Romance Me Arse_ A History Of Courtly Love

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					                       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,
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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
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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

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
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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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