Controversy about the extent of the sexuality in courtly love  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
courtly love, sexual morality, medieval morals

A point of ongoing controversy about courtly love is to what extent it was sexual. All courtly love was erotic to some degree—the troubadours speak of the physical beauty of their ladies and the feelings and desires the ladies rouse in them—and not purely platonic; however, it is unclear what a poet should do—live a life of perpetual desire channeling his energies to higher ends, or physically consummate. Scholars have seen it both ways.

Denis de Rougemont in Love in the Western World said that the troubadours were influenced by Cathar doctrines which rejected the pleasures of the flesh and that they were metaphorically addressing the spirit and soul of their ladies. Edmund Reiss claimed it was also a spiritual love, but a love that had more in common with Christian love, or caritas. On the other hand, scholars such as Mosché Lazar claim it was adulterous sexual love with physical possession of the lady the desired end.

Many scholars identify courtly love as the "pure love" described in 1184 by Andreas Capellanus in De amore libri tres:

"It is the pure love which binds together the hearts of two lovers with every feeling of delight. This kind consists in the contemplation of the mind and the affection of the heart; it goes as far as the kiss and the embrace and the modest contact with the nude lover, omitting the final solace, for that is not permitted for those who wish to love purely.... That is called mixed love which gets its effect from every delight of the flesh and culminates in the final act of Venus.

Within the corpus of troubadour poems there is a wide range of attitudes, even across the works of individual poets. Some poems are physically sensual, even bawdily imagining nude embraces, while others are highly spiritual and border on the platonic.

In The Autumn of the Middle Ages, Dutch medieval scholar Johan Huizinga takes the middle ground:

"De werkelijkheid is te allen tijde slechter en ruwer geweest dan het verfijnd litteraire liefdesideaal haar zag, maar ook zuiverder en ingetogener dan de platte erotiek, die veelal als naturalistisch geldt, haar voorstelde. Eustache Deschamps, de brooddichter, pleegt in tal van komische balladen, waarin hij sprekend optreedt, zich tot de liederlijkste gemeenheid te verlagen. Maar hij is niet de werkelijke held van die obscene gevallen, en te midden ervan treft een teer versje, waarin hij zijn dochter op de voortreffelijkheid van haar gestorven moeder wijst.
"Als bron van litteratuur en cultuur moest het gansche epithalamische genre met al zijn uitloopers en vertakkingen steeds op de tweede plaats blijven. Het heeft tot thema de uiterste en volledige bevrediging zelve, het is directe erotiek. Maar datgene, wat tot levensvorm en levensversiering dienen kan, is de indirecte erotiek, die tot thema heeft de mogelijkheid der bevrediging, de belofte, het verlangen, het ontberen, de nadering van het geluk. Hier wordt de opperste bevrediging verschoven in het onuitgesprokene, omhuld met al de lichte sluiers der verwachting. De indirecte erotiek is daardoor alleen reeds van veel langer adem, bedekt een veel wijder levensveld. En zij kent de liefde niet alleen en majeur of met het lachende masker, maar is ook in staat, de smarten der liefde te verwerken tot schoonheid, en heeft daardoor een oneindig hooger levenswaarde. Zij kan in zich opnemen de ethische elementen van de trouw, den moed, de edele zachtmoedigheid, en zich zoodoende verbinden met andere strevingen naar het ideale dan naar dat der liefde alleen."[1]


"Reality at all times has been worse and more brutal than the refined aestheticism of courtesy would have it be, but also more chaste than it is represented to be by the vulgar genre which is wrongly regarded as realism."
It is therefore from an ethnological point of view, as survivals, that we have to regard the mass of obscenities, equivocal sayings and lascivious symbols which we meet in the civilization of the Middle Ages. They were the remains of mysteries that had degenerated into games and amusements. Evidently the people of that epoch did not feel that, in taking pleasure in them, they were infringing the prescriptions of the courtly code ; they felt themselves on different soil where courtesy was not current.
It would be an exaggeration to say that in erotic literature the whole comic genre was derived from the epithalamium. Certainly the indecent tale, the farce and the lascivious song had long formed a genre of their own of which the forms of expression were liable to but little variation. Obscene allegory predominates ; every trade lent itself to this treatment ; the literature of the time abounds in symbolism borrowed from the tournament, the chase or music ; but most popular of all was.,[2] tr. Frederik Jan Hopman (1877-1932)





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