Courtly Love in Two Novels by
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
Massacre at Montsegur,
A History of the Albigensian Crusade
Translated by Peter Green
Dorset Press, New York 1961
A THREE-PART DISCUSSION
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:
If we cannot think of the Southern French nobility without immediately evoking the name of the troubadours, the fact remains that these aristocrats were genuinely and passionately devoted to poetry, and tried, as best they could, to carry out in practice the literary ideals of their age. It is easy to accuse them of having their heads in the clouds, but when we consider the matter more closely, they appear more realistic than, say, Louis XIV’s courtesans. whose highest ambition was to have the honour of helping the King get up in the morning. For a Southern gentleman of the twelfth century, honour consisted of a certain disdain for the good things of this world, coupled with an unbounded exaltation of one’s own personality. The adoration of the Lady, that marvelous and inaccessible Lover, is nothing else, surely, but the urge to proclaim a triumph of self-will. Even though one may be offering one’s devotion, it is not to some divinity whom the whole world shares, but to a private deity of one’s own, freely chosen.
On that same page, Oldenbourg gently and somewhat equivocally attacks those who, like myself, see a mystical side to courtly love:
Some commentators have gone so far as to claim that the Lady was purely symbolic, and represented either the Cathar Church or some esoteric revelation; and it is true that the poems of certain troubadours bear considerable resemblance, in style and tone, to those of the Arab mystics. This can almost certainly be ascribed to mere literary imitation, for at the time it occurred to no one to regard such poetry as anything other than love-poetry. Nevertheless it remains true that troubadour verse appears to deal primarily, not with love itself, as much as with a method of attaining moral and spiritual perfection through love’s agency. These sighs and torments, these protracted vigils and metaphorical deaths seem at once passionately sincere and, somehow, a little unreal. What the poet seems to be admiring, all through these bouts of suffering, is his own exquisite soul.
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:
It was the honour of the Occitan nobility, so humiliated by these Northern Frenchmen, that the King and his knights were going to defend: the freedom of their brothers-in-arms, and the cause of le courtoisie–or Parage, as it was known in the langue d’oc. The meaning of this word (like that of so many others) has over the centuries been weakened and narrowed down to a remarkable extent; at this time it evoked the very highest moral values current in secular society. The greatest compliment that the most impassioned lover could pay his lady was to say that she was courtoise; and when, in the Chanson, William of Tudela’s continuator puts speeches into his knights’ mouths, they are constantly evoking Parage, as they would some divinity.
The songs of the troubadours bear witness to this attitude of mind. Whether he would or no, it was, indeed, for the very existence of a civilization and a national tradition that the King was fighting. “Then ladies and lovers will recover the joy they have lost,” sang Raymond de Miraval, as he offered vows for Peter’s victory. We wonder what these ladies and their lovers were doing in so bloody an adventure; it is clear we are concerned here with something other than broken families and knights condemned to exile. It was a whole way of life that lay under threat of destruction; a way of life in which l’amour courtoise, with its ostentation, its affected elegance, its daring mystique and heroic lack of moderation, served as a symbol for a society that avidly craved spiritual freedom.
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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