Marriage As Prostitution; Héloïse And Marie De France

Our sexual individualism is the product not only of the Church’s doctrine of consensual marriage, but also of the simultaneous elaboration of what we call Courtly Love, which was not envisaged as existing or even possible between husband and wife. Just what it meant socially, politically and economically to praise and cultivate romantic love and/or sexual shenanigans between the wife of the lord and a knight of his retinue can be discussed, but this was indeed the situation envisaged by much of the genre.

In 1174 the ladies of the court of Champagne famously decreed that, “Love cannot extend its rights over two married persons. For indeed lovers grant one another mutually and freely without being impelled by any motive of necessity, whereas husband and wife are held by their duty to submit their wills to each other and to refuse each other nothing.” Now, what is this but an echo and development of the doctrine of Héloïse, the daughter of a cathedral canon and his concubine? “God knows I never sought anything in you but yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours,” this first apostle of free love had written to Abelard: “I looked for no marriage-bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours. The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore.” Or again, “And a woman should realise that if she marries a rich man more readily than a poor one, and desires her husband more for his possessions than for himself, she is offering herself for sale. Certainly any woman who comes to marry through desires of this kind deserves wages, not gratitude, for clearly her mind is on the man’s property, not himself, and she would be ready to prostitute herself to a richer man, if she could.” Love, then, cannot coexist with property relations, which means that it cannot exist within the sort of marriage made by the secular aristocracy.

The fact that the Lady is economically independent of her beau made love a seller’s market. Both Héloïse and the courtly ladies would have entirely understood Byron when he asked: “Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife, He would have written sonnets all his life?” – and they would also have considered that Laura had the better deal.

A final paradox is that the judgement of the Ladies’ Court of Champagne is diametrically opposed to Church teachings, but also dependent on them. In the doctrine of the marriage debt it sees, not the casuistry that opens a back door to forbidden carnal pleasure, nor even a form of sexual equality; it finds only a bedroom obligation that mirrors the economic obligations uppermost in the minds of the couple’s family.

In their insistence that love could only be voluntary, Heloïse, the ladies of Champagne and the Church were therefore at one. But it was not quite the same kind of love they had in mind, even disregarding the fact that the courtiers were promoting adultery. What Heloïse felt for Abelard was not the dilectio of the canonists but an Eros so unbridled as to lead to love-making in a monastic refectory, and even ten years later, to daydreaming about sex during the Mass itself. Not least because there appears to have been a sado-masochistic element in their relationship, this is what we nowadays call sexual obsession. Nor was the love sung by the troubadours anything like dilectio, but rather a game of siege and seduction, dominance and submission.

In the twelfth century neither the courtly ladies nor the Church envisaged marriage being founded upon passionate love. Having diametrically opposite valuations of sexual obsession, it was for opposite reasons that they were agreed in believing that it had nothing to do with marriage.

The twelfth-century theology of marriage is in fact at one and the same time the ancestor and the opposite of our own assumption, that it is the sexual that constitutes the private. Not only have we become so accustomed to the idea of a bride’s explicit consent to her disposition in matrimony that we have forgotten that it is in fact the recent invention of a semi-barbarous culture on the western fringe of medieval civilisation, but we have also joined this idea together with the other great twelfth-century notion, namely that true love requires perfect freedom. The latter sentiment was certainly so connected with the churchly programme of consent to marriage as to be considered a borrowing, but the romantic concept of consent went well beyond the ecclesiastical understanding. For instance, the theologians considered that free consent and indissolubility were opposite sides of the same coin, intended to contrast with the lay emphasis on both patriarchal disposition of females to gain property and on quick divorces to get a better deal; the architects of the romantic sensibility meanwhile separated the consent from the indissolubility. If romantic love is the only basis for marriage, and romantic love can only exist in a state of free consent, it follows that such consent must be revocable at any time. Its function is thus ultimately to reunite marriage and concubinage, which is where we came in.

A Swedish survey has identified three different female perceptions of marriage over the last seventy years or so: the prewar generation who believed in Romance but nevertheless married the best provider; the postwar generation, who believed in free love, married the man with which they were infatuated, and repented at leisure; and the present generation, who after seeing the mess Mom made of her life, is afraid of passion, cultivates best friends of the opposite sex, and then marries them for peace and stability. The canonists of the twelfth century would have been very proud of them.

Posted on April 23, 2010 at 11:04 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting On And Getting Off

Leave a Reply