Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Le Fin Amour

Among the most striking images that have come down to us from the medieval period is that of a Knight in full armour, with his lance, shield and plumes, mounted on a huge, richly caparisoned horse, being led into the arena of some grand tournament by his Lady at the end of a long, delicately forged chain. The impression is that of brute force constrained, however fleetingly, by another, more gentle influence. More specifically, it symbolises the civilising effect of that curious social institution, unique in the history of sexual relations, that led the Knights out of the bellicosity and boorishness that characterised the Dark Ages.

Beneath the pomp and pageantry medieval tournaments were brutal, ferocious affairs. They were, in essence, a realistic imitation of battle, but they frequently went beyond their ostensible purpose as a sort of training exercise and became as deadly as medieval warfare itself - serious injuries and deaths were common in these events. The tournaments were essentially a rehearsal for war by a caste whose entire raison d'etre was that of warfare. It also provided a sort of theatre for the combatants to exhibit the skills to which their entire lives had been dedicated. But the tournament also had a refining effect, because out of the need to structure the prevailing ethos of ferocity there sprang, almost by necessity, a code of knightly conduct and social allegiance that became known as Chivalry.

The Age Of Chivalry, and the feudal system of which it was an essential part, originated and was to remain inextricably associated with a particular form of warfare, namely, the use of the horse in mounted shock-combat (the very term Chivalry originated to describe those wealthy enough to fight on horseback). The emergence of the mounted, heavily armoured warrior had a profound effect both on the nature of warfare and on European society at large. This highly mobile form of fighting, which was first developed by the Franks in the 8th century, rapidly led to what was essentially a professionalisation of warfare. The older, barbarian, (and more democratic) notions that viewed every freeman as a potential soldier as and when the need arose, went by the board. Untrained foot soldiers were simply no match for lines of mounted, armoured warriors. This development led naturally on to the formation of elite corps of dedicated warriors, the Knights.

This new mode of warfare proved to be an extremely expensive business. The Knights came to require ever greater resources to meet the demands of what, in effect, became a medieval arms race. Armour steadily became heavier and covered more of the body, and the horses naturally had to became bigger to carry the load. The Knights themselves and their attendants began to need additional horses as remounts, and of course all of this new equipment needed looking after. In particular the care and breeding of the horses became a highly specialised business. Horses also ate large quantities of grain, which, in itself, placed great demands on the simple agricultural economies of the time). In short this all meant that an ever-decreasing section of the population could afford the expenses of war preparation. As a result there was a continuing drift in this early medieval period towards a social division between the roles of the warrior elite and the mass of peasants who supported them. The end result of all this was Feudalism.

The medieval 'caste-system', with a privileged, horse-riding aristocracy at its head, was fully established by the end of the 11th century. The Feudal Lords were, by now, leading a life quite distinct from that of their vassals. Their chivalric code, their traditions and customs, were all quite different from those mortals of 'inferior degree', and they had more in common with aristocrats in other parts of western Europe than with their own vassals. Their status was justified (at least in their own eyes) by some sense of noblesse oblige. In theory they secured the protection of their vassals - in practice the virtues implicit within the chivalric code (the protection of the weak, mercy to the vanquished etc.) were rarely extended to those outside the ranks of chivalry.

The Council of Clermont in 1095, which was of enormous historical importance as the occasion of the proclamation of the First Crusade, also saw the first official affirmation of the Chivalric code. This required every highborn male to take a solemn oath to defend the oppressed, the widow and the orphan, and it emphasised his responsibilities to women of noble birth. War and religion had long been the abiding preoccupations of the Middle Ages, the Chivalric code was concerned with both, and despite its limitations, it exerted a profoundly civilising influence on medieval manners and mentalite. In a sense it provided a secular version of the monastic codes for those whose lives were lived outside the religious institutions.

While it was certainly the case that the ideal knightly virtues were loyalty to ones liege, prowess in battle and the upholding of the Christian faith, war and religion were not the sole preoccupations of the chivalric class. There was another, lighter, though thoroughly engrossing, aspect of life for this comparatively leisured class - namely the complications of refined, courtly love, le fin amour.

Generally speaking Gallantry did not flourish within aristocratic marriages. At this time, and within this social group, marriage was essentially a business transaction. It was an arrangement that was usually more important to the parents than to the young couple involved, and its main function was to ensure dynastic continuity, or for some other purely practical reason. Marriages were legal arrangements that formed the ultimate safeguard of chivalric status. As a result they were often formal, loveless affairs. But they were permanent; however emotionally unsatisfactory they might have been they could not, in the eyes of the Church, be formally dissolved. The only alternatives were extra-marital liaisons, which, in the circumstances, were widely tolerated. In time, however, even these arrangements were formalised, and out of this there arose an entirely novel set of conventions, which encompassed the new, and highly idealised, concept of romantic love. The invention of courtly love gave the Knights and their Ladies a whole new set of diversions on which to spend their time.

The principle theme of le fin amour was that of 'love at a distance', and of the nobility of unfulfilled desire. In its conventions a Knight chose a highborn Lady as the object of his love, whilst her role was to remain haughty, remote and (almost) unattainable. He could only close the gulf between them by pledging eternal devotion, by dedicating his life to her, and by performing deeds of valour. There was little reward for him in all this; the object of all this devotion might not even deign to acknowledge his exertions on her behalf. The knight had to serve without question. These conventions were generally accepted; the senselessness of a Knights devotion was never questioned. Marriage had nothing to do with the matter for either party; rather it was regarded as an obstacle to Noble Love. It was, in fact, quite usual for both the Knight and the Lady to whom he was devoted to have their own marriage partners, but conjugal filiations were not the concern of Gallantry, extra-marital relationships were more highly regarded.

What had happened was that the chivalric oath towards the protection of women and the weak had been recast as the protection of one woman in particular. But it went further than this. The roles that were adopted in the game of courtly love had a resonance with other aspects of feudal life, especially with the religious. The self-denying (or self-abasing) prostration at the feet of the loved one was clearly connected with the sort of masochistic attitudes that were held by medieval penitents and ascetics. 'Lady' worship had much of the intensity of the more extreme forms of religious devotion of those times, and it was therefore appropriate that it should be as difficult and painful a process. The relationship had also taken on something of the pact between the feudal Lord and his vassals, but with the terms of submission reversed. The Lady was now the Lord, and the Knight her obedient servant. He was obligated to serve without question, much as a vassal was obliged to be completely loyal to his Lord. In other words le fin amour was a 'feudalisation of Love'.

The process of dedication began with the Knightly lover selecting the object of his devotion from the Ladies of the court. If she accepted his advances he would declare his loyalty and promise to carry out her every command, even to the death. A Knight could only have one Love, but a Lady might inspire several adorers, and her husband (for she was invariably married) was expected to acquiesce in this arrangement. The Knights dedication often took the form of a ritual in which the he placed his hands between the Lady's and gave a pledge of fealty (rather similar to that which he gave to his Liege Lord). From this moment his life, particularly that part of it concerned with warfare and the tournament, had a new purpose. Fighting was not now done for its own sake, but for the love of a Lady (or at least in her name). When he vanquished an opponent in a joust he would present his opponents horse and armour to his Lady. Occasionally, to demonstrate his valour, he might give himself a handicap, by omitting a particular piece of armour that would leave an arm or leg exposed. Some Knights wore eye-patches to make things more difficult for themselves; others went so far as to shackle an arm and a leg together with chains. There is even a record of a Knight facing a fully armoured opponent wearing no protection other than his Lady's shift (apparently he came off very badly in the encounter).

By convention the Lady usually affected complete indifference to these antics, or indeed to any of her lover's attentions, a posture that was calculated to keep him in a state of exquisite suspense. Her complete lack of concern was to be matched by his completely selfless devotion (it was regarded as particularly commendable if a knight never actually managed to address his Lover). When his devotions were eventually acknowledged she might bestow some small token, such as a ribbon, veil or glove as her faveur (favour). This would then be proudly used to decorate his helmet or lance. The faveur would act as a talisman and be taken into all his contests, both in the jousts and in real battles. Naturally, not all of the Ladies were as indifferent to the attention paid to them as convention decreed. In fact the tournaments were immensely popular events with both sexes, the more so for the Ladies if 'their' knight was involved. When, in the violent clashes, their faveurs might fall to the ground the Ladies were very likely to throw some other item of clothing. There were occasions when their enthusiasm was such that it overcame their modesty and they were left half naked at the end of the contest.

If the Knight was unlucky enough to have picked a Lady with a sadistic streak (and there were many recorded instances of this), he might be subjected to all manner of cruel 'tests' or ridiculous ordeals. One Lady demanded of her Knight that he should stab himself in the arm as proof of his love for her, another was told to retrieve a glove that was thrown from a bridge into a swollen river. It was required of one love-lorn suitor that he send his lady a poem - which was to be accompanied by a torn-off fingernail. The abject Knights usually complied with these tests of their ardour. For those who were deeply disappointed in these games of Noble Love there were special spiritual orders of knighthood for the purpose.

But such casualties were comparatively rare. In general the system of courtly love must have been a serviceable one because it endured for some two hundred years (to the end of the era of the mounted warrior in fact). There is little doubt either that it exerted a refining influence on medieval gender relations, countering both the misogynistic attitudes of the Church and the warrior brutalism of earlier feudal life. Most of our knowledge of its customs and usage derive from the poems of the Troubadours, the poets of love, who were at the same time contributors and the products of this medieval idealisation of sexual love. The Troubadour 'movement' (if we may call it that) originated in southern France at the end of the 11th century (taking much of its inspiration from the civilising influence of Islamic Spain), and it introduced a quite novel appreciation of the role of the feminine. All of their poems or songs were dedicated to women, and all were concerned with love.

The vogue for le fin amour rapidly spread northwards to the rest of France and eastwards to the German-speaking lands. Wherever its influence was felt Knights dedicated their lives to the service of their chosen mistresses, who would retain a posture of indifference, in the prescribed manner. But as it left the warmth of the Mediterranean, the nature of courtly love subtly changed. It gradually became a more serious business. The progressive stages of a love affair came to be formulated, with the emotions appropriate to each step carefully designated (departure from which was regarded as a gross discourtesy). The degree of 'heartlessness' of the Lady, and of the 'despair' of the lover came to be prescribed, as were the number of faveurs and the intervals at which they might be granted. Eventually the 'codes of love' became as rigid as the rules of medieval etiquette. They became the subject of learned treatises, upon which expert authorities in the matter of love would debate various fine points of detail, in much the same way that the scholastics would argue fine points of religious doctrine. As result le fin amour gradually degenerated into a decorous, courtly charade - and in the process completely lost its mystique.

Nevertheless the cult of noble love continued to be taken very seriously well into the 13th century, nowhere more so than in the German-speaking world. Here the troubadours became minnesingers, and le fin amour became Frauendienst (Lady-service), and there was now a heavier, somewhat melancholy edge to the whole business of gallantry. There had always been an element of a fervid, almost religious devotion, but the institution of 'service to women' was now in danger of becoming a parody of itself. Indeed by the middle of the century the behaviour of many Knights was veering dangerously close to the ludicrous. The cult of Noble Love was in serious decline by this time and had become an increasingly frivolous courtly exercise. A new fashion for 'Courts of Love' appeared in which the 'service of women' was the main topic, but these were, in reality, little more aristocratic debating clubs. Ostensibly they existed for the 'settling of disputes' in matters relating to the amorous code, but in practice they were more concerned with the organisation of competitions for ballads and festivals. Le fin amour had declined into an insipid formalism; the cult was reduced to a fashion.

Pretty soon it was even to lose its aristocratic status. In the later medieval period, with the rise of the mercantile classes, feudalism itself came under threat. In time the richer Burghers were admitted to the Courts, and they began to imitate the nobility by instituting their own love-poetry competitions. The fashion for Romantic Love had begun its descent through the ranks. In this way its values were diluted, but were also diffused throughout society - exerting an enduring influence on Western sexual mores.