February 2019

LOVE IN HISTORY : The Expression of Love in the Middle Ages   

     In the days of France's spectacular medieval royal courts, proper expression of love, and freedom of choice was never a simple matter. In fact, despite a rule that permitted married ladies at royal courts to flirt with vassals and knights, there still existed strict social boundaries with respect to the legal tenures surrounding love and marriage. That was further complicated by the fact that royal women were consistently abducted or married off so that they could be used by kings as pawns to barter for land and power.

     Furthermore, unlike today's reliance on digital media for evidence, a husband's alleged infidelity was not enough to legally end a medieval lady's love relationship. Given this blurry double-standard, along with the overwhelming number of medieval women who suffered from unrequited love in Southern France, the perception of the medieval female underwent a revolutionary transformation, which all began with one of history's most beautiful queen consorts, right in the heart of Poitiers, France. Her name was Eleanor of Aquitaine, and she went down as the bodacious, enthralling, witty, and highly influential queen who scoured the idyllic coasts of Europe during the Second Crusade with her first royal husband, Louis VII. This queen was coronated once in France, 1137, when married to Louis, and again in England, 1154, when she wed King Henry II.

     The troubador culture was inspired by none other than William IX of Aquitaine, Eleanor's father, in 1101; his surviving works were composed between 1180 and 1220. The culture originated from earlier integrated traditions, as Hispano-Arabic, Christian, liturgical, hymnal, pre-Christian or Chivalric-Matriarchal literature in Occitan Europe. Between 1170 and 1213, this tradition exploded throughout Europe, and the canso (love song) became a well-loved genre of music by composers as Pistoleta, Cercamon, and Marcabru. Unlike William IX, troubadors were middle or low classed, possessed clerical education, and worked under the protection of royalty or noblemen. Jongleurs and cantaires acted out songs, often based on biographical descriptions of a troubador's life.

     Eleanor and her daughter Marie began their own enduring tradition of love with admiring troubadors and royal vassals. Between 1168 and 1173, this mother and daughter team successfully established a chivalric culture within their immediate royal circle that forever transformed literature, poetry, myth, and song. Unfortunately, although Queen Eleanor's influential romantic literary culture emerged, blossomed, and spread throughout Southern France, it came to an abrupt halt one stormy evening around 1176, when her marital ties to Henry II were challenged. King Henry's young new love interest was murdered.

     The circumstances of young Rosamund Clifford's brutal murder led to subsequent events that clouded the otherwise blissful future of Queen Eleanor. Under Henry II, amidst an intense revolt of the Angevin Empire led by her own son Henry, this queen's magical influence on courtly culture waned, for from then on, the inevitable suspicion surrounding Eleanor cast many a grave doubt as to her innocence; her image was no longer sacred. It is no wonder that shortly after the death of Rosamund, Henry II had Queen Eleanor secretly abducted to Rouen, Normandy, a part of France very culturally remote from that of the south. The reason for Eleanor's incarceration remains a mystery, but biographers claim that Eleanor had indeed played a major role in the assassination of Henry II's young mistress, Rosamund Clifford. Thus, for the next sixteen years, the imprisoned Eleanor languished in a dark and barren dungeon, hidden from the world's eyes, until finally she shakily emerged in 1189 due to a lack of evidence as to her alleged crime. Therefore, the emotional events that had unravelled throughout Eleanor's life essentially manifested a conflict between the sacred and the profane that would continue to persist in art themes.

     Another medieval artist from this period, Giselbertus, captured this conflicted perception of love in a sculpture, The Temptation of Eve, c. 1130, originally carved for Vezeley Abbey's north portal, Burgundy, or Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun. The Vezeley Abbey held the relics of Mary Magdalene ever since 1050, was associated with Louis VII, and Bernard of Clairvaux, who reformed Benedictine monasticism around the Second Crusade.

     In this enchanting sculpture relief, Giselbertus highlights raw human emotion to reflect the earliest scenes of the Holy Bible without text. Eve's chiseled form and contemplative expression reveals sadness and bewilderment with the loss of her innocence as she slithers through Eden. However, Adam does not share in Eve's suffering.

     Despite Queen Eleanor's impact on troubador culture and its subsequent decline in Southern France, these transformations spread to Italy and gave rise to an accepted society of noble ladies suited to formal education at royal court. This new Italian trend featured idealized ties between fathers and daughters through academics, art, and a girl's unwavering will to achieve financial independence. Take the noble lady, Italian Christine de Pizan, for example, of King Charles V's court. Though this well-educated socialite married early, the double losses of her husband and father accumulated debt. As medieval women raised outside of guilds or trades did not work, that imposed an insurmountable financial burden on the widow.

     Nevertheless, de Pizan boldly seized her passion for literature and the humanities and transformed it into a labor of love at Charles V's court. De Pizan's fourteenth century masterpiece novel, The Book of the City of Ladies, was written in vernacular French soon after Boccaccio published his novella, The Decameron, in the Italian vernacular. It went viral in Europe, as it defends education for courtly ladies. Even in the early 1400's, de Pizan emphatically promoted the universal favor of education for women by using well known female figures from history. Her next book, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, focusing on love etiquette, was presented to Princess Margaret of Burgundy. Like Boccaccio, de Pizan's message negated enforced solitude for women and promoted personal choice rather than pre-arranged marriages.

     Although Boccaccio was a male author from medieval Italy, like artists before him, he absolutely embodied the true definition of a feminist. Where troubadors had once emphasized feminine perspectives on unrequited love, Boccaccio particularly illuminates the male's intensely pained perspective, as in Day Five's eighth story on love in the novella,The Decameron.

     In this string of tales, love begins badly, but ends happily. Nastagio degli Onesti is a spurned knight who wastes a small fortune on his wife to be. When Nastagio stumbles upon a female ghost hunted by wolves because she spurned the love of a knight and precipitated his suicide, he invites his love's family to the haunted forest for a grand feast. The young lady soon changes her mind about Nastagio when she confronts the perpetual fate of the female ghost. This scene is captured on Botticelli's famous painting, The Banquet in the Pine Forest, c.1482.

     Whatever its format, a most impressive fact about love in troubador culture and vernacular literature was that familiar language made these outstanding artists' important messages on love and acceptance completely accessible and comprehensible by anyone and everyone. The stone carving, song, and novella all accurately express raw emotion and conflict in love. As shall be discussed, Renaissance artists intensified the theme of melancholic love and loss even further.