Medieval Love Poetry developed from romantic narratives in the 12th Century
Queen Eleanor helped the development of medieval love poetry by encouraging the writing of narrative poems about the problems of intense love in northern France and England. These narratives are called in French 'Romans' - romances. Love as potrayed in these early romances were both a unique union and an immense problem at the same time. This dilemma informed much of the medieval love poetry that arose therefrom.
1. First came stories of King Arthur and his queen's (Guinevere) adultery. This narrative was written in 1131 by Geoffrey of Monmouth: Historia Regum Britanniae (Latin). In time, many renditions of this celtic legend informed medieval love poetry (employing a great deal of artistic licence)and new myths were fashioned out of them.
2. Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin History was turned into French (Anglo-Norman) verse by Eleanor's official historian Robert Wace. This Roman de Brut was finished by 1155 when Eleanor had just arrived in her new kingdom of England. There is not much about love to be found in it, but it cannot avoid the tragic love-triangle of Arthur-Guinevere-Mordred. Wace's Brut had been preceded by an adaptation into French for Eleanor of Statius's Thebaid, the Roman de Thebes, in which the dangers of love are recognized and skillfully avoided by Antigone. Love themes gradually became an increasingly important part of the 'Romans',(the long poetic narratives written for Eleanor's court). These themes quite naturally also became common stock for medieval love poetry.
3. In 1150, or soon after, a French writer, Thomas, composed a Roman de Tristan, also for Eleanor, adapting a story which had already been circulating in France for a number of years. (Thomas's version is only preserved in fragments, and is best known through the reworking of his Roman by the German Gottfried von Strassburg, one of the great poems of European medieval love poetry despite its being unfinished.)
Romans de Tristan is from start to finish a love story. It has no military action, no other focus than the tragic conflict between private passion and social duty. Tristan fetches Iseult from Ireland as the bride of his uncle Mark, king of Cornwall. On the boat they inadvertently drink a 'love potion' designed for the royal wedding night, and fall hopelessly in love. In the older story this was only a temporary problem, the effects of the potion wearing off after 3-4 years, but in Thomas it gives birth to a lifelong passion from which only death can free the lovers.
The rest of the tale is about their love-suffering, (a theme that is very familiar in medieval love poetry): hiding for a time in the woods where Mark finds them asleep in a cave, luckily with a sword between them. Their love cannot be, and cannot not be; finally, after years of pain, separation and reunion, they die and are buried on opposite sides of a church; plants spring from the graves and twine together over the church roof.
This love-pain dichotomy of medieval love poetry,in the Roman de Tristan is caused by two love-triangles: Iseult is married to Marc, but loves and is loved by Tristan; in the later part of the poem Tristan, in despair, marries another Iseult, 'of the white hands,' but cannot love her or forget the first Iseult. In this situation everyone suffers; love has become the biggest problem a powerful man can face, precisely because his physical strength is completely useless in dealing with it. The centre of the action is in the human heart, the conflict between what ought to be and what is. This conflict which would soon be embodied in medieval love poetry.
4. In the mid-1150s, another writer of medieval love poetry, writing for Eleanor adapted Virgil's Aeneid into the Roman d'Eneas. Here love-interest arises in the relationship of the hero with two women, Dido and Lavinia. Dido's love is in the end shown as a fole amor, (crazy love) excessive and doomed. In explicit response to the Tristan story, Lavinia's role is greatly developed as a successful quest for mutual and undivided love, the antidote to the triangles of Tristan, and the adulterous love of the troubadours. (Adultery as a theme of medieval love poetry actually became increasingly unpopular with the advent of the religious medieval love poetry of Dante and Petrarch).
Just after she has said she has no use for love, Lavinia sees Eneas from a window and is struck by Cupid's arrow. She spends long sleepless nights struggling to understand her feelings for him. She wants to love, and fears to, has to choose between two men; she must suffer too because she has no idea of Eneas's feelings towards her. Finally it is she who declares her feelings to him, and they develop a leal amor, (true love) trusting, equal to the honour of each, leading to marriage.
5. Further contributions to the development of medieval love poetry came in 1155 when the new court historian Benoit de Sainte-Maure dedicated to Eleanor his Roman de Troie, 30,000 lines based on the Latin narratives about the Trojan War of Dares and Dictys, with 22 battles and three tragic love stories. This was the most copied among the romances, it still exists in 30 manuscripts. In 1287 it was turned into Latin prose by Guido delle Colonne, a work that survives in 130 Mss and was read throughout Europe until the 17th century. It was Benoit who created the story of the tragic love of Troilus for the fickle Briseis, which he set alongside that of Jason for Medea, and Achilles for Polyxena. In each of these stories, at least one of the lovers dies.
Thus we can see that Benoit was a major contributor to the flowering of the emerging medieval love poetry.
6. If Benoit is a major contributor to the development of medieval love poetry, even he pales in significance to the incomparable Chretien de Troyes.
His five romances mark the beginning of modern fiction. Of his life almost nothing is known, but before being at the service of Marie of Champagne he seems to have been in Eleanor's court, where he would have been able to read the new classical romances and hear the debates they caused. Chretien's five verse romances are works of a highly creative imagination to which medieval love poetry is greatly indebted.
i) Erec and Enide (1170), the first romance with an Arthurian setting, is the story of a man who falls in love with a woman he does not know well; he marries her, then they have to learn to live together through sharing danger and hardship. Can love and honour of arms be reconciled, or must a man who loves a woman loose his manly skills? They set out together on adventure, each tests the other and is taught. Erec forbids Enide to speak; but three times she warns him of danger, breaking his command to save his life. It is a study of love with a real woman, with echoes of the social dangers inherent in the idealizing approach of fin'amors. Exclusive and life-long mutual love in marriage triumph in the end.
ii) In Cliges (1176), we start with an idyll between a couple who fall in love and marry; as in Erec and Enide the love- triangle is rejected in favour of the exclusive one-on-one relationship. In the second part, the couple's son Cliges loves Fenice and is loved by her but she is forced to marry his uncle, the emperor of Constantinople.
In this triangle, the themes of the Tristan story are rejected: Fenice will not be Iseult; the magic potion she uses gives her husband the impression of sexual relationship while in fact she remains intact. At the same time she refuses to have a sexual relationship with Cliges so long as she is his uncle's wife. A potion of the kind later to be used by Juliet at last delivers her and she is united with Cliges, having broken the triangle by her seeming death.
iii) In the late 1170s Chretien wrote two yet more fantastic romances for medieval love poetry at the same time. Yvain and the famed Lancelot du Lac(The knight with the lion and The knight on the cart).
iv) In 1180 his Perceval (The Grail) which was unfinished, was his last known narrative work. This work had little to do though with medieval love poetry, and more to do with a distorted reworking of the Grail Legend, which is outside our purview.
Yvain, though certainly deals with medieval love poetry themes. The initial situation is a triangle, caused when Yvain kills the knight of the magic fountain and falls in love with his widow, Laudine. Time allows their union, but while Yvain simply loves, the lady is only brought to accept his love by her maid's persuasion. The next part of Yvain returns to the conflict between love for a woman and martial activity in a man's public life. Yvain leaves his wife to go on tourneys, promising to return by a certain day; then he forgets and she sends a message rejecting him for ever. After many adventures, during which he rescues a lion that then always follows him, he nearly kills his dearest friend in a combat by mistake. He decides to try to get Laudine back, and succeeds, thanks again mainly to her maid's help. This reliance on the cunning of a servant seems to suggest an ironic touch for medieval love poetry.
Lancelot is the starting-point of a huge literary tradition which was extended in medieval love poetry and again it can be seen as a re-writing of Tristan. The Arthurian court offers merely a setting for Chretien's first three poems, but here the central triangle involves Arthur himself, his wife Guinevere, and Lancelot, who is given the traditional role of Guinevere's lover, in place of Mordred. The subject-matter of this tale is the obsessive fin'amors of Lancelot for Guinevere, a love that endures endless testing and cruelty from the beloved. Misunderstandings and conflict bring both of them to the brink of suicide, before Guinevere, who has been abducted by the mysterious Meleagant, calls Lancelot to her; he rips the bars from her window and they are united.
In the rest of this medieval love poetry Guinevere exploits her total control of Lancelot's will to bring him to ever higher feats of knighthood, but the moral conflict inherent in their adultery was not resolved when Chretien turned the story over to another writer to finish. In the 13th century prose 'Vulgate' romance, adapted by Malory, it is the discovery by Arthur of their affair, years later, that brings about a break between him and Lancelot, and the tragic collapse of the Round Table.
The fundamental tension of medieval love poetry that Chretien examines in all his romances involves society: two people in love are happier alone together, but they have wider responsibilities they cannot avoid. Above all it involves difference: the man falls dramatically in love with a woman who in many cases is not ready to reciprocate. The active person is the man, yet his love makes him entirely dependant on the lady's response. Their relationship evolves through long periods of introspection expressed in monologue. Chretien not only made invaluable contributions to the growth of medieval love poetry, but is often also seen as the father of the psychological novel. In truth, Thomas and Benoit went before him with the inner monologues they gave their characters.
7. Around 1225, another huge contributor to medieval love poetry arose. A satirist of a new generation composed an Ovidian handbook on love, De Arte Honeste Amandi,(The Art of Courtly Love) mocking the literature of the court in a text purportedly written in 1190 by another servant of Marie de Champagne, Andreas Capellanus. (otherwise known as Andrew the Chaplain) This work was given an exalted position by C.S. Lewis in his celebrated "Allegory of Love". It is cited by modern thinkers as a work that influenced courtly love poetry, and by extension, medieval love poetry too.
In the 13th century, the most important development in romantic love and medieval love poetry, is expressed in the contrast between the two parts of the Roman de la Rose. The first 4058 lines, written about 1230 by Guillaume de Lorris, represent in allegory the power of a beautiful lady, the sight of whom is enough to captivate the lover's heart. The fragment was 'completed' forty years later by Jean de Meun, in 17,622 lines of encyclopedic content, where the dominant tone is strongly anti-feminist. Love, it says, is no ideal but a terrible danger for any man. In the end, the male is allowed to 'pluck the rose' that is the allegorical goal of his quest, but it has come to seem a pointless triumph, and the work fails to see what Thomas and Chretien knew, that sexual union is the beginning of a relationship, happy or unhappy, not the end of a quest.
Medieval love poetry is much more than courtly love conventions. In the next page, we shall see how these literary romantic narratives influenced the great Italian humanist poets like Dante Alighieri, (1265-1321) Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) (1304-1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). Their medieval love poetry, influenced by courtly love principles attained new frontiers at the dawn of the renaissance.
However before we look into the contributions of the Italian master poets to medieval love poetry, let us take a step back and trace our journey diligently by way of some more examples of troubadour poetry, including the fascinating medieval love poetry of some of them who happen to be women!
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