Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions of the images.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Book of the Duchess

(Courtly Love, by unknown medieval artist)

We now come to the end of our study of the poetry of Eros, or romantic love, that state of “being in love.” (Tomorrow we begin our look at Agape, or charity, the last of the four loves famously discussed by C. S. Lewis.)

Today’s post hearkens back to the origins of the medieval tradition of courtly love in Provence, in south-eastern France. The selections below suggest two perspectives to romance at the time, first, from the view of a man and then second, of a woman. The third poem, by a Cavalier poet from the seventeenth century, shows how the sentiments of courtly love remain an integral part of romance.

Of course, there were many poems and songs about romance before this, like the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament, and ninth-century songs about star-crossed lovers in Ireland. But the conventions of courtly love, as popularized by troubadours performing among the nobility in the courts from the eleventh century on, brought something new to the literature of love.

The songs and poems of courtly love are notable for their particular ideal of romance, an ideal which features the chivalry and honor of the knight and his unrequited love for a woman. It is a romance that is doomed, a love that is not to be.


Heart-whole, I started to beseech
That she would be my lady sweet.
I swore to her with heartfelt heat
My steadfast duty firm and true,
And love that would be always new.
To guard her honor evermore,
And serve no other, then I swore
To do my best. I promised this:
“For yours is all that ever there is,
My sweetheart. Barring dreams untrue,
I never shall be false to you,
As sure as God’s intents prevail!”

~ Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1343-1400), English courtier, diplomat, and poet, famous especially for The Canterbury Tales


“Alas,” she said,
“whatever shall I do?
I shall never again be happy!
I loved these four knights
and desired each one
for his own sake.
There was a great deal
of good in them all
and they loved me
above everything.
Because they were so handsome,
brave, worthy, and generous,
I made them compete
for my love,
not wishing to lose them all
to have just one.

“I do not know which of them
to mourn the most,
but I can no longer disguise
or hide my feelings.
One of them I now see wounded
and three are dead.”

~ Marie de France, writer and translator of the second half of the twelfth century, who wrote in the Breton, Anglo-Norman, and Latin languages

(Richard Lovelace, 1618-1657, English
poet and Royalist supporter of King
Charles I in his ultimately fatal struggle
with Parliament in the English Civil War,


Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast, and quiet mind,
To war and arms I fly.

True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.

Yet this inconstancy is such,
As thee too shall adore;
I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Lov’d I not honor more.

No comments: