In the twelfth century, the Catholic Church attempted a thoroughgoing reform of marriage and sexual behavior aimed at eradicating sexual desire from Christian lives. Seeking a refuge from the very serious condemnations of the Church and relying on a courtly culture that was already preoccupied with honor and secrecy, European poets, romance writers, and lovers devised a vision of love as something quite different from desire. Romantic love was thus born as a movement of covert resistance.
In The Making of Romantic Love: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia, and Japan, William M. Reddy illuminates the birth of a cultural movement that managed to regulate selfish desire and render it innocent—or innocent enough. Reddy strikes out from this historical moment on an international exploration of love, contrasting the medieval development of romantic love in Europe with contemporaneous eastern traditions in Bengal and Orissa, and in Heian Japan from 900-1200 CE, where one finds no trace of an opposition between love and desire. In this comparative framework, Reddy tells an appealing tale about the rise and fall of various practices of longing, underscoring the uniqueness of the European concept of sexual desire.
About the Author
William M. Reddy is the William T. Laprade Professor of History and professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of a number of historical works, including The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions.
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The Making of Romantic LoveLonging and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia, and Japan, 900–1200 CE
By WILLIAM M. REDDY
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAristocratic Speech, the Gregorian Reform, and the First Troubadour
"The poetic typology of romance took shape in opposition to, and as escape from, a bleak marriage ideology that canonists and theologians championed." —JAMES A. BRUNDAGE
Certain twelfth-century aristocrats and their imitators insisted that sexual partnerships became a source of moral improvement and transcendent joy if they were founded on "true love" (fin'amors). Scholars refer to this medieval ideal of fin'amors as "courtly love." There is general agreement that the twelfth century's positive vision of sexual partnerships was something entirely new in Western literature and that such positive visions have been constantly with us ever since. Debate has been rife, however, over a variety of other questions: where this new vision of sexual partnership came from; why it came into being in the twelfth century; and whether, and how much, it was really practiced.
In this chapter, evidence is brought forward in support of a novel explanation of the origins of courtly love. In chapter 2, we will provide further support for this explanation by carefully examining the original cultural context of the songs of the trobairitz and troubadours, who first popularized the courtly love ideal. In chapter 3, we will consider the incorporation of the courtly love ideal into the verse narratives of some Arthurian romances and also examine the question of how widely the principles of courtly love were actually put into practice in the twelfth century.
The precise form of courtly love can best be understood through an ethnographic reading of the evidence, carefully considering how diverse features of twelfth-century aristocratic life interacted. Three features of the century's social life combined to shape the courtly love ideal: (1) a specific form of aristocratic speech; (2) a related approach to kinship reckoning, gender identities, and "sexual" relationships; and (3) the impact of the Gregorian Reform. The argument of this chapter, in summary, is as follows:
1. Twelfth-century aristocrats regarded speech about authority, status, or relationships with their fellows as subject to "proof" through rule-governed violence. By the same token, aristocrats also considered the quiet, de facto enjoyment of a right or status as perfectly legitimate, so long as it was not explicitly challenged by the articulated claims of other aristocrats. Should someone else openly challenge such de facto enjoyment, then recourse to violence became necessary. Violence was governed by the rules of the feud or, occasionally, by the rules of trial by combat. The rules of the feud were enforced, intermittently, by kings and great lords, who often intervened in their subordinates' feuds to arrange reconciliation. But even when it was not punished, violence deployed in ways that broke with the rules of the feud was less likely to be regarded as decisive.
2. Partly because of this relationship between speech and violence, twelfth-century aristocrats preferred, or tolerated, a rather flexible kinship reckoning system. Claims to offices, lordships, or land could be articulated on the basis of male or female descent, legitimate or illegitimate descent, primogeniture or partible inheritance, affinal or cognatic ties. When such flexible reckoning produced disagreements, the capacity of rival claimants to deploy rule-governed violence would then determine whose claim was valid. In this flexible system, access to aristocratic status, to the rank of nobilis, was just as open to quiet usurpation—or violent adjudication—as any other claim.
Aristocratic women were just as capable of making claims to offices, lordships, or land as aristocratic men. Women were also just as capable of quietly enjoying an office, a lordship, or a property so long as no one challenged their right to do so. But they were much less likely to be skilled at arms or in the art of military command (although there were exceptions). Therefore, to make good their claims, most women had to rely on male intermediaries—husbands, fathers, uncles, cousins, or loyal subordinates. Subtle changes in women's behaviors began in the late eleventh century. One finds a growing number of aristocratic women who sought to exercise influence over men by developing charismatic personae of a new kind. This charisma included the capacity to command and to rule. But many women also cultivated refinements of dress, language, manner, and decor in ways that increasingly differentiated them from men.
3. In the same period, the Gregorian Reform emerged, a movement of the church aimed at purifying the clergy as well as at transforming the political and sexual practices of lay society. Launched in the mid-eleventh century, this broad movement included popular, eremitic, monastic, heretical, and papal currents. There was much disagreement and debate among reformers. Some issues—such as the proper governance of wandering preachers or the meaning of the Eucharist—were not settled until the thirteenth century. But all factions agreed on the sinful character of sexual desire, even within marriage. All factions agreed on the inherent superiority of asceticism and insisted on ascetic self-denial among the laity as well as among the clergy. Reformers strove to eliminate, among other things, fornication, polygyny, divorce, and adultery, as well as relationships they considered to be incestuous and acts that they called "sodomy," that is, sins "against nature." To eliminate such practices, however, the church had to clarify which relationships were extramarital or adulterous in character, which were valid marriages, and likewise which persons were of illegitimate birth and which persons were related by blood and therefore could not marry.
Making such matters clear inevitably clashed with the flexible attitudes toward speech and kinship of the aristocracy. For a long time, aristocrats responded to the church's sexual regulations by treating them creatively as rules like any other—a matter for making strategic claims or keeping silent. For them, marriage was a family matter, one type of alliance among others, flexible and dissoluble. As reformers made divorce increasingly difficult to arrange, accordingly, aristocrats began to justify separations by claiming to have entered unwittingly into incestuous marriages. As informal polygyny became more difficult, aristocrats found ways of quietly sustaining adulterous relationships. As the inheritance claims of "illegitimate" children (that is, illegitimate in the eyes of the reformers) lost validity, parents found ways of quietly endowing them with lesser offices and smaller properties.
Courtly love was a practice that developed in this context, first among aristocrats and soon among nonaristocratic townspeople and landowners. It was not just a literary fashion or allegorical style or discourse but also, in part, a positive rejection of the Gregorian Reform's uncompromising condemnation of all sexual pleasure.
In a characteristic aristocratic way, then, many sought to pursue quietly an altogether un-Christian, even anti-Christian, type of sexual partnership. Courtly love provided an idiom within which such partnerships became part of the emergent aristocratic code of conduct known as "chivalry." The refinement, the pure selflessness of fin'amors, or "true love," as its promoters called it, was such—or so they claimed—that true love easily mastered sexual desire. Love easily disciplined the dangerous sexual appetite that plagued Christian ascetics in their quiet retreats and terrified Christian theologians, who branded sexual concupiscentia or libido (both meaning appetitive desire, or "lust") as the greatest threat to salvation. So holy was love, its promoters insisted, that any sexual enjoyment that furthered love's aims was good and innocent.
In relying on song, poetry, and fiction, propagators of the courtly love ideal avoided direct condemnation by church reformers. Their works of art were sinful, to be sure. But as entertainments they did not appear to threaten the church's monopoly of religious doctrine. In a maneuver typical of aristocratic speech, singers of love songs and tellers of love stories showed their listeners how they could quietly enjoy what they could not openly claim.
This argument—that courtly love doctrine grew up in part as a kind of covert religious dissent—gains in plausibility when the European case is contrasted with the non-Western cases discussed later in this study. The comparative framework is essential to the argument. Various forms of the "longing for association" were present in each cultural context. But only in Europe was this longing reshaped as a refined love, a refinement that consisted in part in its sharp differentiation from sexual desire, an unruly appetite, or a craving for sexual pleasure that resembled hunger or thirst.
This new notion of refined love was also in tune with the search of some aristocratic women for charismatic influence. Their search only intensified as the reform of marriage tended to disadvantage women vis-à-vis their husbands. Twelfth-century "courtly love" can thus be identified as an early version of the typical Western configuration of "romantic love," which today is still seen, in certain Western and Western-influenced areas (and nowhere else), as standing in sharp contrast to sexual desire and yet mastering and purifying desire.
The Character of Aristocratic Speech in the Twelfth Century
Courtly love literature of the twelfth century developed as a facet of aristocratic speech; it was first composed at courts, in local vernacular languages, sometimes by noble men and women, sometimes by clerics or commoners in their service. Although few aristocrats were literate in this period, most did rely constantly on written documents and charters drawn up by their aides. Courtly love literature was also soon written down and increasingly relied on written forms for its transmission. But it is worth remembering that, in aristocratic understanding, binding claims and promises were oral in character.
The Status Quo Ante
To appreciate how aristocrats understood and used speech, especially in regard to sexual partnerships, it is useful to examine some specific episodes. The first three episodes examined here, of 977 CE, 985 CE, and 1098 CE, suggest how aristocrats understood claims, complaints, and silence and, in addition, indicate the range of activities women might undertake in their own defense in the period before the Gregorian Reform made its impact felt on aristocratic life.
In about 977, Emma of Blois, wife of William, fourth duke of Aquitaine (died 993), heard of her husband's flagrant adultery with the wife of one of his viscounts. He tried to calm her, without effect. By chance, Emma met the adulterous viscountess de Thouars on the road; Emma attacked her, dragged her from her horse, and insulted her. Emma told her men they could do whatever they wanted with the offending woman. Then, fearing her husband's anger, she took her men and retreated to one of her own fortresses (which she held as a part of her dower). The monastic chronicler who relates these events, Peter of Maillezais, writing about 1060, blamed Emma for her inordinate concern over her husband's infidelity. William, who needed the backing of Emma's brother, Count Odo I of Blois, tried twice to reconcile with her, apparently without success. Emma, through reliance on her dower, her fighting men, and her brother, was powerful enough to break the customary silence, to make a claim about her husband's adultery, and to force her husband to acknowledge it.
In 985, Fulk Nerra, count of Anjou (ruled 987–1040), married Elisabeth of Vendôme, cementing an alliance with her father, Count Bouchard I of Vendôme (died 1005). In subsequent years the alliance went sour. In 996, the Capetian king Robert II (ruled 996–1031) married the widowed Countess Bertha of Blois, gaining control of Blois, just to the east of Anjou, and soon thereafter Bouchard of Vendôme broke with Fulk Nerra, realigning himself with Robert. In 999, Bouchard and Robert launched an unsuccessful siege of Bourges, whose bishop and viscount were allied with Fulk's family. Shortly thereafter, Fulk Nerra's wife Elisabeth of Vendôme gathered her men and seized the citadel in Angers, apparently intending to turn it over to her father and Robert II. After a counterattack that left much of the town in flames, Fulk had Elisabeth burned at the stake on a charge of adultery. Robert now divorced the Countess Bertha in 1003, to marry a first cousin of Fulk Nerra's, tacitly acknowledging Fulk Nerra's victory in the recent round of warfare.
Guibert of Nogent (1053–ca. 1124) tells how Enguerrand of Boves, count of Amiens (died 1115), in about 1098 asked his cousin the bishop of Laon to approve a divorce, on the grounds of his wife's adultery. Enguerrand of Boves then secretly seduced the wife of Count Godfrey of Namur (died 1139), abducted her, and—again with the approval of his cousin the bishop—married her. She was Sybil, daughter and heir to the count of Porcien, a worthy prize. Enraged at his loss, Count Godfrey went to war against her abductor. He viciously executed, blinded, or maimed those accused of helping with the abduction. Slaughter, looting, and burning broke out on both sides.
Sybil later spurned Enguerrand. But she could not go for long without a lover and soon loved a handsome youth; she "gave her little daughter to him in marriage to cover the wicked love affair," Guibert charged, "and made him defender of her land." Beyond Guibert's language, heavy with condemnation, one glimpses the maneuvering of a woman who may have exercised a powerful influence over the men in her surroundings. Perhaps tiring of the rivalry between two husbands, she successfully broke free of both of them, convincing a third man, of lesser years and lesser rank, to become her obedient protector.
Whether accurate or approximate, these anecdotes written by monastic authors who relied on oral transmission depicted women surrounded by armed retainers, intent on pursuing honor for themselves and their kin. There are abundant records of aristocratic women acting in these ways, going back to early Merovingian times. In each of these three episodes a claim about adultery takes on meaning in relation to acts of violence—of revenge, punishment, abduction. The anecdote by Guibert of Nogent stands out in two respects, however. First, Guibert emphasizes Sybil's affective responses; she is "seduced" (sollicitata) by two different men in succession. Second, Guibert condemns aristocrats' subjection to such affects as rage and lust, as well as the compliance of their bishops in according divorces. For Guibert this was a story of "the heat of lust boiling over into cruelty" (fervor scilicet libidinum despumans in crudelitatem) because of one bishop's weakness. Worst of all, the bishop in question apparently had "no realization of his sin" and displayed no "penitence before God," even though he soon died a painful death.
Guibert's attitude is quite different from that of Peter of Maillezais, who wrote about sixty years earlier. Peter expressed a typical aristocratic attitude to questions of infidelity, whether political or marital: Emma should have kept silent. Openly claiming what one cannot enforce only reduces one's stature. What separated Peter of Maillezais from Guibert of Nogent was the first wave of that complex of changes within the church known as the Gregorian Reform. Guibert's attitude toward sexual pleasure and toward passion in any form was one of fear and revulsion. Sybil of Porcien and her partners were behaving in line with aristocratic traditions of long standing. But Guibert looked at her through a new lens. Guibert accepted the characteristic reformers' belief that any life that was not governed by strict ascetic standards was a life mired in sin.
The Persistence of Aristocratic Speech
By the late twelfth century, some monarchs had increased their military might and their authority over territorial lords, unevenly and intermittently. The Gregorian Reform had made some progress in reshaping aristocratic marriage and inheritance customs. And the notion of chivalry had emerged to name an increasingly coherent body of customs embraced by the armored, mounted warriors of the aristocracy. However, a certain aristocratic attitude toward speech and silence remained very much in effect, shaping the possibilities for sexual partnerships. Two episodes illustrate the point.
Excerpted from The Making of Romantic Love by WILLIAM M. REDDY Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE The Emergence of Courtly Love in Europe
1 Aristocratic Speech, the Gregorian Reform, and the First Troubadour
2 Trobairitz and Troubadours and the Shadow Religion
3 Narratives of True Love and Twelfth-Century Common Sense
PART TWO Points of Comparison
4 The Bhakti Troubadour: Vaishnavism in Twelfth-Century Bengal and Orissa
5 Elegance and Compassion in Heian Japan
Appendix: Transliterated South Asian Words