‘The Medieval Woman in the Western World’ – meeting report

We’d like to say thank you to Marco Prost for his talk on the medieval woman and the western world. It took us on a journey of 12th century adventure – battles, romance, jealousy, adultery and death! What was particularly striking were the parallels that Marco drew between tropes in contemporary romance stories and the lyric poetry of the Troubadours who portrayed courtly love in the 12th century. Marco quoted a poem by  Bernart de Ventadorn (Tant ai mo cor ple de joya) and handed us an extract from André le Chapelain so-called Art of Courtly Love (De Amore). In the latter, le Chapelain examines a variety of 12th century stories about courtly love and draws up a set up rules which he believes underlined them. Rules include ‘He who is not jealous cannot love’ and ‘He whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little’.

Marco informed us that the ‘femme fatale’ figure can also be traced back through time and is present in the myth of Tristan and Iseult. With a jovial expression, Marco added that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette was not at all original – Iseult commits suicide at the sight of a dying Tristan. Such love was viewed by romance writers as the ‘perfect’ love and referred to as ‘amour fine’. A 12th century author, Marie de France, who is known for her ‘lais’ (short stories)  explained that perfect love must always end in death.

Another very pertinent part of Marco’s talk was his discussion of consent in 12th century texts. Indeed, ‘consent’ is a rather modern term to use. However, Marco explained that there did appear to be an element of choice for the women depicted in stories such as Tristan and Iseult as the male character desires for the love to be mutual and waits for the woman’s approval before acting. He quoted a lovely line (in translation) from Bernart de Ventadorn’s poem: ‘She holds me in balance like a ship on the wives’, which refers to the male protagonist’s agonising wait for his lover to submit to his desires. Marco subsequently problematised this idea by discussing the prevailing elements of misogyny in 12th century narratives (such as the woman having little time to make a decision). At the time of these writings, marriage was not an act of love but an alliance, and therefore women had little say in choosing their husband. Marco acknowledged that these romances of courtly love were an inversion of the political reality of the time. Nevertheless, this idea of consent reflected the changing attitude of the church. In the 12th century the church started to recognise the wedding ceremony as a sacrament and therefore insisted that the will of both parties was considered.

Thanks again to Marco and everyone who attended, we are back next week with a history talk on mixed race relationships and women’s magazines in 1950s Britain (13th March, 4-5pm, HumSS280).





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