To Come Or Not To Come

Some of the poets of courtly love repudiated the notion of contract, and went even further, insisting that the passion not be consummated physically at all. “It is no longer courtly love if it is materialised,” says Daude of Prades, “or if the Lady yields as reward.” “I have a lady friend, but I do not know who she is”, says Geoffrey Rudel, “for never, by my faith! have I seen her… and I love her well… No joy is so pleasing to me as the possession of that distant love.” It doesn’t sound as if he wanted actually to meet her and thus have his poetry spoilt. Another writer is even clearer: “Of donnoi he knows truly nothing who wants fully to possess his lady. Whatever turns into a reality is no longer love.” These hardliners could even advocate a practice called the assaig, whereby you slept together without carnal knowledge. This may have appealed to the Victorian revivalists, but should we take it seriously? Do we really believe in a whole class of lords and knights, men of wealth, power and violence, who went in en masse for a romantic masochism, rejoicing in unconditional submission to ladies, paying court to them but steadfastly refusing to come to bed if asked?

One possibility is that Languedoc had discovered Tantric sex, which heightens ecstasy by postponing or even excluding orgasm. Many human societies have believed that a man is assigned only a specific quantity of masculine virtue, or vital force, or precious bodily fluids – to put it bluntly, semen – and that this quantity should be carefully husbanded throughout his life. The European Middle Ages certainly held this view, while considering that female health required frequent release. Post coitum omne animal triste est, Galen had famously written, adding less famously praeter mulierem gallumque. The male experience is undoubtedly that “something has gone out of you”.

We may see an echo of this in Marcabru’s “He who is disposed to love with sensual love goes to war with himself, for a fool after he has emptied his purse casts a poor figure!” For a male who is proud of his erection, orgasm is a threat. We may also be forgiven for thinking that a noble would find it easier to tolerate this high-minded chastity with the Lady if he was also humping the scullery-maids and raping the shepherdesses. At the same time, he might find the sophisticated social games with his peers and betters far more interesting than mere sex with the hired help. Yet another interpretation is that it was all about seeing how far you could get to the edge without falling off, in terms of both not having sex and not getting executed by the lady’s husband.

Some commentators on courtly love have laughed at the notion of a platonic devotion and averred that the game was played to win and that husbands had ample reason to worry about adultery in the crowded emotional hothouse of the castle household. The belief in chivalrous and unphysical woman-worship may be an unfortunate side-effect of an Anglo-Saxon upbringing. Historians of an evolutionary cast of mind, however, point to the genetic benefits of successfully cuckolding a great lord; your kid gets to be the next Count. That none of the prose romances feature illegitimate offspring of the adulterous romance is inconclusive, as this might constitute evidence instead of the queasiness or prudence of the authors. And, when all is said and done, the romances were fiction, so that the author was not obliged to deal with real-world consequences if it would upset his plot arc, any more than Hollywood action directors are obliged to pay attention to the innocent bystanders who in real life would be killed and maimed in their action sequences.

That the hands-off approach was widespread is anyway falsified by the many courtly poems that are set in the bedroom; and there is a whole Provençal subgenre called the aubade, or lovers’ parting at dawn (think Romeo and Juliet, Act III Scene V). Only some of the literature is about pining for the unattainable Domina; just as much is about regulation of a reciprocal love-relationship or ongoing affaire.

It might to be more accurate to read the tradition in terms of a debate between advocates of non-consummation and defenders of an ordinary carnality, resulting in what Duby called “the invention of anticipation”. We all know that forbidden love tastes sweetest and is more potent, and also that measuring things out in small doses increases excitement. Guiraut Riquier wrote that the “five doors are Desire, Prayer, Service, Kissing and Doing, whereby Love perishes”. At first sight this seems like another non-consummationist manifesto, but then he continues, “the four degrees are honouring, dissimulating, serving well and waiting patiently”. For what? Waiting patiently is not the same as renunciation. Thus also Marcabru: “The welfare of lovers consists in Joy, Patience and Moderation… I approve that my Lady should long make me wait and that I should not have from her what she promised me”. Long make me wait logically implies that there should eventually come a time when he does not wait. So too Bernart de Ventadorn: “Since I am her liege subject wherever I find myself, to the point that I pledge myself to her, head bowed in absolute submission: and hands clasped, I surrender myself to her pleasure, and I wish to remain at her feet until she, as a sign of mercy, admits me where she undresses”. Perhaps we have misunderstood the hardliners, they may only be advocating a long period of self-discipline and self-titillation, the better to appreciate the consummation when it is finally achieved. As for the assaig, it is worth remembering that this is the word for “test”, cognate with the goldminer’s “assay”; the point is to see if the man loves a woman enough to sleep beside her without demanding sex, and once that has been established and the man assayed, she will know what to do with him.

G.K. Chesterton suggested that bridal couples should swear at the altar never to see one another again, whereupon they could have a rare old time sneaking in the bushes and climbing through windows; their pleasures would never pall by becoming habitual. Which may be the only way of reconciling Christian morality with the discovery of the Courtly Love phenomenon, namely that passion only flourishes in conditions of total freedom. On the other hand, the love that “perishes by Doing” is not the love of the Christian canonists, the steady affection of dilectio, but only the excitement of the unfamiliar. Not even the Chestertonian thought-experiment can ultimately reconcile love and passion.

Posted on April 29, 2010 at 09:53 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting On And Getting Off

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