Rescuing Each Other: Between them, the early medieval troubadours and their aristocratic patronesses of Southern France created a new and enduring cultural style: the Ideal of Courtly Love. For a thousand years in the West it has been possible to like and respect women, seek out and enjoy their company, heed their advice – and still be considered a man.
THEY CAME FROM THE SOUTH, wandering the rough roads and sweeping beaches of Aquitaine. Bringing with them all the news and scandal of the day and singing long strange tales to the rhythm of a tabor and the ripples of a harp. They were the troubadours: half journalists, half rock-stars; and wholly welcome in the castle-based culture of Southern France during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
As often as not those castles were ruled by women. With their lords far away, settling old feudal scores; or even further afield, crusading in the Holy Land; these ladies found themselves temporary matriarchs. They may have been ruling over men in their husband’s name, but they were ruling nonetheless.
Out of these two – the troubadours and the matriarchs – emerged a new cultural style that was to influence the relationship between the sexes for centuries to come: the ideal of courtly love; chivalry; romanticism.
Powerfully influenced by the sparkling cultures of Islamic Spain and Sicily, this new cultural style was aimed directly at the uncouth brutality of the fiercely patriarchal societies of Northern Europe. From across the Pyrenees the troubadours brought glimpses of a world where manhood was not defined entirely by the violent assertion of power and control, but by how completely he was able to enter the life of the mind. To read, to write, to make music, to patronise beauty and knowledge: these were accomplishments of which men could also be proud. Yes, and women, too.
Women were the key, the means by which a feudal brute could be transformed into a courteous knight. The Ideal of Courtly Love challenged men to seek out and savour all the qualities that a warrior culture despises: tenderness, vulnerability, longing, patience, generosity and sacrifice.
Patriarchy rejects these emotions precisely because they are the qualities it associates most closely with the world of women. Were men to open themselves to these experiences, then interaction between the sexes would at once become both more intelligible and more equal, and the rigid barriers of patriarchy would crumble.
It was this, the revolutionary potential of courtly love, that inspired Eleanor of Aquitaine (Queen to both the King of France and of England) and her daughter, Marie, the Countess of Champagne, to champion courtly love throughout the courts of Europe. Aristocratic feminists they may have been (did serfs even have feelings?) but the cultural style which they and their troubadour propagandists promoted has, over the intervening millennium, become a defining motif of Western culture.
For a thousand years in the West it has been possible to like and respect women, seek out and enjoy their company, heed their advice – and still be considered a man.
Modern feminists tend to give the Ideal of Courtly Love short shrift. Queen Eleanor and her troubadours have largely been denounced for “putting women on a pedestal” which, according to their latter-day sisters, confers upon women an entirely spurious superiority, rather than the equality that is theirs by right. “Benevolent” sexism chivalrous behaviour may be, but it’s still sexism.
In a week during which New Zealand women have become acquainted with all the gut-wrenching details of malevolent sexism, feminism’s swift dismissal of chivalry’s benevolence surely warrants reconsideration? The narrative of courtly love may have been a literary, historical and sociological fiction, but it provided men with a model of “the perfect knight” they could become. By the rules of chivalry, honour and virtue were the consequence of neither a man’s genealogy, nor his wealth, but of his character. A man attained honour by the virtue of his choices.
Where was honour and virtue among the Roastbusters? In a room full of young men made brutes by the fictions of pornography, isn’t it tragic that not even one boy was raised on the fictions of chivalry? Not one young man who, perceiving the evil intent of his companions, recognised damsels in distress and chose to become their perfect knight? Not one 17-year-old boy who chose to, in Matthew Hooton’s anguished father’s appeal to shock-jocks Willie Jackson and John Tamihere: “look after them and get them home safely”?
For all stories have power. As the Canadian producers of a documentary looking into the sexualisation of young women revealed, a huge number of girls are still raised on the fictions of the Disney Corporation. Encouraged to see themselves as little princesses, they grow up expecting their very own Prince Charming.
Sadly, their brothers grow up with very different expectations. Rather than draw inspiration from the chivalrous deeds of King Arthur and his Knights, they revel in the murders and rapes depicted in Game of Thrones.
Perhaps Queen Eleanor and the troubadours were right: in a world of brutal exploitation and violence, men must be encouraged to rescue women. So that women, in their turn, can rescue us right back.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, November 12, 2013.