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Courtly love and christian marriage: Chretien de Troyes, Chaucer, and Henry VIII.

Religious and social satire accounts for a large share of the literature produced in Western culture. Some of it is divertingly jocular and makes its mark by the "send-up," capturing ironies and apparent hypocrisy in the most solemn forms of observance. One of the earliest examples in my own education, long before I had been exposed to the witticisms of Dryden, Swift, and Pope, was cheerfully recited to me in a basketball locker-room by a teammate:
 Beware the Protestant minister:
 his false reason, false creed, and false faith;
 the foundation stones of his temple
 are the balls of Henry the Eighth.

As a Protestant in a largely Catholic community, this indelicate recitation did little to enhance my already insecure religious identity. That was doubtless the point. Only years later did I learn that the poem was a quip usually attributed the Irish poet Brendan Behan.

Literary history typically offers up such wisdom as it has to teach less confidently than does Behan's ditty. It is likewise a commonplace that critical conclusions can on occasion be offered in a fashion flagrantly obverse to probable intentions in the mind of the original authors. Discovery of such disjunctions, however, can be instructive. In this essay I want to discuss the effects of a particular instance of dispositional bias that more or less unconsciously (rather than as a species of critical refashioning of a deliberately interested sort) failed to grasp the ironic character of a significant body of texts. Specifically, I want to draw attention to evidence that "courtly love" in the Middle Ages was pretty much always a literary convention of sorts, a vehicle for political and social satire, in that the very rules of this party game depended on an undergirding high value for the normative principles of Christian marriage. Even the jokes of this genre (and there are many) depend on security in the assumption that fruitful Christian marriage was the glue upon which social stability and cohesion depended, perhaps most especially at the courtly level.

"Courtly Love" as a Social Construct

One might not easily grasp the ironic frisson to which I refer from the fantasies of Victorian medievalists. The soft erotic realism of the Pre-Raphaelite painters exemplifies one obvious register: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Beata Beatrix" (1863), Sir Edward Burne-Jones's "The Love Song" (1877), or, in the second generation, Sir Frank Dicksee's "End of the Quest" (1921) and "Chivalry" (1885) along with John Collier's "Tannhauser in the Venusburg" (1901) are all examples of a romanticized aesthetic reconstruction of the ethical legacy of medieval culture. Alluring as they are, these depictions bear no more correspondence to their ostensible prototypes in historical fact than in historically plausible costume, or, in many cases, lack of costume (Palmgren and Holloway; Waithe).

I do not mean to suggest that blithe falsifications of history and plain sense are entirely without value. A complete incapacity for irony, coupled with an appalling ignorance of the actual anthropology out of which a text is written, has often led to interpretation much more entertaining than the text itself. One literary critic whose place in the history of medieval literary study has been more assured by this dubious sort of fantasia than by his better work is the nineteenth-century French medievalist, Gaston Paris. In an inventive essay on Chretien de Troyes' Lancelot du Lac (1883) he introduced the term amour courtois to describe the illicit, secret, demeaning, and ultimately disastrous love of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. (1) In this relationship, which Gaston Paris tellingly described as "a kind of idolatry" Lancelot's first article of faith is in the goddess-like superiority of his mistress; the great knight grovels before her most trivial requests for feats by which he may hope to prove his undying ardor. Now the frank objective of this most famous "courtly lover" is adulterous liaison with the queen of his own liege lord. This is not a feature of the romance that would likely have been lost on a medieval courtly audience. Yet for Gaston Paris, Lancelot's amorous ambition signaled a new and inspirationally modern moment in the history of medieval literature and provided the model by which, accordingly, all other medieval narratives about "courtly" love should henceforth be understood.

Since then, as they say in Brooklyn, a lot of intelligent academic readers have bought the bridge, believing Paris's argument reliably to connect medieval culture and modernity. It would be extraneous to our purposes here to provide a list, but two figures merit special notice. The first is Denis de Rougemont, whose Love in the Western World (1939) begins with a close analysis of the Tristan and Iseult legend and of courtly Provencal poetry; following Gaston Paris, de Rougement discusses the greater nobility of a courtly lover who subjects himself repeatedly to intense sexual torment while being resigned to unconsummated desire. He finds the origin of this "higher" form of love in the heretical views of the Cathars (including their rejection of marriage), among whom, putatively, tormented eros was allegedly intrinsic to a kind of Gnostic mysticism:
 Courtly love came into existence in the twelfth century during a
 complete revolution of the western psyche. It sprang up out of the
 same movement which forced upwards into the half light of our human
 consciousness, and into lyrical expression by the human spirit, the
 feminine principle of Shakti, the worship of Woman, of the Mother,
 and of the Virgin.... What makes it intelligible to us today are
 its historical signs or marks--its literally congenital connexion
 with the heresy of the Cathars, and both its surreptitious
 opposition and its overt opposition to the Christian conception of
 marriage. (122)

Now, despite the fact that de Rougement was a well-respected writer on a number of topics and that the National Review lists his volume as one of the "100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century;' this particular idea is woefully misbegotten. While Mozarab verse with non-Christian ideas about sex influenced some Provencal poets, few if any of these poets were Cathari heretics, and such Arabic influence as can be demonstrated was in any case more formal and metrical than topical. Provencal poems whose manner and subject matter were what Macabru was first to call "fin amors" were almost invariably performed aloud by the poet himself in a Christian court. The cultured members of such a court were, on all the evidence, unlikely to take literally works of this sort. Clearly, no medieval poet would risk offending his regal audience by commending a kind of pseudo-nobility they viewed not only as inherently foolish, but even as treasonable to figures in authority such as themselves.

That there were artificial conventions for a genteel sort of amorous poetry, as there were in Ovidian Rome, is certain, but careful analysis reveals that, as Robert Briffault has put it, the "stylized passion" of such poetry should not prompt us now to attach to it a greater assumption of realism than we would assign to the "stage-love tunefully bestowed by an Italian tenor upon a prima donna graced with a lengthy career and Junonic presence" (91). As a point of comparison, Briffault instances Bernard de Ventadorn who "celebrates in lascivious terms the personal charm" of Eleanor of Aquitaine "at a time when she was well into her late fifties" (This, in an age without silicon and Botox.) To put it in Briffault's words again, "the pedantic rules of courtly love were poetical fictions, and were in large measure consciously and admittedly such" (92).

No less a scholar of Christian literary history than C. S. Lewis, at least when he wrote his first major monograph, had not yet understood these conventions. Inspired to study medieval literature through reading Victorian poets such as William Morris, and finding the fantasy world of such poetry as "The Well at the World's End" too beauteous, as he touchingly put it, not to be true, he thought of courtly love as a kind of proto-Protestant revolt in the name of love against, in his view, the distressingly pragmatic view of the medieval Catholic Church regarding the conjugal act. His The Allegory of Love (1936), initially attractive to many readers with like romantic tastes, has come to be regarded by most contemporary critical readers as not only fanciful but a bit embarrassing (Jeffrey 77-80). Even his friend and colleague Gervaise Matthews, in a magisterial book on The Court of Richard II (1968), with its pertinent chapters on literature, chivalry, and marriage, does not once mention The Allegory of Love.

Scholarly Corrective and Lessons Learned

The first literary critic to more or less definitively scotch the romantic idealism surrounding amour courtois was D. W. Robertson, Jr. He was self-consciously correcting Lewis as well as de Rougement and Gaston Paris, though he politely mentions only the latter, by then safely dead. Another irony: by his own confession, Robertson was at most an agnostic where Christianity was concerned, yet his command of Christian biblical exegesis from the fathers through the fourteenth century had few peers in his time. (2) Robertson's point was that whether in the Ovidian satire called The Art of Courtly Love presented to the court of Marie de Champagne by her Masspriest, Andreas Capellanus, or in burlesque allegories such as Le Roman de la Rose and, from his point of view, the elegant faiblesse of Chretien's Lancelot, "what is being satirized is not 'courtly love' at all, but idolatrous passion" ("Concept of Courtly Love" 3). Robertson's observation was that such a pseudo-religious elevation of carnal misdirection is not a peculiarly medieval phenomenon but appears, only to be denigrated, also in the Old Testament and Roman classical literature. In other medieval literature, the ribald indelicacies of Le lai du Lecheur, for example, are offered in the same high courtly style: the ironic contrast between high medium and low message affords a good part of the humor (A Preface to Chaucer 204). Robertson does not try to cast his medievals as Puritans; he allows in fact that "no one expected medieval noblemen to observe strict chastity." "But it is one thing;' he says, "to engage in occasional dalliance and quite another to abandon oneself completely to idolatrous passion" (Preface 14). The so-called "doctrine of courtly love," Robertson suggests, would be utterly inappropriate to a genuinely noble lover.

The historian John E Benton names Gaston Paris, Lewis, and de Rougement among others in his own renunciation of the late modern myth of courtly love. Benton's critique has the added advantage that he contextualizes the discussion in terms of both the laws and the practices associated with actual medieval marriage. These provisions were indeed, as Lewis observed, highly practical rather than romantic. The first of these, notwithstanding the canonical principle consensus facit nuptias, was that "a legal marriage began with a financial contract between two families" (Benton 20). As Benton summarizes it, "the influence of family alliances, property rights, desire for legitimate offspring, social status, and the prospect of companionship all worked to make marriage attractive to the participants" (21). He adds, "we cannot know how much our medieval ancestors looked forward to what we would call a satisfying personal relationship, [but] surely much less than do modern Americans" (21). Love was something to be developed under the mutual obligations of obedience (cf. Eph. 5:23ff.); our own concern for "chemistry" and mutual attraction had no comparable primacy. The "participants" in a marriage included all the extended families and communities, and numerous medieval texts, from Urbain le Courtois to St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles, suggest that in marriage physical beauty is less to be sought than the highest order of friendship: in fact, Aquinas uses the term amicitia along with amor to avoid any possible confusion with "the love of concupiscence," (3) or, as we might call it in more vernacular terms, "falling in lust."

To draw the point: adultery, especially that form of adultery in which a knight or vassal seduced the wife of his lord, could hardly be construed as chivalric or "courtly": it was regarded in medieval law as a form of treason on a level with regicide (Benton 27). The punishments accorded in the few known cases were severe (Benton 40, n. 26). In light of these harsh historical realities, a "Lancelot" story such as Le Chevalier de la Charette is quite a different tale than Gaston Paris imagined. As Benton puts it:
 Chretien has in fact gone out of his way to describe behavior he
 could be sure his courtly audience would condemn.... The knight who
 rides in a shameful cart is no casual lover but one who betrays his
 lord.... If we find Lancelot a sympathetic figure because he was
 guided by love rather than reason, it is because modern attitudes
 differ from medieval ones in ways Chretien could not foresee. (28)

For both Benton and Robertson then, what Paris and others missed entirely was contextual irony--and thus the meaning of the story.

One form of irony Chretien uses in Lancelot is antiphrasis, one of the examples of which, in the words of a medieval manual on the subject, is "to praise a lecher for his chastity." Tonally, Chretien's mode is astysmos, or mild sarcasm--a mode familiar to medieval readers of Ovid. Not only modern English readers, according to W. T. H. Jackson, but medieval German authors often "failed to perceive the ironical overtones in French literature" (55). So, to be charitable, perhaps the subtleties of the conventions themselves have more than a little to do with our modern propensity to find charming what more probably the French authors were mocking. Dante's fifth canto of the Inferno, in which Paolo and Francesca are found among the damned for reading the Lancelot story as a prompt to adulterous amour, indicates clearly enough that literalistic romanticizing was a possibility. It also shows that such a failure of interpretation could be regarded, even by a poet, as eternally culpable. By comparison, it now seems pretty clear that most modern interpretations have been telling us far more about modern sensibilities than medieval ones. What we learn about our own literary culture, if more evidence were needed, is not only that we tend to have a tin ear for irony. We learn also that, in our departure from earlier views of marriage which saw it as a sacred bond in the social as well as spiritual sense, many moderns have come to view as admirable and ennobling behavior that medieval men and women were more likely to find risible, socially destructive, or both. In their setting, humorous and satiric literary "send-up" becomes a means of cautionary wisdom, a bas-relief framework for reflecting on the actual values to be extolled. But for readers without interest in these features of medieval cultural anthropology, the tales can seem indistinguishable from soap opera.

Chretien de Troyes in the Court of Marie de Champagne

Our subject can be more representatively explored, I think, by reflecting on courtly custom and literary expression in the courts of three monarchs, one each from the twelfth, fourteenth, and sixteenth centuries. The locus classicus is France in the twelfth century. In the eminent case of Chretien, whose work included translations of Ovid and a contribution to the Christian allegory of the Metamorphoses, the Ovide moralist, the first romance in his famous collection, Erec and Enide, explores qualities that a worthy marriage was supposed to engender. This poem clearly celebrates marriage as a unifying social force. Notably lacking in the devices of "love-service" or "fin amors," the tale begins with a contract for marriage between Erec and the father of his bride-to-be. Enide is attractive to him, but there are no verbal protestations of love or amorous passion. By contrast, their immoderately extended honeymoon is characterized by concupiscent self-indulgence on Erec's part: he treats his wife more like a paramour or mistress ("De li fist s'amie et sa drue" 1. 2435), the word "drue" here having ignoble connotations. Her embarrassment at the negative social consequences of his initially idolatrous preoccupation precipitates a quest which severely tests the marital bond, proving it to be one in which both parties will mature as the plot unfolds; Enide repeatedly demonstrates her absolute fidelity, and Erec is finally won to reciprocate her fealty, not to mention her prudence, with his love and trust. This, as Jackson has observed, is in startling contrast to the weak marriage of Arthur and Guenevere, as well as to the false chivalry of Lancelot. He notes in particular that "the concluding 'Joie de la Cort' episode makes very clear the difference between the servile bondage of a knight to a lady's whim and the free association of lovers in a purposeful life" (Jackson 57).

Erec and Enide is thus not at all a celebration of amour courtois. Rather, as its concluding eschatological overtones suggest, by it we are to increase our appreciation for the way in which the medieval Christian ideal of marriage reveals its sacramental value in forming a model for rightly ordered desire at several levels, ultimately expressive of and, symbolically, participating in God's redemptive love for the world. "My lord is in every way the son of a king" Enide tells her confused alter-ego, "yet he took me when I was poor and naked" (6254-55). The great coronation banquet is held on Christmas Day, and after Mass a thousand knights serve bread, a thousand of them serve wine, all of them dressed in white, and we have a distinct sense that the ending of the poem is itself an epithalamion. This poem is what sets the standard, I suggest, by which what follows in Chretien's other "romances" may be judged.

The point about epithalamium, or marriage poem, as a genre was not, of course, incidental for the medieval view of marriage, or for the particular performance of this poem in the court of Marie de Champagne. Marie was also the recipient and dedicee of a rather elegant poetic commentary on Psalm 44 / KJV 45 called, for the first word of the original Latin text, Eructavit. Members of her court would have known this Psalm to be such a marriage poem; the more learned among them would likely have known that commentaries from Augustine forward identified it allegorically with the "sacred marriage feast of the Bridegroom and the Bride, the King and his people." Augustine connects it also with conversion, metamorphosis, a transformation, as he puts it, "from the old to the new man ... from an adulterer to a man of chastity" (On the Psalms). "There are commonly spoken by balladists" he says, "certain verses to Bridegrooms and Brides, called epithalamia" (supra Ps. 45:3), and he notes that this Psalm rejoices in such a poet's task, one whose "tongue is become the pen of a ready writer" (45.5, 6).

Now it is typical of late medieval Catholic doctrine that symbolic images applied to the Church generaliter may apply with special focus to Mary, specialiter, as figura for the Church, the Bride of Christ (Scheper). In early Gallican liturgies, Mary's feast included celebration of her role as Queen of Heaven's King and featured Psalm 44 / Vg. 45. These echoes are likewise present in Marie de Champagne's commentary, in which the traditional lectionary placement of Psalm 44 on Christmas morning Mass ("Le jour de Noel au matins") is reiterated, but with the interesting touch that the epithalamion is sung by King David, who appears in the opening lines as a penitent outcast, dressed in sackcloth and ashes outside the nuptial chamber of the Bridegroom. This aspect of the poetic framework is not, of course, in the biblical text of Psalm 44 but calls to mind David's repentance following his adultery with Bathsheba (cf. Psalm 51, Miserere). David is here cast as the poet's double, a medieval jongleur or balladeer, singing and further pleading that he might be admitted to the cosmic marriage feast, so that he can sing his epithalamion directly to the eternal Bride and Groom and their assembled noble guests. The Court of Heaven is portrayed in the Eructavit as an elegant feudal court, and it is said that the "joie de la cort" attends the King's crowning of his son and reception into the royal court of his bride. In such a context, this celebratory "joy" could not but be associated in the minds of Marie's court with the "joy of the court" at the conclusion of Erec and Enide.

The beautifully composed Eructavit is largely anagogical but on occasion also includes explicit practical Christian teaching at the moral level. For example, it includes a stern injunction against any devaluation of human marriage on the part of either party, suggesting among other things that even the "custom of the world" has it that when a woman deserts the love of her husband for another, through either willed sin or a careless mistake, though she should come to a full repentance the husband has "no obligation to take her back and she would in fact be better off in the grave" (Benton 26). Nor should we imagine that such doctrinal reminders would have been taken amiss by the thoughtfully pious Marie de Champagne. Among her chaplains, her personal confessor was Adam de Perseigne, a learned Cistercian and librarian. Adam, at one time confessor also to England's King Richard I (Coeur de Leon) was the author of the Eructavit, and it was this poet-priest who Marie called to her deathbed. Partly on account of the exemplary Christian fidelity associated with Marie's court, Adam's elegant commentary on Psalm 44 circulated widely as a text of spiritual instruction, in Anglo-Norman England as well as on the continent. Later, La chronique de Gislebert de Mons noted of the next generation of this royal family that Baldwin of Hainault, husband to the daughter of Henry and Marie de Champagne, was a praiseworthy exemplar of male fidelity, saying: "it is rarely found in any man that he should cleave so much to one woman and be content with her alone" (Benton 24). None of this makes Marie de Champagne's court sound like much of a paradise for the modernist imaginations of would-be courtly lovers. Further, it casts the gravest of doubt upon the proposition that Chretien de Troyes was an ardent proponent of so-called "courtly love."

Chaucer in the Court of Richard II

About the same time that academics and artists took so much pleasure in the apparent discovery of "courtly love," it became fashionable in literary criticism to refer to some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as a "marriage group" In fact, however, almost every tale deals in some way with marriage, from The Knight's Tale to the Parson's, and several in such a way as explicitly to ironize in much less subtle ways than Chretien the literary conventions (or affectations) associated with courtly love. The Knight's Tale sets off its Boethius-quoting protagonist Theseus against a pair of comically jejune and ineffectual knights. They, in turn, act out in wonderfully humorous hyperbole all of the pains attributed to frustrated courtly love (for a woman they have yet even to meet), offering a paradigm expose of the social calamities occasioned by the pursuit of disordered affections--especially among persons whose responsibilities, as we would say, included governance. This tale is followed by two tales (Miller and Reeve) that burlesque such disorder at another level by stripping off the fine clothes and upper class manners--in low and vulgar humor nevertheless satirizing essentially the same sort of amorous intemperance. That most profoundly "learned" burlesque of marriage, the Prologue and Tale of the Wife of Bath, specifically permits the garrulous Alison to misquote and misrepresent central church teachings on the "full gret sacrament" as she calls it, making an hilarious hash of canonical texts from scripture through Jerome and Augustine. This sets up her own tale, a Breton lai in which a Guenevere-led court is blithely willing to pass over a maiden's rape in exchange for a politically correct answer in a courtly parlor game: what women universally most desire, the rapist is to acknowledge, is total mastery over men. Her tale is much more entertaining, we remember, than any bare synopsis can reflect, but it concludes with an ugly hag's entrapment of the rapist knight by blinding him with magical charms, then deluding him into believing that by accepting her shape-shifting capacity to be any woman he wants her to be he can live out the erotic fantasies he has really been pursuing all along. We should be wary of accepting the Wife of Bath's "solution" as Chaucer's primary meaning, particularly in the light of the development of the marriage theme in subsequent tales.

Other stories of disordered marriages--the tyranny of an irresponsible husband which fails to break the fidelity of his forbearing wife (Clerk's Tale), a burlesque of the foolishness of excessive concupiscence in The Nun's Priest's Tale, and of the impotent carnality of the old knight Januarie in The Merchant's Tale, all deconstruct the conventions of "courtly love," literary or otherwise, as social folly. The Franklin's Tale shows how, in fact, women most of all would be made victims by a culture of such notions of secret amour and "honorable" dalliance, even as the men in their lives became shabby parodies of truly chivalric lovers (Gaylord). Conversely, the Tale of Melibee, with its exemplary reification of the virtues of the mulier fortis of Proverbs 31 and the amicitia maxima that Augustine and Aquinas especially found among the goods of accountable marriage, suggests worthy marriage as a means of living wisdom. Finally, the Second Nun's Tale shows us spiritual marriage as a good complete in itself, even though the sexuality of such a marriage be sublimated, and the Parson in his sermon gathers up the embedded scriptural commentary in most of these tales to recapitulate the essentials of Christian teaching on the subject.

Marriage is thus indeed, as it is conventional to say, a central theme of The Canterbury Tales, though the theme is developed in such a way that the reader can appreciate its evident social and spiritual value all the better for having observed the poor facsimiles that some of the pilgrims try to pass off as more attractive, chaucer writes about the social good of well-ordered marriage elsewhere, in his political allegory The Parliament of Foules, in Troilus and Criseyde, and in his lyrics, notably when he is admonishing the carnally self-indulgent Richard II, whose early preoccupations somewhat mirror those of Chretien's Erec. Here, in a plea for Richard to be constant in his covenant to rule his people in justice, Chaucer bids him to "cherish" his people, to
 Dred God, do law, love trouthe and worthinesse
 And wed thy folk again to stedfastnesse.

The idea that the relationship of a king in feudal covenant with his people was itself a kind of marriage, with duties incumbent upon the regent of a sort consistent with those enjoined by St. Paul in Ephesians 5, is as deep in the political philosophy of medieval Christendom as the mysterion or sacramentum of marriage is in scripture itself. It is figural, as the Eructavit declares, for the coming parousia, the eschatological union of Bridegroom and Bride in the kingdom of God. This is why Chretien's contemporary, Hugh of St. Victor, likewise elaborates on Augustine's De bono conjugali to say that the scriptural and canon law sources "proposed marriage in a compact (feodas) of love, that in it might be the sacrament of that society which exists in the spirit between God and the soul" (2.11.3; cf. Augustine 32-33). However unfashionable in our own culture, it is useful to recall just how feudal and un-modern and hence un-individualistic the institution is: the vow has here the full connotation of a covenant, or pactum; without this character it could not be a sacrament. This is how one is to understand the canon, namely as a "compact of mutual agreement" (2.11.4); it is this mutual verbal consent which makes the marriage rather than sexual union (2.11.4-5). In this way, what medievals called the "faith of the betrothal" is, properly speaking, the beginning of marriage. Breach of that betrothal pledge, as, for example, by Angelo in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, is in itself adultery. Conversely, to fulfill one's betrothal vow even in unpropitious or inadvertent circumstances is to act in troth, or fidelity. Hugh of St. Victor's words, summarily then, speak for medieval Christianity: "marriage, according as it is worthy, is a sacrament of that society which exists in spirit between God and the soul" (2.11.3). Accordingly, its ceremony is as communal a celebration as that of the other sacraments; like each of them, it bears witness of a pledge to a higher Troth. Erec and Enide's eventual coronation, in this light, is at once a declaration of the realized sacramental worthiness of their marriage and a consecration in feodas of their regency in all that signifies for the community at large. The eschatological overtones in Chretien's final verses are not an incidental allegorical flourish, but a reminder of the eternal archetype or exemplar by which Psalm 44 and Ephesians 5 ground the meaning of marriage in the mystery of human redemption itself.

The Court of Henry VIII and the Making of Modern Fantasy

I come back, now, to a very different court, that of Henry VIII, not to recount the unsavory details of his six wives, five violated betrothals, or his many other dalliances, nor yet to show what his insistence on sexual freedom was to cost in the lives of his wives and worthy courtiers, among them a most noble bishop and truly extraordinary chancellor. All these facts are well known, not least, alas, because modern cinema has made a lovable playboy out of this monster of the concupiscent appetites. I return to him because none of his legendary yet quite authentically documented exploits would be much remembered if he had not at the same time been a kind of renaissance paragon: a genuine scholar, bibliophile, accomplished musician, theologically literate layman, and, not least, the founder of English Protestantism--largely on grounds (as I am sure Eamon Duffy in his Stripping of the Altars, no less than Brendan Behan and my teammates, would agree) of justifying personal sexual indulgence, slanderous intrigue and even judicial murder in a fashion that definitively out-burlesques the "courtly love" of medieval ironists.

It has been shown that the pursuit of the literary and social conventions associated with "courtly love," including reading romances aloud in the company of ladies, persisted through the time of the court of Richard II down to the Tudor court, and with a good deal of elaboration in the artifice of polite social game (Stevens 154-202). At the same time, there is abundant evidence that these courtly social fictions were becoming more vulnerable to factual enactment. Henry's courtly theatrics effectively strip the earlier French literary conventions of their irony, play out polite and public flirtations as private fantasy, then legislatively normalize the consequences. Thus Henry: if not "the onlie begetter" of modernity in these matters, he certainly deserves a lot of the credit.

Henry's royal library was rich in theological writings. (4) But it listed also sixteen medieval romances, including three versions each of Lancelot and Lancelot du Lac--more copies, it would appear, than of any other work. He had also Boccaccio's Decamerone and De claris mulieribus both in the original and French translation, Guillaume de Lorris' Roman de la Rose and a lot of Ovid (Carley, Books of Henry VIII, Libraries of Henry VIII). This suggests a certain preoccupation. Yet in his own work he fancied himself a theologian. For his book refuting Luther, ironically ghostwritten in part by Thomas More and titled Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (1521)--marriage included--he won from Pope Leo X the now even more ironic title of "Defender of the Faith" Having thus, perhaps, acquired in his own mind personal grounds to entertain doubts about the doctrine of papal infallibility, he then went on effectively to abolish the papacy as far as England was concerned, declaring himself the head of the Church as well as head of State.

There are other things about Henry that deepen the murk of the motives suggested by Brendan Behan's ditty. Henry VIII'S life-long "zeal in the outward practices of religion" (Cross 634) includes his edition of the Sacrae Biblia (1535), essentially a Vulgate Latin New Testament with selected parts of the Old Testament, omitting more than half of the latter (Freeman). In this he is a prototype for now well-established trends in modernist biblical interpretation. Henry's particular omissions include all of the Chronicles of Israel's kings, the books of the prophets, lob, and the Song of Songs, that other epithalamion inseparable in Christian imagination from the sacramentum of marriage in its allegorical association with the spiritual marriage of divine Bridegroom and sanctified Bride, Christ, and the Church. Henry's preface to his Sacrae Biblia (which survives in only four copies) is, for all its show of piety, not less licentious than any other aspect of his life:
 You know well how our Lord God, whose words or scriptures we are
 discussing, ordered that when a king sat on the throne of his
 kingdom, he should write for himself the law of God, and, having it
 with him, should read it every day of his life, so that he should
 thus learn to fear the Lord his God, and guard His words.

Henry's tidy though blasphemous verbatim evocation of Deut. 17:18-19 is as learned a gesture as his deletion of Nathan's condemnation of David's adultery or Elijah's denunciation of Ahab. He had heard enough about these passages already from the likes of Bishop John Fisher and Lord Chancellor Thomas More, both of whom he had executed (June 22 and July 5, respectively) within the month of his "personal" Bible's private publication, perhaps even as he was writing down these deceitful words in his preface. A month later he was finally himself excommunicated.

Henry VIII is not, of course, uniquely responsible for the fact that English-speaking culture appears to be on the verge of social bankruptcy where marriage as an institution is concerned. That was not Brendan Behan's point, and it is not my argument in this essay. Our social anthropology is now deeply and pervasively shaped by tabloid-dulled acceptance of the glamorization of marriage's opposite, an habituation which tends to evacuate the potential both for idealism and for satire. Even at the level of our romanticizing of political leaders, we have only to recall the profound and certainly unintended irony in Theodore H. White's innovative, retrospective attribution of "Camelot" to the presidency of J. F. Kennedy (at the urging of his widow Jacqueline). (5)

In a Christian moral universe, I would suggest, the need for both affirming genuine ideals and for send-up, for ironizing humor, remains. What medieval conventions of "courtly love" can teach us, among other things, is that a literary imagination which can distinguish humorously between the ideal and its corruption has a potential for articulating serious ethical and social criticism even in politically complex circumstances. Sometimes it is best of all to laugh. In his own fashion, Brendan Behan seems to have understood that quite well.

Baylor University


Augustine of Hippo, St. De bono coniugali. Trans. P. G. Walsh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.

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(1) Amour courtois, the 19th-century French academic term, is a neologism coined to name the fantasy. It is not a medieval term. It should be distinguished from the medieval phrase fin amour, first found in the 13th-century Provencal poet Macabru, which describes courtliness or, sometimes, genteel practices of courtship, characterized by virtues such as self-effacement, fidelity, and a willingness for delayed gratification. See Hult.

(2) In several articles and his Preface to Chaucer, Robertson was among the first American scholars to commend Henri de Lubac's Exegese Medieval (and its sources) as a means of understanding medieval literary texts.

(3) Aquinas, as Benton notes, couples the term amicitia with amor to avoid confusion with "the love of concupiscence." See Raby, 599-610.

(4) Henry owned copies both of Bruno Astensis, De sacramentis ecclesiae, and Hugh of St. Victor, De sacramentis Christianae fidei. Carley notes that Catherine of Aragon, who Erasmus thought more learned even than Henry, in 1525 asked the Dutch humanist to write a book on Christian marriage for Princess Mary; it was published in 1526 as Christiani matrimonii institutio. (By this point Anne Boleyn had been openly installed in the court for a year, her adulterous liaison with Henry having begun well before the divorce of Catherine, in 1533.)

(5) Jackie Kennedy asked White, a confidant and Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, to "rescue" her dead husband from "the bitter old men who write history." White's essay in LIFE a month after the assassination did just that; the epitaph for the Kennedy administration became Camelot--"a brief shining moment," when "gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back." The metaphor was conveniently drawn from the contemporary Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical, Camelot (1960), apparently a favorite of the President. As White himself later acknowledged, "it is a misreading of history. The magic Camelot of John F. Kennedy never existed."

Author's Note: This essay was first delivered in November 2008 as a lecture at a conference on Marriage and the Family at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.
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Author:Jeffrey, David Lyle
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Date:Mar 22, 2010
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