Saturday, 13 August 2016

Three presentations of Courtly Love: Andreas Capellanus, Chaucer and Shakespeare

The Concept of Courtly Love
   Each time I visit a castle I think of this ideology. Whatever it was and whether or not it was carried out in practice, Courtly Love was not like the innocent and cheerful affection seen in this image.
   We believe the concept to have started in the 11th century in the South of France and, as it developed in Troubadour poetry and other writings, it became complex and differentiated. To summarise briefly: there were four cornerstones of Humility, Courtesy, Adultery and the Religion of Love; the male was always abject, obedient to every wish or whim of the lady; accepting of her rebukes; despairing, sick and sorrowing. Yet he has faith in the God of Love who will not betray his fidelity and might tame the wilful beauty. Meanwhile he practises a form of noble and elegant courtesy, typical of the higher classes.
   It was a kind of tragic madness with a code of service modelled on the feudal system. The lover was often of more lowly status and the devoted slave of a married and unobtainable lady whom he believed he served. For her he suffered a  malady, rendering him thin and pale, prone to writing verse or songs and on the verge of expiring. The lady's refusal was seen as cruelty for which he might die - though we might remember that this word also designated orgasm.
      Love entered through the eyes and the arrow pierced the heart. Secrecy was at its centre and its progress or otherwise was marked by frustrations, tasks, quests and obstacles and yet it was perceived as an educative and ennobling experience. Any factual basis may lie in the situation of lordly households containing young men in training, too poor to marry and few women - with the master away on a crusade. It is difficult to ascertain what actually happened or if this notion was merely the material of poetry.

Andreas Capellanus
   In the twelfth century he wrote of the rules of Courtly Love. I have cherry-picked a few of these: "It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing"; "When made public love rarely endures"; "Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved"; "When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates"; "He whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little"; "Every act of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved"; "A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved." (Translation by J.J. Parry)

Thanks to Debora B. Schwartz 

Geoffrey Chaucer
   There is much to be said about Chaucer's treatments of this theme but I will mention 3 from The Canterbury Tales.
   The Knight's Tale tells of two knights, Palamon and Arcite, who both fall in love with Emelye, instantly, on first seeing her: "And therwithal he bleynte [blenched, started back] and cride, 'A!'" is the reaction of Palamon, as though he were stung in the heart. Despite not knowing her and, in Arcite's case, restricting his "service" to "crueel torment ... peyne and wo", not sleeping, drinking or eating so that he became "lene" with hollow eyes and pale complexion, and wailing all night, the men allow their passion to destroy their friendship and the tale ends in terrible slaughter in a tournament. The Knight may be a mercenary, misunderstanding courtly conduct. (See Terry Jones' book.)
   In The Franklin's Tale there is a happy marriage, set in Brittany, but, when the knight Arveragus who has wooed and won Dorigen in courtly fashion through woe, pain and distress coupled with great enterprises, goes abroad, a potentially adulterous relationship intrudes. The marriage had been perfect but Aurelius has been watching from the wings, suffering, writing a great many songs in different formats and languishing in the prescribed manner. A tale of promises and magic ensues which ends in resolution owing to the "gentillesse" [nobility of spirit] of Arveragus. The Franklin is attempting to describe noble behaviour from his own lower rank.
   On a lighter note, Chaucer satirises the notion of Courtly Love in The Miller's Tale. Here the wife, Alison, has a relationship with a clerk, Nicholas, who grabbed her by her private parts to woo her - successfully. She is loved from afar by Absolom, a clever, talented and stylish man who happens to be squeamish about farting. One night he sees a chance of making love to Alison and climbs a ladder so to do - but she sticks her bottom out of the window to receive his kiss. This hairy encounter with the real puts a brake on his passion and he plans vengeance with a hot ploughshare. This time, Nicholas pokes his behind out of the window and farts but Absolom, despite being nearly blinded in the blast, has his iron at the ready. Chaos ensues. This fabliau [vulgar tale] is obviously a coarse but hilarious parody of the refinements of Courtly Love.

William Shakespeare
Image by dramatica.
The rose was a symbol of the lady
and her sexuality
in the allegorical Roman de la Rose
  It is easy to forget that, at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is in love with another woman, Rosaline. He is reported as behaving like the traditional courtly lover: waking early to walk and weep in a grove of sycamores (the symbolic tree of melancholy lovers), going home at dawn to retire to a dark room and being "so secret and so close" that he resembles a bud bitten by a worm. When he enters, he presents himself as the rejected suitor of a woman who has vowed chastity, and talks in poetic paradoxes such as "cold fire" and "sick health". He stresses his grief, uses hyperbole and speaks of a "madness most discreet" - and yet Shakespeare hints at the falsity of his pose by having him suddenly demand: "Where shall we dine?" Courtly love is shown here in contrast to the real, mutual and consummated love he has for Juliet, the sight of whom drives Rosaline from his mind.

  The concept had a long and wide-ranging life and we may well ask ourselves if it has ever truly died: are there echoes still in our century in songs and poems of elements of the code?
   After reading about such self-denying conduct you may fancy a large slice of CAKE or visit a castle where the addiction to Courtly Love may have held sway, perhaps those that were more of a residence than a fortification. I suggest Raglan Castle or Caldicot Castle.

No courtly lover would have eaten this!

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