A Constellation of Ideas Swirling Around Courtly Love
I have been fascinated by several historical/religious/art themes, as you can see by the pages in this site and its linked companion. Some of these themes I did not realize were connected, until recently when I searched the web:
(1) History/Religion: There was the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage rite of ancient times (do not let children follow this link unsupervised, you read it first)and its relationship to the behavior of Sarah in the Old Testament. Her visiting kings, in an obviously sexual context, when their nations were experiencing famine, and the outcomes rewritten to make a champion of the new patriarchal religion's God rather than the Goddess represented by Sarah, the priestess. There was also the ritual, and occasionally actual, sacrifice of kings somehow connected with that same religious/governance system. There was apparently also a Christian heresy that celebrated a married Christ, a holy marriage in the tradition of the hieros gamos, see below.
(2) History/Religion: There were the Cathars in their dramatic setting, denying the reality of meaningfulness of life on earth even while banding together regardless of rank to make their common life more bearable, an act of treason against the medieval order. But although their leaders were celibate vegetarians, their commoners were morally rather loose in terms of not buying into the prevailing views on marriage, and they were in the same place and time as the height of the Troubadour movement, with nobles composing poems and singing songs of pitiful and ferocious love to each other. Courtly Love!
(3) History/Art: Losing my own religious moorings caused me to wade into the writings and artwork of others. Coming from a non-Catholic background I 'discovered' the power of having a visible symbolic representation of the feminine in Godhead, and came to see the annunciation of Mary and her crowning as symbols of a Goddess reinstated within some patriarchal bounds of course.
(4) History/Religion: I also discovered the Christian mystics! And perused their writings and some words by others who claimed ecstatic visions. The Christian mystics, to my surprise, had appropriated the language and symbols of Courtly Love, as foreshadowed by the Old Testament's Song of Songs (Psalm of Psalms), wherein the language of sexual love was used to describe the ineffable oneness of melting into ones God(hood).
(5) History/Religion: The witch craze kept me fascinated for a while, because of the Inquisition's birth during the war on the Cathars and because of its recurrence in the pre-war Europe of the World War II generation as an assault on "others," primarily and most viciously in the holocaust to eradicate all Jews, openly defined as sub-human and dangerous and needing erasure from a just and God fearing society just as did witches. The witch phenomenon in turn also led me to the life of the enigmatic prophetess Joan of Arc. A life that touched me deeply while contemplating her during visits to places where she fought, liberated, where she suffered, where she died, and was finally liberated herself.
(6) History/Art: Following the Courtly Love thread also took me back to a place I had been before, Dante's poetry. But with eyes focused on the thread of Courtly Love, of a sudden, the works of Dante presented a very new picture to me.
(7) History/Art: Then there was the beautiful art of the Pre-Raphaelites I used to decorate my very first pages on this website. I didn't realize then that these painters of beautiful women were passionately into living out the dramas, the agonies and ecstasies, of Courtly Love!
I wrote, in the essays of these two linked sites, on all of these subjects. But it is obvious in some that at the time of writing I was not yet aware of how intertwined these subjects were. Now I see they are part of a whole constellation of ideas swirling around and in and through the symbolisms of Courtly Love.
One large part of the puzzle escaped me until I read and understood the very insightful essay on Courtly Love and its historical/human motivational setting by Kay Stoner entitled: The Enduring Popularity of Courtly Love. (The link no longer works, sorry) She connected the ancient religious rites and their combination of suffering as a redemptive act with the sufferings of Courtly Lovers bringing them redemption. Wham! Number one, above, is solidly linked into the constellation of things that have puzzled and interested me for many years.
For example, this expanded, for me, my understanding of polygamy in 19th century Mormonism. I lost my religious moorings because I thought I finally came to understand the theological roots of polygamy, and rejected those roots and what it was still attached to. I looked into other experiences with polygamy in Christianity, in the 1500's among Radical Anabaptists, and found the motivations for it surprisingly similar to those spoken of in the more recent Mormon experience. But what I failed to see until more recently was polygamy's motives in light of the motives of Courtly Love. It was a sacrifice to enter into the order, and it was a sacrifice that promised sanctification now and great heavenly rewards hereafter! I added an essay to the site on women who defended polygamy in the last century, because to me it clearly reveals that sacrificial/sanctification side of the motivation (don't bother with the above link unless this topic, in its Mormon theological setting, really fascinates you, it is a lengthy article).
I have found corroboration of several things I wrote about in other writings by scholars. For example, in a scholarly essay on the Beguine movement, a women's movement I describe at length in these pages, Elizabeth T. Knuth (click on her name to see her essay entitled "The Beguines") makes the case very nicely that their movement was indeed a women's movement, that it spawned a mystical outpouring, largely by women, and that their appropriation of the symbolic language of Courtly Love allowed them to express their experiences of Godly unity in a language that approached conveying their ecstatic feelings. It also, she noted, allowed them to put the feminine into their understanding of God by celebrating Love, a feminine word in both Dutch and German, as being God.
The best scholarly explanation of Courtly Love, I believe, is given by Diane Thompson on her website related to her college course including this subject. I judge it best because it uses an easy to read outline to trace the history of, and define, courtly love. When you finish reading this short description, you know enough to make the genre recognizable in movies, books and life. And it goes beyond pointing at symptoms and addresses underlying motivations.
I haven't yet read, but recently ordered, Margaret Starbird's book "The Woman With the Alabaster Jar." Margaret's website (click on book title) says that in this book she follows "the heresy of the Holy Grail, whose medieval adherents believed that Jesus was married" . . .which was reflected in . . . "legends, works of art and artifacts of medieval Europe" that "clearly reflect a widespread 'alternative Christianity' brutally suppressed by the Inquisition in the 13th Century." . . . The heresy is said to provide evidence that "the 'sacred union' was originally at the heart of the Christian Gospels."
I have a page on my views of Margaret's book on this site called: "Ladies, Unicorns, Sacred Marriages, and a Good Book"
For a look at the Pre-Raphaelite painters and their experimentation with applied, at times cruel and self-serving versions of Courtly Love, I recommend the website of Meg Wise-Lawrence , and its links.
So, what I have been so interested in so many years is all linked together. It is part of the overall puzzle of human nature itself. Courtly Love, I believe, is a very useful, and centrally located, window on that nature. Not a window that is easy to look into or out of, but one that is great fun to explore.