More than 70 years ago, Denis de Rougemont, the late Swiss scholar, wrote a fascinating book called Love in the Western World. In it he theorizes that Tantra, which ignited in India some time before 800 C.E. from much older roots, traveled west via the Muslim world under the umbrella of divine passion, or fana (the passing away of the self). Fana was the theme of mystical Arab love poetry and song. It infected the Spanish Moors within a few centuries.
When it crossed the Pyrenees into what is now southern France - in the refrains of wandering minstrels - it encountered a version of Gnosticism, which had migrated westward from Bulgaria, or beyond.
The Mysterious Cathars
The result was the wildly popular, doomed, and surprisingly influential Cathar movement - which ultimately gave rise to chivalry, or courtly love. The Cathars were passionate purists who regarded themselves as the true Christians. They believed in the "Good God," and claimed that their principles predated those of the Catholics (who believed in the "other" God, who had imprisoned mankind in matter). Cathars did not kill, were vegetarian, and chaste. The Divine Feminine (the Lady, or Sophia, Queen of Heaven) was a key figure in their cosmology, and women could be clerics in their order.
Unlike the Catholics they did not favor physical procreation, choosing instead to place their focus on their spiritual lives beyond the material world. One of the Cathars’ basic beliefs was that 'true love' was not the ordinary human love between husband and wife but rather the worship of a feminine savior (the Lady), a mediator between God and man, who waited in the sky to welcome the pure with a holy kiss and lead them into the Realm of Light. By contrast with this pure love, ordinary human sexuality and marriage were bestial and unspiritual. Cathars believed that the love of man and woman should be an earthly allegory of their spiritual love for the Queen of Heaven.
The word "cathar" means "pure" in Greek, and that is how the Cathars are remembered. Their very purity ultimately drove the Church to tighten up on many lax practices, like priests’ openly keeping mistresses - a common practice in those times. The impassioned purity of the Cathars also indirectly inspired the Reformation and the Quaker movement. Widespread admiration for the Cathars - amid the rampant corruption of the Church - swelled Cathar ranks.
Their growing influence throughout French Provence triggered a hideous crusade by the Catholics. Between 1000 and 1200 C.E the Church burned alive or otherwise brutally murdered 500,000 suspected Cathars - including whole towns, right down to the infants. Guillaume Belibaste, the last Cathar recorded to have burned at the stake in 1321, a victim of the Inquisition, is said to have prophesied that "at the end of seven hundred years the laurel would turn green again." Does that mean the the principles of Catharism, or "the true Christianity," would once again come to the world's attention?
The Rise of Courtly Love
Persecution sent the movement underground and into decline, but the troubadours of Provence spread elements of it throughout Europe under the guise of cortezia, the courtly love tradition. As a troubadour sang impassioned songs to his Lady pledging willing submission, those in the know would have recognized them as hymns venerating the Divine Feminine revered by the Cathars. Not surprisingly, Madonna worship rapidly increased during this period.
Just as in India where Tantra was waxing, higher love was in the air in Europe. Courtly love had echoes of tantric practice (more below). The mystical Jewish Kabbalah has also been traced to 12th century Provence. Also around the same time, a venerated Sufi scholar, who wrote about the spiritual power in the union of male and female, Ibn al-`Arabi, was born in Spain in 1165.
Contemplation of the Reality without formal support is not possible. . . . Since, therefore, some form of support is necessary, the best and most perfect kind is the contemplation of God in woman. The greatest union is that between man and woman. Ibn al-`Arabi ‘Bezels of Wisdom’
The European version, courtly love, covered a wide array of practices. As it freed itself from its Cathar and distant Tantric roots, it transformed from an underground religious movement into a code of manners for the upper classes known as chivalry. Once a radical change in mores, the code of chivalry now lingers in such mundane routines as men holding doors for women or rising when a woman enters the room. De Rougemont and other scholars also trace the Western desire for an all-consuming passionate romance to chivalry.
Chivalry had elements of sacred sex, whether from Cathar practices (via the earliest Gnostics) or from echoes of Tantra (via the Moors). Knights would pledge themselves to ladies with whom they would (in theory at least) never have procreative sex. Often they chose unavailable lovers, i.e., married women. By sublimating their unrequited passions, knights gained the energy for various spiritual and physical quests. They were rewarded with favors, which seem to have ranged from smiles, tokens, and kisses to sleeping together in the nude and even intercourse without ejaculation. The code of chivalry greatly prized this refined love. One of the maxims of chivalry was E d'amor mou castitaz (from love comes chastity).
The midieval work De Amore by Andreas Capellanus contains many veiled references to sexual self-control. Here's a section:
Car en cest monde puet avoir
Double amour, ce dois tu savoir
La premiere est pure apelee
Et la seconde amour mellee.
Cil qui s’entraiment d’amour pure
Dou delit de la char n’ont cure
Ains wellent sanz plus acoler
Et baisier sanz outre couler.
Et tele amour est vertueuse,
Ne n’est a son proime greveuse.
De tele amour vient grant proece
Et Diex gaires ne s’en courece.
Et tele amour puet maintenir,
Sans li por grevee tenir,
Pucele et fame mariee,
Et nonnain a Dieu dediee
English translation: For in this world there may exist a double form of love, and this you must know. The first is called ‘pure love’ and the second ‘mixed love’. Those who share ‘pure love’ pay no heed to the work of the flesh but want merely to embrace and to kiss each other without going any further. And such a form of love is virtuous and is not harmful to one’s neighbour. From such a form of love springs great prowess and God is hardly angered at it. And such a form of love can be practised, without the woman feeling afflicted, by virgin and married woman, and nun devoted to God.
Scholars Danielle Jacquart, Claude Thomasset and Matthew Adamson then add:
We have deliberately given a literal translation. There is another way of understanding the line ‘Et baisier sanz outre couler’: one can, of course, read ‘Make love without ejaculating’ or more exactly ‘without shedding anything more than the secretion of the prostatic humour’. In the line ‘Ne n’est a son proime greveuse’, the adjective greveuse has been interpreted as meaning ‘harmful’, but it must have the meaning ‘capable of causing pregnancy’. ‘Being pregnant’ is a well-known meaning of the past participle. It can now easily be understood why virgins, married women and nuns can indulge in this form of love without considering themselves to be ‘grevée’ — harmed, or made pregnant. The meaning of this passage appears to us to be most explicit. (emphasis added). [See excerpt from Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages]
The scholars, got it right, but didn't seem to understand the significance of their alternative interpretation.
A Knight in Modern Amour
My friend RJ, a modern-day adherent of chivalry, describes its principles and benefits as follows:
Donnoi was the courtly love designation for an acknowledged relationship between a man and woman. Donnoi involved a marriage-like ceremony with the gift of a ring (to the man).
In the poetry and romances inspired by this relationship we see the idea of love as a requisite to bonding. This is the beginning of woman's liberation in the western world - at least of her heart and body, though not directly of her economic and political status. The relationship had certain rules, similar to the vows exchanged during a wedding ceremony. The knight pledged certain things to the lady. He was expected to woo, or pursue, her, which is the source of our modern courtship behavior.
It evolved into such courtesies and gallantries as opening doors, writing poetry, observing formal manners, and asking for a lady's hand on bended knee. Women were treated with honor, not as property. The knight pledged always to be passionate. She controlled his "virtue," that is, whether or not ejaculatory release was permitted. He underwent ritual testing to see if he had the discipline of restraint necessary to love. The woman was not required absolutely to forego her own pleasure, but she could veto the advances of the man at any stage of their dalliance.
Women sought a man of passion, but with self-control and the ability to be unselfish. (Remember when men used to say that they respected a woman who said 'no'?) Under the rules of courtly love, the woman "gentled" the man and used his passion to create their bond. As an aside, I suspect that bonding is a natural male biological response to delayed gratification. Women have used it for ages when in the presence of "husband material." If the knight passed his tests and the lady accepted him as her lover, he pledged obedience to her rule in the realm of love.
Such obedience today sounds like the man was in a submissive role. He was, but do not confuse this submission with dominatrix fetishism. By submitting, the man was acknowledging the error that man should be in control of the woman, including her sexuality. Chivalry freed the woman to assert herself in the realm of love, assuring her satisfaction. She set the pace and the mood, directing or redirecting the man's attention as he deferred to her.
Unfortunately, the romance of courtly love failed to translate into the common marriage. It found expression mostly in love triangles that created unrequited love. [dopamine cravings?] However at least one author, Chretien deTroys, played with the idea of incorporating the courtly ideals within the matrimonial bond, influencing the thought of others that would follow.
Beyond her authority as queen in love’s realm, the lady did not rule over her knight’s conduct. True, she might help perfect him by challenging him to hone his fighting skills in tournaments, or humble his ego by asking him to lose a match, or dress in rags, if he was proud or haughty.
Knights also had safeguards. He expected to be treated with dignity. If he felt she was abusing her power he had the right of defi, the right and obligation to defy her under chivalry. Sometimes such disagreements came before a "court of love," where women sat as judges and debated the ethics of behaviors.
Also a knight's obedience was offered subject to mezura. Mezura meant both temperance and moderation. He was not expected to be passive in love, waiting on her every word. (A man's perennial hope is that "no" means "later.") After his trials, or tests, the knight could expect a bit more mercy from his lady in regard to his testosterone driven, biological urges. Yet perfect chastity was the spiritual ideal.
The relationship was fundamentally Tantric in sexual expression. Tantra is now sometimes confused with some practice of sexual athleticism, but originally it was a means of spiritual connection and sustained intimacy. Interestingly, men seem to have provided the original courtly love inspiration - which women refined later in the courts of love. Men were seeking their own liberation - probably for spiritual reasons, influenced by the monks and the heretical cults steeped in older Gnostic traditions (Cathars).
Spiritual quests fill the literature of courtly love, the search for the Holy Grail being one theme. For me, the era of courtly love was a grand, noble politico-religious, sacred and erotic mystery play. I think it has relevance for men and women today as they seek to form new relationship paradigms. Some troubadours insisted that donnoi was the way of love consistent with nature. As I look at ancient history, socio-biology, and "alternative" relationships, I see courtly love as embodying most clearly and fully an archetype that will not die and is seeking rebirth.
Those desiring to discuss courtly love can contact RJ at 'courtlymeATyahoo.com'