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The Enduring Popularity of Courtly Love

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The Enduring Popularity of Courtly Love

Not long after the turn of the first millennium, C.E., a phenomenon known as "courtly love" emerged in medieval Europe. Andreas Capellanus, chaplain to Marie de France and author of the classic The Art of Courtly Love, defined Love as ". . . a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love's precepts in the other's embrace." Lauded by nobility and idolized by troubadours, the ideal of "pure" love (which included strongly self-deprecating behavior and servitude by a man for a distant, unattainable woman) was a driving force throughout the high period of medieval love literature. From 1100 to 1300 (most intensely in the quarter-centuries before and after 1200), the language of lady love prevailed in the courts of England and Europe.

Courtly love was viewed as an art with rules, which rules were articulated in great detail in Andreas Capellanus' work The Art of Courtly Love. Whether this work is satirical or sincere, is debatable, but its popularity (evidenced by the number of translations into vernacular and surviving manuscripts -- 12 -- more than twice as many as those of another much-loved tale of that time, Knight of the Cart, or Lancelot, by Cretien of Troyes) is nevertheless testament to the popularity of this ethos.

Scholars differ as to the origins of courtly love. Some claim this ideal arose out of Moorish influence, as the Arab poets brought their lyrics of lady love to Europe, in the wake of knights returning from conquests in the Holy Land and increasing European trade with the East. Others claim that courtly love was European in origin, citing the influence of Celts, Cathars, and Neo-Platonists. No matter how well they have documented the free intermingling of Christian and Moslem cultures in that time of world trade and literary development, however, scholars seem unable to account for the popularity of the ethos of lady love. As Parry declares in his introduction to The Art of Courtly Love, "Even if we accept the theory that courtly love is a fusion of Latin and Moorish elements . . . still we have not solved the problem of how and why it developed." [emphasis added].1

Perhaps scholars are looking in the wrong places for explanations. In many works on courtly love, emphasis is placed on the role of the male in this dynamic, and the origins of courtly love are traced through lines of male poets, troubadours and patrons of literature. But the widespread popularity, even quasi-religious devotion to, courtly love cannot be easily explained by the intentions of medieval patriarchs. Nor does the interplay of then-contemporary Eastern and Western cultures explain this mystery. One must look beyond the spheres of contemporaneous male influence, and into Medieval Europe's recent and distant past -- a pagan, matriarchal, Goddess-centered past -- to understand the import that courtly love's guidelines held for the peoples of Medieval Europe.

The Ever-Present Goddess

". . . [I]n the countless millennia before Christianity, [woman] had been the glory of the world, an object of worship among her people. . ."2, says Davis. Since between 9000 and 7000 B.C., depictions of the Great Goddess [had] appeared; from Ireland to Siberia, through the Mediterranean area, Near East and Northern Africa, archaeological finds of Goddess images abound. The Venus of Wildenmannishloch Cave dates back 70,000 years.3 These finds testify to a popular devotion to the Divine Female that was once durable and ever-present.

Some of the most enduring and ubiquitous matrifocus was among the Celts. In the 3rd century B.C., the territory of the Celts ranged from Galatia to Asia Minor, from northwest Scotland and Ireland, south to Andalusia in Spain. The Celts' influence over the European way of life was pervasive and long-standing. According to Piggot, "The basic structure of the Mediaeval farming economy had been in existence in prehistoric Celtic Europe for five thousand years prior to our era."4 But the farming economy of medieval Europe, dating back to the 6th millennium B.C.5, was not the only significant aspect of Celtic ways.

Equally pronounced, was Celtic feminism. Consisting of complete equality of the sexes, with balance slightly weighted on the feminine side, Celtic society relied heavily on the leadership of women. They attended, and often presided at, the tribal councils; chief men were elected, while the monarchy was hereditary in the female line 6. A source of awe to the conquering Romans, the significance of women in Celtic society was frequently recorded by Roman historians. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote, "A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance, who is usually very strong and with blue eyes." 7 "It was for the matrons to decide," Julius Caesar wrote in The Gallic Wars in 58 B.C. "When troops should attack and when withdraw."8 According to Julius Caesar, the Celtic women comprised the joint chiefs of staff of the Celtic people.9 In domestic affairs, as well, women were accorded equal significance. Marriage ceremonies were designed to assure the bride that she would lose none of her independence by marrying -- that she would be equal partner with her husband in the pursuit of honor and glory, "to share with him and dare with him, both in peace and in war," Tacitus reports.10

As high ranking and fierce as mortal pagan women, were the deities of the pre-Christian world. And of all the ruling female figures, the Goddess Artemis, or Diana, reigned supreme throughout most of the settled world, and Artemis myths extend back to Neolithic sacrificial customs. Hers was a fierce reign. At ancient Taurus, all men who landed on those shores were sacrificed by Artemis' holy women (under the direction of high priestess, Iphegenia), their severed heads nailed to crosses. At Hieropolis, Artemis' victims were hung on trees in her temple. And in Atica, Artemis was ritually propitiated with drops of blood drawn from a man's neck with a sword (a remnant of former beheadings). In her Huntress aspect, her hunting dogs tore the Horned God Actaeon to pieces, in the classic Artemis drama, the stag king (with deerskin and antlers) reigned over the sacred hunt for half a year, then was attacked and dismembered by Artemis' hunting dogs (her sacred bitches) and replaced by his co-king.11

In Europe, Artemis was known as Diana, the Triple Goddess. She was Lunar Virgin, Mother of Creatures, and the Huntress/Destroyer. In her sanctuaries, sacred

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