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'lo Cop Mortal': The Evil Eye and The Origins of Courtly Love.

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"There be none of the Affections, which have beene noted to fascinate, or bewitch but Love, and Envy. They both have vehement wishes; They frame themselves readily into the Eye; especially upon the presence of the Objects; which are the Points, that conduce to Fascination, if any such Thing there be." Francis Bacon, Essay IX: "Of Envy"(n1)

Courtly love seems the epitome of formalized culture, the origin, in many ways, of our own mannered romanticism. The evil eye, that unseen force that causes harm to babies and crops to wither and die, seems the opposite: a superstition arising from a perceived lack of control through knowledge or art.(n2) I wish to propose, rather, that courtly love has much in common with the evil eye; that it is a code that arises from a desire to legitimate the same drives that produced the superstition of the evil eye: a growing fascination with the world. My argument, quite simply, is that courtly love, as it is spelled out in 12th c. works, is derived as much from envy as it is from love and, as a result, represents a reorganization of such cultural paradigms as the taxonomy of the vices and virtues. The origins of courtly love, in other words, speak to a new way of perceiving the world, but it is one that is grounded more in the substratum of myth than in the codes of the elite.(n3)

The locus classicus for the symptoms of courtly love is, arguably, the following description of Lavine from the Eneas:

Lavine fu an la tor sus,

d'une fenestre garde jus,

vit Eneam qui fu desoz,

forment l'a esgarde sor toz . . .

Amors l'a de son dart ferue . . .

ou al recut lo cop mortal . . .

Ele comance a tressuer,

a refroidir et a tranbler,

sovant se pasme et tressalt

sanglot, fremist, li cuers li falt,

degiete soi, sofle, baaille: . . .

or sui tote espalie et vaine,

dedanz le cors une ardor sent

(Levine was up in the tower. She looked down from a window and saw Eneas, who was below. She gazed intently at him above all.... Love struck her with his dart ... she ... received the mortal blow.... She began to perspire, then to shiver and to tremble. Often she swooned and quaked. She sobbed, quivered; her heart failed; she heaved and gasped and gaped . . . "I am all pale and weak. I feel a burning in my body . . . ") (lines 8047-8055; 8057; 8071; 8073-8077; 8086-7; trans. 215-216)

The provenance of these symptoms, as summarized by Roger Boase, is usually ascribed to an ongoing, if adapted, elegiac tradition. Most recently, Wack's reading of courtly love as reflective of medieval lovesickness follows this convention.(n4) Certain parallels can and have been drawn between the love-sick in Latin lyric and those in medieval romance; the works of the Roman elegists serve admirably to demonstrate this.(n5) Yet, it is my contention that ultimately such a link serves to blur rather than clarify the picture. Rather, I would propose that courtly love is, at least in part, an aesthetic response to a growing cultural and social problem that is not based on love in any form but rather is exhibited most clearly via the vice of envy. That is, it is envy which speaks of a cultural development for which courtly love, at least in works of the imagination, was constructed to offer a creative response.

I will return to Lavine shortly. But, first, let me compare two twelfth-century descriptions, one literary, one homiletic, of the fictitious animal, the basilisk, which was reputed to stun with its glance. For the troubadour Aimeric de Peguilhan, the basilisk is associated with the powers of love:

Quo.l bazalesc qu'ab joy s'anet aucir,

Quant el miralh se remiret e.s vi,

Tot atressi etz vos miralhs de mi,

Que m'aucietz quan vos vei ni.us remir.

(Like the basilisk which went joyfully to its death when it was reflected in the mirror and saw itself, even so are you my mirror, for you slay me when I see you and look upon you.)(n6)

But to St. Bernard the basilisk is perceived in the following terms:

At basiliscus, ut aiunt, venenum in oculo gerit, pessimum animal, et prae omnibus exsecrabile. Nosse cupis oculum venenatum . . . oculum fascinantem? Invidiam cogitato. Quid vero invidere, nisi malum videre est?

(The basilisk, they say, carries poison in [his] eye, lowest of animals and execrable before all others. Do you wish to know about the venomous eye, the bewitching eye? Think about invidia (envy), for what does it mean to envy (invidere) if not to see evilly (malum videre).(n7)

The literature on the basilisk makes it clear that the basilisk is usually perceived as a representation of envy and a force of evil. A passage from Heliodorus confirms this:

You have doubtless heard of the serpent called basilisk, whose breath and look alone is enough to parch and corrupt whatever it encounters. (75)

Yet the fact that Aimeric uses this animal to speak of love is very suggestive indeed.(n8) Envy and courtly love seem to be linked; both, it would appear, depend not only on sight, but on the extramission theory of vision. Via the Chalcidius translation of Plato's Timaeus the medieval world gained a full description of Plato's account of vision. David Lindberg explains that "Plato taught that from our eyes flows a light similar to the light of the sun. An exterior light is united with the inner light flowing from the eyes, strengthening it and making it capable of drawing from visible objects their colors." (89) Into this theory Chalcidius incorporates elements of Galenic theory which "adds the anatomical findings of the physicians." (89) Chalcidius' translation of the Timaeus provided the basis for further deliberation on vision that occurred in the twelfth century by scholars such as William of Conches and Adelard of Bath. While each made revisions to the Galenic theory of Chalcidius, each clung to the basic extramission theory; each insisted that vision was the result of an emanation from the eye of the beholder.

It is thus of little surprise

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