Courtly Love, One Last Time, with Francis and Clare


In years past I wrote a considerable amount on Courtly Love's ideal as a mechanism for stimulating human creativity. To my considerable surprise, Saint Francis may have been very aware of Courtly Love's ideal and may have 'practiced' its precept willfully in his relationships with two women in particular whom he loved chastely but deeply. Rumi exemplified this ideal also, and his relationship with Shams receives attention in the second page in this mini-series of six. This page focuses on St. Francis of Assisi's "love-at-a-distance" relationship(s).

Courtly Love Revisited:

One Last Time with Francis and Clare

My dabblings into Courtly Love hadn't really included the story of Francis and Clare until I read a number of books by James Cowan. So this is all his fault.

Why were these two not included in my contemplations of the Medieval phenomenon? I suppose because I was not as aware of the ideal of the Religion of Love while I was reading and writing about Francis and Clare, especially while writing the series on a Women's Movement in the High Middle Ages elsewhere on this site.

In fact, in that series there are two places where courtly love is specifically mentioned by authors I am citing, but I didn't realize it was THE Courtly Love I was to become enamoured with a year or so later. So I went back and tried to see where I would change my writeup, if I were to be writing it now rather than a decade ago. There were very few places, actually, and all I would do is add that this or that story reflects the ethic and ideal of Courtly Love. So, no changes will be made.

So what did I learn from Cowan's book on Francis of Assisi? Quite a bit. For starters, Cowan's chapter-title, " Clare's Tryst " is startling and creates immediate cognitive dissonance until one comes to the realization that this is a 'tryst' in the Courtly Love context. Does Courtly Love mean there wasn't physical attraction, physical desire, and romantic soul-melting emotion involved? Of course not, and Cowan needs a few pages to explain this because his sources are typically seeking to promote a vision of these two saints that places them above everyday motivations and feelings.

Cowan begins to get into the real core theme of this chapter on his page 64 when he says that these two good looking younger people were more than . . . "two devout people who inspired one another into a deeper commitment to God." Cowan continues by saying he suspects that . . . " what really happened had more to do with interior recognition than it did piety ."

Medieval times still knew about love and its " quickening of the heart ." Cowan connects these two lovers directly with the ideas and ideals of Courtly Love, but adds what was to me a surprising twist:

" Courtly love had reached into Italy by way of the troubadours, and many ideas drawn from Moorish Spain had filtered through to the studies of the learned in Florence. Ibn Hazm, a Cordovan poet of the Ommayad period (eleventh century), could remark, "I see a human form, but when I meditate more thoroughly, I think I see in it a body that comes from the celestial world of the Spheres:' He then went on to argue that 'love, in and of itself, is an accident and therefore cannot be the basis of other accidents.' This idea is echoed by Dante in almost the same words nearly three hundred years later: 'Love does not exist in and of itself as a substance: it is the accident of a substance?' Ibn Hazm also goes on to quote Ibn Dawud, who in turn quotes from Plato's Symposium: 'My opinion [on the nature of love] is that it consists of the union of the parts of souls that go about divided, by comparison with how they were at the beginning in their elevated essence:' Plato's idea that souls seek each other out in the world because of the relationships they had before descending to earth and assuming a body, is known as the doctrine of reminiscence ." (Pages 64-65)

So here we leap from suggesting there was a recognition of something deeper than physical attraction between these two, into the idea that this may involve a " reminiscence " of who they were to each before before they were born! I had not run across this idea in the readings I had done on Courtly Love. But then, I had also not recognized Courtly Love in the relationship of Clare and Francis, even though some of the orthodox biographers made reference to it! So my not being aware of something means nothing in terms of whether it exists or not.

Cowan explains further (p. 65), and also adds a point I have been quite aware of, which is that love at a distance does not mean love without physical feelings and strong emotions, the erotic actively dances its dance within the participants:

" Fin' amor, or a distant love, implicitly acknowledges the doctrine of reminiscence. But while it alerts us to the existence of other realities, those embodied in what Ibn Hazm calls the World of the Spheres, it is nonetheless grounded in a courtly eroticism. There is still something physical at work underneath the surface. A person may remember a sublime incident out of a previous life, but is never entirely removed from the physical demand made by love itself. So that a real tension exists- a tension that clearly enveloped Clare when she first set eyes on Francis ."

Cowan admits this eros-involving tension is speculative, but it seems well-founded, if one assumes these two people are not of an entirely different nature from a normal pair of relatively young humans. Cowan continues his speculative interpretation in two paragraphs I read over and over because I have tried and tried to say a similar thing, but never pulled it off with this much clarity and style:

" Young people, at a critical point in their lives, are often open to influences that later they will dismiss. This point usually arrives when the critical faculty has been awakened and the innocence of youth has not yet been abased. It is a fragile moment. To inhabit this domain, for however long it lasts, can prove to be a life-determining event. Yet to experience the wonder and chaos of existence as an unfragmented whole can also unleash powerful contradictory emotions. . . . a coming-into-nearness of the primordial depths of existence. To deal with it is like dealing with a wild animal.

"For two people to be experiencing such an emotion at the same time, and in the presence of one another, is to offer the world a potent human elixir. Ordinary things register in a different way; a strain of music may be experienced as something painfully beautiful, a line of poetry as saying something infinitely expressive, a field of flowers as a visual poem in itself. What is happening is both paradoxical and confusing; we are led astray by our emotions, our sensibilities and our feelings, and find ourselves unable to 'come down to earth?' " (Pages 65-66)

Cowan is describing the experience of 'falling' and 'being' in 'love' according to me, and states the obvious, but again with a surprisingly insightful twist to it when he continues:

" How does one deal with such an experience? One can either dismiss it entirely and succumb to the carnal. One can retreat into an ivory tower and allow extreme sensitivity to reign. Or one can recognize the full implication of what is happening and place oneself in the preserve of this transcendent intuition. I think the latter is what Clare did when she encountered Francis. " (Page 66)

So now we have been led around to taste the full course: it was a tryst, a meeting of lovers in love, and it could have led to several conclusions. When experiencing the drowning into love one can retreat from it, or one can enter into it and let it work out its natural course emotionally and biologically. Or one can enter into it and do what many, in my opinion, have done in the Courtly Love paradigm. That is to accept the love and fully enter its emotional gifts, yet maintain a distance and " allow extreme sensitivity to reign ." To me that is what Courtly Love is about. But Cowan here suggests a still more refined alternative, which is to enter into and remain in the heightened state of intuitiveness that being in love is, and staying in that state by entering into a close but still distant relationship. This is what Clare and Francis did, suggests Cowan.

To me entering this intuitive state is a variation on the theme of maintaining love at a distance and letting sensitivity reign. Cowan believes, obviously, that there is a difference between these two states, else he would not have separated the two as he has done.

This is interesting in and of itself and will require me to think more on my facile comparison, one I often make, between the state of being in love and what some religious persons describe as a state of being 'in the Spirit,' feeling the Holy Spirit stirring within. I suppose the comparison I have made to this point has been too facile, and that Cowan has thrown me a hint I should use to reconsider my descriptions of these experiences. I will do so.

After this interesting discussion of Clare's side of this love affair, Cowan enters into Francis' side by noting that he was twelve years older when she breezed into his life, plus he was already the head of a sizable brotherhood of mendicants. So in many ways Francis was on his way, he did not need this girl breezing across his path and stopping to face him and claim the right to be one of his troupe. Cowan asks the following question (p. 67) and answers it the way he answered it for Clare earlier, with a reference to the recognition theme again:

" Was Francis prepared to experience in the person of Clare an abiding sense of the other? The chronicles seem to think so-but always with the proviso that between them no physical intimacy occurred. Theirs was a love, so the story goes, made in Heaven. What they saw in one another is precisely what Ibn Hazm described: a recognition that they were souls who had been united in an earlier life, and who had found each other again in this one. It sounds like a romantic fiction. Yet this image of two 'linked atoms' (les atoms ecrochus) eventually finding one another, and committing themselves to the same ideal, persists ."

Cowan compares their union with several others well known in Courtly Love literature, some more comparable than others, and then speculates on Francis' physical and emotional reaction to this young woman:

" I suspect that Francis was powerfully attracted to Clare, judging by her various portraits. She was indeed a beauty. No man, however celibate he might think himself, could help but notice a woman in the full flower of her maidenhood-who at the same time radiated a certain detachment and coolness. Virginity can be an aphrodisiac, especially when it is accompanied by an untouchability that is almost provocative. Francis would have sensed this; he would have known, too, that he was dealing with no ordinary woman. In Clare, he had met someone who was already in defiance of what she stood for, even if she did not know it yet. Such a condition only he understood, since he had begun to live a similar life himself.

"So if we assume that Francis became in his own way infatuated by Clare, what was it that he experienced? I think he found himself caught up in a range of conflicting emotions. " (Pp. 67-68)

Cowan launches into a discussion of how delicious it would have been for Francis to experience with this beautiful young woman . . ." that coalescence of mind and body into one tumultuous act of heartfelt passion ," (p. 69) and how dangerous it would have been for him to become lovers with Clare, given her noble family and his self-confessed status as a celibate.

Cowan lets history give the answer, and next launches into a discussion of Francis' attitude toward women in general, which is based on biographies that provide a set of mixed indicators. That is not really the topic of this page, so I will move on to his conclusion of that matter, which returns us to Clare:

" The final argument against any charge of misogynism being leveled at Francis pertains to Clare herself. If women were the enemy, then why did he give to her so much of himself? Why did he so influence her to give up normal life in favor of retiring from the world? I suspect it was because he recognized in Clare something unique: that she was, like few of us are, a true aristocrat of the spirit. Francis was in the business of gathering about him people worthy enough to be considered as members of his illuminati, male or female ." (Pp. 71-72)

Cowan continues by discussing Francis' attitude toward sex, concluding that . . . " sexuality is not evil but a hindrance to understanding, or experiencing, transcendent intuition ." (P. 72) However that may be, it fits the temperament of his time and locale, and differs some from the Sufi attitude toward sex. If you have read the pages on Rumi in this series, you will know that avoiding marriage and children was not considered to be necessary for saintliness or revelation. Love between persons was a reflection of Divine Love, but lusting and longing for sexual activity was an impediment. A fine line? Not really. But this is not the place to launch into that discussion either. I did touch on it in several other pages including one called Sexuality, Spirituality and Ecstacy (click to go there, of course).

Cowan goes on to state the obvious: that these two people partook of a spiritual love of amazing depth that led to a lasting set of influences on many human lives in their own generation and for centuries after. Cowan notes that sixty-four years later the next relationship based on 'spiritual love' enters the world literary scene, that of Dante and Beatrice. But Cowan rightly observes regarding that imaginary relationship, as compared with the real one being discussed here that:

" It is arguable whether Beatrice was ever conscious of her role as the supreme object of adoration for the poet. Whereas Clare knew that Francis had chosen her. She knew that he wanted her to make a particular kind of sacrifice in order to join him in a "marriage of the spirit?' For her, this represented a unique opportunity. Francis's extraordinary powers of persuasion encouraged her to believe that she, too, may be capable of traveling her own path toward realizing a personal spiritual insight ." (P. 73)

Cowan goes on to describe the strangeness and importance of Clare's decision, and then returns to the theme of Courtly Love with another comparison with an Arabic source, this one is important enough to the overall theme of several of these pages that I will cite quite a bit of it, from Cowan's page 74:

" She saw in Francis what Dante perceived in Beatrice, and Ibn Arabi saw in Nizam, the daughter of a local sheikh in Mecca, because in the end both parties would have reciprocated this 'glance?' Allow Ibn Arabi to relate his experience:

"'Now this Sheikh had a daughter, a lithesome young girl who captivated the gaze of all those who knew her, whose mere presence was the ornament of our gatherings, and startled all those who contemplated it to the point of stupefaction. Her name was Nizam, and her surname "Eye of the Sun and of Beauty." Learned and pious, with an experience of spiritual and mystic life, she personified the venerable antiquity of the entire Holy Land. The magic of her glance, the grace of
her conversation were such an enchantment that when, on occasion, she was prolix, her words flowed from the source; when she spoke concisely, she was a marvel of eloquence; when she expounded an argument she was clear and transparent... .If not for the paltry souls who are ready for scandal and predisposed towards malice, I should commend her on the beauties of her body as well as her soul, which was a garden of generosity.' " [Quoted by Cowan from the Divan "The Interpreter of Ardent Desires" from 'A Collection of Mystical Odes by Ibn Arabi,' translated by R. A. Nicholson.]

Cowan suggests this description was as true for Francis and Clare as it was for Ibn Arabi and Nizam. Cowan says about Francis that (pp. 74-75) . . ." in Clare he saw an emerging spiritual genius like himself. In spite of her youth she was a woman blessed with the gift of seeing herself as a vessel for that deep interior recognition of God that lies in everyone. This was what she had seen in Francis; and this is what Francis had witnessed in her. Together, these two people made up a whole ."

Cowan goes on to describe their relationship as a " true mystic marriage ," and cites her biographies' descriptions of her in a transcendent state after mystical experiences of the Divine, hinting she had indeed achieved " a deep interior recognition of the Divine ." She was not a simple person, she was a very capable one with an eternal love for Francis that she " courageously sublimated into the love of Christ ." (P. 75)

Cowan makes it clear that although Clare advised and supported Francis in his ministry they saw little of each other after their separation to stop foolish mouths from saying hurtful things. At his death, however, Cowan notes that he wrote Clare a letter encouraging her to continue in her work, to live true to her order's rule. She peered out of the bars on a window of her cloister and saw his body as it was led on procession to its nearby resting place.

In Cowan's book (pp. 152-153) another woman enters the picture at the time of his death, the one I have written of elsewhere (link below) as being a genuine love interest of Francis. Cowan notes that one of Francis' final acts was to dictate a letter to . . ." a certain Roman lady, Giocoma di Settisole, requesting her to be with him at his death ," . . . . Cowan notes that he asked her for a favorite cloth of his as a burial shroud and for some honey-almond cakes she made that he loved. She arrived with these items before the letter was sent!

Cowan, in a footnote to p. 153, explains that this woman: " Giocoma di Settisole, a noble Roman woman, was the widow of a prominent legislator in that city, Graziani Frangipani. She had somehow earned the privilege of special love from Francis. Little is known of their relationship, but clearly it was different to the one he had with Clare ."

What is surprising about this special love relationship to me is how it violated Francis' orders to his followers, which usually included warnings not to have anything to do with women! Cowan dramatizes the difference in the nature of relationship between Francis and these two women by observing that at the time of his death . . ." while the nuns at San Damiano prayed for his soul, while Clare sat in her cell contemplating the moment when he might quit her thoughts altogether, while Giocoma di Settisole, that Roman lady of mysterious consequence sat by him and caressed his forehead, and while his brethren gathered around singing psalms ," . . . . (. P. 156)

The context here is Francis' death, of course, but the paragraph dramatizes the different relationships between Francis and Giocoma and Francis and Clare. The former is a relationship with much that is physical, the latter is one that is spiritual. It seems hardly fair that this is how it was, to those of us into the romantic view of life, but it is simply how it was.

As I discussed in my series on " A Women's Movement in the High Middle Ages ," Giocoma had a house in Rome where Francis sometimes stayed (with a trusted brother as chaperone of course) and where once he was so overcome by guilt over experiencing the luxury of sleping on a bed in her house while his brethren slept under the stars, by his orders, that he dragged his brother out of the house with him in the middle of the night and spent the remainder of that night in a field.

I couldn't help but think the luxury argument a bit specious, and wondered if the real motive may not have been his experiencing a very powerful attraction for the woman in the middle of the night instead. If that were the case, the continuing special relationship between the two, deep and abiding love, but at a distance, is another instance of Francis experiencing a relationship that fits the ideal of Courtly Love.

Perhaps the surprise dealt me by Cowan, suggesting there are different levels even within the ideal of love-at-a-distance, is illustrated here: Giocoma and Francis were a celebration of that exquisite tension and sensitivity set up by keeping love at a distance. Clare and Francis' separation, besides making roses bloom in winter, allowed both to enter into the opening into the intuitive reality that the energy of their love, and their separation, created. Hmmm.

Maybe so. Though it bothers me some that Francis did not encourage Clare to come and be at his side at his last moments, that she had to settle for seeing his body carried past the window bars of her convent. I find some loyalty to Clare in me that I just don't have for Giocoma, whom I really don't know. And whom I favor is really not relevant to the topic of Courtly Love.

So, did I successfully repent of my former ignorance of not seeing Clare and Francis as giving us an illustartion of the epitome of Courly Love? I hope so. I can write no more!