Dublin University Philosophical Society “Romance Me Arse, A History Of Courtly Love” Presented by Gráinne Brett on February 18th, 1999 Mr. Chairperson, Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen of the University Philosophical Society, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is an honour for me to have this opportunity to present to you my convictions on the theme of what we believe constitutes romance today. Romance has been an integral part of our culture for as long as patriarchal societies have been in existence, and the beliefs and rituals that it entails have been detrimental to humanity for as long as they have been followed. It is my firm belief, ladies and gentlemen, that our concept of romance has been very much influenced by literature, in particular medieval literature which undoubtedly puts forward many stereotypical views of woman, which each portray her as sexual object and nothing more. This is the problem with romance, ladies and gentlemen, and it is the reason why I propose that in a post-feminist time a review of our perception of romance is well overdue. Love is confused with romance and romance is simply a means of reinforcing women’s subservience to men. Firstly, I will trace briefly the constancy of medieval ideals of romance through history to the present day. The Occitan culture that had nurtured the troubadours was destroyed in the first half of the thirteenth century. The society, laws, language, and culture of Occitania were smashed forever and the poetry of the troubadours was silenced. But by then it was too late… too late to stop the spread of the religion of love. The troubadours view of romantic love had already spread over the whole of western Europe, and it was never to be absent from its literature or from its living consciousness again. The concept of love as obsessive, and as a source of insecurity, fear and pain is one which has become so central to our thought and culture that they seem natural. We scarcely question them or think of them as the direct inheritance of a distant set of historical circumstances; novels and films are still being written and made, nineteen to the dozen, celebrating romantic love. Even at the Height of the Age of Reason, with its distrust of passion and excess, “love” was, if not as busy as in the twelfth century, never successfully banished. Men still wooed women courteously, they continued to fee that they would be rewarded by her love only after demonstrating complete devotion. Literary lovers still found themselves suffering for love, struck by love’s darts and slain by beautiful eyes. In the final decades of the eighteenth there was a renewal of interest in medieval art and literature, which developed in the first half of the nineteenth century into the great Victorian obsession with medieval culture; books commending the medieval ideal of chivalry reinterpreted for modern times were a great success; the great poets and novelists, notably Keats and Tennyson took medieval subjects for some of their major works. And so romantic love has come down to us in the final years of the twentieth century, as a consummation devoutly to be wished, and yet fearsomely difficult to obtain. We are brought up from birth with the idea that love makes life worthwhile and that it seductively promises the intensest happiness of personal fulfillment. Herein lies the problem, ladies and gentlemen. Medieval love poetry places the lady on a pedestal, Dublin University Philosophical Society thus objectifying her and requiring her to make her suitors miserable little pathetic life complete. Chivalry must inevitably lead to a disappointment in the most perfect object of one’s desire, because ladies and gentlemen, (surprise surprise!) she is not perfect, and she is not merely ‘a thing’. Unfortunately, there are those who while anticipating the arrival of a prince charming, revel in the delights of the thought of this snivelling knight pandering to a woman’s least desire, embracing this as woman’s victory in the battle of the sexes. What is happening, however, and is happening particularly today in films and in all aspects of culture, is that woman’s status is being elevated simply in terms of her potential as sex object, and nothing more. Chivalry is a despisable technique for disguising the injustice of woman’s social position. One must acknowledge that the chivalrous stance is a game the master group plays in elevating its subject to pedestal level. Historians of medieval love stress the fact that the raptures of the poets had no effect upon the legal or economic standing of women, and very little upon their social status. As sociologist, Hugo Beigel has observed, this version of love is a ‘grant’ which the male concedes out of his total powers. Both have had the effect of observing the patriarchal character of Western culture and in their general tendency to attribute impossible virtues to women, have ended by confirming them in a narrow and often remarkably conscribing sphere of behaviour. It was a Victorian habit, for example, to insist the female assume the function of serving as the male’s conscience and living the life of goodness he found tedious but felt someone ought to do anyway. The central thrust of my argument, ladies and gentlemen, is that medieval romance portrays women in various stereotypes, which each view her in terms of sex. This is the premise on which the love stories or romances are based. The lady is object and love is an all-powerful force which leads the knight to idolise her. What I am saying is that this idolatry objectifies women and it is still present in our attitude towards love and what constitutes affection today. There are those who would prefer to categorise medieval love poetry as “Courtly Love”, thus defining it as something unique to the Medieval Ages. However, this view fails to consider the huge range of Medieval Literature available, reflecting the diversity and multiplicity of attitudes towards women in both literature of the time and in our own views of love today. Having said this, we cannot overlook the fact that there is a view very widely perpetrated, and that is the obsessive, ridiculous, almost mythical perception of love which is not specific to medieval literature but features in modern day society. Longer medieval romances tended to focus on the character of the knight- hero. Perhaps the most important thing that distinguished it from previous epic literature was its emphasis on its characters’ emotions, especially those of love. There was a great appeal in the novel idea that relations between aristocratic men and women could be determined by an irresistible passion experienced mutually and leading either to the enjoyment of supreme happiness, or the degradation of utter (and usually fatal) misery. During the entire period of the Middle Ages this new concept of romantic love was seen and discussed as a humanising and refining influence, a socially improving experience. In the world of the courtly lover, love is always at first sight. Love’s arrows strike the lover through the eyes, and travel straight to the heart, the moment the lover catches sight of the beloved. In other words, instantaneous attraction leads directly to longing and obsessive love. I do not deny the possibility of falling in love at first sight but surely it is obvious that the lover falls in love with someone he imagines to be ideal, in other words an object of his desire. This is Dublin University Philosophical Society ultimately degrading to women, and yet, it is a phenomenon still widely celebrated in Western culture. This view of woman as object inevitably results in the stereotypical representation of women in literature and these representations still pervade our consciousness. I have selected three main stereotypes of women in the four Canterbury Tales, and each of them are degrading to women in different ways. A stereotype by its very nature is a generalisation and as such leads to a negative perception of its victim and to a prejudice toward her as subservient and inferior. This prejudice binds the three main stereotypes that I will now identify. The first stereotype is that of the heroine who is a cliché of ‘Courtly Love’ literature. The second is that of ‘The Great Bitch’ and the third stereotype may be referred to as ‘The Poison Maiden’. These second and third stereotypes are familiar to us and are commonly referred to as symbolic of a virgin/whore complex. Emily in “The Knight’s Tale” exemplifies the ideal courtly heroine. It is significant that C.S. Lewis at no point describes the characteristics of a ‘Courtly Love’ heroine in his essay entitled ‘Courtly Love’. This is because this idealised view of love represents woman as the ultimate object and her relevance to the story related to us does not extend beyond her role as object of male rivalry. What we observe in such an illustration of woman in the realm of love is an elevation of her worthiness which sees her placed on a pedestal. The man most worthy of her must prove himself by defeating all male rivalries in battle. The character of the heroine is not considered important. As a fictional creation she has no character and is referred to solely in terms of her tremendous beauty. This, as well as the other portrayals of women, are evidence that Chaucer reinforces rather than erases male/female role divisions. The stereotype of the beautiful unthinking woman still exists today and prevents many women from reaching their full potential. This truth finds a voice in the Female Eunuch in which Germaine Greer writes that “the stereotype is the Eternal Feminine. She is the sexual Object sought by all men”. Nextly, the stereotype witnessed in the wife of Bath is that of the ‘whore’ – the garrulous, idiot female who allows herself to be used by men, but who also acts as temptress. This stereotype brings the concept of female as the more evil gender into play – an idea originating in the perception of Eve’s role in the Garden of Eden. ‘The Great Bitch’ is the deadly female, a worthy opponent for the omnipotent hero to exercise his powers upon and through. She is desirous, greedy, and dishonest. The third and final stereotype is that of the Poison Maiden. This dame is the virginal type who is exceptionally cunning and manipulative. In “The Merchant’s Tale”, Chaucer destroys the myth of the courtly heroine, unfortunately replacing it with the fictional character of May, who at first glance seems harmless, but whose cunning ways are soon made apparent. Heroines such as those featured in the romances or sex- books of Jackie Collins are brought to mind. The Poison Maiden is prudish, passive, calculating, selfish and dull. Once again woman is defined as sexual object, and worst of all, it is woman herself who is portrayed as setting herself up to be treated in this manner. The consequences of the idealisation and the idolatry of the female sex are indeed far reaching. Many believe that this objectification of women is a means of worshipping Dublin University Philosophical Society them and their superiority. Rubbish! I say, ladies and gentlemen. It is as a result of this way of thinking that women imagine porn to be liberating. Make no mistake about it. It is these same people who interpret the portrayal of the Wife of Bathe in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a pro – feminist one, simply because she has had five husbands and talks incessantly. She may speak a lot, but how much notice is taken of what she says? The portrayal represents women in a negative light because the wife conforms to a masculine need to domineer, thus showing herself to be unable to carve out an independent existence of her own without suppressing those seen as superior to her, and also justifying male suppression of females by enacting the very same fault in the female role. Let us firstly state that the interpretation of the wife as forwarding the women’s cause simply because she is seen as attaining her desires is flawed. The knight surrenders his control, only to have it promptly handed back again in the willing obedience of his wife. The final transformation may thus be interpreted as A GRATIFICATION OF MALE DESIRES. And that is quite simply what romance is all about.. Masculine surrender creates not a ‘new woman’, but a perfect incarnation of the conventional ideal as defined by man. The wife, like the characters of Emily, Alisoun and May, who also take centre stage in the Canterbury Tales, is nothing more than the stereotypically weak woman. Much like the Spice Girls, one might observe. These characters like the Spice Girls hopelessly represent the medieval stereotype of a garrulous, domineering, stupid woman. It is this noisy, empty vessel that men consequently feel the need to suppress. Woman, never having become anything more than an object of male desire – or a TART/ SLUT if you prefer (Phil Boys certainly do!) - effortlessly made subservient once more, her speech having only temporarily disguised her portrayed inferiority. The idea that another person can become your whole life, the idolatry of romance, the belief in love at first sight, a submission to love sickness - all these ideas are what cause men to view women as objects and what cause women to see their sexuality as their main and sometimes only asset. How can women demand equality and then expect to have their prince charming or their knight in shining armour to pay for their dinner? Most troubling of all is women’s belief that equality has been achieved. Most worrying is their failure to recognise their objectification which is to be observed daily – in porn magazines, in stupid bimbos such as the Spice Girls who think they’re furthering women’s causes and in the numbers of battered women in refuge homes. Ladies and Gentlemen, the reality speaks for itself and it is here that I rest my case.
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