In the mild Mediterranean climate of southern France, a culture took root that differed sharply from the centralized feudalism of France and England. Here the cities were ruled by committees of burghers (consulates), and vassals took their allegiance to their feudal lords less seriously than in the north. Jews enjoyed positions of prestige and power, and abundant trade brought artistic influences from beyond the Pyrenees and beyond the sea – from Outremer.
It was here, in the part of France that spoke a dialect known as the langue d’oc, that the concept of romantic love is first recorded. Utterly different from lust and carnal desire, but not lacking passion, this was secular, human love between men and women that had the power to inspire men to great deeds.
Here the concept of chivalry was born.
The defining characteristic of chivalry was the civilization of the warrior: the harnessing of manly courage, strength, and violence in the service of the Church, Society, and Love. Critical to the evolution of the cult of chivalry – although not the sole source of it – was the culture and literature of the Languedoc, the land of the troubadours.
Yet the influence of chivalry soon spread far beyond the Languedoc, taking root as far away as Champagne, Poitiers, the Holy Roman Empire, and England. At the same time, chivalry moved out from literature and into the classroom. Texts were written (usually by monks!) for growing boys to read, so that they would know how to behave as men. Chivalry had become the ideal of the European ruling class.
Too many modern writers (and film makers) seem to forget (if they ever knew) that the Languedoc was not only warm and sunny but highly civilized as well. The "Middle Ages" is associated in the mind of too many people today with "cold and dark and primitive." Remembering the source of chivalry might help counter that misperception. So next week I'll talk a little more about where to go to find the cradle of chivalry. Meanwhile, I'll add some photos to this site.