Month: May 2021

Criseyde, Briseida, and… Bella? On ‘Courtly Love’ and its Victims

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Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Le Roman de Troie (the Romance of Troy) are two comparable epic poems both set during the Trojan War. Although itself not the origin of the story in general, Le Roman de Troie is the origin of the adapted characters found within Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, although in the original work, one of the two ill-fated lovers went by a slightly different name (Briseida, and not Criseyde—though she would later be adapted into Shakespeare’s perhaps more recognizable Cressida). Le Roman de Troie was incredibly influential, and would inspire a multitude of works that would come thereafter and which would deal with similar themes.

Because of the emphasis on the principles of courtly romance, this work was popular with the nobility the genre was typically aimed at; courtly romance was a genre (or perhaps more of a cultural fantasy, though it’s debatable whether it may or may not have reflected reality more so than not) which heavily emphasized the idea of love as suffering, and particularly a man who suffered in the pursuit of love. The man in such a courtly love would lament about the many terrible pains and ills that love brought upon him, and it was typical for love itself to be compared to injuries or illnesses. The male love interest and lead would whinge and wail about the absolute agony love was for him, as he had fallen for a woman who was unattainable to him in some way. Often, this meant a married woman; these romances often involved love triangles between a squire/knight, a lord, and a lady. Either way, by the end, the man could often expect to have won the woman over simply by refusing to take no for an answer enough times–if the story didn’t wrap up with an unhappy ending meant to exemplify just how tragic and painful love was. These stories were, as aforementioned, aimed at an audience of aristocrats, as the depicted lovers were always upper class as well—courtly love was (apparently) simply not meant for commoners.

Le Roman de Troie’s depiction of courtly love was particularly in a love triangle between Trojan prince Troilus, Briseida (daughter of Calchas), and the Greek soldier Diomedes. This love triangle would later be adapted almost wholecloth into Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. In Chaucer’s version of the tale, a lot of significance is placed upon the concept of fate and how it acted upon the work’s characters; the romance’s occurrence at all is due to a punishment enacted upon Troilus by the god of love, and he spends half of the the rest of the narrative (once the initial ‘hope spot’ has passed for him) lamenting and cursing how fortune (and love) has ruined him. Troilus falls for and attempts to woo Criseyde, in part thanks to the interference of her uncle Pandarus, who in all honesty seems pretty lukewarm on the idea of dating him. Troilus and Pandarus will not relent, however.

http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=252

Calm and practical, Criseyde considers the potential pros and cons of agreeing to such a romance, and in the end seems willing to try as long as things remain discreet (and likely at least partially in the hopes that she will stop being pestered so about it). Much of the action taken by Criseyde in the story is due to the meddling and wheedling of others, who seem perfectly content to treat her as nothing more than an unfeeling object to be won as a prize and not a person with her own thoughts and emotions. Criseyde never seems to fully commit to the love she supposedly shares with Troilus (because of course she didn’t—she’s been pressured into it!), and in the end, her practicality wins out yet again, as she refuses to elope with Troilus and then ‘breaks his heart’ when she leaves him for another man (Diomedes) after making a very noncommittal sort of promise to him. Criseyde feels like barely a character, and it’s a shame; from what little we do come to understand of her, she seems rational and lever-headed, and certainly not deserving of the villainization she has received by audiences of this work.

The genre of courtly romance is one that can perhaps be pointed to as the likely origins of the trope of ‘wearing her down’ today. How many Adam Sandler movies have you seen wherein the male lead just has to keep bumbling his way forward steadily towards an assured romance, in spite of his love interest’s apparent lack of interest? The dedicated guy deserves the girl, or so we’re led to believe (nevermind that people are not the prizes at a Chuck-E-Cheese), and so we do not often question it, even when frankly creepy behaviors like the signs in Love Actually are portrayed as totally fine and totally romantic. The likelihood of a male hero ‘winning’ the lady of his choice in the end is often directly correlated with his likelihood of ignoring all attempts from her to turn him down.

 

It’s on these foundations that a lot of creepy romance tropes rest (although, in fairness, a lot of them are also just plain exemplary of the patriarchy as a whole and the values it tends to teach us). If the description of the courtly love genre earlier put you off, consider whether your favorite—or perhaps your parents’ favorite—romantic film would tick off almost all the same boxes. An easy example to point at is, of course, the Twilight series of books and films, and though much has been said already in the way of criticizing these works and their inherent misogyny, in the wake of 2020’s ‘Twilight renaissance’ (in which the work saw a resurgence of fans and discussion), it still feels relevant enough, and is an especially helpful point of reference in proving just how much these tropes have persisted to this day.

Consider, if you will, the general qualities of a courtly love: a man is drawn to a girl that is or should be in some way unattainable to him. Check—not only is Edward attracted to Bella romantically, he’s literally magically drawn to her blood because of vampire logic; he likens her to a personally targeted drug. The man complains about the suffering this love causes him. (Check! In fact, there’s a good deal of Edward creepily blaming Bella for daring to draw him in, as if she chose to have weird magic blood. The man nonetheless does pursue a romance with the girl, typically while ignoring her own boundaries outright. Check. Although there isn’t as much ‘wearing down’ in this franchise, the fact that Edward does things like consistently stand outside Bella’s house to watch her sleep should not go unacknowledged, even as frequently as critics of the series have called this behavior out. Not to mention his total disregard for her own personal agency in most cases. A love triangle? Check. What about the either tragic love-is-pain or more hopeful guy-gets-the-girl endings? Well, we’re in for a treat, because this series has both! If you want to read the courtly love tragedy, just stop the series after Edward’s abandonment of Bella (and her subsequent depression) in New Moon. The series really has it all. How romantic.

Obviously, this is anything but romantic in truth, but it speaks of a trope that’s all too common. Why have we not dropped the fantasy of courtly romances by now? Sure, we may have dropped the ‘courtly’ bit, but that’s really not saying much—the heart of the genre is still alive and well today, and I honestly think a good deal of our media has suffered for it. Perhaps in the time of Chaucer or de Sainte-Maure it could be excused (though I personally would not), but misogyny as romance has long outlived its welcome.

Artistic Analysis Canterbury Book Covers

I have chosen to analyze different book covers of The Canterbury Tales. The different illustrations show an evolution of how Chaucer is read and they show the publisher’s intention.

Stain Glasss

The difference between a sincere and earnest representation of women’s capabilities and a half-hearted attempt to make a sorry-not-sorry apology.

THE BOOK OF THE CITY OF LADIES AND THE LEGEND OF GOOD WOMEN

The difference between a sincere and earnest representation of women’s capabilities and a half-hearted attempt to make a sorry-not-sorry apology.

Christine De Pizan was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, writing around the same time as he was during the middle ages in Europe. Being an educated and capable woman in the middle ages, it irritated her to see many of her male contemporaries paint women in a negative or slanderous light. She got so fed up with this horrible misrepresentation of her gender that she wrote an entire book to refute many of the criticisms she’d heard against women. She set her story up with a framework where she is the main character and is visited by three celestial ladies sent to her by God, who inform her that she has been chosen to build a city just for awesome and worthy women from the past and present. So, like Noah’s Ark but without the whole flood thing and it’s really just a cool place for women to go and get away from all the men. It is compared to Amazonia, which you may recognize from either Greek Mythology, or Wonder Woman comics/movies.

NO BOYS ALLOWED Red White Sign on Timber Wall Background

De Pizan constructs her city with the help of these three ladies, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Since Christine has a lot of internalized misogyny going on due to all the men like Ovid constantly writing about how terrible women are, the first two-thirds of the book are reserved for Reason and Rectitude getting her out of that mindset. She asks questions like, “why do all these men say women are unfaithful?” and they tell her, “Stop reading Ovid! He was a player when he was young and now he tries to ruin everything for everyone else because he’s aged out of his salacious little lifestyle.”  Every time she asks a question like this, they give her numerous of examples of women who proved themselves to be faithful, intelligent, powerful, and otherwise worthy. All of these women, and any women from the past, present, and future who prove themselves worthy will all be able to Reside in the City of Ladies Christine is building.

Image title : “…splashy banner…thanks for another great year, peasants!” by cartoonsource on stock.adobe.com File #72669384 Also, pretend those three people are the Ladies Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. It’s funnier that way.

Chaucer wrote something similar, The Legend of Good Women, in that he gives a few examples of women who he thought were “good.” That’s pretty much where the similarities stop though, because Chaucer really didn’t seem as invested as De Pizan was in representing women and how they are just as capable intellectually and emotionally to men. Really, Chaucer seemed to be writing his Legend of Good Women more as a response to a slap on the wrist for portraying some women in his works unfavorably. He basically came out with Legend of Good Women as a way to say, “Hey, I’m not a bad guy! Here’s some women that I think are great!” and proceeds to primarily list women who don’t do much other than suffering for the men in their lives, usually enduring some pretty horrendous treatment and tragedy.

Chaucer spends the majority of The Legend of Good Women on the prologue where he, similarly to Pizan, is visited by celestial beings, only they are the God of Love and his Queen, and the God of Love is there to wreck him for being totally disrespectful to love in his works. Thankfully for Chaucer, the God of Love’s Queen Alceste intercedes and says that Chaucer just needs to pay some penance, do some community service and all that. She says that he needs to write a book about great women who were faithful despite the men in their lives being total garbage. And he needs to give the book to the Queen of England when he’s done.

Reading the two works, you can see the difference in conviction and motivations for Chaucer and De Pizan. Chaucer just clearly wants some people to get off his back. It’s like a modern day person saying, “How can you criticize my work for being misogynist? I totally love women!” and kind of going on a rant unrelated or irrelevant to the initial criticism. He spends very little time talking about most of the women, and he takes out all of the most interesting parts of one of Greek mythology’s best anti-heroes, Medea. (Although to be fair, De Pizan leaves out some of the more extreme stuff for Medea in order to make her appeal a bit more to her Christian ideology, too) The specific issue here seems representative of the whole work, where Chaucer does not really center the women in his Legend of Good Women. In Medea’s story her male counterpart is centered and she is reduced to how she was useful to him. In Legend of Good Women, Chaucer, in a sense, is reducing all of his female examples to their usefulness to his own purpose, redeeming his own reputation as a good guy.

De Pizan, however, gives us the perspective of a woman in the middle ages earnestly and seriously arguing that women are, in fact, capable and good and intelligent on their own. She’s not perfect, and unfortunately the ending of the Book of the City of Ladies is disappointing from a modern feminist perspective, but the first half of her book reads like an early version of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication on the Rights of Women, which is pretty amazing. She uses similar arguments, one example on women’s lack of exposure to education and experience as the more logical reason to why women at the time may not have had the same knowledge as women, and that if they were exposed to the same educational resources and experiences they would be just as intellectually capable as men in learning. Who would have thought?! For some perspective, De Pizan published the Book of the City of Ladies a whopping 387 years before Wollstonecraft’s Vindication. So, although De Pizan ends her book with an appeal to women to put up with their awful and even abusive husbands so they can be rewarded in Heaven, which is, again, from a modern feminist perspective, pretty disappointing, it is amazing to read a woman’s work from the early 1400’s that stands up to the misogyny of her day and makes sound arguments in defense of women.

Vintage colorful woman power badge with beautiful strong girl in uniform with tattoo on arm isolated vector illustration

-Arielle S. Arnold

What is love? Chaucer and Petrarch

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus’s Song is excerpt from his tragic romance, Troilus and Criseyde. Here is the song:

If no love is, O God, what fele I so?
And if love is, what thing and which is he?
If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo?
If it be wikke, a wonder thynketh me,
When ever torment and adversite
That cometh of hym, may to me savory thinke,
For ay thurst I, the more that ich it drynke.
And if that at myn owen lust I brenne,
From whennes cometh my waillynge and my pleynte?
If harm agree me, whereto pleyne I thenne?
I noot, ne whi unwery that I feynte.
O quike deth, O swete harm so queynte,
How may of the in me swich quantite,
But if that I consente that it be?
And if that I consente, I wrongfully
Compleyne, iwis.  Thus possed to and fro,
Al stereless withinne a boot am I
Amydde the see, betwixen wyndes two,
That in contrarie stonden evere mo.
Allas! what is this wondre maladie?
For hete of cold, for cold of hete, I dye.

My Middle English is not the best but Troilus is questioning love and his life after he feels that he has been betrayed by Criseyde.   Troilus begins by wondering, “If there is no love, God, what do I feel?” His perception of love is supposed to be positive but all he can express is pain. “If love is good, then from where comes my woe? Why do I thirst for it?” “Why does he wail and feel plaintive”

It’s a internal question about the pangs of love, and how it manifests itself so deep within us.  Troilus begins by wondering, paraphrased for your convenience, “If there is no love, God, what do I feel?”  Moving on with the assumption that it is love, he wants to know, “what thing and which” is love?  Love is thought of as positive, but Troilus feels pain from it.  “If love is good, then from where comes my woe?  If it’s wicked, why do I find its torments savory, why do I thirst for it?”  It’s the question we all ask:  “Why does love hurt if it’s good, why do I want it so badly, why can I not live without it?”  He feels like he is rudderless boat out at sea being tossed to and fro.  The poem is full of adjectives comparing love and pain.  He is feels he is dying in the heat and it is cold.  Here is a link to hear the video read.

Chaucer borrowed some of the feelings expressed in this song from Petrarch’s S’amor non e, che dunque e quel ch’io sento.  Here is Petrarch’s version:

What do I feel if this is not love?
But if it is love, God, what thing is this?
If good, why this effect: bitter, mortal?
If bad, then why is every suffering sweet?

If I desire to burn, why tears and grief?
If my state’s evil, what’s the use of grieving?
O living death, O delightful evil,
how can you be in me so, if I do not consent?

And if I consent, I am greatly wrong in sorrowing.
Among conflicting winds in a frail boat
I find myself on the deep sea without a helm,

so light in knowledge, so laden with error,
that I do not know what I wish myself,
and tremble in midsummer, burn in winter.

While I was reading both poems, a song from Haddaway came to mind. I have included a link to video and the lyrics are

What is love?
Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more

Oh baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me
No more
What is love?
Yeah

No, I don’t know why you’re not fair
I give you my love, but you don’t care
So what is right and what is wrong?
Gimme a sign

What is love?
Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more

What is love?
Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, oh, oh
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, oh, oh

Oh, I don’t know, what can I do?
What else can I say? It’s up to you
I know we’re one, just me and you
I can’t go on

What is love?
Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more

What is love?
Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, oh, oh
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, oh, oh

What is love?
What is love?
What is love?
Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more

Don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me

I want no other, no other lover
This is our life, our time
If we are together, I need you forever
Is it love?

What is love?
Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more

What is love?
Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more
Yeah, yeah

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, oh, oh
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, oh, oh

What is love?
Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more

What is love?
Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more (whoa, whoa)

Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more (whoa, whoa)

Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more
What is love?

In conclusion, Chaucer and Petrarch are posing the question that we are still questioning today.  What is love and why does it have to hurt so bad when it is wrong?  We are afflicted with a deep, uncontrollable thirst that leaves us wanting more.

Michelle Stone