Chris Trotter in a Valentine's Day column referred to romance, chivalry and courtly love as ‘revolutionary ideals’.
I know what he means – I guess. I too shudder at the sight of ‘laddish’ behaviour in girls and young women but even a cursory glance at the history of patriarchy reveals that the concepts of chivalry and courtly love were products of the same social forces that have deformed, and continue to deform, relations between the sexes.
The idea that the codes of romance, chivalry and courtly love were developed or even encouraged by aristocratic patronesses as a means of controlling their brutal husbands is about as historically accurate as the Victorian idealisation of the Arthurian legend.
The code of the gentle, perfect knight with his concepts of honour and protection of the weak - like the code of the Samurai in Japan - was an ideology that served the purposes of the knight’s lords. Those who create highly trained fighting forces always face the problem of controlling them and how better to make them fight and die for you than to make it a sacred duty?
The primary duty of the European mediaeval knight was to God and his earthly representatives – the church and the feudal lord or king - to protect their land and property.
Foremost among the feudal lord’s property was his wife who was tied to him by a combination of laws and customs which granted him an authority that extended to all in his household and to his vassals.
Whilst the concept of droit de seigneur may be an historical fiction, it is historical fact that in English law up to the late 20th century, the courts could not accept the possibility of rape in marriage because a wife’s conjugal duty and a husband’s corresponding conjugal right to demand sex clouded the concept of ‘consent’ on which rape law hinged. This was a potent remnant of old patriarchal controls which varied in form and scale across time and cultures, but remained constant in their essence – the assurance of male domination.
Marriage for all classes was for convenience – romantic love rarely entered the scenario. For the labouring classes the desirable bride possessed skills, health and ideally, a dowry, all factors intimately connected with the survival of the family unit. For the nobility and the rich it was simply for the transmission of title, family name and wealth. Romance wasn’t an issue, but sex certainly was.
It has always been the case that if sex is possible, sex is probable. Until the advent of blood and DNA testing this posed a problem for the central pillars of patriarchal rule – patrilineality and primogeniture. These legally codified concepts within monogamous marriage were the primary means by which paternity was assured and property and name were kept in the male line.
The male blood line could only be guaranteed by marrying a virgin and keeping her sequestred until she had produced at least the requisite male heir and ideally, given the uncertainty of life, several spares.
The arrangements for the sequestering of women could involve locking them up, restricting where they could go, never allowing them to be alone, the use of chastity belts etc. They also involved the creation of horrible punishments for unchaste or adulterous behaviour both in the present and in the afterlife. As most women also forfeited their property to their husband on marriage, they were deprived of any means of independent life.
But these arrangements also had to be practical to be of any long-term use. For the labouring classes, women always were (and remain) essential players in the family economy - they had to work as hard and often harder than their men. There was not a lot of sense in locking up working women or tying them into crippling corsets or binding their feet. And aristocratic women had to be educated and free enough to run a household when their husbands were away.
So, supporting the formal and the coercive structures were powerful religiously based ideologies such as a division of labour that was ordained by God and in which woman’s place was in the domestic sphere. And, most important in any consideration of chivalry, was the ideology of the duality in the nature of woman – the madonna/whore dichotomy. On the one hand there was the purity and sacredness of the madonna, and on the other, the profane, physical nature of real women.
The mediaeval attitude to women was powerfully influenced by the ancient Greeks’ belief that woman was the inferior, lesser sex, incapable of higher thought, secretive and untrustworthy, and therefore in need of protection, control and correction. But for mediaeval Christians, a woman was also the mother of God – which created a perplexity of the first order. The code of chivalry and the rituals of courtly love were products of the cult of the Virgin Mary.
The chivalric code emphasized a spiritual, pure, chaste love –unsullied by the messy business of sex. This was not so different from the Greek idealisation of male love being on a higher spiritual and intellectual plane than that which could exist between man and woman. But for Christians, sodomy was a mortal sin so the object of this chivalric love had to be a woman of unsuliied reputation.
And for the messy business of sex there were plenty of peasant girls. One of the Victorians’ mediaeval sources – De Amore - tells the would-be chivalrous knight that if he feels compelled to ‘love’ peasant girls then first flatter them but if they resist, to feel free to take them by force, ie mediaeval date rape. By raping peasant girls the knight could free himself of his profane lusts so he could more easily engage in rarified, ritualized flirtations with the women of his own class.
The code simply divided women and children into those who could be used and abused with impunity, and those who any knight worth his salt had a sacred duty to protect ie women of his own or a higher class.
The answer to our modern problems doesn’t lie in the reinvention of chivalry – it lies in challenging our society’s hypocrisy and double standards, its crass commercialism, self-absorption, consumerism and hedonism.
Yes Chris - men AND women should be honourable, kind, caring and compassionate. But they also have to find a means of making the world’s predators respect those qualities.
Whenever I reread Jane Austin, I enjoy her wit and her intelligence but I can never ignore the wraiths that inhabit the spaces between her well crafted lines – the masses of poor people whose lives and labour were sacrificed in order that the delicate manners and mores of the aristocratic and the affluent could exist. Romance, like leisure, is something only some people can afford. And it can be a powerful ideology designed to both mask and protect the interests of the powerful.