Medieval PC

Our own term for the alleged sentimental revolution of the twelfth century, “Courtly Love,” is a not-very-accurate translation of one of the main phrases used in the period itself, namely Fin’amour. The medieval name suggests that, rather than being a two-hander, love is now considered a three-cornered match: the man, the woman, and some exterior canon or arbiter of taste. Courtly lovers seek not merely pleasure, but the right kind of pleasure; or perhaps we should say, they seek both erotic satisfaction and the quite different joys of negotiating a challenging obstacle course, demonstrating social mastery and asserting class superiority so as to get on in the world. Love for Success, we might say, or a fashion for Power Loving.

The other main medieval label, however, is Ars honesti amandi, which points to something quite different. Love is still a three-cornered game, but this time the arbiter is not class but ethics; not so much an attempt to distance oneself from the loving of peasants and brutish warriors through outward refinement, as an attempt to rethink the whole nature of the amatory transaction from the ground up. It has also been said that courtly love is one vertex of a possible triangle, of which the other two vertices are puritanism and brutality. As the noun suggests, loving is an art, and therefore has rules; employing your passions within this discipline, you can create a masterpiece. As the adjective suggests, if you do it right you are satisfying imperatives that transcend the usual business of human rutting, you are becoming a higher kind of creature. “Each day I grow better and am purified,” said Arnaut Daniel, “for I serve and reverence the most suave lady in the world.” The notion that they were improving men spiritually by allowing themselves to be flattered, served and obeyed greatly appealed to the women – as it does still.

Not that the work of art was destined for general appreciation; here the lovers had to be their own critics, as one of the rules was secrecy. In part this was mere prudence, as befitted a love affaire with the wife of a seigneur; in all cultures a great lord, practically by definition, has armed men at his command and a touchy sense of honour. The extremely crowded nature of the medieval household drove the literature in the direction of the garden – either in the literal sense, an screened enclosure or else a secret garden of the imagination.

It is a principle universally to be applied, however, that every exhortation to do or refrain from something implies that people are currently not doing it or not refraining from it. From which it follows that, previous to the launch of the courtly code of amatory correctness, knights and/or ladies must have been gossiping about their affaires. Perhaps the discretion rule was also a conscious attempt to reform the boasting and crude talk of unreconstructed male society, in the same way as the later ban on mentioning the name of an absent lady in the officer’s mess. The courtly romances thus tell us, not what the twelfth-century world was like, but what Chrétien de Troyes and his audience thought it ought to be like.

At any rate, the ideal of secrecy in erotic relations worked to remove sex from the arena of all social morality other than this courtly code itself; it was an important step towards the total privatisation of the love-relationship that climaxed in our time. By itself, however, this step may not have been sufficient, for the discretion rule was present in the courtly love culture created in ninth-century Iraq, of which the Provençal version was a wholesale and faithful translation. The second and vital step was the Church’s insistence on explicit bridal consent, which served accidentally to transplant, from the adulterous courtly affaire to the marriage, the seeds of the notion that the union of the two individuals is no one else’s business.

A second application of the principle that “a rule means that people were actually doing the opposite” is to the rule of constancy in love. That men tend not to be constant without a courtly code to exhort them to fidelity is not an inherently unreasonable notion. We all know that women generally want to be courted for longer than men generally want to court them prior to getting down to business. It is a trade-off for both parties: the woman wants to test the man’s commitment and the man does not want to waste time on a resistant customer. It follows that the courtly imperative of constancy represents a female victory in this tug-of-war, all the more so if the man is being dangled on a string indefinitely, or even made to display eternal devotion to the woman without ever getting his leg over. Whether the latter situation was what was really going on in courtly love is another story. At any rate, it was the female terms that were being thus enshrined in the code of amatory correctness. “My Lady tests how and to what degree my fondness goes,” said Duke William IX of Aquitaine, accounted the first Western troubadour.

A related rule of Fin’amour was that the man had to demonstrate his nobility of soul by suffering the pangs of love. The thicker he laid it on, the better; the more miserable he became, the worthier he became as a potential lover. This might be regarded as a sexual competition using emotional display rather than physical prowess, somewhat reminiscent of Geoffrey Miller’s suggestion of charm and wit as the motors of human sexual selection. If the advantages of selecting your sperm-donor on the basis of voluble suffering and maudlin self-pity are not immediately obvious, the same can be said for other aesthetic and behavioural criteria that women have employed down the ages. The pangs of love might alternatively be seen as an exaggeration, to the point of self-parody and often well beyond, of the necessary male demonstration of long-term intentions. Dying for love does tend to suggest a certain level of commitment, albeit one of little practical utility. The ethos of suffering also allowed for severe female testing of the male’s reliability in the form of the assaig, wherein the lovers had to sleep together without sexual relations. This both allowed the lover to demonstrate his commitment and gave him even more to complain about. That is, Courtly Love as the poetry of blue balls.

On the one hand, true love was held to ennoble the soul, and only such nobility could be rewarded by the grant of the lover’s desire; while on the other hand, in some stories this high-mindedness subverted by the device of a love-potion. Like the arrows of Eros among the Ancients, and our own popular notion of pheromones, the love potion strikes at random and takes no account of who deserves what. In this way the more cynical counter-currents within Courtly Love helped the genre to keep its feet on the ground.

Similarly, for every poet who is noisily dying of his love for the unattainable “belle dame sans merci,” there is another who implies that his suffering ought to be rewarded, or even comes right out and demands that it be so rewarded. The lover has done his part, praising and flattering the Lady with his noble and romantic agonies; now she should stop enjoying the poetry and get her kit off. This was, after all, a natural line of thought for the Western Middle Ages, the first human civilisation to organise itself entirely on contractual principles. Marriage was one sort of contract, and this was another, formulated, argued and enforced in deliberate defiance and parody of matrimony, exploiting the Church’s new doctrine that sexual contracts had to be freely entered into. Sex was still a contract, but a secret one between the two lovers rather than a public one between them and society.

Posted on April 24, 2010 at 10:44 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting On And Getting Off

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