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.

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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.