Friday, October 03, 2008 10/3/08-Romance and Adultery

In today's excerpt--in the chivalrous twelfth century, relationships and sex, viewed as dutiful and dispassionate under the Church, begin to emerge as rapturous and transcendent. The new age of courtly love sweeps through the courts of Europe and engenders a new genre of songs and poems. Aiding in this transformation are Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) and the troubadors:

"The [new] game of courtly love is an elaborate blueprint for the building of desire, as opposed to the quenching of it. The higher it builds without fulfillment, the more perfect a lover the knight proves himself to be. ...

"Consummated or not, courtly love is by definition adulterous. The knight who jousts on horseback, sword in hand, competes against other knights for a highly desirable lady. But they're not fighting for her hand in marriage, or even for the privilege of courting her. She already has a husband. Initially, at least, they're not even fighting for the privilege of sleeping with her. They're fighting for the privilege of loving her--synonymous with serving her. ...

"In 1154, Henry, Duke of Normandy, captures the English throne as Henry I, making his wife Eleanor [of Aquitaine] a queen for the second time--and [through her] bestowing upon the English court a resident expert on the rules of the game. From there the ideal of love ... will be converted into the middle-class ideal of marriage: the melding of two minds, bodies, and hearts into one. ... Eleanor and her kin would find it next to unimaginable that the heady quality of adultery would one day converge with the dutiful, dispassionate quality of marriage as they experience it.

"Maybe that's what finally enables the convergence: Love enters marriage through the extramarital back door. As [Christian author] C.S. Lewis noted in his study of courtly doctrine, Allegory of Love, 'Any idealization of sexual love, in a society where marriage is purely utilitarian, must begin by an idealization of adultery.' ...

"What troubadors bring about is the reinvention of love. They make its pursuit desirable, even admirable. Previously, epic tales of sexual desire ended in mutually assured destruction for all concerned. ... [Now], to gamble all you have, even your life, on romantic rapture becomes the route to transcendence. The most memorable romantic lovers of courtly literature--Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere, Troilus and Cressida--meet tragic ends, but noble ones. They martyr themselves for the glory of the faith. The new religion of love is a wedge to the future."

Susan Squire, I Don't, Bloomsbury, Copyright 2008 by Susan Squire, pp. 151-159.


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