Why historians should read literary scholars

On the trail of the origins of courtly love again, I found a book by a literary scholar which does seem to me to have some very useful things to say to a historian: Gerald A. Bond, The Loving Subject: Desire, Eloquence and Power in Romanesque France. Bond sees the origins of twelfth century love poetry as starting with a literary development which forms a textual subculture. The texts which form this textual community are the works of Ovid, and in particular the emphasis on the use of different personae in the Heroides. Such ideas of impersonation and particularly self-impersonation were taken up by late eleventh century Latin poets, who were clerics but writing about non-religious subjects. Such techniques were then in turn taken up by secular rulers, who either created their own personae (as William IX of Poitiers) or patronised poets to create different images of themselves (as Adela of Blois did).

To Bond the change is therefore a literary development which then is patronised for political reasons. As I read his book, however, I was also conscious of a changed moral position in some of the developments. Bond sees two of the key early figures in the ‘conception of the private secular self’ as Baudri of Bourgueil and Marbod. In his chapter on Baudri, he focuses on the letter-poems and I immediately saw parallels to Alcuin in Baudri’s emphasis on friendship. Yet there’s also a contrast: Baudri in his poems stress that they are intended as play/entertainment and a harmless way for him to fill his spare time. The first poem by Marbod that Bond quotes meanwhile begins:

I usually take my recreation to the sound of the harp,
banishing as often as I want the ennuis of a carefilled life.

This one sings a song about a certain hapless knight
Whose lover mourns because fate has snatched him from her.

At this point, Alcuin (and several other Carolingian moralists) would be having apoplexy. Clerics should not be listening to harpists, let alone harpists singing secular songs. And yet this was already happening in the Carolingian period. How do we know? Because Alcuin, among others, denounced it.

Secular tastes among clerics aren’t new in the eleventh century, then; but what does seem to be new is that such men have the education to put their side of the story. And this, I think, relates partly to the dominant form of tenth/eleventh century clerical education, as discussed by Stephen Jaeger, The envy of angels: cathedral schools and social ideals in medieval Europe, 950-1200. The emphasis. Jaeger says, is on a classical education intended to produce the moral man. (I’m not convinced whether this ideal was entirely new in the tenth century, but that’s a different matter).

Th obvious problem with this is a basic one: despite the repeated claims, from the ancient Greeks to the modern liberal arts curriculum, a literary education doesn’t necessarily make you a morally virtuous person. Whatever Allan Bloom may have canonised, no-one is likely to canonise Allan Bloom. I suspect that the eleventh century educational programme sometimes produced the same unintended, but not unexpected result: men reared on classical, secular literature got a taste for secular pleasures and their literary celebration, but not for the moral uplift they were supposed to imbibe alongside it.

The role of ‘leisure’ is also interesting here. Both Baudri and Marbod feel that they have leisure and that this can be filled with entertainment. Most Carolingian authors, in contrast, come across as short on leisure (because they were devoting themselves to reform and politics) and tend to insist that what spare time one does have should be devoted to uplifting (i.e. Christian) literature. Part of this may be the relative political insignificance of Baudri and Marbod, unlike, say Alcuin, Theodulf or Lupus, who are advisors to kings. (Bond identifies most of Baudri’s correspondents as lower ranking members of the monastic and cathedral schools).

Bond sees such men, probably from non-noble backgrounds, as using their virtuosity and fine feelings to create a community around ‘poetic and amatory gaming’. The use of different personae by the poets, meanwhile, is not only an advanced poetic game, but also a way of avoiding being ‘subjected’, allowing the saying of things that are not ‘one’s own’.(It’s interesting that Baudri and Marbod are both men who are possibly ‘gay’, in John Boswell’s sense, which may have made personae even more appealing).

The second question is why some courts chose to patronise such a literary style. After all, Carolingian rulers patronised court poetry, but not court poetry about love. There’s little to suggest that Charlemagne’s court was much more morally pure than William IX’s, but when the daughters of Charlemagne are described (in the Paderborn epic) it is in images borrowed from an account of virgin martyrs, not from Ovid. The answer, presumably, is that a court takes its tone from its ruler. (Bond shows how Adela seems to have switched her image partway through her reign). As soon as you have rulers who share the Carolingian dynasty’s demand for poetry as prestige object, but not their relentless moral uplift, you are likely to get a different style of court and a different style of court poetry.

Bon’s genealogy of courtly literature seems plausible to me, but I’m not an expert. If anyone has any comments, I’d be interested to hear them. Meanwhile, his book may not have answered all my questions about courtly love, but it does at least give a reasonably coherent answer to why, whether or not Charlemagne’s court was a courtly society, it wasn’t a society of courtly love.

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