Courtly Love Review

Courtly Love in Two Novels by

Zoé Oldenbourg:


The Cornerstone

Translated by Edward Hyams

Pantheon, New York, 1955


 Cities of the Flesh

Translated by Anne Carter

Pantheon, New York, 1963


With introductory observations on courtly love from

Zoe Oldenbourg’s

Massacre at Montsegur,

A History of the Albigensian Crusade

Translated by Peter Green

Dorset Press, New York 1961


PART ONE:  Historical Background  

Before launching into the treatment of courtly love in these two Oldenbourg novels, we will consult her book Massacre at Montsegur, A History of the Albigensian Crusade on the role of courtly love in the society of the twelfth century, in what is now southern France’s Languedoc region.

Note that in this book Oldenbourg is writing a history of a crusade, not a novel, and courtly love is neither a major part nor a systematically dissected part of that history.  It is discussed by Oldenbourg as an important part of the cultural background against which the crusade needs to be understood.

The first mention of anything related to courtly love is on pages 25 and 26 where Oldenbourg observes that by the time of this crusade a new phenomenon had emerged: fiction, romance novels and poetry, in local languages rather than Latin, secular rather than religious, were the rage among the higher classes in Northern France, Germany and England.

This was a time when the Catholic Church had lost much influence and credibility because of the actions of its clergy, not just in terms of immoral behavior but also in terms of being large landowners and having its own military to protect its lands and in some instances rather forcefully collect its rents and tithes from its tenants.  The church had strayed a long way from its spiritual roots, was a general observation, and was held in contempt even by believing Catholics.  Some were thus made ripe for the teachings of another, more spiritual, message such as that of the Cathars or the less radically differentiable Waldensians.  This secularization and religious pluralism situation is discussed by Oldenbourg in her opening pages and sets the stage for her  discussions of the popularity of these heresies, but it says nothing, yet, about courtly love.

Oldenbourg’s first mention of courtly love comes in a section on this secular literature phenomenon on page 26:

On that same page, Oldenbourg gently and somewhat equivocally attacks those who, like myself, see a mystical side to courtly love:

Where I part ways just a little with Oldenbourg is her implicit suggestion that the troubadours and their fellow celebrants of the Religion of Love (how else to characterize a path to spiritual perfection through love?) were unaware of the Arab mystics’ assertions that God is Love, our souls are an indivisible part of that Love, and human love is but an aspect of this all embracing God/soul Love.  I personally think the troubadour poets were more than just imitating a poetic style, I believe they were aware of these love-based linkages of the human and Divine and both disguised and celebrated it in their poetry.  Catholic mystics of that same time espoused those same beliefs, and some were sainted, some were tried for heresy, but the point is that this God/Soul Love connection was not unknown at this time in Catholic Europe.

[For some long discussions of this specific topic, see my pages on this site on the message of Rumi and on the Beguine movement and its mystics.]

Oldenbourg’s chapter on “Heresy and Heretics” is one of the best descriptions I have read of the Cathar faith, and makes very interesting comparisons with the Catholic faith showing they were not as far apart on some core issues as Catholic defenders attacking Catharism may have suggested, in their zeal.  Although that is fascinating, it has only peripheral meaning for the subject at hand.  It suggests Cathars were very tolerant of courtly love (after all, they proclaimed themselves the “Church of Love” [Oldenboug, p.56]) in part because, like any new religious movement, it was very appealing to women and elevated their status significantly as compared with the Catholic Church which, although it worked on recognizing the needs of and contributions of women, declared them forever “minors.” (See pages 60-61 of Oldenbourg for a fuller discussion including the Cathar view denying the intrinsic “‘reality’ of the sexes”– the sexual differentiation was as unreal as life in the flesh, which was an aberration and temporary, and something Jesus had come down to assure a path of escape from [p. 36]).

Oldenbourg defends the Cathars from the charge of some sort of systemic homosexuality on pages 62-63.  The basis for this charge was their practice of having their male or female perfecti or perfectae living and traveling two by two on their missionary and teaching journeys (just as the original Franciscans did, and the original Christian apostles for that matter).  I bring this up only because a recent historical book again made this charge. [See my page on Thomas Cahill's book Mysteries of the Middle Ages.]

Returning to courtly love: Oldenbourg best sets courtly love in its cultural place on pages 163-164 that she explains the reason for men from surrounding regions (some in what is now Spain) came to defend their beleaguered Languedoc brethren in knighthood.  Her example was King Peter II of Aragon who crossed the mountains to help:

Oldenbourg suggests (pp. 230-231) that when troubadours "mention God and Jesus Christ, it is very probable that they are speaking as Cathars” . . . . “But we have no certain knowledge of this.” On page 226 a prominent troubadour is mentioned as a devoted Catholic who became a monk by choice.  This illustrates the ambiguity.  

Many Catholics, Oldenbourg points out again and again, were as critical of their Church as were the heretics.  In view of the brutal war being waged on what were still largely Catholic lands, by invitation of the Church, the local populace saw the Church as their enemy (p. 226): “The Church, even for those who invoked the Saints and venerated relics, was the enemy by definition.”  The point being that both Catholics and heretics craved spiritual freedom, and both found some outlet for this desire in devotion to courtly love in the larger sense of Parage described by Oldenbourg.

So now, given this background, let us examine courtly love in two of Oldenbourg’s novels.

Go to Part 2: The Cornerstone

Go to Part 3: Cities of the Flesh

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