Bachelor Knights On The Make

A quite different approach to Courtly Love is to see it as transference to the amatory sphere of the characteristic relationships, rituals and language of the feudal bond between a man and his lord; or the other way round, viewing the feudal bond as an eroticisation of politics. When you did homage, you knelt before your lord and placed your joined hands between his, a ceremonial act that is still echoed in formal proposals of marriage; and he might give you a ring to wear, which is where both Frodo’s Ring and our wedding ring actually come from. You were meant not only to serve but also to love your lord – as long as he did the right thing by you. Abstract political obedience was replaced by, or expressed in terms of, emotional affiliation. Meanwhile, medieval theology was explaining God and salvation in the language of feudal contracts, because that is what the audience understood; and so it sometimes happened that lords declared the Deity to be non-performing and thus in default.

Everyone had to be subordinate to someone else. A man was the vassal of his lord, who was the vassal of the king, who was a sort of vassal of God, either direct or via the Pope; a wife was subordinate to her husband; and a lover was the vassal of his lady. Or rather, he played at being her vassal, in order to flatter her, get her into bed, get on at court, or just for the sheer fun of the thing. Although it was not the age’s own name for it, our term Courtly Love is thus entirely appropriate, for this transposition of the rules of court sycophancy to the bedroom; whence also the surviving term “courtship,” meaning an amatory sucking-up. Since political allegiance, religion and sexual love all used much the same symbolic language, each mobilised the two others in support, resulting in a single devotional consciousness whose object could be God, the lord or the lady.

This emotional unity was further reinforced by the life-cycle of the knightly classes. As today in many Muslim countries, a boy-child lived in an entirely female world until a certain age, generally around seven, when he was abruptly transferred to an entirely male world. It is plausible, therefore, that the Lady carried the emotional charge of exile, of the lost mother. In addition, noble children were both wet-nursed and later fostered out, they went through puberty in a household other than that of their parents. Although the conscious motivation was probably to prevent “spoiling” by their mothers and sisters and to maintain extended-family alliances, they may also have known that this is psychologically healthier for the youngsters. The favourite fosterer was the maternal uncle. (Richard Dawkins once made a fool of himself by suggesting, on the basis of his mathematical genetics, that the mother’s brother actually has a greater investment in a child than the father, since he can be absolutely certain that they share genes, and that other disciplines might do well look at bonds with the maternal uncle; only to be told by the anthropologists that they had hardly been looking at anything else for the last century.) Being brought up your uncle is, perhaps, still an Oedipal situation, but not in quite the same way. And so perhaps the figure of the Lady, addressee of so many romantic longings, the Perfect Woman, was an amalgam of your lost mother, your wet-nurse and your auntie. It is also worth noting that Courtly Love and the cult of the Virgin Mary get under way at about the same time, and undeniably overlap – with an erotic approach to the Mother of God and a religious approach to the Beloved. The iconography of the Virgin shows her to be a woman of the Byzantine imperial class. The imagination of the medieval knight was dominated by three archetypal women, all perhaps mother-substitutes: the Queen of this world (his lord’s wife); the Queen of Heaven; and the Queen of the Fairies.

Another decisive difference from our middle-class world was that not everyone was expected to marry. In any landholding class, whether noble or peasant, that means infinite division of holdings and thereby penury. One way to deal with that is to have only one heir – but in an age of high child and adult mortality, that is the fast track to family extinction. The only other way is to have as many children as you can, make only the oldest your heir, and find something to do with the rest. In fact, one of the social changes of the era immediately preceding courtly love was primogeniture, which meant that the family was conceived less as a lateral “clan” and more as a vertical “lineage”. The prettier daughters could be married to people you wanted on your side, the ugly ones entrusted to a nunnery. According to Duby, illegitimate daughters became what he hair-raisingly calls “the pleasure-reserve of the noble house”. It was the surplus unmarried sons who could be a pain; you didn’t want all of them to become bishops or monks, because then you couldn’t easily get them back again if you lost the heir. As for the knights, they were not yet country squires; contrary to the popular paradigm, the business of enfeoffment stopped above their level, and most twelfth-century knights were thus unlanded, unmarried and employed by their lords as garrison soldiers and house enforcers.

Unwed men were not taken seriously; a 50-year-old knight bachelor did not rate the appellation “senior” that might be accorded to a much younger married man. It is not until around 1200, when the weakening of kinship bonds led to a dilution on the ban on consanguineous marriage, and at the same time the economic expansion led to new lordships and even purely financial fiefs, that families could allow younger sons to marry. This meant that “junior” and “senior” became words for stages in life rather than permanent states. From this it followed that in the earlier period a young man became a real man, a “senior,” at the hands of a woman; not in the sense of losing his cherry, but by being granted a wife by his lord – or rather, given the lord’s need to consult the expert on family relationships – by his Lady.

As in most other cultures, husbands tended to be older than their wives, at the same time as there was a surplus of single young men in the household. In such systems, women always have to choose between power, wealth and respectability on the one hand, and love and passion on the other; unless they try to have it both ways and walk the tightrope.

The twin knightly obsessions were loot (or performance bonuses, as we say now) and heiresses; some knights would make good, most would not. Occasionally, in special circumstances, you might be able to find some loot or heiresses entirely on your own account, but generally you had to serve faithfully and wait for your lord to give you some. It was a slightly less brutal version of the way a warrior chieftain of the Dark Ages paid his companionage in gold, girls and glory; rather than tossing you a captive to rape and enslave as in the good old days, your lord might find it expedient to marry you to someone else’s daughter and settle you down with her property to guard some strategic location.

One of the consequences of this demography, it has been said, was that men married up; the heiress was more nobly born than the knight who won her. I am not sure how this would work mathematically; whom would the knights’ sisters marry? Assuming, however, that the statement is correct, it follows that the cocktail of emotions mixed in the knight’s heart would include, not only the lost mother, the Virgin Mary, sexual desperation and feudal loyalty, but also social deference. An ideal knightly lover was supposed to treat the Lady as being “above him” because that is precisely what she was. The social superiority of the heiress that he hoped to marry would be shared by the other man’s wife whom he hoped to bed.

Similarly, she was supposed to educate him in courtly values, because that was precisely what she had to do; her superior culture was not, as some moderns appear to think, a necessary concomitant of her sex, but rather a result of her higher social class. That those moderns automatically attribute superior civilisation to the female of the species may even be a result of the Courtly Love phenomenon itself, and of the amatory and poetic conventions that link it to our own time. In the absence of superior education and true courtesy, the modern woman gives herself airs on the strength of her genteel decorum, or correct speech as it is now called.

It is worth noting that what poets say about the beauty of their ladies cannot be taken at face value when said ladies are their patronesses. People think they know that Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most beautiful woman of her time, but we do not know this for a fact. What we do know is that at one point she was the richest heiress of her time, and that she paid a lot of poets, who then claimed that she was the most beautiful woman of her time. So what else could they do?

In some small households the lord’s wife might be the only woman of quality present, and the ferocity of the romantic tension can then hardly be imagined. In larger establishments there might be quite a lot of well-born females in various roles. But enough to go round – never. All this meant that the lord had the whip hand. It has even been suggested that the whole Courtly Love phenomenon may be seen as a way for the lord to manipulate his knights and bind them more closely to himself – he showed off his noble wife and made the sexually frustrated retainers jump through hoops for her, which in effect made them re-enact their political loyalty to himself in their own erotic imaginations. Duby, for example, describes the Lady as the head of the lord’s “instructional system”. It might also be suggested that the lover’s profession of undying devotion to his Lady is actually meant for the lord’s ears, as an advertisement of the subordinate’s capacity for loyalty; that is, courtly love was actually a rather peculiar sort of job application. If both operations seem rather hazardous – for the lord most definitely did not want to dangle his wife low enough for anyone to grab her, and the knight even more definitely did not want his lord seriously to suspect that he had grabbed her – well, a military class enjoys risk, and there can be no game without rules, rewards and penalties.

We have mentioned ‘bedroom’ casually, but in fact modern Westerners can have no idea of the emotional freight that was then carried by the notion of a room in which one slept alone. There was only one Chair in the church, for the bishop (whence ex cathedra), only one Chair in the school (whence the still surviving “Chair of History” etc), and only one or two Chairs in the castle, for the lord and his lady; canons, pupils, knights and everyone else sat on benches. So, too, there was only one Bed in the castle, for the lord and lady; everyone else slept on pallets or worse. Whether or not these others had sex with one another, they slept communally. The Bed was therefore a good deal more than a piece of furniture; it represented a unique privacy, the power of secrets, sexually potent lordship and a sacred space.

Posted on April 26, 2010 at 10:57 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting On And Getting Off

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