How do we talk about love in the Middle Ages?

Professor emeritus of Medieval literature at the University of Le Mans, Joël Blanchard was a specialist in late medieval literature. He worked extensively with political figures such as Philippe de Commynes and Louis XI and edited many works from this period. on Love poems, he left his favorite fields to stir up the court literature, its relationship with love and with women. With mixed success.

The book essentially deals with respectful literature and its avatars. The expression “loving love”, invented by Gaston Paris in 1883, did not exist in the Middle Ages, preferring the expression “end of love» (“Pure love” in Occitan). This poetic form, appearing around XIe and XIIe centuries, celebrating the love between a knight servant and his noble lady, according to the very precise codes that gave rise to the social order and the hierarchy between lord and vassal.

Of course, this new poetic form does not arise suddenly: it takes its roots from ancient traditions. The texts of St. Paul and the Church fathers were very famous to the writers of the Middle Ages and comprised an important matrix. Augustine’s theory, which promoted marriage as a cure for lust, particularly influenced the view of love in the Middle Ages.

Tests for
“could be better”

The development of a discourse on the love of literature in XIIe century also due to the rediscovery of ancient texts and the Gregorian reform, this great business of Church reform that changed relations between clergy and laity, but also between men and women.

Among the ancient texts, sulfur The art of love of the Roman poet Ovid occupies a special place. Always copied in XIIe century, this manual is full of advice for men and women seeking seduction, in one or less honest way: it gives the poets of the Middle Ages a framework of thought. Finally, medical discourse also influences poetic expressions of love: doctors sometimes associate respectful love with pain, because it involves suffering. Too much love, not enough love, all of these can contribute to mood imbalance and can cause illness.

These theological and medical discourses were accompanied by social organization in the second half of the Middle Ages to model the love court. Most of the themes of etiquette are already present in ten poems dedicated to Guillaume, Duke of Aquitaine, in the late 11th century.e and at the beginning of the twelfthe century.

Themes of love from afar,
loss and prohibition are
at the heart of this creative literature
new patterns of speaking love.

Like William, troubadours who sing of reverent love are often aristocrats who express compassionate love. The woman’s love was won by the exploits of war. The petitioner had to submit to the tests imposed on the woman, especially the assag (the Occitan “test”), a night at her side where the knight poet should not. “to act immeasurably”that is, do not commit adultery with her.

These tests are aimed at the melhorar (“become better”) of the reverent lover, that is, at his moral progress: “Respect is the love that takes over the barrier so that it becomes a habit, a much greater joy, a joy.” The respectful knight must show modesty and patience and resist “lauzengiers”, slanderous people. Themes of love from afar, the loss of a woman, or even prohibitions are also at the heart of this much literature, creating new patterns of expression of love.

A misogynistic literature?

The knight who served thus derives his legitimacy from the love of his woman, but also from his position as a writer: in XIVe century, Guillaume de Machaut combined amorous vassalage, female subjugation, and service associated with writing. This aristocratic position associated with love was reinforced in the late Middle Ages, for example with the creation, on February 14, 1401, of the Court of Love, an association of gentleman poets seeking to celebrate women and cultivate in poetry. The court, organized in the model of the princes courts of the time, had up to 952 members!

The court literature has also generated controversies, such as that of Romance in Roses. the Novel is a work, composed in two episodes, first by Guillaume de Lorris in the 1230s, then taken more than thirty years after his death by Jean de Meun. This is the story of a dream, in which the author-narrator is in a beautiful garden inhabited by metaphors and personifications such as Love, Reason, Jealousy, or the Old Woman and Friend. In the part composed by Jean de Meun, the highest, the tone changes: Jean de Meun was inspired by the doctrines of Aristotle and The Art of Love. More than 300 manuscripts of the work remain, with additions or deletions.

the Romance in Roses provoked much debate and controversy. Others, such as Philippe de Mézières, attest that the Romance in Roses not fair to women. Since 1401, a debate has raged in the literary spheres: Jean de Montreuil defends Jean de Meun’s genius, while he opposes the famous Christine de Pizan and Jean Gerson.

The latter reprimands Novel and especially his mocking view of love. Christine de Pizan advises, for example, on reading The Holy Comedy by Dante instead Novel and to Ovid, whom he despised. the Romance in Roses so that “read and understand as a text aimed against women”.

Moreover, this is not the only blatantly misogynistic writing of the Middle Ages: other texts describe amorous relationships between men and women as destructive. Fabliaux are the kinds of stories that always have their theme in married life and sexuality: the woman there is always dishonest, deceitful and unsatisfied.

At this point, Mathéolus, a lawyer who married a widow, writes wailing about her unhappy marriage and the extraordinary consequences for her: she considered herself a martyr to the marriage. These misogynistic discourses are superimposed on court love and provide a complementary insight into the way in which the medieval was considered love literature.

Gender Anachronisms

The ambitious subtitle of Love poems is Sexuality, gender, power, but it is difficult to understand why. True, the history of the genre is trendy and we can only enjoy it. However, it is not enough to proclaim that one is studying gender in order to truly adopt a gender approach. It’s in this Love poems disappointing and contains, in fact, a synthesis of the poetic discourse of the second half of the Middle Ages and not a work that addresses gender and sexuality.

XII cannot be considerede century as a “century of freedoms of all kinds”, simply because poets sing of love for woman.

The introduction already shows all the limitations that this beautiful subtitle must bring: the genre is only superficially defined. Other concepts have not yet been developed. The reader will never know what medieval love really was. The history of emotions and feelings, however, invites us to put the application of these ideas into context: love is above all a social construct and responds to different patterns depending on the season.

In addition, Joël Blanchard quickly slides from love to friendship or sexuality, but without establishing boundaries between these ideas even in the Middle Ages, sexuality was never correlated. in the love of the Present. So one cannot consider XIIe century as a “century of freedoms of all kinds”simply because the poets sing of love for the woman.

The more problematic is the women’s area of ​​work. Gender studies invite researchers not to make anachronisms and not to exaggerate or downplay the place of women in history. The use of the terms “feminism” or “anti-feminism”, as the author does, is never justified: the Middle Ages were certainly misogynistic, but they were ignorant of the ideas of female liberation and did not conceptualize neither the type according to these grids.

Talking about free women in connection with Héloïse’s writing of Abelard or the bourgeois nature of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer’s eponymous story is also an anachronistic reading. She really starts with a good feeling, that qualifying misogyny is intrinsic in medieval society, but she ignores the impossible for women to free themselves from a male referent, except perhaps in widowhood and in specific circumstances.

Where were the writers of the Middle Ages?

Finally, the gender approach means constantly confronting the place of men and women, without separating the latter. In this sense, the very structure of the book shows a certain misunderstanding of the concept: two of the fourteen chapters are devoted to female authors.

The first is only ten pages long, the second deals almost exclusively with Christine de Pizan, whose work is well known to Joël Blanchard. We would have liked to more clearly compare the poets ’word to the word of troubadours and beyond Christine de Pizan’s: the insistence on unique women hid the group of other medieval women writers.

In general, Love poems did not achieve its subtitle goals and it is even more unfortunate that the publisher (Passés Composites) seeks to show the dynamic thinking of history, especially for public attention. The dynamics of gender studies deserve better. Love poems yet it remains an enjoyable read and is full of examples that, failing to speak of the genre, illustrate the dynamics of Medieval literature itself.

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