Whither Courtly Love
When I was an English major at Middlebury back in the eighties, courtly love was my cod liver oil: dosages were the mandatory price I paid for the lovely beef stew of Middlemarch and the meringue of Pride and Prejudice. It was key to Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, in which two suitors duke it out to win the love of fair Emily, and Spenser’s deadly boring Faerie Queene, and even in Shakespeare, my bugaboo was unavoidable: the romantic fealty of courtly love is captured in Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…), and its vanilla rituals mocked in Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. Even when it was the subject of satire, courtly love spawned my biggest, baddest internal eye roll. Once I had my diploma in my 22-year-old hand, I was sure that with respect to the canoodling of knights and ladies, I’d never look back.
But then I wound up writing an entire book about the social and cultural history of heartbreak, and no matter how sturdy my decades-long resistance to courtly love was, ignoring it in my book would have been downright negligent. After all, at least in the beginning stages of the courtly romance formula, heartbreak was codified: a knight attempts to attract a married noble lady’s attention via stolen glances; then he circles said lady like a shark, perhaps by attending court just a little too often; then he declares “I love you,” perhaps from behind a curtain or in a dark corner; the lady replies, “No, no, no! I’m so very married and so very devout!” and focuses on her needlepoint; the knight says he just might die if his lady doesn’t return his love; then the knight moons around court bemoaning how the lady doesn’t love him back.
Only when the knight takes a dramatic risk is the spell of unrequitedness broken: he might get his hot little hands on a ribbon from the lady, tie it to his lance, and proceed to win a jousting tournament (with bonus points for any injuries sustained). Only then might she give in and reward him with kisses and/or sex, and from there they might sneak about for a little clandestine codpiece ’n’ corset action. The nobility of courtly love, of the heartbreak, was in the attenuated longing, and consummation between the lovelorn knight and his lady was theoretically verboten. If the relationship was consummated, the thrill of the chase was replaced by the thrill of evading detection.
No doubt part of the reason why I found courtly love so irksome lay in the fact that it was so at odds with what I was experiencing as a young woman at Middlebury in the eighties—or thought I was experiencing. Among my peers/friends, romance and its close associate, eroticism, were certainly not celebrated. (The terms I recall for sexual encounters were “hooking up,” “muckling,” and most memorably, if repeated encounters were the case, “dealing.”) In my own personal experience, the only thing that sex and romance at Middlebury had in common with courtly love was that it was furtive: the closest thing I had to a relationship in college was a guy I’d hook up with—FOR THREE YEARS!—but we couldn’t hack breakfast together in Proctor, much less meet up to see a Hitchcock movie at Dana Auditorium. It makes sense then that my muckling self, sitting there in the second row of a classroom in Munroe, Faerie Queen open, was perplexed by the idea of an entire subculture devoted to mooning around for love.
But then, nearly 25 years later, I found myself fascinated by the academic debates that have, for decades now, framed discussions about courtly love. What was it exactly? A real phenomenon, a literary device, or a little of both? Among those who believe that knights really did hotly pursue married women, the phenomenon is thought to have been more or less natural adaptation: in a milieu where marriages among the upper classes were arranged and loveless, courtly love was a neat ruse that covered, justified, or perhaps even celebrated adultery. Some who have studied it have gone so far as to suggest that the spread of courtly love across Europe from the 12th century onward marked a sexual revolution in which women radically turned the tables on men. Others are quick to point out that there is really no evidence whatsoever that courtly love existed anywhere but on paper and in song: no legal cases, no chronicles, no correspondence. It has even been suggested that many depictions of courtly love in medieval literature were more or less ironic jokes, just as they were in Shakespeare several hundred years later.
Initially, as I absorbed the fact that courtly love has no smoking gun, I felt vindicated: my 20-year-old self was wise beyond her years. She knew courtly love was bogus. It was as absurd as, in today’s world, a midlevel manager professing undying love for the CEO’s wife, sailing into tough meetings with her Hermes scarf wrapped around his arm, and then crying to the crowd around the water cooler about how she doesn’t love him back.
But the nagging questions about it also got me thinking about love at Middlebury in the eighties—about what was, what wasn’t, and what might have been. Naturally this line of thinking got me rummaging around in what I think of as my Middlebury closet, pushing past my cynicism to the painful box of regrets/box of pain, but it also got me going drawing comparisons between the upper echelons of the medieval world and, yes, Middlebury. Think about it: like a royal court, Middlebury is elite, packed with smart and attractive people; like a court, it is physically isolated from the rest of the world; and like a court, it has its cliques and pecking orders. It is a castle on a hill.
And, like any court, and any small school, Middlebury also had its own culture. What strikes me now is that a key component of that culture was this: love wasn’t cool. “Hooking up” was cool, walks of shame were cool, but unabashed love, as in shouting to the hills that are his also, that you were madly in love? Not so much. Sure, there were the rare couples who were in love and wore their hearts on their Patagonia sleeves, but those were the exception, not the rule. The way I see it, never in the history of man has there been a group of 18–21-year-olds quite so determined to not be in love.
I’m sure this had something to do with the fact that for four years, we were in essence at an endless banquet: you could pick and choose among countless smart, attractive, and more-or-less like-minded individuals to spend your time with. Indeed, you could have a crush in every dining hall to keep you entertained. The rock climber who ate with his friends in the SDUs; the lacrosse player in Proctor who you hooked up with freshman year; the moody poet in Lower Proctor. I also think the collective resistance to love originated in naiveté: little did we know just how precious that time in the castle on the hill was, and weak was our understanding that never again would we share such intimate space with so many interesting people the same age. So the saying goes, youth is wasted on the young.
But I’ve talked to a few close friends from Middlebury about this, and we all agree that there was more to it than that. At Middlebury then, and perhaps now, tribalism was fierce. Perhaps the lack of love at Middlebury also had something to do with fear of crossing social boundaries, of being associated with someone who, even within the coziness of Middlebury, was “other.” Love wasn’t in the air, but following the rules was. And foremost in that pack of rules was this: “Thou shalt not profess undying love.”
I’m in my mid-forties now, and perhaps unduly preoccupied in my research on love by what was, what wasn’t, and what might have been. I regret that I didn’t have the confidence and steeliness to tell the boys I loved—and yes, there were a few—how I felt, and I regret dismissing the ones who were bold, and yes! wise enough to at least hint that they loved me. Love wasn’t in the air, and yet it was all around us. The flickers deserved to be fed.
And as for courtly love, the trappings of adoration, confession, and persistence, and my now-ancient distaste for them? Now I know that the line between scorn and envy is a thin one. Love isn’t just loving, it’s letting oneself be loved.
Meghan Laslocky ’89 is the author of The Little Book of Heartbreak: Love Gone Wrong through the Ages, Plume/Penguin 2013.