Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Women in the Middle Ages 4: Women and Love

Today I  conclude my mini-series on women in the Middle Ages with a look at cult of courtly love and the controversial topic of how it impacted the status of women.

The “Middle Ages” ought to be called either the “Feudal Ages” or the “Age of Chivalry” since the term “middle" (suggesting something interim or transitory) is an odd designation for more than a thousand years of history.  Feudalism, on the other hand, was a defining characteristic of the Middle Ages, and Chivalry was the secular ethos of that age. It was chivalry that gave birth to a radical transformation of man’s understanding of “love” and with it to a revolution in sexual relations.

To understand the latter, it is necessary to briefly reiterate the importance of Christian beliefs, and then to look more closely at chivalry itself. Christianity impacted the concept of love in two ways: 1) God is defined as Love with Christ as Love incarnate, and 2) it elevated women into souls, making them spiritual beings, equal to men in the eyes of God. Thus Christianity values love, including love for women, while making a clear distinction between love (which is divine) and lust (which is a mortal sin.) Love for the Virgin was an expression of the former, and extremely important in the history of the Medieval Church.  Yet chaste love for a living woman was also valued and cherished. Such feelings are well-illustrated by a letter from the 6th Century poet and priest Venantius Fortunatus to the fifty-year-old Queen Radegund, then living as a nun in the convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers. Fortunatus writes:

Honored mother, sweet sister

Whom I revere with a faithful and pious heart,

With heavely affection, without bodily touch,

It is not the flesh in me that loves
But rather the desire of the spirit… (Pernoud, p.35.)

Chivalry, on the other hand, introduced for the first time the notion that a man could become more worthy, more “noble,” through love for a lady. Love for a lady became a central – if not the central – concept of chivalry, particularly in literature. Other characteristics of chivalry, as defined in handbooks on chivalry such as that written by the Spanish nobleman Ramon Lull, were nobility [of spirit not birth], loyalty, honor, righteousness, prowess (courage), courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, generosity, sobriety, and perseverance. Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzifal stresses a strong sense of right and wrong, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity, kindness, humility, mercy, courtesy (particularly to ladies), and cleanliness. Simplified, chivalry entailed upholding justice by protecting the weak, particularly widows, orphans, and the Church. Yet regardless of the exact definition, the inspiration for knights striving to fulfill the ideal of chivalry was love for a lady.

Critically, the chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides. It could occur between husband and wife – and many of the romances such as Erec et Enide or my favorite Yvain, Or the Knight with the Lion (both by Chrétien de Troyes) or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple. The notion repeated so often nowadays that courtly love or the love of the troubadors was always about adulterous love is nonsense.  Nevertheless, the tradition of the troubadours did put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own – provided the lady returned the sentiment. The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult.

Likewise noteworthy in a feudal world was the fact that the lover and the beloved were supposed to be valued not for their social status or their wealth, but for their personal virtues.  A lady was to be loved and respected for her beauty, her graces, her kindness, and her wisdom regardless of her status, and a knight was to be loved for his manly virtues, not his lands or titles. 

Even more important, however, is the fact that regardless of which of the partners was the social superior, the lady always took on the role and status of “lord” to her lover. The term of address that a lover used in addressing his lady was “mi dons” ― literally “my lord.” The term denoted the knight’s subservience to his lady, his position as her “man” ― her vassal, her servant, her subject. In art, knights are shown kneeling before their lady and placing their hands in hers ― the gesture of a vassal taking the feudal oath to his lord. (I couldn't find an example of this exact gesture on the internet, but here are two images of knights keeling with folded hands before their ladies.

Last but not least, courtly or chivalric love was not a means to sexual conquest. For lovers who had the luck to be married, it certainly included physical love, and in many of the adulterous romances consummation was also achieved. Yet physical love was not the objective of courtly love. The objective of love was to become greater ― more courageous, more courteous, more generous, more noble, in short, more chivalrous than before. In this sense, courtly love reflected religious love because it was first and foremost love of the spirit and character rather than the body. 

All of these features set courtly or chivalric love apart from the erotic love of the ancients, the Arabs or the modern age.  Sadly, people still confuse “chivalry” with superficial gestures of courtesy (such as opening doors) and women in the name of “liberation” reject the concepts that first truly liberated them.

For more on this fascinating, complex and hotly debated subject, I recommend:

Barber, Richard W. The Knight and Chivalry. The Boydell Press, 1995.
Hopkins, Andrea. Knights: The Complete Story of the Age of Chivalry, from Historical Fact to Tales of Romance and Poetry. Quarto Publishing, 1990.
·                 Pernoud, Regine. Women in the Days of the Cathedrals. Ignatius, 1989.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

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