Worshipping Ladies, Raping Peasants

It is most unfortunate that the phenomenon of Courtly Love was so popularised and painted in the High Victorian era, as part of the Gothic Revival and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It bequeathed to us the fatal ideas that there really existed a form of courtly love that did not at any point involve actual (sweaty, sticky) sex; that a man could and indeed ought to worship the woman from afar without expecting, hoping, or even desiring to get his leg over; and that a woman should accept this worship as her due without feeling obliged or moved to make any return. This threefold ideal appeared to be part of the mental furniture of at any rate several generations of Englishwomen and their colonial cousins. It is probably just as well that they didn’t know much about the actual home life of the Rossettis.

It is sometimes imagined that the, “I’m dying of my impossible love for you” schtick was the only mode in which twelfth-century poets treated sex. On the contrary; contemporary with these troubadour maunderings were several other genres that reflected more authentic dealings of knights, courtiers and scholars with ordinary women. The Carmina Burana are a vast collection of love-poems (as well as nature poems, drinking and gambling poems, and parodies of the liturgy) ranging from the tender to the bawdy; most give the impression of being written by students to, for or about the girls of the their dreams, or a real girlfriend whom they have to leave in order to go up to university. Some, however, are downright nasty, and their ideology is borne out by the chief contemporary theorist of courtly love himself: “And if you should, by some chance, fall in love with such women, be careful to puff them up with lots of praise and then, when you find a convenient place, do not hesitate to take what you seek and to embrace them by force”, counsels Andreas Cappellanus (one hopes) ironically. The pastourelle genre of the Carmina Burana described this sort of transaction from the male point of view: a shepherdess spots a scholar reading under a tree and says, “come play with me”; another shepherdess offers her body to the passer-by if he can rescue her sheep; a girlfriend fights her defloration with nails and knees but eventually falls asleep with – so he says – a satisfied smile. Perhaps more honest is the poet who admitted that the woman didn’t enjoy the sex with him and was terrified of what her family would do to her. Another genre, the frauenlied, is a lament describing these experiences from the female point of view. Might we suspect that the troubadour had raped a peasant or two on the way to his next gig, where he sang about his pure platonic devotion to the high-born lady? Yes, we might.

The original Arthurian stories are a bit more explicit than the Victorians as to what precisely capture by a Giant could mean for a woman. He “wants to have carnal knowledge of the virgin,” says Wace, “but she is tender and her body cannot bear it. He is too tall and too large, too ugly, too enormous and too heavy. Her soul is driven from her body; Helen cannot hold up under his weight.” In other words, she was fucked to death. So, too, in Chrétien’s Yvaine: “The giant stops and calls out he will give (the daughter) to be taken by his lowest servants, because he himself does not love her enough to be besmirched by possessing her. She will have well over a thousand of these ruffians, over and over again, and they will be lousy and naked like slime and scum, and every one will have his money’s worth.” The stakes were, therefore, rather more serious than handkerchiefs fluttering on the end of the lance.

Who then is this Giant? Probably the sturdy peasant. The young knight was actually unsure whether he really could take him down mano a mano, and so was obliged to sneer at him as a brutish subhuman. (Just as Flora was the cleric’s “material girl,” Robin was the name of the sturdy peasant lad who could give the noble sprog a sound thrashing; which suggests that the ennobling of Robin of Sherwood was a later accretion.) Since the knight was, as we have seen, given to raping the peasant’s wife and daughters, worrying about the Ogre’s capture of noble damsels might be seen as either the knight’s subconscious guilt or more likely his fear of retaliation in kind – the dread of a one-man class war that he might in fact lose.

The idea that the romances of Chrétien de Troyes prescribe only chivalrous behaviour of knights to one another’s women also requires much modification. In one book he has a character say: “The maiden was my lover, but I was not hers, because she never deigned to love me or to call me lover or to do anything good for me, since I loved her against her will. I took her from her lover, the man whose company she kept. I killed him and led her off.” The rules of the game are further elaborated in his Lancelot: “The custom and policy at that time were as follows: any knight meeting a damsel who is alone should slit his own throat rather than fail to treat her honourably, if he cares about his reputation. For if he takes her by force, he will be shamed forever in the courts of all lands. But if she is led by another, and if some knight desires her, is willing to take up his weapon and fight for her in battle, and conquers her, he can without shame or blame do with her as he will.” Moral: it will not be all right with the knight; it almost seems as if the woman is desired less for herself than as a means of keeping score against other men, which is entirely consonant with what we know about male fraternities. Or else Mark Twain was right and the knights practised “Comanche Rules”, where the women voluntarily deserted to the stronger.

Another piece of advice on peasant-raping may shed light on what was going on back at the castle: “And if it should happen that desire seizes you to love a peasant woman, and if you can go all the way, you should not control yourself. On the contrary, you should take your pleasure on the spot, without seeking further permission, and force yourself on her to the best of your ability…. For this is the custom of peasant women, who never do want to grant their love. Despite a man’s skill in eloquent pleading with her, the more elegantly he pleads, the more churlish will he find her. Therefore he will have to use a little force.” This suggests the assumption that sufficiently elegant pleading would in fact gain a well-bred woman’s body, that a woman ought to make a decent surrender to a good opponent. As mentioned earlier, there is an implied contract in courtly love – the exchange of eloquent flattery for sex – that the peasant woman is violating.

Posted on April 27, 2010 at 10:54 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting On And Getting Off

Leave a Reply