Courtly Love & the Medieval Ladder of Love

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Teaching / Scholarship / Shakespeare’s Sonnets:
Meta-Oxymoron / Shakespeare – Renaissance Background Basics /
@ K. c. 1997

Christian Orthodoxy inhabits a hierarchical world. Each thing in it has a fixed position. Each position has a value. God is up. Up is good. God and good are redundant, practically a pun. Higher is “better” than lower. Right is better than left. It’s the perfect combination of Sun worship and self-congratulatory anthropomorphism: self-congratulatory to the kleptocratic rulers if not to the peasants and tax payers.

The people are in the middle. They don’t rule, but serving the good, the king, the God … isn’t servitude. In fact, the people in a sense are the star. They are the center. Their earth is the center of the cosmos and they themselves are the center of Creation. The drama is all about them. Whether or not they will rise to the top after death.

(Cosmologies always parallel technology in some way. Would the leavening of bread have been an ingredient behind such orthodoxy?)

Scholastic Realism refined this picture. Cartamania, which has flawed human epistemology “for ever,” empowers it. When the knights burn your village, rape your wife before your bound eyes, hoist your son on a petard … It’s not really happening. How would you know what’s real, you flawed creature? (Personally, I find Realism to be quite right about our flaws; and quite wrong about any difference on that score in the king or in the particular God.)

2012 08 23 Do not confuse Scholastic Realism, realism with a capital R, with any of the many realisms which have had their moment of fashion since the Midde Ages. The essential to understand is that in Realism, only God is real! Not you, not your pain, not your colicy baby.

Anyway, it should be your ambition to rise. Chances are slim to none in your society, but if you light enough candles, buy enough indulgences, the Church promises you an afterlife in which you’ll be at the top. “Forever.” Oh, God will still be above you. So will your king, your landlord … But you’ll be in God’s bosom. You’ll see Christ, your brother. And so forth. (Actually, he claims you for a brother, but see what happens if you claim him for a brother.)

This ascension, if you do what you’re told, is “guaranteed.” (Sound like a Sephardim selling you a Walkman on Times Square?) The Jews had their God captured in a box. The Christians kidnapped him. We’re to suppose the lawyers can make the judge behave. Didn’t they put gold in his chamber? Just to be safe, they’ve got Mary under stained glass.

In the Middle Ages they were only just starting to lure Mary to the cathedrals. God, the judge, scared the shit out of them, candles or no. Believing and believing are not exactly the same thing. (See Henry Adams, Mont St Michel & Chartres.)

Just as God combines the magic of many previous gods, Christian Love is multi-layered, ancient in lineage, and spectacularly ambiguous. King James’ scholars would have St. Paul write of Charity. Another scholar might talk of agapé. Chaucer’s Prioress wore an amulet claiming Amor vincit omnia. What did she think it meant? Chaucer makes it pretty clear. Her “conscious” mind thought it meant something encompassing Paul’s Charity and the agapé the Renaissance would soon be hearing about. What make her love it was strictly from Venus and Pan. Christianity is a good religion for the end of the world. That is, it’s a good religion for about two weeks of real time.

Real hormones are stronger than any god but the real god from whence hormones come. Jesus and Paul acted as though there were no need for procreation. Fourteen centuries later, Christians had a problem. They solved it the human way: they decided to have it all both ways. God is above you but what the young man really wants is the girl that’s in front of him. What to do? Pretend she’s above you. [note]

Love games become exceedingly complex in social creatures. (You think it’s just us? Study the cetaceans.) Take Courtly Love for example. Courtly Love was an amusement of feudalism. Feudalism was a surplus food production system in which any landowner could kill or rape any of his peasants any time he wanted to. Any landowner could kill and steal the land of any other landowner less landed than himself: unless it would displease the landowner better landed and more powerful than himself. That is, the king was the baron among barons. The baron’s might was supplemented by knights. A worthy knight might be given a little of the baron’s land for himself.

By the time the court of Marie de France came along, the knights and barons were as over-sexed a class of humans as any that have ever existed. (If you count the occasional Persian sultan or Chinese emperor, you have classes of one.) What do you do for amusement when you have everything? Pretend you don’t. Jackie O puts on the guerrilla costume of the dispossessed Cubans to march on Tiffaneys. What the nobles of Marie’s court did was pretend that they practiced Christian chastity. In Christianity, marriage is a sacrament. It isn’t that upright primates are practicing the form of bastard monogamy long native to them; no, procreation is a blessing from God, administered by the Church. Did the court of Marie de France practice marriage? Sure, but hardly as a sacrament. Rather it was a game of Monopoly: Luck got me this, conquest got me that, I’ll trade you my hotel at … Noble marriages were made not in heaven, nor by the wedded, but by family war councils. We’ve got a daughter. What can we get for her? Dare we hope to weasel some of Baron So-and-So’s land? Dare we hope she’ll be queen?

Cut to the chase. Marriage was property arrangement. Sure it had to do with procreation. Even devout homosexual Alexander the Great submitted himself to marriage with a Persian princess once he wanted an heir. But the barracks was all he needed for fun. The Courtly Lovers submitted to arranged marriages, the males rutted with whomever they wished below them in station, and pretended they were all virgins to flatter their superiors. Did the baron mind if his knight wrote poems to his wife? Why should he? He couldn’t stand the bitch.

OK. Back to the Ladder of Love. The Christian has to pretend his eyes are on God. Where his eyes really are is all over the twelve year old he spied in the lane. Don Quixote sees one of his peasants eating an onion. He elevates her to Lady. Nitwits reading it as an assignment centuries latter may not get the joke. Anyway, if the Christian is Dante, he sees Beatrice (or pretends to: his fundamental ambition here is neither as Christian nor as lover but as poet). Dante isn’t a landowner, he’s a scribe. What do the scribes do once they get to court? They start acting like lords. (Oh, not in front of the lords, mind you.) American millionaires wanted European palaces, European titles … Dante puts Beatrice above him. God is above him. God is light. Thus, by human logic, since Beatrice is “fair” (by Italian standards: and yes, there are real blondes in Italy), Beatrice is, if not God, then in God’s direction: up. Higher. Elevated. Some (enforcedly) ignorant girl, more “spiritually” perfect than one of the great scholars of all time? Oh, the games people play.

The first thing a sperm decides for the egg it’s fertilizing is which side of the spheroid egg will be the tail. That decision simultaneously declares the other side to be the head. Christian orthodoxy, with it’s fixed directions and values, celebrates this upright species having it’s head at the “top,” the direction away from the planet’s center of gravity. Head, good; tail, bad. In a human embryo, the gonads develop far in advance of the cerebral cortex. Not too many kings really lead their troops into battle. The shock troops go first. The king positions himself safely on a hill top. Our ancestors had their spines horizontal as often as not. The eyes, the cerebral cortex, led the way: into opportunity, into danger. Sorry, in biology, it’s the tail end, the testes, the ovaries, that’s king. The brain and eyes are shock troops. In a fight, you cover your nuts before you cover your face. The body knows.

So, in simple:

Courtly Love The Ladder of Love
The lady must be socially, economically,
and politically “above” you.
You pretend the object of your admiration
is spiritually above you.

Notice applications to Shakespeare’s sonnets: if we accept the tempting hypothesis that Shakespeare offered some or all of the “fair love” sonnets in hope of patronage from a lord with a son reluctant of marriage arrangements and perhaps personally known to the actor (unemployed as a result of the plague-closed theaters), then the Courtly points apply. The gender is wrong, but if the patron has a son rather than a daughter, it can’t be helped. Much of the stuff applies anyway. The “admired” one is socially, economically, and politically “above” Shakespeare. (The way both Pilate and King Herod were above Jesus.)

Your love for her is chaste.
(It better be. Whether or not the baron loves his wife, he can still clobber you.
Lancelot & Guenivere, Tristan & Isolde, etc. are stories of failures of courtly love to remain courtly.)
Your love for her is chaste.
(It better be. God is watching.
Courtly Love was a pose for the barons; the medieval Ladder of Love is a pose for well-hormoned Christians.)
2010 08 23 It’s wonderful for me to see what I wrote a dozen years ago and to contrast it to how I spoke in class, the classes I attended and the classes I taught before the state used the universities as a pawn, knight, or bishop to silence my voice, prevent my lessons, questions, points.
Don’t confuse the sounds the crucifixion victim makes on the cross with what he was preaching at the Temple yesterday. Unfortunately, America doesn’t come with a context setter; but Judgment will.

Shakespeare’s “love” for the lord’s son had better be chaste for a list of reasons: 1) What sort of patronage should he expect as an unemployed commoner (when did nobles ever give a damn about genius?) actively and homosexually seducing the heir? 2) More importantly, it wouldn’t fit the tradition. God didn’t exist so the Jews invented Him. How else could they “legitimately” invade and commit genocides in Canaan? If Beatrice didn’t exist, Dante would have to make her up. Etc.

Was there really a Beatrice? Yes. Did she really show Dante around heaven? No. Did Dante really love her? Why not? So long as you realize how ambiguous the word love is: the Cyclops really would have loved to eat Odysseus. There were plenty of noble youths in the 1590s. Where any of them fair? Undoubtedly. They’re Anglo-Saxons. Germanic. English kings trace themselves to William the Conquerer. He invaded from France. But his ancestors had invaded France from Scandanavia. Roman language; Germanic genes. Did Shakespeare know any of them? Obviously, Shakespeare knew or at least watched a lot of different people. Did he love some particular noble youth? Why shouldn’t he? But biographical particulars are trivial compared to the traditions at play. Was the love sexual? As we shall see in the readings, Shakespeare specifically denies it. But should we believe him? I really don’t care. Kit Marlowe was openly homosexual. He liked young boys. He said that anyone who didn’t prefer young boys to any woman simply didn’t know what they were doing. Homosexuality became a capital offense in England. It was a capital offense in Byron’s youth. But it wasn’t in Elizabethan England. Neither was it much approved. Could Shakespeare have ever had a bi-sexual dabbling? Who hasn’t? Well, a few of us. If I told you mine, you wouldn’t count them.

Shakespeare was multiply experienced, most of it through his unprecedentedly fertile imagination. But read the works. If you don’t see normal heterosexual male write large I don’t know what you’re reading.

I’m taking longer here than I meant to. I’ll be back. Until I return, why don’t you predict other things I’ll say?

2004 12 27 Till now my acquaintance with Alexandre Dumas had been limited to Hollywood versions, but it’s just as well: I’m very glad to be reading Dumas as an adult: er, a veteran adult. With Shakespeare we have it both ways: he hero-worships the soldier/nobles; he also sees through them, isn’t fooled a bit. If you want to see totally undeceived enthusiasm for the traditions of Courtly Love, try The Three Musketeers: you won’t have to read very far to see what I mean.

The Duke of Buckingham chases around Europe to chase Ann of Austria, Queen of France around Paris. She’s married; he doesn’t seem to care: neither does she seem to, except as far as appearances go. The Duke’s interest has been drawn by the Machiavellian Cardinal Richelieu: we can have no firm idea at what level the Duke himself is playing the game. Servants, commoners, soldiers without rank, the bourgeois … are sacrificed without scruple so the game can be played. War is all but inevitable. Thousands will be butchered, property will be destroyed, the earth will be scorched … That matters not a whit to the principles.

Literature has long dwelt on adultery. Recent science seems to be so dwelling as well: from Jared Diamond to Leonard Shlain to Sir David Attenborough. Adultery seems to be core to the propagation strategies of numerous species: from birds to primates. And, for recent humans, the fashion took a firm set in the Court of Marie de France, a millennium ago.

recent pk babble on adultery


Pretend She’s Above You:

I am reminded of a delicious scene in Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour with Catherine deNeuve. That quintessential beauty plays a doctor’s wife by night and a whore by day. Men come to the house not just for relief from their pressures but to play out their fantasies. One patron is a masochist who wants one of the whores to tread on his face. She’s above him all right. He’s on the floor. She’s standing over him, trying to abuse him without hurting him. Not like that, you stupid bitch, he orders her from under her heel.

As Gore Vidal has observed: it’s only stage actors who have problems with acting; the rest of us do it all the time.

on Shakespeare’s Sonnets Menu

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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