Love in the Middle Ages


Love in the Middle Ages

Visit Daniel Diehl On Readers Gazette


We just recently celebrated St Valentine’s Day and although it is ostensibly a celebration of love, over the years it has become little more than an orgy of cards, flowers and candy that symbolize the commercialized concept of love and affection. Let’s face it, Valentine’s Day has far less to do with romance than it does with one more way businesses have found to separate you from your money. So what was love and the ritual of courtship like in the past, before people were drowned in a sea of Hallmark cards and heart-shaped boxes of bad chocolate?

Since every story must have a logical starting point, the one I have chosen is May 1st. No particular year, just May 1st. Why? Because May 1st – commonly celebrated as May Day – was once the starting point for mating rituals, courtships and expressions of love of all sorts.

Ancient Origins of May Day

The joyous, lighthearted May Day festivals had been practiced since ancient times. In the pre-Christian world most pagan religions celebrated the end of the planting season and the onset of summer. To the Celts this late spring festival was known as Beltane and the Germanic tribes called it Walpurgis Night, but for both cultures it was a celebration of nature’s renewed fertility and reverence was paid to either the woodland spirit known as the ‘Green Man’ or the ‘Horned god’, who was similar to the Greek and Roman god Pan. The Romans, who always seemed ready for a good time, adapted this tradition into the festival of the goddess Maia, the mother of Mercury, and in whose honor the first month of summer was named May. For all of these ancient and classical cultures May Day represented not only the onset of summer but the time of year when girls officially became women, ready to take their place in the reproductive cycle of life.

May Day Among the Common Folk

As the Christian religion replaced pagan beliefs the church overlaid this holiday with a more acceptable belief system. May was officially dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the first day of the month was declared the feast of Saints Philip and Jacob. This reorientation allowed the people to continue with their customary revelries while eliminating the pagan overtones. By the end of April the spring planting had been completed and the loss of a day or two of work would not have any adverse consequences, so May Day celebrations began on the last evening of April and continued throughout the night and all through the next day. As they had done for centuries, with the onset of night on April 30th, young men and women ran into the woods and meadows to collect armloads of wildflowers, freshly sprouted greenery and budding hawthorn branches in a ceremony that became known as ‘bringing in the May’ or ‘going a-Maying’.

On the morning of May first they processed back into their towns and villages, led by a gaudily costumed version of the ancient Green Man – now known as Jack O’ the Green - and went from door to door, decorating the houses and shops with flowers and greenery. If a young man of the company wanted to declare his interest in a special girl he might lay a hawthorn branch, decorated with flowers and ribbons, at the door of her parent’s house. Other men among the crowd would carry a tree trunk, stripped of its branches, into the village square where it would be decorated with flowers and ribbons before being set up to serve as the Maypole. By this time the entire village was busily preparing for the day’s celebration, decorating animals and carts with flowers and weaving floral crowns for the young women to wear during the day.

One contemporary account of these preparations gives us a feeling of the happy excitement which preceded the day’s festivities: “All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding overnight [in]to the woods, groves, hills and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning, they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies with all…”

While many of the May Day festivities were sponsored by the local church, for obvious reasons the church fathers frowned on the idea that dozens of un-chaperoned young girls had been out all night in the company of excitable young men. One churchman, Philip Stubbes, described this scandalous custom: “I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity and reputation, that of forty, three score or a hundred maids going into the wood overnight, that there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled”. While this fact was not lost on the locals they were far less shocked than the clergymen and laughingly referred to the very obvious grass stains on the back of the girl’s dresses as ‘the green gown’. No one seems to have commented on the grass stains on the knees of the young men’s breeches and hose.

Despite the occasional awkward moment caused by such glaring evidence of the previous night’s amorous adventures, everyone was generally too excited by the upcoming celebrations to allow a little illicit love-making to ruin the fun. Central to the day’s activities was the character of Jack O’ the Green. Throughout most of Europe this later-day incarnation of the Green Man served as the day’s Lord of Misrule and master of ceremonies, running around the village, extolling the cooks to hurry with the food, urging the setting up of the Maypole, poking fun at the village elders and clearing that path for the grand parade that would soon make its way through the narrow streets and toward the village green where the May pole would serve as the centerpiece for the remainder of the day’s frivolity.

Curiously, in England, the character of Jack O’ the Green was often replaced by a man dressed as Robin Hood and in many English villages May Day became known simply as Robin Hood’s Day. Wherever Robin replaced the Green Man as master of ceremonies he and the previous year’s May Queen – dubbed Maid Marion for the day – led the parade through the village. No matter who led the parade, those who followed them always included laughing young women dressed in white and wearing garlands and crowns of flowers; troupes of dancers and musicians, and farm wagons and carts pulled by placid oxen, all decked out with flowers. As they moved toward the Maypole the assembly sang Summer is a Coming In (which can be found in the Songs, Ballads and Carols chapter of this book). When they reached the village square the parade broke up and everyone’s attention began focusing on the Maypole.

As the centerpiece of the day’s celebrations the Maypole was a grand affair. Standing between 15 and 20 feet in height, the top of the pole was decked with a wreath of flowers from which hung brightly colored ribbons long enough that their ends lay in piles on the ground. The May Dancers held the ends of these ribbons and wove intricate patterns around the pole as they executed the intricate steps of the Maypole Dances. There were any number of Maypole dances and the steps varied from area to area. Normally there were dances intended for females of mixed ages, some for young women only, some for both young men and women and some just for children. Like so many aspects of May Day celebrations the Maypole dance had begun as a pagan fertility rite but by the Middle Ages its significance had shifted to nothing more than general fun. (Instructions for building a Maypole are at the end of the chapter and several Maypole dances are included in the chapter on Dances).

When the Maypole dances had all been danced and the exhausted participants had quenched their thirst, a new May Queen was elected from among the most eligible young women of the village. As with beauty contests throughout history the runners-up became her court and attendants. Decked with garlands of flowers and crowned with a fresh floral crown, the May Queen was seated on her throne before being hoisted into the air and paraded around the square and through the streets. After her coronation, the May Queen presided over the afternoon’s sporting events and awarded prizes to the winners.

So there we have the public face of ‘the rites of spring’ as practiced by the common folk of the ancient and medieval world. I think we can also reasonably assume that these revelries tended to break down into bouts of heavy drinking followed by grabbing, squealing and frequent rolls in the hay behind any barn or hill that presented itself. So what was love and courtship like among the high-born nobility?

Love Among the Upper Crust

In the distant past – just like it is today – the rich and powerful had their own way of doing things – including how they viewed love and courtship and it was all bound up in the strange rituals and traditions that we have come to know as chivalry. Like the common folk, the rich and powerful started their rites of seduction on the first of May; so let’s take a peek into the love lives of the medieval nobility.

Those of you who have read one or more books about the tumultuous love life of England’s corpulent king, or watched the television series ‘The Tudors’, are aware that the rich and powerful among the late medieval courts of England and Europe seem to have been consumed by flirting and extramarital affairs. While TV and books tend to exaggerate wildly for dramatic effect, the libidinous goings-on among the idle rich of this bygone era are pretty shocking even by today’s relaxed standard. Why? Beyond the fact that they had few diversions to occupy their hours the sometimes disastrous romantic entanglements we read about were a holdover from the days of chivalry, the chivalric code and something referred to as ‘courtly love’.

In the distant past– just like today – the rich and powerful had their own way of doing things – including how they viewed love and courtship and it was all bound up in the strange rituals and traditions that we have come to know as chivalry. While most of us today think of chivalric behavior toward ladies as being something stiff, formal and showy – like Sir Walter Raleigh spreading his cloak across a puddle so Queen Elizabeth I could keep her slippers dry when she crossed the street – it was, in practice, pretty lascivious.

According to medieval tradition, to be truly chivalric a knight or nobleman must swear to protect the church, their overlords to whom they owed service, those who were unable to defend themselves, and always honor and serve titled ladies. Even a cursory reading of history tells us that most members of the medieval warrior class fell far short of these lofty goals, but like so many virtuous standards throughout history the code of chivalry was always given lip service and never more-so than on May Day.

Integral to the concept of chivalry was the idea of courtly love. This was supposedly the chaste love which a knight felt for a lady of higher social station than his own. Because of her elevated position the lady could not return these feelings (at least not publicly) but she should always encourage the young man to ever greater feats of courage and valor. The origins of this rather peculiar tradition originated around the time of the First Crusade (1095-1099) in the noble courts of Aquitaine, Provence, Champagne and Burgundy areas of France. Initially finding its voice in the songs and lyric poems of minstrels and troubadours, the concept of courtly love extolled the idea of ‘love for love’s sake’ and the spiritual qualities of unrequited love for a lady who would always remain unattainable. The troubadours who wrote and performed these songs sometimes described the un-named woman in question as a lady in a far-away land, possibly one the smitten man had never even seen but only heard described by others who were equally stunned by her grace and beauty. Courtly love has been described as ‘a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate yet disciplined, humiliating yet exalting, human and transcendent’. Not surprisingly, this completely contradictory view of love was designed as the first form of entertainment intended to appeal to bored women of the privileged class who often had nothing to occupy their time except gossip.

If these poems and songs had any appeal to young men it was because they held out the promise – no matter how vague and futile – that they might be able to advance their careers if a lady of high rank convinced her husband to elevate the young man’s social status or, just as desirable and just as unlikely, she might actually pay attention to him.

The possible dangers inherent in the concept of courtly love were obvious in some of the earliest stories of King Arthur, which also originated in France during this same period. While good, hard-working King Arthur was off fighting his enemies, his queen, Guinevere, wound up having a torrid affair with his most trusted knight, Lancelot. The outcome of this liaison was the destruction of Arthur, Guinevere and Camelot itself. Still, the romantic possibilities inherent in courtly love appealed deeply to noble women whose lives were often crushingly dull and whose marriages had been arranged for their family’s political advancement rather than on any mutual affection.

Because all of medieval noble society was based on complicated rules of behavior, so was the course of courtly love as described in the lyric poems. The progress of courtly love went something like this:
The young lover is smitten by a beautiful lady who may will be married or engaged
He worships her from afar
He declares his devotion to her
The lady rejects his advances
Undaunted, he swears his devotion and insists he will die without her love
He goes off to war, or on a quest, to prove his love
When he returns the lady gives-in and they make love
They spend the rest of their lives trying to keep their illicit affair secret
One of the earliest proponents of courtly love was Christine de Pisan (1365-1434) an Italian noblewoman who spent most of her life in France. At first, de Pisan popularized courtly love through the writings of her personal chaplain, Andreas Capellanus, but later she took up the pen herself and became the first woman in Western history to earn a living as an author.

Like many before and since, de Pisan considered love to be a sort of a game and, like any game, love must have its rules. Some of these rules are amazingly sensible and ring true after seven centuries; others seem politically incorrect in the extreme, particularly when you consider that the rules were written by a woman. Do bear in mind that the Middle Ages were a violent time; jealousy taken to its violent conclusion was an accepted part of life, and women were as much to blame for this as men. If men loved to pull swords on each other to show how macho they were, women loved to taunt and tease them into doing so.

1. The state of marriage does not properly excuse anyone from loving.
2. He who does not feel jealousy is not capable of loving.
3. No one can love two people at the same time.
4. It is well known that love is always either growing or declining.
5. Whatever a lover takes against his lover’s will has no savor.
6. A male does not fall in love until he has reached full manhood.
7. A mourning period of two years for a deceased lover is required by the surviving partner.
8. No one should be prevented from loving except by reason of his own death.
9. No one can love unless compelled by the eloquence of love.
10. Love is an exile from the house of avarice.
11. It is unseemly to love anyone whom you would be ashamed to marry.
12. A true lover does not desire the passionate embraces of anyone but his beloved.
13. Love that is made public rarely lasts.
14. Love easily obtained is of little value; difficulty in obtaining it makes it precious.
15. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
16. On suddenly catching sight of his beloved, the heart of the lover begins to palpitate.
17. A new love drives out the old.
18. A good character alone makes someone worthy of love.
19. If love lessens, it soon fails and rarely recovers.
20. A man in love is always fearful.
21. The feeling of love is always increased by true jealousy.
22. When a lover feels suspicious of his beloved, jealousy, and with it, the sensation of love, are increased.
23. A man tormented by the thought of love eats and sleeps very little.
24. Everything a lover does ends in the thought of his beloved.
25. A true lover considers nothing good but what he thinks will please his beloved.
26. Love can deny nothing to love.
27. A lover cannot have too much of his lover's consolations.
28. A small supposition compels a lover to suspect his beloved of doing wrong.
29. A man who is troubled by excess lust does not usually love.
30. A true lover is continually and without interruption obsessed by the image of his beloved.
31. Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men, or one man by two women.

Among those topics Christine de Pisan addressed in her writings was the curious Court of Love, and this became one of the favorite May Day pastimes of the medieval nobility.

While cynical older men – mostly the ladies’ husbands – were off celebrating May Day by hunting, the senior ladies would hold a court of love for young male courtiers. During the court, the men would state their case and explain why the object of their desire (who was never publicly named) should succumb to their advances. To prove how chivalric and worthy they were, the young men might be told to engage in mock combat, a joust, other physical contests or compose love songs or poems on the spot and recite them in front of the assembled court. (A number or appropriate competitive sports are described in the chapter on Games and Pastimes).

If one of the sought-after young ladies chose to make herself known, she might demand that her young man declare his undying love in such a forceful way that he would convince the judges to bestow their blessings on the couple’s love. If the young man wins his love’s approval and acknowledgement, but the judges still demand that he engage in physical competition to prove himself, his lady-fair might give him a ‘favor’ - a token such as her handkerchief or scarf - which he will wear during the assigned activity.

Throughout these proceedings, the young men, the available young ladies who watched the proceedings with bated breath, and the older, wiser women who sat in judgment, would all engage in flirtatious word games filled with double entendres and hidden, but discernable, sexual references. Proceedings of the court of love might be lighthearted or serious, but they must never descend into nastiness or crude language.

The entire concept of courtly love, with its inherent temptation for engaging in adulterous affairs, was as widely condemned by the church elders as was ‘going a-Maying’ and the ‘green gowns’ found in the May Day festivities of the less privileged classes. Predictably these condemnations were generally ignored by both high and low born.

To find out more about medieval celebrations of all sorts, and how to host medieval revels of your own, pick up a copy of ‘Medieval Celebrations’ by Daniel Diehl and Mark Donelly (Stackpole Books, 2011) available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and at all good book stores.

Visit Daniel Diehl On Readers Gazette.

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