The Ennobling Power of Love

The Ennobling Power of Love

Black and white drawing depicting members of the Court of Love in Provence in conversation
Court of Love in Provence in the Fourteenth Century,” National Library of Paris, via WikiMedia Commons

Andreas Capellanus sought to codify the notions that constituted Courtly Love in his writing of The Art of Courtly Love in the twelfth century. These ideas became so prevalent throughout the literature of the time that many writers explored the ideas presented through Capellanus’s stories and poems; one such writer, Marie de France, constructed a series of lais that closely interacts with many ideas present in the tradition of Courtly Love. The writings of Marie de France may suggest complications in the ideals of Courtly Love, specifically regarding the notion that love is inherently ennobling when practiced without restraint or respect to existing social structures.

In The Art of Courtly Love, Capellanus describes the effect of love, stating how, among other things, “it can endow a man even of the humblest birth with nobility of character; it blesses the proud with humility; and the man in love becomes accustomed to performing many services gracefully for everyone.”1 These statements assert the universality of love’s effect on men, transcending social status and negative disposition, while concluding that love not only benefits the individual, but leads the individual to provide help “for everyone” as well, implying that love is universally good both for the individual and the community. He goes on to offer the caveats that this applies only to men and only to love that men have for women. The former exception being found in Capellanus’s diction as he states that love, “teaches everyone, no matter who he is, so many good traits of character!”2 The initial use of “everyone” is undercut by the gendered pronoun “he,” allowing for the assumption that women are excluded from learning or benefiting from love in the same way men are, further evidenced by his constant discussion of “the man in love,” consistently and explicitly referring to men without a mention of the effects on women. The latter exception, that this love applies only to heterosexual love, is found in Capellanus’s writings on between what persons love may exist, in which he declares, “love cannot exist except between persons of opposite sexes.”3 Thus, the ennobling power of love, as defined by Capellanus, exists only for men who love and are loved by women, and ideally only serves a positive function in the craft and tending of relationships of Courtly Love.

With a clear definition of Capellanus’s ideal of the ennobling power of love, Marie de France, in her lais, seems to find fault with the notion that love can only ennoble, and describes instances in which love fails to ennoble men, sometimes to the extent of taking noble men and bringing them to ruin. In the lais of “Equitan,” Marie de France has the titular character, upon falling in love with his seneschal’s wife, declare, “There isn’t a man in the world / who wouldn’t be vastly improved if she loved him.”4 This line of thinking echoes Capellanus’s insistence on the benefits of Courtly Love for men: In spite of any circumstances surrounding the love, the love itself is what brings betterment of the self. Despite Equitan’s strong declaration in favor of love, in the story that then unfolds, Equitan is not ennobled, nor does the story bias in his favor; rather, consequences for loving the seneschal’s wife arise at first in the people, his subjects, who hold against him his refusal to marry, and eventually lead to his death.5 That the love does not improve Equitan may be may be a commentary on the circumstance of the affair: As opposed to someone without power—or without nobility—courting the wife of a lord, Equitan is a king. When he courts his seneschal’s wife, he is courting someone supposedly less noble than he is, and his nobility is following suit. Not only is this courting from someone beneath him in the social structure, but it is also the wife of his friend, and therefore the lai may be suggesting that love may only be ennobling in certain contexts, and that betraying the trust of a friend or worker socially beneath you, cannot lead to ennoblement, despite being motivated by love.

When placing this lai against “Guigemar,” however, another element de France’s text comes to life, through the contrast of the protagonist. In both “Guigemar” and “Equitan,” the titular character courts a woman already involved with a man, and engages in intercourse with them (or, at least, this is heavily implied by the speaker’s declaration in “Guigemar,” specifically, “I hope they also enjoy whatever else / others do on such occasions,” after discussing how Guigemar and the lady were “kissing and embracing often”) without the husband’s knowledge.6

It is important to note the initial distinction in the stories, however: Equitan is courting someone who is married to one of his friends, who is also beneath him in status, and seems to be of relatively good nature; in “Guigemar,” by contrast, Guigemar courts the wife of man described as old and jealous, who has locked her away in a tower. Guigemar arrives at this castle through an enchanted magical boat ride, and little to no emphasis is placed on any contextual information aside from that of the character of the lord. The difference in these contexts may prove the difference in outcome, as the morality of courting someone stuck in an unhappy and oppressive marriage is quite different from courting someone in a marriage with your close friend who is not mentioned to be oppressive. This apparent difference may be why Guigemar does not die for courting the lord’s wife. That being said, there is another possible reason for this, which is when Guigemar is confronted, he maintains his composure:

He grabbed a wooden rod
on which clothes were usually hung,
and waited for his assailants.7

This is notably different from Marie de France’s portrayal of Equitan’s response to being discovered in “Equitan”:

to hide his villainy
he jumped into the tub feet first,
stark naked.
He didn’t stop to think what he was doing.8

The story of Guigemar emphasizes Guigemar’s restraint by mention of his waiting, and places it next to an image of stark masculinity, with Guigemar grabbing a notably phallic object of a wooden rod to defend himself. In contrast, Equitan acts on impulse, without stopping or waiting, and he does this completely naked, without any composure whatsoever. Thus, Guigemar escapes with his life and dignity, while Equitan does not. Despite loving the lady passionately behind the lord’s back, Guigemar is able to restrain himself when the danger comes and is therefore able to live. Marie de France may have been suggesting that it is this masculine restraint that is important in maintaining relationships in the system of Courtly Love, emphasized further by the moralizing placed at the beginning of “Equitan” in an interjection from the narrator: “Whoever indulges in love without sense or moderation / recklessly endangers his life.”9

The Courtly Love dynamic of ennoblement through love becomes more complex when considering “Le Deus Amanz,” in conjunction with “Equitan.” The story details a young man who wishes to marry his lover whose father forbids any man to marry his daughter, unless the suitor performs the feat of carrying his daughter up a mountain. When the young man agrees to this challenge, his lover sends away for the help of a relative who provides the pair with a potion that is supposed to grant great strength to whomever drinks it. As the young man begins to carry his lover up the mountain, she holds onto the potion and frequently asks the young man to drink from it to gain strength, yet he keeps refusing. It is this refusal that ultimately leads to his death, as he collapses without the strength the potion would bring him. The potion in the story of “Le Deus Amanz” can be read as a metaphor for the ennobling power of love, as Marie De France details that the potion is supposed to be given to the young man by the lady, and the potion has the ability to empower the young man, “so that he would have all the strength he needed, / the moment he drank it.”10 This connection between the potion and the love of a woman is made clearer as the young man climbs the mountain and the lady keeps insisting that the boy drinks the potion, at the end literally begging him with cries of “Dearest, take your medicine!”11 The repetition of the lady’s begging paired with the potion suggest that the love of the woman is tied to the potion, to the extent that “medicine” in the quote above appears to take on a double meaning: the literal potion and as the advice of the lady, as it is her command of him to take the potion that would have saved him. When placed next to “Equitan,” there appears to be a blatant contradiction: Whereas Equitan dies after agreeing to follow his beloved’s request, the boy in “Le Deus Amanz” dies because he does not heed or agree to his beloved’s request. Since the outcome is the same but the circumstances opposite, the only other explanation is to look at the motivating force behind the decisions made. In “Equitan,” it is a lack of restraint that leads to Equitan’s demise, and in “Le Deus Amanz,” the protagonist’s death appears to have the same cause. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante in The Lais of Marie de France suggest that the potion will not work “because the hero lacks mesure—the virtue of moderation inevitably absent from the character of great heroes like Achilles or Roland.”12 This lack of virtue prevents the young man from accepting the potion, from accepting the love of the lady, and that is why he perishes, along with she, and, as an obvious corollary, their loving relationship.

Thus, from “Guigemar,” where the titular character actually does possess this “mesure” and survives because he is willing to accept the love of his beloved in order to help him, it can be inferred that Marie de France values the ideal of moderation with respect to Courtly Love.  Much like how the young man suffers without the potion in “Le Deus Amanz,” Guigemar, after being wounded by a deer, suffers before receiving the love of the lady, which is said to be the only way to heal him.The difference between the two outcomes, however, is that the young man in “Les Deus Amanz” refuses to allow his love to assist him, whereas in “Guigemar,” Guigemar does allow the lady to assist him:

The lady realized he was telling the truth,
and immediately granted him
her love; then he kissed her.
From now on, Guigemar is at ease.13

As soon as Guigemar accepts love from the lady, as signified by the kiss, his pain eases and he is made better. If read with the understanding that this physical ailment represents Guigemar’s deficiency in character, it becomes significant that he is made better through the power of love, whereas the boy from “Le Deus Amanz,” without accepting love’s potion, falters and dies. Thus, Guigemar’s decision to accept the love of the lady is what allows him to be healed, a possible representation of his ennoblement, much like the potion and the the lady’s request in “Les Deus Amanz.”

The Lais of Marie de France explores Capellanus’s ideal of the ennobling power of love but does not appear to subscribe to it unconditionally. In “Equitan” she suggests that there are some moral lines that should not be crossed when courting the object of affection, be they socially defined, such as friendship, or defined by holding a position of power. In “Les Deus Amanz” she explores the idea that the man must consent to and request the love from the woman for it to have any effect on the man. Comparing “Guigemar” with these two pieces also reveals the importance of restraint and “mesure” in conducting oneself in a Courtly Love relationship. Guigemar is the only one of the protagonists who allows himself to be ennobled by accepting the love of the woman and keeping himself restrained and composed, and thus he is the only one able to survive and be with the woman he loves.

  1. Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, translated by John Jay Parry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 31.
  2. Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, 31.
  3. Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, 30.
  4. Marie De France, “Equitan,” The Lais of Marie De France, translated by Robert W. Hanning and Joan M. Ferrante (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 2004), 83-84.
  5. De France, “Equitan,” 201.
  6. Marie De France, “Guigemar,” The Lais of Marie De France, translated by Robert W. Hanning and Joan M. Ferrante (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 2004), 533-34; 532.
  7. De France, “Guigemar,” 595-598.
  8. De France, “Equitan,” 294-297.
  9. De France, “Equitan,” 17-18.
  10. Marie De France, “Le Deus Amanz,” The Lais of Marie De France, translated by Robert W. Hanning and Joan M. Ferrante (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 2004), 139-140.
  11. De France, “Le Deus Amanz,” 200.
  12. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante in Marie De France, The Lais of Marie De France, 135.
  13. De France, “Guigemar,” 527-530.
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