You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Unlike today, when we expect romance to yield tangible results, bards of the Middle Ages who sang about their desires never expected their true love to reciprocate.

Scott Farrell comments:

Red roses, dining by candlelight, strolling on the beach, boxes of chocolates … our modern understanding of the customs of dating and courtship are often referred to as “chivalry.” Particularly around Valentine’s Day, the news media is often abuzz with comments about how the rituals of romance – in particular, the way a “gentleman” is supposed to conduct himself on a first date: opening doors, pulling out chairs, and paying for dinner – go back to the world of the medieval knights. Along with this, critics tend to lament the loss of this sense of “chivalry,” wishing there were more “knights in shining armor” to sweep ladies off their feet these days, and provide that ultimate goal of a modern relationship: Happily ever after.

But the truth is, our concepts of romance, dating, marriage, and relationships have only come into being very recently. Hardly more than a century ago, romantic love really had very little to do with relationships. Marriages were based far more on economics and family politics than they were on passion and affection. (In fact, historical writings going back to the time of the ancient Greeks said that “amour” was a particularly bad basis to found a long-term relationship on, as falling in love, especially for young suitors, was a rather fickle concept.)

Love, affection, and desire certainly did play a part in the rituals and literature of courtly love, that came to be associated with knights, ladies, and chivalry throughout the period of the High Middle Ages. (Though we should remember that courtly love and chivalry – the warrior’s code – were two distinctly different things in the 12th and 13th centuries.) But when we try to impose our own understanding of romance and courtship onto the customs of medieval courtly love, we can come up with some very strange – and quite inaccurate – conclusions about courtly love in the Middle Ages. By getting a more historically relevant understanding of “romance and chivalry” in medieval culture, we can achieve a more accurate understanding of how these concepts came together – and, perhaps, dispel some of the absurd, anachronistic notions we have about the place of chivalry in dating and relationships today.

As this article, written by Veronica Marian (communications director of the Stanford Humanities Center), from the Valentine’s Day edition of the online Stanford News explains, medieval romance had much more to do with feudal politics than with personal desire. A new course, Courtly Love: Deceit and Desire in the Middle Ages, taught by Prof. David Lummus, uses medieval texts to gain a more realistic understanding of how romance, passion, and the idealized image of femininity all came to be wrapped up in the (sometimes murky) modern concept of chivalry.

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It’s Valentine season once again. And although Americans have adopted the medieval vocabulary of romance with words like courtship, chivalry and loyalty, the European poets who first described these ideas would find it hard to relate to our modern motto “happily ever after.”

Unlike today, when we expect romance to yield tangible results, bards of the Middle Ages who sang about their desires never expected their true love to reciprocate.

Confined by social traditions dictating whom one could marry, the upper classes were often left no choice but to love from afar. Courtiers therefore used love songs as “expressions of fantasies that were never to be fulfilled,” said David Lummus, assistant professor of Italian at Stanford.

Lummus, whose research centers on medieval and early modern Italian literature and intellectual history, noted that poets of the Middle Ages would likely find our contemporary love rituals completely alien. Medieval desire, said Lummus, was expressed as an ideal to be constantly sought, but rarely attained.

With songs like those attributed to the 11th-century troubadour William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, who lamented, “I never had the joy of what I loved, / and I never will, as I never did … I want what I cannot have,” medieval lovers would have a hard time relating to our contemporary version of love.

Lummus said that his study of romance in medieval lyrics and poetry came about because, like today, love is an unavoidable literary theme.

However, Lummus said, “love in the Middle Ages wasn’t just about sex or the idealization of a lady”; rather, the desire that could be felt for another person was tied to the cosmic structure of the universe. “Love,” Lummus said, “was the way God made himself present in the world.”

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poet brings in his real-life beloved, Beatrice, to be his spiritual guide through Heaven. Dante’s love for Beatrice is so strong that even if he can’t be with her (sadly, she died young), he can be spiritually uplifted by her existence.

Dante’s love for Beatrice, Lummus said, is his favorite medieval love story. It combines the historical example of a poet’s unattainable desire with a profound meditation on what love is, “from a bond between individuals, to the force that moves the stars.”

Adored, but off limits

The inaccessible beloved was described in the songs of 11th- and 12th-century French troubadours, including Bernart de Ventadorn, who wrote, “I cannot keep myself from loving / one from whom I shall get no favor … she left me nothing / but desire and a heart still wanting.”

Lummus’ colleague Marisa Galvez, assistant professor of French, describes these early entertainers as poets who composed and performed songs in small courts throughout Europe from the 11th to 13th centuries. Galvez, a current fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, said their audience was “limited to the residents of the courts, who delighted in the poetry’s conceptual and artistic sophistication.”

The courtly culture consuming these love poems was based on rigid feudal rules with subjects owing strict obedience to their lords. This dynamic found its way into the love songs, which depicted a poet’s beloved, the object of his desire, in a position of power similar to that of his lord. The socially superior lady was therefore “romantically inaccessible,” said Lummus.

With court marriages being political and economic arrangements, he said, “it is no wonder that medieval theorists of love described erotic desire as something that happened outside of marriage.”

Italian love poems seek meaning

When courtly love songs came to Italy in the 13th century, two major changes occurred. First, Lummus said, the songs performed by troubadours at court evolved into written poems, shared between friends and recited. Several sonnets between Dante Alighieri and his friends, including Guido Cavalcanti, remain, showing how poets shared their art and thoughts with each other, even offering romantic advice through their poems.

Cavalcanti, in one of his sonnets, for example, interprets one of Dante’s dreams: “You saw … every joy and every good that man can feel,” referring to Dante’s love for Beatrice. Love poetry had become separated from the formal French court traditions and became more about a personal interpretation of desire.

Secondly, the desire Italian poets wrote about became more philosophical in nature, with its object changing from a courtly lady into an “angel-like being,” Lummus said. As medieval Italian poets began reinterpreting courtly love through a philosophical lens, their love poems came to reflect a preoccupation with seeking meaning – something that is intangible and elusive.

The evolution of courtly love from France to Italy, Lummus said, shows how traditional discourses of desire can be adapted to new social and political contexts, where they remain revelant because they reflect different values and power structures.

Today, television shows like How I Met Your Mother presuppose an ideal object of desire and a fantasy about its attainment, not so different from what these poets wrote about. But a notable difference remains between medieval and modern notions of desire – our expectation of a relationship of equality, Lummus said.

Stanford students relate to romance

Stanford students are getting a taste of how different the discourse of desire was hundreds of years ago in Lummus’ winter 2013 course Courtly Love: Deceit and Desire in the Middle Ages. Lummus is asking students to consider French and Italian medieval love literature through the theories of 20th-century philosophers like René Girard, Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek, each of whom addresses courtly love in his works.

Yet the poems’ greatest contribution, Lummus said, is that they capture something about human nature. “Beyond their historical value, these poems are also reflections on the human condition as a state of insatiable desire,” he said.
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This article was written by Veronica Marian, and originally appeared in the Feb. 14 edition of Standford News. You can read the original piece, and learn more about the projects and ongoing research at Stanford University, at the Stanford News website.

About Scott Farrell

Scott Farrell is the founder and director of the Chivalry Today Educational Program. He gives dozens of live presentations on the history and values of chivalry every year at schools, libraries, and civic and professional organizations throughout Southern California. His thoughts and conversations on chivalry can be heard worldwide every month on his Chivalry Today Podcast. His essays on the code of chivalry have appeared in numerous magazines and books, including Living A Life Of Value (Jason Merchey, editor) and the forthcoming Martial Arts And Philosophy (Damon Young, editor).

About Veronica Marian

Veronica Marian is the communications coordinator at the Stanford Humanities Center.