Divine love and lust in medieval poetry

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Divine love and lust in medieval poetry

Literary scholar explores how medieval crusaders reconciled their religious devotion with their devotion to fair maids

by Kathryn Dickason on Thursday, May 1, 2014 - 8:34am

medieval manuscript"Knights in shining armor." The phrase calls up images of strength, virtue, and devotion: at home, medieval knights devoting themselves to fair maidens, chivalry, and romantic courtship; on crusade, knights devoting themselves entirely to God. In their quest to fulfill divine duty, crusading knights were supposed to turn away from worldly thoughts, including romantic love.

For Marisa Galvez, Assistant Professor of French and Italian, these two images of knighthood form a puzzle. Galvez is studying knights who wrote musical love poetry while on crusade. How, she asks, did crusader poets justify their competing devotion to romance and religion?

Galvez finds that, within the poetic imagination, a knight could honor his faraway lady while pursuing a spiritual path in the Holy Land. In crusader poetry, these medieval warriors made a sacrifice for God, yet left their hearts at home.

Within the poetic imagination, a knight could honor his faraway lady while pursuing a spiritual path in the Holy Land.

The Crusades as a sacred calling

The Crusades began in 1095. From the start, fervent preachers, as well as literary and visual propaganda, urged Christians to reclaim the Holy Land from the so-called infidel. For knights, crusading became a substitute for penance, the act of acknowledging and atoning for their wrongdoings through service to God and the Church. Medieval Christians believed that crusading would not only absolve the crusaders’ sins, but even transform them into holy martyrs. As priests helped mobilize participants by promising heavenly rewards, a new kind of medieval masculinity emerged: the pilgrim-warrior hybrid. 

Crusader poets echoed this sense of religious righteousness in their lyric, according to Galvez. For example, Conon of Béthune (d. c. 1220), a medieval French poet who fought in the Third and Fourth Crusades, implored everyone–even clergy, the elderly, and women–to go on crusade.  His poetry presents the Crusades as a type of penitential journey: “All good people will depart on this journey; one must force oneself to serve God.”

In another crusade ballad, Count Thibaut IV of Champagne (d. 1253) criticizes those who stay at home: “All the bad people will stay over there, those who do not love God, nor honor nor valor.”  Clearly, Thibaut calls into question the integrity of non-crusading knights.    

Medieval manuscriptCrusaders leave their hearts at home

This urgency to embrace sacred honor did not extinguish the crusaders’ attachment to romantic love. According to Galvez, crusader poets wrestled with the reality of separation they faced after leaving home. One of Thibaut’s departure songs reveals his ambivalence about leaving his beloved behind: “Lady, since I must go away and leave the sweet country where I learned to endure such suffering, and leave you, it is only right that I hate myself.” Thibaut even questions the holy cause itself, continuing “God! Why does the Holy Land exist which will separate so many lovers?” Elsewhere, Thibaut tries to rectify this separation through poetry when he tells how he and his lady exchanged their hearts. 

In Galvez’s assessment, the disembodied heart motif demonstrates the sincerity of the poets’ intentions. For example, while crusading in Syria, the crusader poet Châtelain d’Arras (d. early thirteenth century) recounts how his heart left his body to reside with his beloved. Although the heart/body theme was common in courtly love poetry before the crusader poets, it took on a new level of significance during the Crusades.  The poet’s external, fractured body attests to the sincerity of his soul. 

Reimagining the relationship between poetry and the heart, Galvez suggests that crusader poets mirrored the practice of religious confession.  Like the act of confession, crusader poets began to view their work as a product of self-examination, disclosure, and discipline.  

Crusader poets began to view their work as a product of self-examination, disclosure, and discipline, akin to religious confession. 

But there is a twist: to become worthy of salvation, a knight must be both a crusader and a good lover. “Confession or repentance is about recognizing one’s sin and feeling sorry about it,” Galvez explains. “And it seems to me that all these penitents, these crusade love songs, avoid this disavowal.  [Confession is] supposed to be a disavowal of earthly concerns, [including] the lady. But at the same time, it’s [the poets’] way of affirming what they do, and on secular terms.”  Instead of repenting in full, poets craft their own mode of conscience independent of orthodox rites.  

Good lovers make good crusaders

Rather than repeating mainstream ideas about the Crusades, or citing feelings of love as a distraction from their higher purpose, the poets actually depict romantic love as integral to the crusading venture. Galvez observes that “remembrance” is a major theme in these poems.  Honoring the memory of their ladies in lyric fuels the poets' motivation to be good crusaders in real life.

medieval manuscriptIn her linguistic analysis, Galvez highlights the poets’ use of “remembering” (recorder) as applied to the lady. Galvez explains that in Old French, “the verb recorder could mean to remember something by heart-literally to bring something to heart: re-cor-der, to hold it, to bring the lady to heart. At the same time, it could also mean to write something down, to notate, or to memorize by heart.”

Châtelain d’Arras remembers his lady while he traverses the place of Christ’s Passion. He concludes by linking successful crusading to the return to his love: “Often I remember when, being alone with her, she said, ‘I will be very happy if you return, I will make you joyous; for now be loyal like a true lover.’”

And what to make of the woman? Is she merely an abstraction, an object of male desire? According to Galvez, “she represents an index or surrogate for everything [the crusader poets] care about at home. And as such an index, they memorialize and remember her, they say: ‘I am doing it for her.’” Interlacing the memory of the beloved with the sacrifice abroad, these poets personalize – and even justify – their intent to go on crusade.   

Poets personalize – and even justify – their intent to go on crusade.   

Feminine presence in poetry is indispensable to the crusaders’ moral framework. These poems provide a stage for reconciling opposites: humanity and divinity, heaven and earth, indulgence and penitence. If only a pretext, the lady opens up a space for working out this ambivalence.  Through her, crusaders found their true voice. 

“Like I said,” Galvez concludes, “it’s always about a lady.”   

M Galvez
Marisa Galvez
Assistant Professor of French and Italian

Marisa Galvez is Assistant Professor of French and Italian at Stanford University, specializing in medieval French literature. She recently published a book on the medieval origins of Western poetry in Songbook: How Lyric Became Poetry in Medieval Europe. Organizing collaborative workshops, seminars, and study abroad opportunities with international musicians and vocalists, Galvez has brought attention to the performative dimension of medieval lyric (see her Performing Troubador website here). Galvez is currently a Faculty Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute

K Dickason (Photo by Kate Gentzke)
Kathryn Dickason
Graduate student, religious studies

Kathryn Dickason is a graduate student in religious studies focusing on western medieval Christianity. Her interests include female mystics, liturgical rituals, and religious iconography. She is also a closet dance historian. Dickason is a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.

(Photo of Kathryn Dickason by Kate Gentzke)