Friday, August 29, 2014

Medieval Misogyny and Courtly Love

If you go looking for misogyny, that is hatred of women, in the Middle Ages, you will certainly find it. But the same could be said of the twentieth century, or even the twenty-first.  And that is certainly not all that you will find, unless you've convinced yourself beforehand that medieval women were hated and oppressed.

As I discussed in an earlier post, women in the Middle Ages played a vital and active part in society and had far more rights than they did, say, in nineteenth-century England.

Now it used to be that scholars made a big deal out of what they saw as a weird contradiction.  On the one hand, they said (mistakenly), medieval women were considered the source of all evil.  On the other hand, they said, men were supposed to obey them and cater to their every whim through the mandates of "courtly love."

Trying to figure out to reconcile these, these scholars even suggested that "courtly love" was just a ploy, men putting women up on a pedestal so they could keep them and their sinfulness out of the way.

My guess is that these scholars were led astray by the fact that medieval writers liked inversions, things turned upside down.  So, for example, it seemed deeply meaningful to them that Eve's name in Latin, Eva, was just Ave written backwards, "Ave Maria" being the beginning of the prayer to the Virgin Mary.  This for them provided a feminine form of the Biblical phrase, "As in Adam all shall die, so in Christ shall all be made alive."  No pedestals here!

In fact this supposed "weird contradiction" (and the unconvincing effort to resolve it) disappears as soon as you realize that neither half was true!  Women were not considered the source of all evil, and there were no mandates of courtly love.

The source of all evil, every theologian agreed, was the will.  Humans desired things they knew were evil and failed to resist temptation.  Certainly men fell into sexual sin when they felt a woman tempted them, but the real fault was theirs, to have given way to temptation in the first place.  (In fact, contrary to what you may have heard, sexual sin was not the number one medieval sin, but that's a topic for a different post.)

The concept of "courtly love" is actually a twentieth-century invention.  Certainly medieval people spoke a lot about love (discussed more here), and the aristocracy wanted to follow the refined, polite forms of behavior at court, but they did not put these together into a single term.  Men at court were supposed to be polite to women and know how to sing, dance, play an instrument, and flirt gracefully, but everyone who tried to tell men how to behave toward women came up with a different list.  Some stressed the need to keep one's love for a woman secret, others the need to clean one's fingernails, while still others called for heavy sighs.  Certainly none of this constituted clear mandates.

Like "feudalism," then, courtly love is a term best avoided, as suggesting a whole complicated system of actions and requirements that never actually existed.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on medieval women, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

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