Tristan and Iseult, Lancelot and Guinevere, Aeneas and Dido, Troilus and Criseyde, Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura… Intense love of man and woman is a central subject in European literature. As the names above indicate, too, there is no clear distinction made between people who had historical existence and those who have only ever existed in imaginary fictions. This paper traces the development of literary portrayals of love during the High Middle Ages, from the 12th to the 14th centuries. Modern European love literature began with crafted lyrics and fictional narratives about power and oppression, identity and difference, but later we find writers who claim to be writing about their personal experiences.
In the middle ages and the renaissance, the male lover is usually the central figure; in many cases the woman does not even realize how much she is loved. In many works, the initial focus is on the conflicts in the male psyche. The ideal of love looked for, if not always found, is a situation where the woman and the man experience identically strong feelings for one another. Once the male has expressed his feelings, the central conflict within the woman centers on how she should respond, given her position in society.
Society is present because the women and men represented in this literature, and for whom it was written, are economically and politically powerful, part of the ruling class usually, and therefore concerned with their fragile reputation. Conflict between the private and the public provokes a demand for secrecy. The lovers find themselves isolated, enclosed in a private world of intense and conflictual feelings; this aspect of romantic love may even be partly responsible for the development of western individualism.
It began in southern France when some poets began to wrestle with the Problem of the Feminine. In the following centuries writers in all the European countries began to write about the relationship between men and women. Some produced ‘love lyrics’ while many others wrote narrative fiction. These fictional narratives about knights, ladies, and love, are usually called ‘romances’. It is because love is so important in the romances that any intense and socially troubling form of love came to be called ‘romantic love.’
Around 1100, Guilhem IX was Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine, in south-western France. He was a poet, too, and a vigorous soldier, who was not accustomed to control his sexual appetites; he wrote a number of poems in which he tells how women met along the road become his sexual partners in a very ‘unromantic’ although sometimes rather exhausting way. But one day he wrote a new poem, Farai chansoneta nueva, and European love literature has not been the same since:
I shall make a new song
before the wind blows and it freezes and rains.
My lady (ma dona) is trying and testing me,
to find out how much I love her.
Well, no matter what quarrel she makes,
she will not loose me from her bond.
Rather I become her servant, surrender to her,
so she can write my name in her contract.
Now don’t go thinking I must be drunk
if I love my good lady;
for without her I cannot live…
In another of Guilhem’s poems we find almost all the other themes that go to make up what used to be called ‘courtly love’ (the expression is not used today, it is often called fin’amors instead), and which became ‘Petrarchanism’ in the renaissance:
Already rejoicing, I begin to love,
for I am made better by one who is, beyond dispute
the best a man ever saw or heard.
By her joy a sick man can recover,
by her wrath one well can die,
a wise man turn to childishness,
a fine man see his beauty change,
the most courtly man become a churl,
and any churl become courtly.
In these poems we are struck by the strong conflict and tension between joy and pain, private feelings and social roles. The woman’s beauty has such power that it can bring the man life or death, depending on whether her response is kind or cruel, positive or negative. This soon developed into an extended parody of the Christian religion’s language about mercy and grace, the medieval Love Religion game.
A few years later the troubadour Cercamon could write paradoxical words of a kind that was going to be repeated for centuries to come:
I neither die, nor live, nor get well,
I do not feel my suffering, and yet it is great suffering,
because I cannot tell the future of her love,
whether I shall have it, or when,
for in her is all the pity
which can raise me up or make me fall.
I am pleased when she maddens me
when she makes me stand with open mouth staring,
I am pleased when she laughs at me,
or makes a fool of me to my face, or my back;
for after this bad the good will come
very quickly, if such is her pleasure.
Finally, between 1150 and about 1180, Bernart de Ventadorn brought this poetic game to its perfection:
In good faith, without deceit,
I love the best and most beautiful.
My heart sighs, my eyes weep,
because I love her so much and I suffer for it.
What else can I do, if Love takes hold of me,
and no key but pity can open up
the prison where he has put me,
and I find no sign of pity there?
This love wounds my heart
with a sweet taste, so gently,
I die of grief a hundred times a day
and a hundred times revive with joy.
My pain seems beautiful,
this pain is worth more than any pleasure;
and since I find this bad so good,
how good will be the good when this suffering is done.
What is most striking is the paradoxical terminology; the poet takes such pleasure in expressing his unhappiness. Love is so wonderful that even all the frustrations imposed by social inequality, and the near-impossibility of union, cannot weaken it. The poems, though, are clearly ‘complaints’ in the sense that they are veiled attacks on the lady’s present coldness, and represent hope that she will later accept the offered love. The pain is used as a psychological weapon in an attempt to compell the woman to yield to the man’s will.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
In one poem Bernart’s lover says that he is suffering more than Tristan did in his love for ‘Izeut la blonda.’ To understand this, we have to turn to Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204); she was Guilhem IX’s grand-daughter, she probably brought Bernart de Ventadorn to her court in Poitiers in the 1170s. She married King Louis VII of France in 1137 when she was 15, but in 1152 she divorced him and married Henry Plantagenet, who soon after became King Henry II of England. One of her daughters by the first marriage, Marie, married the Count of Champagne in 1159, and set up a court in Troyes modelled on her mother’s in Poitiers, and both courts were centres of literary and artistic culture.
Just at this time continental French writers encountered Celtic folktales: in 1131 in England Geoffrey of Monmouth completed his Historia Regum Britanniae. This introduced the heroic Celtic figure of Arthur to Europe; in the latter part of the story Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, is reported to have left Arthur and to be living in adultery with his enemy, Mordred. Out of this ancient legend, later writers were to make a new myth.
Geoffrey’s sources were partly written, partly oral (Monmouth is caught between Wales and England). Later, story-tellers from Britany and Wales seem to have toured France telling other old Celtic tales to entertain people in the palaces. From them, perhaps, Chretien de Troyes got his material.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin History was turned into French (Anglo-Norman) verse by Eleanor’s official historian Robert Wace. This Roman de Brut was finished by 1155 when Eleanor had just arrived in her new kingdom of England. There is not much about love to be found in it, but it cannot avoid the tragic love-triangle Arthur-Guinevere-Mordred. Wace’s Brut had been preceded by an adaptation into French for Eleanor of Statius’s Thebaid, the Roman de Thebes, in which the dangers of love are recognized and skillfully avoided by Antigone. Love became an increasingly important part of the ‘Romans’, the long poetic narratives written for Eleanor’s court.
In 1150, or soon after, a French writer, Thomas, composed a Roman de Tristan, also for Eleanor, adapting a story which had already been circulating in France for a number of years. (Thomas’s version is only preserved in fragments, and is best known through the reworking of his Roman by the German Gottfried von Strassburg, one of the great poems of European literature despite its being unfinished.)
The Tristan is from start to finish a love story. It has no military action, no other focus than the tragic conflict between private passion and social duty. Tristan fetches Iseult from Ireland as the bride of his uncle Mark, king of Cornwall. On the boat they inadvertently drink a ‘love potion’ designed for the royal wedding night, and fall hopelessly in love. In the older story this was only a temporary problem, the effects of the potion wearing off after 3-4 years, but in Thomas it gives birth to a lifelong passion from which only death can free the lovers.
The rest of the tale is about their love-suffering: hiding for a time in the woods where Mark finds them asleep in a cave, luckily with a sword between them. Their love cannot be, and cannot not be; finally, after years of pain, separation and reunion, they die and are buried on opposite sides of a church; plants spring from the graves and twine together over the church roof.
The love-pain in the Roman de Tristan is caused by two love-triangles: Iseult is married to Marc, but loves and is loved by Tristan; in the later part of the poem Tristan, in despair, marries another Iseult, ‘of the white hands,’ but cannot love her or forget the first Iseult. In this situation everyone suffers; love has become the biggest problem a powerful man can face, precisely because his physical strength is completely useless in dealing with it. The centre of the action is in the human heart, the conflict between what ought to be and what is.
In the mid-1150s, another poet writing for Eleanor adapted Virgil’s Aeneid into the Roman d’Eneas. Here love-interest arises in the relationship of the hero with two women, Dido and Lavinia. Dido’s love is in the end shown as a fole amor, (crazy love) excessive and doomed. In explicit response to the Tristan story, Lavinia’s role is greatly developed as a successful quest for mutual and undivided love, the antidote to the triangles of Tristan, and the adulterous love of the troubadours.
Just after she has said she has no use for love, Lavinia sees Eneas from a window and is struck by Cupid’s arrow. She spends long sleepless nights struggling to understand her feelings for him. She wants to love, and fears to, has to choose between two men; she must suffer too because she has no idea of Eneas’s feelings towards her. Finally it is she who declares her feelings to him, and they develop a leal amor, (true love) trusting, equal to the honour of each, leading to marriage.
Then in 1155 the new court historian Benoit de Sainte-Maure dedicated to Eleanor his Roman de Troie, 30,000 lines based on the Latin narratives about the Trojan War of Dares and Dictys, with 22 battles and three tragic love stories. This was the most copied among the romances, it still exists in 30 manuscripts. In 1287 it was turned into Latin prose by Guido delle Colonne, a work that survives in 130 Mss and was read throughout Europe until the 17th century. It was Benoit who created the story of the tragic love of Troilus for the fickle Briseis, which he set alongside that of Jason for Medea, and Achilles for Polyxena. In each of these stories, at least one of the lovers dies.
Eneas and Troie already show the influence of Ovid in the long passages of psychological introspection they contain. For Benoit, the central point of the story was Briseis’s change of heart; the emotional climax lies in Diomedes’s encounter with her. We find him weeping, pale, analysing his feelings in monologues, wooing her insistently despite her indifference, and at last gaining her: ‘May God grant Troilus happiness! Since I can no longer cherish him, nor he me, I shall yield and surrender myself to Diomedes…’ she says; Troilus was only a teenager, after all!
There is an implied narrative, a love story, in the lyrics of the troubadours. But Tristan and the Thebes-Brut-Eneas-Troie romances give explicit scenarios of fictional love. Love between a man and a women, they show, is the most wonderful thing. It is also the most terrible thing. By the time Benoit created the story of Troilus and Briseis (it was Boccaccio who changed her name to Criseida), a strong reaction had set in against the power of women’s beauty. In the Roman de Troie the women are blamed for the way in which noble, heroic men are brought low by the power of love. Poetry that at first idealized women soon provoked an anti-feminist reaction. The most revolutionary thing about Benoit’s Briseis is the way in which she is ideal enough in beauty to inflame Troilus, but realistic enough to give him up for Diomedes. She is a sensible woman, it’s the men who are mad!
Five other romances mark the beginning of modern fiction, all the work of one man, Chretien de Troyes. Of his life almost nothing is known, but before being at the service of Marie of Champagne he seems to have been in Eleanor’s court, where he would have been able to read the new classical romances and hear the debates they caused. Chretien’s five verse romances are works of a highly creative imagination. It is possible to see them all (except the incomplete Perceval) as responses to the problems posed by Tristan.
Erec and Enide (1170), the first romance with an Arthurian setting, is the story of a man who falls in love with a woman he does not know well; he marries her, then they have to learn to live together through sharing danger and hardship. Can love and honour of arms be reconciled, or must a man who loves a woman loose his manly skills? They set out together on adventure, each tests the other and is taught. Erec forbids Enide to speak; but three times she warns him of danger, breaking his command to save his life. It is a study of love with a real woman, with echoes of the social dangers inherent in the idealizing approach of fin’amors. Exclusive and life-long mutual love in marriage triumph in the end.
In Cliges (1176), we start with an idyll between a couple who fall in love and marry; as in Erec and Enide the love- triangle is rejected in favour of the exclusive one-on-one relationship. In the second part, the couple’s son Cliges loves Fenice and is loved by her but she is forced to marry his uncle, the emperor of Constantinople.
In this triangle, the themes of the Tristan story are rejected: Fenice will not be Iseult; the magic potion she uses gives her husband the impression of sexual relationship while in fact she remains intact. At the same time she refuses to have a sexual relationship with Cliges so long as she is his uncle’s wife. A potion of the kind later to be used by Juliet at last delivers her and she is united with Cliges, having broken the triangle by her seeming death.
In the late 1170s Chretien wrote two yet more fantastic romances at the same time, Yvain and Lancelot (The knight with the lion and The knight on the cart). In Yvain, the initial situation is a triangle, caused when Yvain kills the knight of the magic fountain and falls in love with his widow, Laudine. Time allows their union, but while Yvain simply loves, the lady is only brought to accept his love by her maid’s persuasion. The next part of Yvain returns to the conflict between love for a woman and martial activity in a man’s public life. Yvain leaves his wife to go on tourneys, promising to return by a certain day; then he forgets and she sends a message rejecting him for ever. After many adventures, during which he rescues a lion that then always follows him, he nearly kills his dearest friend in a combat by mistake. He decides to try to get Laudine back, and succeeds, thanks again mainly to her maid’s help. This reliance on the cunning of a servant seems to suggest an ironic touch.
Lancelot is the starting-point of a huge literary tradition, and again it can be seen as a re-writing of Tristan. The Arthurian court offers merely a setting for Chretien’s first three poems, but here the central triangle involves Arthur himself, his wife Guinevere, and Lancelot, who is given the traditional role of Guinevere’s lover, in place of Mordred. The subject-matter of this tale is the obsessive fin’amors of Lancelot for Guinevere, a love that endures endless testing and cruelty from the beloved. Misunderstandings and conflict bring both of them to the brink of suicide, before Guinevere, who has been abducted by the mysterious Meleagant, calls Lancelot to her; he rips the bars from her window and they are united.
In the rest of the poem, Guinevere exploits her total control of Lancelot’s will to bring him to ever higher feats of knighthood, but the moral conflict inherent in their adultery was not resolved when Chretien turned the story over to another writer to finish. In the 13th century prose ‘Vulgate’ romance, adapted by Malory, it is the discovery by Arthur of their affair, years later, that brings about a break between him and Lancelot, and the tragic collapse of the Round Table.
The fundamental tension that Chretien examines in all his romances involves society: two people in love are happier alone together, but they have wider responsibilities they cannot avoid. Above all it involves difference: the man falls dramatically in love with a woman who in many cases is not ready to reciprocate. The active person is the man, yet his love makes him entirely dependent
on the lady’s response. Their relationship evolves through long periods of introspection expressed in monologue. Chretien is often seen as the father of the psychological novel, but Thomas and Benoit went before him, with the inner monologues they give their characters.
Around 1225, a satirist of a new generation composed an Ovidian handbook on love, De Arte Honeste Amandi, mocking the literature of the court in a text purportedly written in 1190 by another servant of Marie de Champagne, Andreas Capellanus. This work was given too exalted a position by C.S. Lewis in his Allegory of Love.
In the 13th century, the most important development in romantic love is expressed in the contrast between the two parts of the Roman de la Rose. The first 4058 lines, written about 1230 by Guillaume de Lorris, represent in allegory the power of a beautiful lady, the sight of whom is enough to captivate the lover’s heart. The fragment was ‘completed’ forty years later by Jean de Meun, in 17,622 lines of encyclopedic content, where the dominant tone is strongly anti-feminist; love, it says, is no ideal but a terrible danger for any man. In the end, the male is allowed to ‘pluck the rose’ that is the allegorical goal of his quest, but it has come to seem a pointless triumph, and the work fails to see what Thomas and Chretien knew, that sexual union is the beginning of a relationship, happy or unhappy, not the end of a quest.
Then romantic love entered real life! It happened in Florence at 3 o’clock one afternoon in 1283, when an eighteen year old youth met a girl a few months younger dressed in white accompanied by two older friends: ‘e per la sua ineffabile cortesia… mi saluto molto virtuosamente tanto che mi parve allora vedere tutti i termini della beatitudine.’ (And by her unspeakable courtesy… she greeted me with such skill that at that moment I seemed to glimpse all the farthest bounds of bliss.)
The love-experience meditated on in the autobiographical narrative and poems which make up Dante’s La Vita Nuova begins with the sight of the Lady. Unlike the romances, the man here is no soldier, and is in control of his physical desire. Sex as such is not at all involved; yet once again, the effect on the man of seeing the woman is a sickness; he cannot speak, he grows pale and almost faints. The great distance that marks their relationship is such that all his desire (and it is largely frustrated) is to hear Beatrice greet him: Salute (which means salvation!) Then on June 8, 1290 he was writing a poem in her praise:
So long a time has Love kept me a slave
And in his lordship fully seasoned me
That even though at first I felt him harsh,
Now tender is his power in my heart.
But when he takes my strength away from me
So that my spirits seem to run away,
My fainting soul then feels overcome1 And my face is drained of all its colour,
For in me Love is working up such power
He makes my spirits rant and wander off
That rushing out they call1 My Lady, begging her to grant me grace.
This happens every time she sees me
and I am humbled more than you’ll believe.
he had written those words, he says, when he learned that ‘the God of Justice had called this most gracious one to glory under the banner of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose name was always spoken with the greatest reverence by the blessed Beatrice.’ This unfinished poem stands in the centre of the Vita Nuova, before it are poems about the growth of his love, and after it are the poems in which he comes to understand that the dead Beatrice is now even more his love, leading his pilgrim soul into a new life of heavenly vision:
Beyond the sphere that makes the longest round
Passes the sigh which issues from my heart;
A quickened understanding that sad Love
Imparts to it keeps drawing it on high.
When it has come to the desired place
It sees a lady held in reverence
And who shines so, that through her radiance
The pilgrim spirit gazes upon her.
In Dante, the relationship of man and woman is transformed radically by the exclusion of sexual possession as the goal of desire. Instead, the sight of the beloved becomes a form of Platonic contemplation of Absolute Living Beauty, an image of God. Beatrice’s death became for Dante the starting- point of a life of action. He began to study the philosophy of Aristotle, he became active in Italian politics, finally he fulfilled the promise made at the end of the Vita Nuova and wrote again of Beatrice. She is his guide through the heights of Paradise in the Divine Comedy, until at last she withdraws and Dante is left face to face with the Woman Herself, the Blessed Mary in the highest Glory. What had started as a poetry of tragic frustration and destructive lust becomes, in Dante, the way of eternal life.