Hermann J. Weigand (essay date 1956)
SOURCE: “Andreas Capellanus,” in Three Chapters on Courtly Love in Arthurian France and Germany, The University of North Carolina Press, 1956, pp. 18-25.
[In the following excerpt, Weigand explains how, in De Amore, religious proscriptions against sex yield to the seductive ways of sensual love.]
The Latin treatise,1 composed at the end of the 12th century, is the work of Andreas, a cleric, who refers to himself as the French royal chaplain. Inner evidence shows that he set himself the task of systematizing the conception of Courtly Love championed by Countess Marie of Champagne and her mother, Queen Eleanor. The treatise—some 200 pages in length—takes the form of a letter to his friend Walter, at whose importunings Andreas, putting on a show of reluctance, proceeds to instruct him in all matters concerning love. He goes about his task systematically, beginning with a definition of love and following it up with some further preliminaries. Andreas clearly has a three-part scheme in mind: 1) How to acquire love. 2) How to retain love. 3) Why love should be rejected. But the book did not work out fully according to plan. It spends most of its creative impulse on the first topic, how to acquire love. On the second, how to retain love, Andreas has very little to say. He soon runs out of material and turns to other highly interesting matters which would have called for a major caption, had he not been under the compulsion of a set scheme. This second division really deals with the casuistry of love. It presents 18 specific cases of issues arising in lovers' relations. Here the judgment of experts on the rules of love is invoked—great ladies, such as Marie of Champagne and her mother. And it concludes with a story in which a knight of Britain, after many adventures concerning the quest of a sparrowhawk, obtains a parchment on which the laws of love are written—31 in number—as divulged by the mouth of the God of love in person for the guidance of all true lovers. The third division, why love should be rejected, represents a total, most surprising about-face on the chaplain's part: contradicting everything that has been said in the first five-sixths of his treatise about the excellence of love, he assembles all the arguments that have ever been urged against the cultivation of the passion—religious, social, utilitarian, hygienic. And he ends up with a diatribe on women which ascribes to them—to all of them, without exception—all the vices recorded in his catalog. This satire on women (already a theme of classical antiquity) is an early instance of a genre that was to become a very popular vehicle of literary expression in the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance.2 As regards Andreas, the very inferior quality of his satire would seem to show that he felt under obligation to pay some kind of lip service to the Christian code which as a cleric he was in duty bound to represent. His real interest lay in the exposition of the gallant passion in all its aspects. But as to his convictions, his set of values, the net effect of his book is to show an author who wears a mask, and we look in vain for a face behind it.
Disregarding the third part, we have in Andreas' book a manual of courtship and an exposition of the rules that govern the courtly lover's behavior. Love is extolled as the most ennobling of passions and the most exciting and hazardous of sports. The pursuit of love is an arduous service, a military service in a company of which the God of Love, Amor, is acknowledged supreme ruler. The whole conception of love is patterned on the Christian model, as its para-religious counterpart. For the realm of love has not only its God, but also its heaven, its purgatory and its hell in the afterworld. Their existence is vouched for by a detailed vision in which the constant are shown as dwelling in all manner of delight, the promiscuous as plagued by extremes of temperature and the mad press of confusion, and those who refused to enlist in the service of love as subject to cruelest torture in the life after death. (These unfortunates—beautiful women all of them—are seated on great rolls of thorns that are manipulated by savage attendants). Thus we see that the whole scheme is conceived in terms of the Christian set-up, as a parody of its scheme, but there is no overt humor to show it as a product of make-believe fancy.
The vision concerns the fate of women and is reported by a man. The whole book is written from the man's point of view and mentions the emotional experiences of women only incidentally—this quite in contrast to courtly romance, which delights in the infinite elaboration of the whole phenomenology of love, including all the symptoms of a nascent passion in both the sexes. Our author's chief concern is to instruct his reader, a man, in the ways of winning a woman on whom he has set his heart. There are three major, honest, ways by which a man can win the response of a virtuous woman—a fine physique, manly virtuous deportment, and fluency and elegance of speech. To the first and second of these our author pays homage, but it is the last which he sets out to teach. Given a bright young man, it should not be too difficult for him to learn the line of approach most likely to lead to the accomplishment of his desires. Medieval society being a class society, the approach must vary depending upon the social status of the solicitant and that of the lady. In both sexes three distinct classes are recognized as fit to concern themselves with the affairs of love: the middle class, the gentry, and the nobility. In the case of the male sex the cleric, because of his high office, ranks with the nobility.
Andreas casts his instructions in these matters in the form of a manual consisting of eight dialogues, in which men representing the three classes (and including the cleric) address themselves in each case to a woman of different social status. To exhaust all the possibilities of social degree there should have been nine, but the dialogue containing the line to be taken by a man of the gentry to a lady of the high nobility is omitted. These are schematic dialogues in which the conversation may take a different turn, depending on the age, physique, and affluence of the solicitant and the status of the lady as married, widowed, or virgin, and wealthy or indigent. In all cases, of course, the appeal of the lady resides in her beauty as well as in her virtue, and the man always represents himself as highly deserving of the requital of his passion on the ground of his virtue. Thus the dialogues, after the preliminary exchange of duly graded compliments, develop into a give and take of argument and persuasion. They are spirited rhetorical exercises that tax the aggressor's ingenuity, and they end with varying success for the male. For apart from the fact that women, too, develop a great deal of ingenuity in this sparring and do not always concede defeat in these debates, it would run counter to the courtly code for the male to win a complete and easy victory at the first assault. The fortress must be skillfully defended, and complete victory according to the code must be preceded by a long period of probation. There are four clearly marked stages in the attainment of a lady's favor: the granting of hope, the yielding of a kiss, the embrace or touch of each other's nude bodies, and complete possession. It is understood that the lady, after yielding the first three degrees of her favor, may always withdraw (for good reason) without conceding the most intimate enjoyment of her person.
Three things strike us as peculiar about the courtly code here unfolded: First, there is an axiomatic presupposition that love is a passion of supremely ennobling effect upon its devotee. The knight is propelled—impelled would be too weak a term—to all exhibitions of virtue by the glow infused by his lady. Feats of superhuman courage, acts of largess to solicitants, of generosity to the vanquished, are all owing to her inspiring grace. “Amor omnium fons et origo bonorum”—love is the fountainhead and source of all good things (68),3 this is the axiom, ever repeated and developed by variation, throughout Andreas' book. Courtly romance, of course, is founded on the same principle. And who would deny that it has entirely lost its efficacy today, inasmuch as we are still poised on the brink of that...
(The entire section is 3457 words.)