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Excerpts from Georges Duby, "The Courtly Model,"

from A History of Women: Silences of the Middle Ages

p. 250: Did the condition of women improve in the feudal era? Those who answer this difficult question in the affirmative rely primarily on one fact: the emergence in twelfth-century France of a model of male-female relations that contemporaries referred to as fine amour (refined love). For the past hundred years or so, since historians of medieval literature began paying close attention to this model of emotional and physical relations between the sexes, it has been known as "courtly love."

The Model

The model is simple. A female figure stands at the center: a "lady" (dame). The term, derived from the Latin domina, signifies that this lady is in a dominant position. It also defines her status: she is married. A young man, a jeune (at the time the word referred to an unmarried youth), notices her. What he sees of her face and what he divines of her hair (hidden by a wimple) and of her body (concealed by clothing) makes him uneasy. Everything begins with a glance. Metaphorically, this glance is an arrow that pierces the eye and goes straight to the heart, where it kindles flames of desire. Wounded by love (and bear in mind that /p. 251: in the vocabulary of the time, "love" in the proper sense referred to carnal appetite), the youth thinks of nothing but possessing his beloved. He lays siege to his prize and to breach the walls of the fortress uses a strategy of deception: he pretends to bow down before her, to abase himself. The "lady" is the wife of a lord, often his own lord. She is in any case the mistress of a house he visits often. According to the social hierarchy of the time, she ranks above him. He calls attention to this fact through various gestures of allegiance. He kneels down, assuming the posture of a vassal. He speaks, pledging his faith, promising, like a liege man, not to offer his services to anyone else. He goes even further: in the manner of a serf, he makes a gift of his person.

He is no longer a free man. The woman, for her part, is still free to accept or reject his offer. At this point female power manifests itself. The man is put to the test by a woman, by this chosen woman, who summons him to prove his mettle. But if, at the end of this examination, the lady accepts, if she lends an ear and allows a web of words to be woven around her, she in turn becomes a prisoner, because in this society it is understood that every gift calls for a countergift. Modeled on the provisions of the vassalage contract which obliged the lord to reward the loyal vassal with value equal to what he received, the rules of courtly love obliged the chosen lady to reward loyal service, ultimately by full surrender. In intention courtly love was not, contrary to what many people believe, platonic. It was a game, and as in all games the player was motivated by the hope of winning. To win meant, as in hunting, to capture one's prey. Let it not be forgotten that his was a game controlled by men.

Although the lady, like the queen in chess, was an important piece in the game, she could not, because she was a woman, use her body in any way she wished -- that was where her power ended. That prized body, which had once belonged to her father, now belonged to her husband. It was the repository of his honor and conjointly, of the honor of all the adult males of his household. Hence it was kept under close surveillance. In noble residences, where there were no interior walls or truly private places, where people lived at close quarters day and night, the body of la dame could never escape for very long from the scrutiny of prying eyes, of men only too ready to believe that this woman, like all women, was deceitful and weak. At the slightest indication of misbehavior she would be declared guilty. And if caught she became the subject, /p. 252: along with the man believed to be her accomplice, to the cruelest of punishments. What made this game interesting was the danger to which the partners exposed themselves. To love de fine amour was to run a risk. The knight who decided to attempt it knew the odds. Obliged to be prudent and above all discreet, he had to express himself by means of signs: in a crowded household he somehow had to build a secret garden, a space of intimacy in which he and his lady could hide.

There he confidently awaited his reward, the favors that his chosen lady was obliged to grant him. The code of love required that those favors be parceled out in small doses, however, and the woman thereby regained the advantage. She gave herself, but not all at once. According to the prescribed ritual, she first allowed herself to be kissed, then offered her lips, then submitted to more ardent caresses whose effect was to spur her partner's desire even more. Courtly lyric described the ultimate trial --assaig (essai), the troubadours called it --the final ordeal to which the lover dreamed of being subjected. It was an obsession, a breathtaking fantasy. The lover imaged himself lying beside his lady and allowed to take advantage of the proximity of her naked flesh, but only up to a certain point. At the last possible moment the rules of the game required him to hold back, to desist, in order to prove his worth by demonstrating total physical self-control. The final surrender of the beloved, the moment when her servant might take his pleasure in her, was thus postponed indefinitely. The locus of the male's pleasure was thus shifted from the satisfaction of desire to anticipation of that satisfaction. Pleasure climaxed in desire itself. Thus courtly love was a fantasy. It gave women a definite power, but it kept that power confined within a well-defined sphere, that of fantasy and play..../p. 255:

Why was the Model Accepted?

Men in this society were divided into two classes. One consisted of workers, mostly peasants living in villages, the so-called villeins. The other consisted of masters, who lived on the fruits of other people's labor and gathered in courts. Gaston Paris made an inspired choice when he hit on the word "courtly" to define the type of amorous relations with which we are concerned, for it was at court that the game of fine amour took shape. The courts of feudal French princes were festive gatherings. Every lord was obliged to organize such gatherings periodically in order to demonstrate his generosity. His men, all who did him homage, were obliged to put in an appearance or else be suspected of betraying their commitment. For a few days the lord's household swelled to grand proportions. The preservation of order and peace within the aristocracy depended on these gatherings. The guest at court, whether a /p. 256: noble or merely a common companion of the prince, entered into the game of love; he tried to treat women in a more refined way, to demonstrate his skill at captivating them not by force but by verbal or manual caresses, in order to show that he was one of the privileged few who shared in the profits of seigneurial exploitation and who was exempt from the oppression that weighed common folk. In this way he clearly demonstrated the distance that separated him from the villein, who was summarily dismissed as living a life of ignorance and bestiality. The practice of courtly love was first and foremost a criterion of distinction within masculine society. That is why the model proposed by the poets proved so powerful and why it was able to influence certain men's attitude toward women.

It was able, at any rate, to influence the attitude of certain men toward certain women, for the same class division that existed among men carried over to women. Thus "ladies" (dames) and "maidens" (pucelles) were sharply distinguished from peasant women (vilaines), whom the men of the court could treat as brutally as they pleased. But the ladies and maidens invited to join the game of courtly love were entitled to certain marks of respect, while the game lasted, enjpyed some power over their male partners.....

Society was divided not into two but into three parts. Within the dominant class were two distinct groups: those whose function was to pray, the clerics; and those whose function was to fight, the knights. The two groups vied for the favors of the prince and the benefits of power. Owing to their rivalry, and at a time of vigorous economic growth, a culture specific to the men of war and fiercely independent of the culture of the clergy established itself quite rapidly. Poetry in the vulgar tongue was one of the principal forms of expression of this knightly culture. More than anything else literature revealed the distinctive features of this culture, which was based on the exaltation of profane love, masculine desire, and the pleasure afforded by women. After all, the fundamental distinction between clerics and knights was sexual. In principle at least, clergymen were forbidden to have commerce /p. 257: with women, whereas knights prided themselves on assailing the fair sex. Banished from the cloister, women filled the court.

At court, however, custom raised a barrier that kept men and women apart. To be sure, that barrier was less impermeable than in some other civilizations, particularly the Islamic.... Nevertheless, the wall was high enough to thwart communication between the masculine world and the feminine and to sow incomprehension and mistrust on both sides. It was customary to remove boys from the gynaeceum at age seven, to disentangle them from the skirts of their mothers, sisters, and nurses in order to form regiments of young males, who from then on lived together, whether in the "schools" that trained future clerics or in the rather more tumultuous squadrons in which young men learned to tame horses and handle weapons. This separation, which encouraged homosexual tendencies, also fostered nostalgia for the inaccessible but consoling female world among the young knights who would be called upon to participate in the game of love. It left these men forever fascinated and frightened by what women, if left to themselves, might contrive, and it led them to attribute to women a mysyterious and awesome power that was seductive but also inhibiting....To defend themselves men ostensibly developed misogynist ribaldry and obscene bragadocio that do indeed furnish a counterpoint to the courtly ethic in the work of William of Poitiers. In any case, to idealize desire, learning ultimately to take pleasure in desire itself, to sublimate desire into an ineffable "joy" that the troubadours' poems at-/p.258:tempted to approximate, was a more subtle, more "refined" way of overcoming the malaise that stemmed from the "sexual impasse" and of confronting the "unfathomable mystery of the female orgasm."

In order to understand why the rules of courtly love were adopted in the twelfth century by the feudal aristocracy, we must consider the matrimonial practices then current in this social milieu. Because the aristocracy passed its privileges from generation to generation through the blood, marriage was the very foundation of its structure. During the lifetime of William IX of Aquitaine the Church succeeded in forcing princes and knights to accept its principles in regard to matrimony, so that on this crucial point the morality of the priests was in harmony with the morality of the aristocracy. Because the reproduction of society depended on the solidity of the matrimonial institution, marriage was a serious business, serious enough to warrant strict controls. Wedlock, it was felt, should rest on emotional accord between husband and wife. But when clerics referred to this emotional bond they spoke of affection, or dilectio in Latin, not of amor, the passionate quest for pleasure that naturally leads to disorder. The strictest ecclesiastics declared that the only justification for sex, the only thing that mitigated its sinful nature, was procreation, and that, because marriage was sacred, a husband who demanded too much of his wife was guiltier than one who went elsewhere to fornicate. The clergy thus encouraged the virility on which chivalrous knights prided themselves to find an outlet outside the marriage bed, in the realm of gratuitous play.

Every marriage, moreover, was a dynastic marriage, the culmination of lengthy negotiations conducted by the heads of both families. Preoccupied with family interests, these men had no interests in the feelings of the betrothed. For the young men themselves, the girls that others conspired to bring to their beds, in some cases whom they had never seen and who were often quite young, represented nothing more than an opportunity to escape their dependent status by way of marriage. They desired not the woman but the chance to establish a household of their own. Thus what went by the name "love", namely, male sexual appetite, scarcely counted in the negotiations leading up to the conjugal pact. This too helped direct amorous desire elsewhere.

/p. 259: Finally, the policy of aristocratic families was to keep the family patrimony intact by limiting the number of sons permitted to marry. The strategy generally was to marry one son well, usually the eldest; the others were left to their own devices. The fortunate few might hope to obtain, most likely from a patron they had served well, the hand of a maiden of good family and without any brothers, hence in line to inherit a seigneury on which they could establish dynasties of their own. But most remained celibate. In the twelfth century the vast majority of knights --the men the writers of chansons and romances most wanted to please-- were jeunes, unmarried adult males, frustrated and jealous of men with wives. Not that their sexual activity was the least bit bridled; they had no problems at all finding outlets for their lust among the many prostitutes, servants, and bastards associated with any great household or among the peasantry, whose daughters they could force to submit whenever they pleased. But such prey was too easy. Glory belonged to the ingenious knight who managed to seduce and possess a woman of quality. What adolescent did not dream of defying his kinsmen and abducting a maiden of good prospect? What a challenge, to take the wife of a brother or an uncle or of one's own lord! What a daring, symbolic exploit! To brave extreme danger was to give proof of rare courage. The lady of quality was protected by the sternest taboos because the lawfulness of inheritance depended on her behavior; she had to be not only fertile but also faithful: no seed other than her husband's must be allowed to enter womb....

/p. 262: The practice of fine amour clearly was intended to showcase the values of virility. Men were exhorted to screw up their courage and develop specific virtues. In contests of chivalry knights were put to the test, as in tournaments. Their partners had to resist if these tests were to prove anything. Hence at the beginning the woman was in the dominant position. She temporarily abandoned her normal condition of passivity and docility in order to play her assigned role: that of bate, of a lure. Like the quintains that new knights were required to knock down on the day of their dubbing to demonstrate their expertise with the lance, women were "set up" as a test. What power they had was granted for one reason only: to complicate the assault and make victory that much more glorious. The outcome was not in doubt. The game was as carefully regulated as a bullfight. It was up to the man to mount the attack, distract his adversary with passes and whirls, and finally subdue her. The lady could no more escape her fate than the bull in the ring -- to have done so would have been to disrupt the established order. Nevertheless, the game required her to be "brave" and to succomb "decently," with honor. The code therefore insisted that she demonstrate courage, prudence, self-restraint, self-control. She had to repress her impulses and correct her womanly faults such as frivolity, duplicity, and unbridled lust. From the moment she joined the game she could no longer violate its laws, whether by withholding herself too stubornly or surrnedering too quickly, without incurring penalties: loss of "courtly" status and exclusion from the court by the judgment of other women, her rivals.

In high society, therefore, courtly love was also a device for disciplining women, for restraining those traits that provoked anxiety in men, for confining the female sex within a web of carefully orchestrated rituals, for drawing woman's sting by diverting her combativeness to the harmless realm of sport. The game of love /p. 263: did not disturb and in fact strengthened the social hierarchy, in which women were subordinate to men. Once the game was over and everyone returned to serious business, the amie returned to the place God intended for her kind, her "gender," under the strict authority of the man on whom she depended as wife, daughter, or sister. But in the course of play she had improved herself. Fine amour contributed decisively to the education of ladies and damsels, and it is in this sense only that one can speak of an "advance" for women....

/p. 266: There can be no doubt that this game --this man's game-- helped the women of feudal Europe to rise from their humble status. But there also can be no doubt that the condition of men improve similarly, so that the hierarchical distance between the sexes was not noticeably diminished. But to measure the precise influence of courtly love on social practices, we must not look to the model itself. We must not look at the illusory and precarious power that literature ascribed to the female partner in the amorous joust, much less to the emblematic princesses whom the poets, in search of patronage, flattered and honored with dedications and whom they portrayed as presiding over imaginary courts of love, seated among their vassals and handing down judgments just as their husbands did. Much more important than the model itself was the fact that society abided by it, that the society of this period was so quick to adopt the code for the treatment of women prescribed by this entertainment literature. New manners took hold. Other chansons and stories and proliferating images taught people through the ages what to say and do and thus spread new attitudes to ever-expanding circles of society (following the customary patern, as aristocratic models gradually filtered down to the very lowest strata). Male-female relations thus took a singular turn in western society. Even today, despite the upheaval in relations between the sexes, traits derived from the practices of courtly love are among those that distinguish our civilization most markedly from others.

Other relevant web pages:

Backgrounds to Romance: "Courtly Love"

Courtly Love

Courtly Love and Chivalry in the Later Middle Ages