The Invention Of The Mistress

Perhaps paradoxically, considering the medieval roots of romance and the role of contractual relations, the late twentieth century’s rethinking of amatory behaviour rejected the idea of contract entirely; a wife must now explicitly and freely consent to each sexual act afresh, as if it were the first date. Both Héloïse and the courtly poets would have understood the need for this; in fact they went further and claimed that true love was only possible outside marriage, when chemically purified of property, social approval and habit. Modern relationships are an uneasy compromise between vestigial institutions of public pair-bonding and parenting on the one side, and the romantic-passion tradition on the other. It may be that, in a way, the truest descendant of the Courtly Love tradition is not the older sort of romance novel that so unrealistically ended just before the housework and babies began, but the subsequent Chicklit portrayals of wild extramarital encounters with undomesticated men, the “zipless fuck”.

One of the most drastic aspects of the re-legislation of sexual relationships in the twelfth century, similar to our own attempts to transform consciousness, was the modelling of the woman as the dominant partner – to the point of mental sadomasochism and sometimes well beyond. Much can be said about the sociology and psychology of this particular move, and what, if anything, it meant for real sexual relationships as opposed to mere poetry. And yet, even considered solely as an ideal, or as a playful fantasy, it was something new in human affairs: the notion that relationships should be entirely subject to female regulation. A wife might be property, but a lover was now a Mistress. For this is indeed the birth of that most ambiguous word, which means a regular sexual partner other than one’s wife but is at the same time the feminine of Master. So, too, the troubadours’ domna, which has become our dame, is the feminine of Dominus.

Men following the new amatory code had to submit to the woman and be ordered around and set often senseless or humiliating assignments; Lancelot, for example, found himself in the dog-house after a moment’s hesitation in the face of a task that forced him to choose between his sexual obedience and his knightly honour. Among other things, the Courtly Love literature was a debate about the correct relationship between the public and the private spheres and the various male roles. That men had most of the power in real life was no reason for them not to play at masochism, quite the contrary; it is said that the typical client of a modern Dominatrix, that is, a prostitute specialising in sadism, is a judge or other powerful man, and that many powerful career women also need to be dominated in bed. Perhaps there is a balance in the soul that needs to be re-established.

The fact that this was a conscious intellectual experimentation with sexual personae is demonstrated by the way in which some poets goofed around with the conventions. For example, one poet says that he’ll have no more of this effeminate sucking-up to female pride, he will have her love him first; rather than the convention of Mistress and slave, he demands a relationship of equals. But then his confidence collapses, he takes it all back and asks to do penance – in her bedroom.

Posted on April 25, 2010 at 10:59 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting On And Getting Off

Leave a Reply