Latin cultures have a wonderfully Freudian dilemma. They are macho societies where wives tend to degenerate into brood mares and respectable men take mistresses as a matter of course. Which is to say that these men have a teeny problem with the idea of respecting women.
Except, of course, their mothers.
Mothers, particularly widowed mothers, have a traditional position of unassailable respect. They completely rule over their sons. This lovely dichotomy has been encapsulated thus: All women are basically whores. Except my mother, who is a virgin.
From our own enlightened and liberated position, we think we can laugh at these male pretensions. But I think we should do so with some caution. After all, throughout most of our own cultural history, the idea of womanhood was the temptress, the prostitute, or some avatar of the Virgin Mary.
When you think about it, that is rather odd. I suppose one could argue that, what with the Judeo-Christian tradition (“the Woman tempted me”), the first two make some sort of logical sense. But where and when did we start to balance that rather pessimistic view of the feminine nature with an equally unbalanced idealization? Perhaps more importantly, why did we do it?
Well, personally I blame it all on the Crusades.
You can look at embarking on the Crusades from a number of points of view, but, if you were one of the aristocracy, it had an effect a little like spring training for the baseball team: When it was all over, some had made the cut and some hadn’t.
That is, lots of knights were told to get their armor in shape, sharpen their sword, buy a few spare horses, and come along. But what about those others, the ones who were told thank-you-very-much but you have to stay home?
Some of them, of course, were simply too old to expect to survive such a long journey with a war at the end of it. And some might have held positions too important to be spared to gallop across the known world for a few years. But quite a few were simply too young, too inexperienced, or too poor to be able to go along.
Which must have had a sort of Catch-22 sound to them. Because in their time and place the only real way to get some seasoning and gain a little wealth was to go to war. So here they were, left behind while their fellows gained all the money, land, and glory. Worse still, they couldn’t even hope for a little local war to help them catch up. The Pope said they were supposed to keep the peace while everyone else was off doing God’s Holy Work.
As one might expect, these were not happy campers.
What made a volatile situation even more dangerous was the absence of their liege lords to restrain them. Instead, they found themselves confronted with and subordinated to those useless figureheads…their liege lords’ wives!
Remember, this was a time when marriages in the feudal aristocracy were essentially treaties between families. Land and estates were what was really married. The women were simply markers to be traded and brooders whose only substantial role was to produce heirs to cement the alliance in blood.
Despite the burgeoning growth of the Mary cult, the status of women as wives, mistresses and mothers had hardly ever been lower than at the time of the Crusades.
What we have here is real explosive potential. Left alone without authority figures they respected were a bunch of testosterone-ridden, ambitious, heavily armed males arbitrarily deprived of their God-given right to look noble while gaining plunder and slaughtering heathens.
What to do?
The answer came out of the richest and most civilized area of Christendom: Aquitaine. At the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and later her daughter, Marie, came the dazzling invention called Courtly Love.
Courtly Love simultaneously subordinated the young knights and exalted the women, while giving both something completely absorbing to do to keep them out of trouble (or at least to channel the trouble they made into safe areas).
Making brilliant use of the materials available, Courtly Love established a new relationship but based it upon the feudal model that everyone already understood. A true Knight, the new definition said, needed a noble Lady to love quite as much as he needed a liege lord. He was to serve his courtly Lady with exactly the same obedience and loyalty as he owed to his liege. She was to inspire him to do great deeds in order to win her favor or to be worthy of her love. Love, and more specifically love for his exalted Lady, was seen as an ennobling force that would elevate both parties.
Interestingly, the Lady was often of a higher class and older than her devoted Knight (e.g., the wife of the absent liege lord). That is, the love was directed up. This marks the beginning of the much maligned Pedestal Effect.
In theory, however, the sexual element was ruled out. The best he could hope to obtain from such a noble love was her favor, an interesting word that meant both her beneficent regard and a physical object like a kerchief for him to bear as her standard in the tourneys.
[For me, the whole question of the non-sexual nature of the Courtly relationship is an open one. The Middle Ages was an earthy time. I have seen a nice little illumination showing a group of ladies watching a tourney and hoisting their skirts up to their navels, demonstrating both that underwear was not invented yet and that they knew exactly what those knights were fighting for. Still, some of the most famous Courtly Knights were known to have had both wives and mistresses at the same time they were writing romantic poems to their Ladies, so perhaps they really were able to keep it all separate.]
The upshot of all this is that the young knights were kept under control, they gained absorbing rivalries to compete in, lots of satisfying tournaments were held, the troubadours got steady employment, and reams of really bad poetry was written.
Oh, yes. As a bonus, women’s status was materially raised and the idea of romantic love was introduced into our culture. In fact, one could argue that romantic love still has the same societal functions today as it did when it was introduced: It makes the young men strut and strive to show how much better they are than their rivals while it also keeps them near home and under some sort of control.
But it did a lot more than that.
When Courtly Love was introduced, writing was mostly in Latin and was restricted to legal stuff like wills and treaties, religious matters, histories, and bookkeeping. The new courtly stories, lays, and poems of Eastern France were written in the vernacular tongue called Romanz. Pretty soon all such writing of “worldly” matters were called Romanz (or Romance) writing to distinguish it from the real writing in Latin.
[A thoroughly pedantic correction: Courtly Love is often said to be called Romance because it’s early works were in the “Romance” languages, e.g. Italian, French, Spanish, etc., that were derived from Latin. That is apparently wrong. Period writings refer to the use of the Romanz language and use Romanz as an adjective to describe them.]
Fiction, as an art form, had pretty well moved out of the world of writing in the Middle Ages. Instead, sagas and lays had become part of the oral tradition and were sung by the troubadours. The new Romanz writing took fiction back out of the oral world and returned it to the printed page, paving the way for Chaucer and all the others. It also engendered a new reading public eager to read stories about noble Knights and beautiful Ladies. On that basis we could say that Eleanor’s Court served as parent to all the popular literature that we know today.
But I think we can argue that it did still more.
By the Middle Ages there were many who argued that love, human love, should be given only to God. This mortal world, they declared, was a vale of sin and damnation and all who were in it were tainted with Original Sin. The only really uplifting love was that directed to God.
It was the profane (and often vigorously condemned by outraged clerics) invention of Courtly Love that began lifting the ecclesiastical anathema from the world. In time, even the clergy stopped condemning the temporal world out of hand and the idea of achieving happiness in this life became respectable. This led, eventually, to the whole idea of Progress.
As time passed the idea of Romance itself gained a still wider meaning. Once restricted to the highly ritualized world of Courtly Love, it migrated into courtship in general and spread from the higher classes throughout the social order. Marrying for love evolved from an obvious impracticality into a social standard.
And it kept on moving. In time, we were supposed to love our children and our pets. Then we were supposed to love the beasts of the forest. Then total strangers. Today we are supposed to treat everyone with love, whether we know them or not.
But this idea of Romance hasn’t stopped there. We instill it in lots of things. It is no longer considered crazy to love inanimate things. We feel free to love old books and college sweaters and old cars. We project human characteristics on anything that can’t move fast enough to get out of the way and then we love them, too.
Another of the hallmarks of our time is that we have come to believe that caring, in and of itself, is a positive thing. Compared to the past, this is truly revolutionary. They gave their respect to those who simply acted powerfully in the world. We believe that it is not enough to just do, we must also care about what we do. Even the way we earn our daily bread has become something that must contain its own measure of romantic human feeling.
I know, I know. We often take this too way too far. A whole lot of people who ought to know better publically gush about how much they love what they do and how they are enriched by it. It is our often unattractive human habit to carry everything to extremes.
I think it is also clear that this urge to instill and perceive love in everything has added incomparably to the richness of our world view. And our complex and pervasive perception of romance seems to me to be one of the better things that separates us from our ancestors.
I don’t know a clearer way to show what I mean than to offer a favorite example: Jack Lemmon used to tell a story about his father. He was a baker and was not too thrilled when he learned that despite all the money they had spent to send Jack to a prestigious school, he had caught the acting bug. Finally he asked, “Son do you love it? I mean do you really love it?” Jack told him that yes, he really loved it. His father said, “That’s good. The day I can no longer see the romance in a loaf of bread, that is the day I quit.”