphantly successful or sighingly despairing.
The man and the woman or rather, I should say, the knight and the lady, for mediaeval love is an aristocratic privilege, and the love of lower folk is not a theme for song the knight and the lady, therefore, seem always, however knit together by habit, nay, by inextricable meshes of guilt, somehow at the same distance from one another. Once they have seen and loved each other, their passion burns on always evenly, burns on (at least theoretically) to all eternity. It seems almost as if the woman were a mere shrine, a mysterious receptacle of the ineffable, a grail cup, a consecrated wafer, but not the ineffable itself. For there is always in mediaeval love, however fleshly the incidents which it produces, a certain Platonic element; that is to say, a craving for, a pursuit of, something which is an abstraction; an abstraction impossible to define in its constant shifting and shimmering, and which seems at one moment a social standard, a religious ideal, or both, and which merges for ever in the dazzling, vague sheen of the Eternal Feminine.
Hence, one of the most distinctive features of mediaeval love, an extraordinary sameness of intonation, making it difficult to distinguish between the bona fide passion for which a man risks life and honour, and the mere conventional gallantry of the knight who sticks a lady’s glove on his helmet as a compliment to her rank; nay, between the impure adoration of an adulterous lamia like Yseult, and the mystical adoration of a glorified Mother of God; for both are women, both are ladies, and therefore the greatest poet of the early Middle Ages, Gottfried von Strassburg, sings them both with the same religious respect, and the same hysterical rapture. This mediaeval love is furthermore a deliberately expected, sought-for, and received necessity in a man’s life; it is not an accident, much less an incidental occurrence to be lightly taken or possibly avoided: it is absolutely indispensable to man’s social training, to his moral and aesthetical self-improvement; it is part and parcel of manhood and knighthood… Frowendienst, “lady’s service,” is the name given by Ulrich von Liechtenstein, a mediaeval Quixote, outshining by far the mad Provencals Rudel and Vidal, to the memoirs very delightfully done into modern German by Ludwig Tieck; and “lady’s service” is the highest occupation of knightly leisure, the subject of the immense bulk of mediaeval poetry.
“Lady’s service” in deeds of arms and song, in constant praise and defence of the beloved, in heroic enterprise and madcap mummery, in submission and terror to the wondrous creature whom the humble servant, the lover, never calls by her sacred name, speaking of her in words unknown to Antiquity, dompna, dame, frowe, madonna words of which the original sense has almost been forgotten, although there cleave to them even now ideas higher than those associated with the puella of the ancients, the wib of the heroic days lady, mistress the titles of the Mother of God, who is, after all, only the mystical Soul’s Paramour of the mediaeval world. “Lady’s service” the almost technical word, expressing the position, half-serf-like, half-religious, the bonds of complete humility and never-ending faithfulness, the hopes of reward, the patience under displeasure, the pride in the livery of servitude, the utter absorption of the life of one individual in the life of another; which constitute in Provence, in France, in Germany, in England, in Italy, in the fabulous kingdoms of Arthur and Charlemagne, the strange new thing which I have named Mediaeval Love.
Has such a thing really existed? Are not these mediaeval poets leagued together in a huge conspiracy to deceive us? Is it possible that strong men have wept and fainted at a mere woman’s name, like the Count of Nevers in “Flamenca,” or that their mind has swooned away in months of reverie like that of Parzifal in Eschenbach’s poem; that worldly wise and witty men have shipped off and died on sea for love of an unseen woman like Jaufre Rudel; or dressed in wolf’s hide and lurked and fled before the huntsmen-like Peire Vidal; or mangled their face and cut off their finger, and, clothing themselves in rags more frightful than Nessus’ robe, mixed in the untouchable band of lepers like Ulrich von Liechtenstein? Is it possible to believe that the insane enterprises of the Amadises, Lisvarts and Felixmartes of late mediaeval romance, that the behaviour of Don Quixote in the Sierra Morena, ever had any serious models in reality? Nay, more difficult still to believe because the whole madness of individuals is more credible than the half-madness of the whole world is it possible to believe that, as the poems of innumerable trouvères and troubadours, minnesingers and Italian poets, as the legion of mediaeval romances of the cycles of Charlemagne, Arthur, and Amadis would have it, that during so long a period of time society could have been enthralled by this hysterical, visionary, artificial, incredible religion of mediaeval love? It is at once too grotesque and too beautiful, too high and too low, to be credible; and our first impulse, on closing the catechisms and breviaries, the legendaries and hymn-books of this strange new creed, is to protest that the love poems must be allegories, the love romances solar myths, the Courts of Love historical bungles; that all this mediaeval world of love is a figment, a misinterpretation, a falsehood.
But if we seek more than a mere casual impression; if, instead of feeling sceptical over one or two fragments of evidence, we attempt to collect the largest possible number of facts together; if we read not one mediaeval love story, but twenty not half a dozen mediaeval love poems, but several scores; if we really investigate into the origin of the apparent myth, the case speedily alters. Little by little this which had been inconceivable becomes not merely intelligible, but inevitable; the myth becomes an historical phenomenon of the most obvious and necessary sort. Mediaeval love, which had seemed to us a poetic fiction, is turned into a reality; and a reality, alas, which is prosaic. Let us look at it.
Mediaeval love is first revealed in the sudden and almost simultaneous burst of song which, like the twitter and trill so dear to trouvères, troubadours, and minnesingers, fills the woods that yesterday were silent and dead, and greeted the earliest sunshine, the earliest faint green after the long winter numbness of the dark ages, after the boisterous gales of the earliest Crusade. The French and Provencals sang first, the Germans later, the Sicilians last; but although we may say after deliberate analysis, such or such a form, or such or such a story, was known in this country before it appeared in that one, such imitation or suggestion was so rapid that with regard to the French, the Provencals, and the Germans at least, the impression is simultaneous; only the Sicilians beginning distinctly later, forerunners of the new love lyric, wholly different from that of trouvères, troubadours, and minnesingers, of the Italians of the latter thirteenth century… Such is the moment when we first hear the almost universal song of mediaeval love.
Book review, by Dennis Gouws:
Chivalry has declined since it first dignified medieval men’s pursuit of excellence. On its inception in twelfth-century Europe, chivalry offered knights new opportunities for camaraderie, heroism, and comity in battle; moreover, it both occasioned an ethic for men’s individual conduct and modelled a renowned, embodied masculine character for men who aspired to success at court. Chivalry required discipline and accomplishment; its measure was, therefore, personal and performative. Its core traits—bravery, honor, courtesy—influenced gentility gentlemanliness, which from the fifteenth century onwards increasingly gauged the conduct of armigerous and professional men. Once its persistent impact on British masculinities finally dwindled in the early twentieth century, chivalry meant little more than men’s benevolent placatory or protective deeds. This meaning has endured and has consequently reinforced disturbing assumptions about twenty-first century male disposability. Men have traditionally appeased women; men have also subordinated themselves to customary gynocentric societal assumptions of women’s parental superiority—the still-current chivalric rescue maxim, women and children first means just that—and men have steadfastly enlisted, or have been conscripted, to serve and protect in various armed forces. The atrocities of World War One rendered chivalric heroism unconvincing, but men still disproportionately sacrifice themselves as combatants. Some might claim that chivalry is dead; its spirit endures, however, and is deadly to men.
The two exemplars of medieval chivalry that interest most twenty-first-century readers are courtly love and literary romance, and in his Chivalry in Medieval England, Nigel Saul argues that these types were incidental to its development. Saul regards the predominantly-masculine arenas of war and economics as central to its engendering by a newly-confident military elite conscious of its commonality. Disciplined, principled fighting men earned wealth and honor; their ethos was voiced in historical texts, romances, and the visually symbolic language of chivalric heraldry. At first glance Professor Saul’s analysis seems to argue for an orthodox Marxist division of society into base and superstructure (the actions of a newly-powerful knightly class determining the nature of its cultural expression); however, his treatment of twelfth-century knightly “self-consciousness” (p. 66) and various medieval Englishmen’s motives for seeking military honor (“adventurers, freebooters, mercenaries, self-seekers and chancers” as well as “warriors like Chaucer’s Knight, for whom financial considerations were largely secondary” [p. 128]) suggest a sensitivity to the complexities of cultural and material reciprocity. Unlike Maurice Keen’s Chivalry (Yale University Press 1984), which argues for the “fusing” together of material and cultural elements into “something new and whole in its own right” (p. 16), Saul’s Chivalry in Medieval England consistently distinguishes the lived experience of chivalry from cultural representations of the argument; it consequently affords new opportunities for male-positive recontextualizations of courtly love and literary romance.
In his examination of Marie de France’s Lais, for example, Saul notes that the conventions of courtly love originate in “the particular circumstances of twelfth-century society” (p. 265): because of primogeniture and the twelfth-century church’s making marriage a sacrament, landless young knights resorted to charming wealthy women for their material and sexual satisfaction. The gynocentric framing of the knight-lady relationship might be better understood as vassalage, a socioeconomic circumstance whose transactions acknowledge courtly love’s hierarchical referent rather than evincing a reverential elevation of women. Men could negotiate these conventions to marry up, and (as Saul’s account of Sir Ralph Monthermer’s and Richard Calle’s marriages suggests) they did.
By emphasizing gratuitous fighting, often to please women, literary romance misrepresented the martial circumstances of chivalry, which Saul describes as a “tough down-to-earth business” (p. 148) that “involved more than the enacting of ritualized combat and the performing of brave deed to impress ladies” (p. 153). Instead it consisted in “the honing of fighting skills in the lists, the building of group solidarity” in tournaments, and “the encouragement of bravery in the quest for honor” (p. 153). Medieval noblemen cherished their honor, which Saul succinctly defines as, “the value which a nobleman placed on himself and the expectation that that value would be recognized by others” (p. 187). Its chivalric measure was personal and performative, expressing itself “principally in terms of action and display” (p. 187), deeds which sometimes involved violence but often comprised personal restraint and public acts of grace originating in Norman codes governing the humane prosecution of war and treatment of prisoners. Disagreeing with scholars like Richard W. Kaeuper who, in Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (Oxford University Press 1999), argues that chivalry encouraged “heroic” (p. 8) violence, Saul argues it was a “moderating force, providing a code of polite behavior which prevented disputes from tipping over into violence” (p. 178). Kaeuper, in his well-researched book relies on romances to buttress his argument but concedes that “we cannot expect [chivalric] literature […] to serve as a simple mirror to the social reality of the world in which it emerged” (p. 33). Saul skeptically asserts: “It is clear that we cannot take the fictions of the romances as directly mirroring the values and norms of chivalric society” (p. 196). He acknowledges the brutal violence inherent in military and court-tournament chivalry; however, he notes chivalric honor’s role in tempering violence rather than enabling it.
Chivalric bravery, honor, and courtesy were valued by men who shared the harrowing experience of military conflict, men who might have been on opposite sides but who were brothers in arms. Chivalry suffered successive declines in the thirteenth, sixteenth, and the early-twentieth centuries. Saul attributes the first two of these declines to financial considerations that lead to the bankrupting of knights in the thirteenth century and the indifference of a nascent gentry class in the sixteenth. Mark Girouard has argued, in The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (Yale University Press 1981), that the chivalric code could not comprehend the atrocities of technology and scale inherent in “the concept of total war” (p. 293) that enveloped combatants during World War One. Both his and Saul’s books convincingly emphasize a need to investigate the material realities of men’s experiences rather than relying on scholarly and literary commentaries on them—a lesson yet to be learned in most twenty-first-century conversations about men and gender.
Reprinted with permission by Dennis Gouws, Springfield College and University of Connecticut (Storrs).
Joseph Campbell states of courtship in the Middle Ages, “If you wanted to make love to a woman, she’s already got the drop on you. The technical term for a woman’s granting of herself was merci; the woman grants her mercy. Now that might consist in her permission for the man to kiss her on the back of the neck once every Whitsuntide, you know, something like that – or it may be a full giving in love. That would depend upon her estimation of the character of the candidate. The essential idea was to test this man.”1 While there are numerous real examples of tests women asked men to endure, including jousting competitions and other dangerous activities, Campbell provides some fictional examples of tests such as, for instance, ‘the Myth of The Perilous Bed’:
“A number of knights had to experience the perilous bed before getting access to a lady, and it works like this; You come into a room that’s absolutely empty, except in the middle of it is a bed on rollers. You are to come in dressed in your full armour – sword, spear, shield, all that heavy stuff- and get into bed. Well, as the knight approaches the bed, it shears away to one side. So he comes again, and it goes the other way. The knight finally thinks, “I’ve got to jump.” So with his full gear, he jumps into the bed, and as soon as he hits the bed, it starts bucking like a bronco all over the room, banging against the walls and all of that kind of thing, and then it stops. Then he’s told, ‘It’s not finished yet. Keep your armour on and keep your shield over yourself. ” And then arrows and crossbow bolts pummel him- bang, bang, bang, bang. Then a lion appears and attacks the knight, but he cuts off the lion’s feet, and the two of them end up lying there in a pool of blood. Only then do the ladies of the castle come in and see their knight, their saviour, lying there looking dead. One of the ladies takes a bit of ‘fur’ from her garment and puts it in front of his nose and it moves ever so slightly – he’s breathing, he’s alive. So they nurse him back to health.”
Of this myth Campbell states,
“This is the masculine experience of the feminine temperament: that it doesn’t quite make sense, but there it is. That’s the way it’s shifting this time, that’s the way it’s going that time. The trial is to hold on, be patient and don’t try to solve it. Just endure it, and then all the boons of beautiful womanhood will be yours.” [Transformations of Myth Through Time].
It’s a fascinating insight into the mechanics of gynocentrim. Before the 11th century there was hardly any support in the world for the notion of romantic love; at best it was an underground, unspoken activity disallowed on the world stage where arranged marriages dominated gender interaction completely. When the cult of romantic love appeared, women could for the first time be married and/or choose a male lover with the open encouragement of the society in which they lived. For the first time a woman would force her lover to do worthiness tests – get in a sword fight, a jousting battle, go on a dangerous journey, write some poetry, or procure and provide a precious gift. If he succeeded in her chosen test, he was often rewarded with a small gesture.
The cult of romantic love began in France and rapidly spread to the rest of Europe, and it was a watershed moment for women’s power. Women realised their bargaining power and could now ask for favours, worthiness tests and special treatment in exchange for love. It was here in 11th-12th century Europe that chivalry and gynocentrism were born, and without this event it unlikely that a ‘battle of the sexes’ would have developed, nor would there have been a need for feminists and men’s advocates to address the fluctuating power balance as exists between men and women today.
Sir Lancelot rides
the Perilous Bed
 Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth
An Interview with mythologist Joseph Campbell on the topic of chivalry, with Bill Moyers:
Moyers: So the age of chivalry was growing up as the age of romantic love was reaching out?
Campbell: The Middle Ages was a strange period because it was terribly brutal. There was no central law. Everyone was on his own, and, of course, there were great violations of everything. But within this brutality there was a civilizing force which the women really represented because they were the ones who established the rules for this game.
Moyers: How did it happen that the women had the dominant influence?
Campbell: Because if you want to make love to a woman, she’s already got the drop on you. The technical term for a woman’s granting of herself was merci; the woman grants her merci. Now, that might consist in her permission for the man to kiss her on the back of the neck once every Whitsuntide, you know, something like that – or it may be a full giving in love. That would depend upon her estimation of the character of the candidate… The essential idea was to test this man to make sure that he would suffer things for love, and that this was not just lust.
Moyers: Joseph, that may have emerged in the troubadour period, but it is still alive and well in East Texas.
Campbell: That’s the force of this position. It originated in twelfth century Provence, and you’ve got it now in 20th century Texas.
Moyers: Its been shattered of late, I have to tell you that. I mean, I’m not sure that it’s as much of a test as it used to be.
Campbell: The tests that were given then by women involved, for example, sending a chap out to guard a bridge. The traffic in the Middle Ages was somewhat encumbered by these youths guarding bridges. But also the tests included going into battle. A woman who was too ruthless in asking her lover to risk a real death before she would acquiesce in anything was considered sauvage or “savage”. Also, the woman who gave herself without the testing was “savage”. There was a very nice psychological estimation game going on here. [From – The Power of Myth].
Susan Sarandon introduces the following lecture by Joseph Campbell on the topic of chivalry and courtly-love as they took shape in the Middle Ages.
Susan Sarandon: “We like to think that romantic love is an idea as old as humanity. But it was only in the twelfth century AD that this concept appeared suddenly, not only in Europe, but in Islam and in India and the courts of East Asia. To quote Joe Campbell, for one brief shining moment in every castle in the world from the English Channel to the Persian gulf and the Sea of Japan, the one song was variously ringing the liege-man of love. Chrétien de Troyes was one of the great troubadours of this new song; he was the court poet to Marie de Champagne who ruled as the Queen Regent of France from 1181 to 1187 gathering around her the greatest poets of the age and inspiring a humanistic flowering that would lead in centuries to come to the renaissance.”
Joseph Campbell: “Our particular topic today is one that I think can serve to guide us from the general universal themes of myth into the material specifically of the European consciousness which we inherit. The period of the Authurian and Grail romances is dated almost precisely from 1150 to 1250 AD. And in the historical context of this second great phase of occidental culture (the first phase being that of the Greco-Roman periods starting with the Homeric epics) the period of the Authurian romances is the counterpart for the Gothic and modern worlds of the Homeric period for the Greco-Romans. That is to say, it is in that period that the main themes are stated and developed in terms of culture values and the spiritual dimension. The great works appear suddenly and this is the remarkable thing about the dawn of civilizations: within 200 years the whole thing is there and it wasn’t there before.”
Modesta Pozzo, a protofeminist living in the 1500s in Venice wrote a gynocentric work 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 in both theoretical and practical terms. The following excerpts begin with comments by one of the women, Corinna:
Corinna said: “Helena has not managed to prove anything except that men do have some merits when they are married — which is to say, when they are united with a wife. Now that I don’t deny, but without that help from their wives, men are just like unlit lamps: in themselves, they are no good for anything, but, when lit, they can be handy to have around the house. In other words, if a man has some virtues, it is because he has picked them up from the woman he lives with, whether mother, nurse, sister, or wife — for over time, inevitably, some of her good qualities will rub off on him. Indeed, quite apart from the good examples women provide for them, all men’s finest and most virtuous achievements derive from their love for women, because, feeling themselves unworthy of their lady’s grace, they try by any means they can to make themselves pleasing to her in some way. That men study at all, that they cultivate the virtues, that they groom themselves and become well-bred men of the world –in short, that they finish up equipped with countless pleasing qualities– is all due to women.”
Virginia said: “If it is true what you say, and men are as imperfect as you say they are, then why are they our superiors on every count?”
Corinna replied: “This pre-eminence is something they have unjustly arrogated to themselves. And when it’s said that women must be subject to men, the phrase should be understood in the same sense as we are subject to natural disasters, diseases, and all the other accidents of life: it’s not a case of being subject in the sense of obeying, but rather of suffering an imposition; not a case of serving them, but rather of tolerating them in a spirit of Christian charity, since they have been given to us by God as a spiritual trial. But they take the phrase in the contrary sense and set themselves up as tyrants over us, arrogantly usurping that domination over women that they claim is their right, but which is more properly ours. For don’t we see that men’s rightful task is to go out to work and wear themselves out trying to accumulate wealth, as though they were our factors or stewards, so that we can remain at home like the lady of the house directing their work and enjoying the profit of their labors? That, if you like, is the reason why men are naturally stronger and more robust than us — they need to be, so they can put up with the hard labor they must endure in our service.”
Leonora said: “A woman, when she is segregated from male contact, has something divine about her and can achieve miracles, as long as she retains her natural virginity. That certainly isn’t the case with men, because it is only when a man has taken a wife that he is considered a real man and that he reaches the peak of happiness, honor, and greatness. The Romans in their day did not confer any important responsibilities on any man who did not have a wife; they did not allow him to take up a public office or to perform any serious duties relating to the Republic. Homer used to say that men without wives were scarcely alive. And if you want further proof of women’s superior dignity and authority, just think about the fact that if a man is married to a wise, modest, and virtuous woman, even if he is the most ignorant, shameless, and corrupt creature who has ever lived, he will never, for all his wickedness, be able to tarnish his wife’s reputation in the least. But if, through some mischance, a woman is lured by some persistent and unscrupulous admirer into losing her honor, then her husband is instantly and utterly shamed and dishonored by her act, however good, wise, and respectable he may be himself — as if he depended on her, rather than she on him. And indeed, just as a pain in the head causes the whole body to languish, so when women (who are superior by nature and thus legitimately the head and superior of their husbands) suffer some affront, so their husbands , as appendages and dependents, are also subject to the same misfortune and come to share in the ills of their wives as well as in their good fortune.”
Leonora said: “Do you not really believe that men do not recognize our worth? In fact they are quite aware of it, and, even though envy makes them reluctant to confess this in words, they cannot help revealing in their behavior a part of what they feel in their hearts. For anyone can see that when a man meets a woman in the street, or when he has some cause to talk to a woman, some hidden compulsion immediately urges him to pay homage to her and bow, humbling himself as her inferior. And similarly at church, or at banquets, women are always given the best places, and men behave with deference and respect toward women even of a much lower social status. And where love is concerned, what can I say? Which woman, however low-born, is below men’s notice? Which do they shrink from approaching? Is a man of the highest birth ashamed to consort with a peasant girl or a plebian — with his own servant, even? It is because he senses that these women’s natural superiority compensates for the low status fortune has conferred on them. It’s very different in the case of women: except in some completely exceptional freak cases, you never find a noblewoman falling in love with a man of low estate, and, moreover, it’s rare even to find a woman loving someone (apart from her husband) of the same social status. And that’s why everyone is so amazed when they hear of some transgression on the part of a woman: it’s felt to be a strange and exceptional piece of news (I’m obviously excepting courtesans here), while in the case of men, no one takes any notice, because sin for them is a matter of course and an everyday occurrence that it doesn’t seem remarkable any more. In fact, men’s corruption has reached such a point that when there is a man who is rather better than the others and does not share their bad habits, it is seen as a sign of unmanliness on his part and he is regarded as a fool. Indeed, many men would behave better if it were not for the pressure of custom, but, as things stand, they feel it would be shameful not to be as bad as or worse than their fellows.”
Corinna said: “We’ve already proven that on all counts –ability, dignity, goodness, and a thousand other things– we are their superiors and they our inferiors. So I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t love us, except for the fact that, as I said before, men are by nature so cold and ungrateful that they cannot even be swayed by the influences of the heavens. Though another factor, as we were saying earlier, is their great envy of our merits: they are fully aware of our worth and they know themselves to be full of flaws that are absent in women. For when men have flaws, women have virtues; and if you need proof, it’s quite obvious that in women you find prudence and gentleness where men have anger; temperance where men have greed; humility in place of pride; continence in place of self-indulgence; peace in place of discord; and love in place of hatred. In fact, to sum up , any given virtue of the soul and mind can be found to a greater degree in women than in men.”
Cornelia exclaimed: “What poor wretches men are not to respect us as they should. We look after their households for them, their goods, their children, their lives — they’re hopeless without us and incapable of getting anything right. Take away that small matter of their earning money and what use are they at all? What would they be like without women to look after them? (And with such devotion) I suppose they’d rely on servants to run their households — and steal their money and reduce them to misery, as so often happens.”