Medieval Desire: Poise and Passion in the Middle Ages
Courtly love, celebrated in numerous songs and poems, was the romantic ideal of western Europe in the Middle Ages. Yet, human nature being what it is, the realities of sexual desire and the complications it brings were never far away, says Julie Peakman.
Yet courtly love was thought to be a pure love, one which was not necessarily consummated. It was the love from afar of a handsome knight jousting for his honoured lady, whose colours he wore. It was the love of poetry and songs written by the troubadour for his lover admired at a distance. A man was supposed to woo his Lady by acting out noble and brave deeds in order to impress and gain her favours. Often he was obliged to run the gauntlet of a series of tests in order to prove his worthiness of her affections. Through songs and poems the noble admirer would prostrate himself before her and humble himself to her desires. By this route men from poor families might attain great wealth, becoming knights by inveigling themselves into the favour of a noble woman.
Such ‘courtly love’ was a phenomenon which arose towards the end of the 11th century and was based on a code of chivalry among nobles. It began in France in the courts of Aquitaine, Provence, Champagne and ducal Burgundy. But the term was actually coined much later by the scholar Gaston Paris (1839-1903), who was writing about Lancelot in 1883, and, as such, it is a fairly modern concept. Paris examined Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, written in 1177 by Chrétien de Troyes, and noticed how courtly love was expressed by young nobles and knights towards their mistresses.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) was the first to introduce courtly love to the palaces of England, following her marriage to Henry II (r. 1154-89), then Duke of Normandy and heir to the throne. On becoming queen of England in 1154, as patron of the arts she supported music and poems and encouraged the troubadours, just as her father and grandfather had done before her. Through her efforts songs of the troubadours became part of the wooing procedure and the codes of courtly love flourished. Travelling musicians would visit courts singing ballads expounding the virtues of chivalry and romance. As the style grew, knights and members of the aristocracy wrote and sang courtly love songs. Poems such as those by the troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn (c. 1130-c. 1200) expressed devotion and sadness at separation and unrequited love:
She has all my heart, and my soul,
And herself and the whole world;
And when she left, nothing remained
But desire and a longing heart.
However the concept of courtly love was filtered through a prism of 19th-century Romanticism. In reality there were examples of a much more real and earthy love in the Middle Ages.
Love and marriage
Medieval lovers were often kept apart due to circumstances beyond their control and had to live their daily lives pragmatically. Many feudal lords, nobles and gentry left their wives to run their estates while they themselves went off to fight in the Crusades or travel elsewhere. In 1440 newly-married John Paston left his bride, Margaret, to return to his studies at Peterhouse, Cambridge. In her first letter to him she displays her affection but also reveals the practical reasons preventing his return:
I commend myself to you with all my simple heart. This is to let you know that 1,100 Flemish landed at Waxham, of whom 800 were captured, killed or drowned. If they had not been, you would have been home this Whitsuntide.
Such were the ravages of war that kept love at bay. Separated lovers gave each other tokens as a way of providing protection and a reminder of affection. Margaret Paston sent her new spouse a ring imprinted with the image of St Margaret as a memento telling him: ‘You have left me such a keepsake as makes me think of you both day and night when I want to sleep.’
Marriage usually had little to do with love, particularly among the aristocracy, who had to wed their sons and daughters into powerful families. Noble status and wealth were the key to parents’ decisions as to whom their children should be betrothed. In 1372 one French knight, Geoffroy de la Tour Landry, wrote a book for his daughters on how to catch a decent (and presumably rich) husband. HisBook of the Knight of the Tower was full of tales of lecherous monks and unruly wives, enveloped in the world of devils and miracles. The underlying morality of the book suggested that women’s uncontrolled desires needed to be restrained through marriage or religion. He warned of maids ‘yong and lusty’ who possessed ‘lyghter courage’ and had ‘more feble’ natures, susceptible to falsehood and flattery. Good husbands were needed to temper them. The author was at pains to show ‘How the Good Lady ought to love and drede and also be faithful to her Husband’. Her reward for chasteness was to have a loyal husband. Young women deaf to this advice would be subject to all sorts of calamities from falling down a well to mob rape. In England the book was published by William Caxton in 1484, but its target audience had shifted: this time the book was aimed at women of the rising merchant class.
Yet love in the Middle Ages was not a simple affair and was often fraught with difficulties. It involved complicated transactions and it was not easy to marry by choice because of social restrictions. Often family, friends and even neighbours would have a say in whom and when a person might marry. In aristocratic families couples had no choice as to who their bride or bridegroom might be. Richard Neville (1428-71) was only six when he married Anne Beauchamp (1426-92), daughter of Richard, Earl of Warwick (1382-1439), but it meant he succeeded to the earldom himself in 1449 to become known as the ‘Kingmaker’. Money and power had a huge influence on his choice. The uniting of families was a serious business with huge dowries being demanded. Edward III (r. 1327-77) paid 5,000 marks to ensure the marriage of his grand-daughter Phillipa (1355-82) to Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March (1352-81).
In villages love further down the social scale was much freer as young men and women courted each other in public, in fields and behind milking sheds. Couples would meet at fairs, markets and festivals. In all likelihood the girls or boys who came together were from the same village. Although we know less about peasants and their relationships at this time, songs and ballads tell us about expectations. Women were wooed with gifts of food, money and clothes during courtship, which could lead directly to consummation of that love, a process explained in a double entendre in one bawdy ballad: ‘In my box, he puttes hys offringe.’ In another song a maiden tells us how one encounter was ‘the murgust nyt’ (merriest night); another on her lover, ‘Fayne wold I haue hem bothe nyght and daye’ (Fain would I have him both night and day). These were, however, expressions of male songwriters eager to stress the attractiveness and prowess of their sex.
Often men and women could not wait for their wedding day; they had to pay fines for committing ‘fornication’ before marrying. Although Matilda Catte of Ingoldmells, Lincolnshire and Ralph Lamb planned to marry in March 1319 – and even though they eventually did – a type of fine called ‘leyrwite’ was demanded of Matilda as she was an unmarried bondwoman (a woman bound to serve without wages, in effect a slave), the fine being commonly sixpence. The fact that women were wooed with promises of marriage was recognised and condemned by the church authorities, but they punished men as well as women. In manorial courts only women seem to have been penalised for succumbing to declarations of love and marriage – and poor women at that.
The sin of consummated love outside marriage placed restrictions on desires. St Paul had suggested that if a person could not remain chaste it was better that they should marry. Of single people he remarked: ‘If they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn.’ Wives were instructed to defer to their husbands’ wishes, to be obedient and to heed the word of St Paul when he commanded: ‘Wives be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord’ (Colossians 3: verses 18-22). This was the standard view in the 12th century when Bartholomew, the Bishop of Exeter brought out a penitential dealing with the sin of ‘fornication’, applicable to anyone outside of marriage. Limitations were placed on couples about when, where, how and with whom they could make love; in other words, not in the daytime or on special church days and only in bed in the ‘missionary’ position and then only with the person to whom one was married. Nonetheless illicit affairs could not be stemmed and were perhaps more common than courtly love ever was.
‘Worthy of all my love’
The great passion between Eloise and Abelard in 12th-century France rocked the Parisian world. Their affair was one of the most uplifting, if sad, tales of love and desire. It shows not the pure acceptable love of the courtly kind but the consummated and fulfilling love of passion and desire, love that was largely unacceptable in their society. It was also a story of abuse of trust. For, while she was his pupil, Peter Abelard (1079-1142) seduced Eloise d’Argentuil (c. 1101-64) under the nose of her guardian, her uncle.
Abelard was a well-known scholastic philosopher before he met Eloise. He had created a stir with his writings, some of which were considered heretical. Her uncle, Canon Fulbert, had agreed to let Abelard teach Eloise as she was bright and keen and Fulbert wanted to ensure his niece received the best education.
Eloise’s intelligence and beauty stirred a strong desire in Abelard. He wrote to his friend: ‘It was this young girl whom I, after careful consideration of all those qualities which are wont to attract lovers, determined to unite with myself in the bonds of love.’ He managed to contrive to be alone with Eloise while teaching her. His desire became uncontrollable and he admitted: ‘I thought of nothing but Heloise; everything brought her image to my mind. I was pensive and restless, and my passion was so violent as to admit of no restraint.’ He risked everything by carrying on the affair in the house of her uncle, admitting: ‘In the dead of night, when Fulbert and his domestics were in a sound sleep, we improved the time proper with the sweets of love; not contenting ourselves, like those unfortunate lovers, with giving insipid kisses to a wall, we made use of all the moments of our charming interviews.’
Inevitably Eloise became pregnant and her uncle, incensed by the affair, hired thugs to castrate Abelard. In a seemingly modern declaration of love she refused to marry Abelard asking: ‘Will it not be more agreeable to me to see myself your mistress than your wife? And will not love have more power than marriage to keep our hearts firmly united?’ Some time later, Eloise bore Abelard’s child, whom she named Astrolabe, and joined a convent. Abelard joined a religious order, but despite their separation Eloise and Abelard’s love for each other remained constant. While in the cloister Eloise wrote to him: ‘I cannot live if you will not tell me that you still love me.’ Under the circumstances the cloister served Eloise well and she rose to her duties to become abbess of the Oratory of the Paraclete, the Benedictine community founded by Abelard in north-central France.
As in the case of Lancelot and Guinevere, for the rest of their lives Abelard and Eloise did penance for their illicit relationship. In this love passions ran unleashed and desires were fulfilled. Those involved were ultimately punished and committed themselves to the cloistered life. Yet the cloisters were not always the most pure places to live.
Love in the cloister
After the Norman Conquest scandals of love and passion between religious celibates began to be seen as a serious problem. For some years the church authorities, as well as the churchgoers, had been complaining about clerical marriages and the lack of chastity among the clergy. In response bishops held meetings to figure out a method of dealing with their errant clergy. Instructions were given in order to prevent priests from having contact with women, clerical marriages were forbidden and celibacy strictly enforced. Love, it would seem, was to be suppressed, at least among those already promised to God.
Yet tales of monastery graveyards full of the bones of dead children were widely whispered outside the guarded enclaves of the cloister. The infants were supposedly those murdered at birth after nuns had been impregnated by their confessors. The fact that religious houses for men and women were built in the same grounds meant that the nuns and friars sometimes intermingled. Prior to the arrival of the Normans such double monasteries were popular and religious men and women had easy access to each other, but the church authorities were having second thoughts about their practicality. The ease of intermingling between the sexes is exemplified in one case which came to light in 1142 in reports about a nun at Catesby priory who ‘did pass the night with the Austin friars at Northampton and did dance and play the lute with them in the same place until midnight’. That such activities could lead to affections between the cloistered was not doubted, particularly when Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-67) revealed the story of the Nun of Watton in the late 1150s.
She had been deposited in a nunnery of the Gilbertine order when she was only four years old and had spent most of her childhood and adolescence enclosed in the convent. But she grew into a headstrong and licentious young woman, resistant to all forms of correction. She was eventually caught with her young lover by the other nuns at the convent and subjected to much degradation by them. They tore the veil from her head and chained her up in a cell while restricting her to a diet of bread and water. Aelred bewailed: ‘Oh close your ears, virgins of Christ, cover your eyes … She went out a virgin of Christ, and she soon returned an adulteress.’ Proof of her indiscretion came with her pregnancy and her lover was duly castrated. In this case it was recorded that, after a vision, miraculously her fetters fell from her, the baby was spirited away and the nun returned to her fold. The abbess of the Benedictine convent of Amesbury in Wiltshire was not so lucky. Her convent was dissolved in 1189 after she was rumoured to have given birth three times.
A meeting to decide on such matters was held at the Third Lateran Council of 1179, where the lesser clergy came under direct attack when priests were expressly forbidden to have women in their houses. Bishops complained that priests were living with their housekeepers and siring a progeny of children by them. Despite many edicts being issued with the aim of keeping their clergy celibate, priests continued to indulge in the sins of the flesh.
Luxury and debauchery
The 13th century, the supposed ‘golden age of monasticism’, was a time of cloistered debauchery. Nuns’ passions for luxurious clothes and gold jewellery fed the complaints about their loose living. In 1397 a bishop complained about Margaret Fairfax of Nunmonkton, a woman of high birth who had joined the convent but nonetheless continued to indulge her fondness for wearing silken veils and ‘frequently kept company with John Munkton and invited him to feasts in her rooms’. That nuns were meeting and eating with men gave reason for concern; with good reason as shown by the Bishop of Alnwick’s letter, written in 1440, to St Michael’s Church in Stamford, Lincolnshire informing the recipient that ‘one Agnes, a nun of that place, has gone away in apostasy cleaving to a harp player’.
The fact that women were often cloistered through no choice of their own did not help matters. Families placed unmarried daughters in convents either to save money on marriages, to pray for the family’s soul or simply because they could no longer afford to keep them. Between 1275 and 1535 nunneries increasingly acted as a receptacle for surplus women of the upper and middle classes who could not afford the extortionate ‘dowries’ demanded of them. Although some women may have chosen a life of asceticism and prayer, not all of them had the choice. Little surprise then that they fell in love with the men nearest to them.
Ecclesiastical scandals did nothing to help the reputation of the Catholic Church. If anything it proved the point of the reformers who bewailed its state. Once the reform movement took hold, religious houses declined in Protestant countries and marriage became the preferred lifestyle choice. After pinning his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was himself an exemplar of married love. Unable to keep his desires in check he changed tack from devoting his life to celibacy to promoting Protestantism, with its more satisfying fulfilment of love within marriage. He proved his point by helping a nun, Katherine von Bora (1499-1552), to escape from the confines of her convent in Saxony and marrying her. Sadly his love seems to have been without the passion that existed between some of the earlier cloistered Catholics as he declared: ‘I feel neither passionate love nor burning for my spouse, but I cherish her.’ ‘The first love is drunken,’ he admitted. ‘When the intoxication wears off, then comes the real marriage love.’
- Ruth Evans, A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Middle Ages (Berg, 2010)
- Katherine Heinrichs, The Myths of Love: Classical Lovers in Medieval Literature(Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008)
- John Cherry (ed.), Medieval Love Poetry (Paul Getty Museum, 2006)
- C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Clarendon Press, 1936)
- Vern Bullough and James Brundage (eds.), Handbook of Medieval Sexuality(Garland, 2000)
- Derek Baker (ed.), Medieval Women (Ecclesiastical History Society, 1989)
- Lynda L. Coon, Katherine J. Haldane and Elizabeth W. Sommer (eds.), That Gentle Strength: Historical Perspectives on Women in Christianity (University of Virginia, 1990)