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Reflections on Love and Marriage in Medieval Literature

Marina Barenboym

"If we are to believe the poets, love and marriage exist in a state of conflict: love exists outside marriage, or ceases when marriage begins, or enters marriage only to destroy it." (Lerner 1) This is the opening sentence of Love and Marriage—Literature and its Social Context, a book by L. Lerner; it is also the sentence I disagree with. From my readings of Tristan and Isolt, selected stories from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and "Sir Orfeo," I formed the following opinion: even though the way we approach marriage today differs greatly from the medieval way, love still remains a universal part of people’s lives. Similarly, today, just like five hundred years ago, couples encounter many of the same fundamental "woes" of marriage, as the Wife of Bath calls them. I believe, that if we consider this attitude towards love and reflect on marriage and the way it is portrayed by medieval literature, then the similarity with today’s attitudes will become obvious.

Medieval literature presents an array of love situations. I will discuss three basic cases: marriage with no love, where love exists outside of marriage; love after marriage, a rare but possible result of prearranged unions; and, finally, the ideal situation people always strive for, love within marriage. As we will shortly see, all three cases are present in medieval literature, contrary to the assertion that love and marriage are always in conflict in literature. Literature reflects life, and insofar as the subject of love matters, life has not changed much in the last five centuries.

Tristan and Isolt is one of the greatest love stories of all time. Not surprisingly, the love it glorifies occurs outside of marriage. The attitude of women towards love in the twelfth century is similar to the view of Andreas Capellanus, who, in his treatise The Art of Courtly Love writes of the rules of love:

We declare and hold as firmly established that love cannot exert its powers between two people who are married to each other. For lovers give each other everything freely, under no compulsion of necessity, but married people are in duty bound to give in to each other's desires and deny themselves to each other in nothing. (

In fact, almost all marriages described in this particular love legend are lacking something. In the very beginning, one exception is described, the perfect union of Rivalin and Blanchefleur: "And as the young knight thought upon her words, how she spake, and how she looked, love was kindled in his heart too, and though no word passed between them, yet their eyes told the tale, and each knew that they loved the other more and more as the days went on." (Gottfried 95) However, we are not told what accounts for this happiness—the true disposition of the two lovers towards each other or the short while they were given to enjoy living together: "And for a time they were happy in each other’s love." (Gottfried 97) How long this "time" was we are not told but we are given reason to believe that it was not extensively lengthy. When Blanchefleur gives birth to Tristan, Rivalin is already dead, and she herself follows her secretly-wedded husband shortly after.

Another marriage to set against the romance of the perfect but tragic lovers is that of Tristan’s guardian, Rual. His wife is so briefly mentioned that we cannot form a clear opinion of this marriage. Even though Rual is a minor character, it is interesting to note that the love he bears for Tristan exceeds his love for his wife and three sons. It enables Rual to go and look for Tristan when the boy has been kidnapped by pirates. It seems that loyalty of servants to lords, at the time, was more valued than their loyalty to wives and families. This was probably the preferred approach to the definition of love back then, namely, that it cannot be applied equally to people of different social ranks. I doubt that human feelings differ according to such a division. However, even though the strength of love does not depend on the social status of a person, his/her loyalty does. It was socially accepted in the twelfth century for a servant to behave in the way Rual did not because he loved his wife and family less than any other person of a more noble birth might have loved his/hers, but because the relationship to the lord was more valued in that culture than the family ties.

Of vital importance to the plot of the story is the marriage of King Mark and Isolt. It is a perfect example of prearranged marriages, which were so common during the Middle Ages. Mark’s character invokes most ambiguity in this legend. One cannot help but pity this rejected lover who is desperately and hopelessly in love with his wife. When Mark discovers Tristan and Isolt lying with a naked sword between them, he persuades himself of their innocence: "’Tis the blindness of love that will close its eyes to that which it would not see." (Gottfried 217) The King cannot find peace in life; a pitiful figure, he wavers between the bitter truth and the comfort of illusion. His marriage follows some of the rules set by Andreas Capellanus. For example, the first rule provides a perfect description of the situation: "Marriage is no real excuse for not loving." This statement, if generally accepted, would surely simplify Isolt’s life.

The modern reader can only guess but will never find out what would have happened if Tristan and Isolt had not drunk the love potion. Would Isolt love Mark just as she loves Tristan if the potion was used in the originally intended way? The story, of course, would not be the same. But what about the nature of love? Is the love potion the only reason Tristan and Isolt love each other? To answer this question, we have to look further into the relationship between the two lovers.

The mysticism of love is one of the main themes of the legend. The crux of the story is the famous scene where Tristan and Isolt drink the love potion, thinking it is common wine. Does this drink merely confirm a love already begun, or is it the sole source of passion? Richard Barber, in his book The Arthurian Legend, writes: "Those who understand love’s true power will see the potion merely as surrogate of love’s power, a symbol of its workings." (Barber 75) I agree with this interpretation.

Tristan and Isolt’s love raises their relationship above the everyday ways of the world. They cannot be judged by the common standards but are subject to the laws set by fidelity and love’s ideals. The conflict and tension they experience result from the clash between their social responsibilities and private wishes. Passion is the word to describe the force that binds these two together. Denis de Rougemont gives an interesting definition of passion in one of his essays on the myths of love: "Passion is that form of love which refuses the immediate, avoids dealing with what is near, and if necessary invents distance in order to realize and exalt itself more completely." (Rougemont 41) This quotation raises a well-known question: Does distance create love or does love lead to distance? In the story Tristan and Isolt, love leads to physical distance. This separation only increases the passion of the lovers.

Tristan and Isolt are equal in their love; both of them are servants of this higher feeling. Caution becomes impossible once the mystic joys have been tasted. Love becomes all-encompassing. At one point in the story, it even provides the lovers with physical sustenance. The episode in the Love Grotto illustrates the superiority of the emotional part of this relationship over the physical:

Many have marveled wherewith the twain might support their life in this wilderness, but in truth they needed little save each other; the true love and faith they bare the one to the other, such love as kindles the heart and refreshes the soul, that was their best nourishment. They asked but rarely for other than the food which giveth to the heart its desire, to the eyes their delight; therewith had they enough. Gottfried 211

However, love, no matter how strong it is, does not offer complete protection to the heroes of the legend. Its joys are balanced by its sorrows; and the sorrows stem from the lovers’ concern for their reputation. It is the twelfth century, after all, and Isolt is married. After King Mark’s discovery of his wife and nephew asleep together in the Love Grotto and his conviction of their innocence, they return to court. Their social roles demand this sacrifice in the name of God and society. Lovers cannot live forever in an isolated world. This point of view is emphasized by the unreal description of the Love Grotto and by the fact that no matter how much Tristan and Isolt earnestly sought for means to be together, when they found them, "’twas but to their sorrow and bitter grief." (Gottfried 219)

Tristan marries Isolt of the White Hand because of her beauty and name. Neither of these is a sufficient reason to betray Tristan’s true love; but the circumstances impell this kind of action from Tristan. However, the marriage is never consummated, even though the bride loves and longs for Tristan. Her bitterness transforms her into Tristan’s worst enemy, and eventually, causes his death. Even though Tristan succeeds in marrying another woman, he is forced to remain physically loyal to Isolt the Fair by a higher force that we know nothing about, which could be his conscience. Tristan’s uncertainty about whether he should sleep with his bride sounds as pathetic as Mark’s uncertainty over whether he should believe the lovers’ innocence. Thus, we have yet another example of an unhappy marriage, where love exists outside of marriage. It is love then and not marriage which has all the dignity in this story.

The fourteenth-century stories of "The Wife of Bath’s Tale" from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale and "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell" exemplify another situation concerning love and marriage. As we know, most marriages during the Middle Ages were arranged with certain considerations in mind, usually very far removed from those of love. It was rare, but not completely impossible, for love to develop in such unions. Many values of medieval society differ greatly from the ones we believe in today. For example, Sir Gawain in the story of "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell" marries the old hag without any remorse just to be of help to his lord, King Arthur. Knightly honor, obviously, means much more to Sir Gawain than the bypassed opportunity of marrying a woman he would really fall in love with. Fortunately for Sir Gawain, his marriage turns out to be one of those rare exceptions in which the husband and wife do fall in love with each other, not before but after they are married. Such cases are rare because they contradict the human nature. As Franklin says in "The Franklin’s Tale," women, as well as men, are free by nature:

Love is a thing as any spirit free;
Wommen of kinde desiren libertee,
And nat to been constrained as a thral—
And so doon men, if I sooth sayen shal. lines 95-98

In a prearranged or forced marriage, the free will of a man and/or a woman is constrained. What saves the knight in "The Wife of Bath’s Tale" and Sir Gawain in "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell" is the miraculous transformation of the old hag into a lovely lady. As we find at the end of the story, Sir Gawain lives happily with his wife for five blissful years:

She livid with Sir Gawen but yeris five;
That Grevid Gawen alle his life,
I telle you securly.
In her life she grevid him nevere;
Therfor was nevere woman to him lever. lines 820-824

The five marriages of the Wife of Bath present even more radical examples of the universality of love and marriage. Even today, five marriages would be deemed by society as extreme. But, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there is Dame Alice who has not only been married five times but is looking for the sixth husband. Her open-mindedness, which can be considered excessive by some people even in today’s radical word full of changes, must have been shocking to the fourteenth-century reader.

Dame Alice’s first three marriages follow the rationale of this worldly woman. She marries husbands who are rich and old for reasons other than love, but she learns to enjoy living with all of them as time goes by. Indeed, the definition of love for Wife of Bath is very different from the one we encounter in traditional medieval love literature. It is not as demanding in the sense of sacrifices, such as separations, and suffering. All she wants is a man good in bed and one who yields to her rule. Since most of her husbands qualify according to these criteria, Dame Alice achieves her own kind of love in marriage.

Finally, there is the best of all worlds—love in marriage. Today, most people expect to love and be loved in return in the present as well as in the future before they make a commitment and get married. The fact that this ideal situation is hard to achieve is evident from the number of divorces many marriages result in. On the other hand, in the fourteenth century love was not a necessary component of a successful marriage. Other considerations preoccupied people’s minds, such as the size of the bride’s dowry and/or the noble births of man and wife. That is why rules promoting love outside of marriage, such as those set by Andreas Capellanus, were so common. However, the nature of true love was stronger than any obstacles, rules, or socially-accepted values. It is still just as strong. Love is a rare gift, but those who have received it, must treasure it throughout their lives. That is why true love can exist in marriage, no matter what century the lovers live in.

The two literary works that describe perfect unions, blessed by love in marriage, are "The Franklin’s Tale," by Geoffrey Chaucer, and "Sir Orfeo," by an anonymous poet. In the "Franklin’s Tale," the storyteller informs us right at the beginning of his tale that love is free and does not tolerate any constraints:

Love wol nat be constrained by maistrye;
Whan maistrye comth, the God of Love anoon
Beteth his winges and farewell, he is goon!
Love is a thing as any spirit free. lines 92-95

Arveragus, a noble knight, falls in love with the "loveliest lady under sun," Dorigen. Even though Dorigen does not love Arveragus in the beginning, in the end she sees his worthiness and feels such pity for the pains he suffers that she agrees to be his wife. In marriage, Dorigen "loveth hir housbonde as hir hertes lif," and she knows she is loved in return. Even though she has an opportunity to have an affair according to the rules of courtly love with a very handsome Aurelius who has been in love with her for more than two years, she remains true to her husband. When all the misunderstandings between these two have been cleared, Dorigen returns home to Arveragus and lives happily with him ever after:

Arveragus and Dorigen his wif
In soverein blisse leden forth hir lif.
Never eft ne was ther angre hem bitweene:
He cherisseth hire as though she were a queene,
And she was to him trewe for evermore. lines 879-883

In another medieval poem "Sir Orfeo," the perfect marriage of Sir Orfeo and queen Herodis is portrayed. These two also love each other with great strength, and, therefore, their marriage is full of affection and dedication. When misfortune befalls Dame Herodis, her husband almost goes mad with anxiety. He calls her "o lef lif," the love of my life, and even though she says:

Allas, my lord, Sir Orfeo!
Sethen we first togider were,
Ones wroth never we nere;
Bot ever ich have y-loved thee
As my lif, and so thou me.
Ac now we mot delen atwo.
Do thy best, for I mot go! (lines 96-102)

he replies: " Whider thou gost, ichill with thee,/ And whider I go, thou shalt with me." These words echo the famous lines from the Bible. Ruth, who was not Jewish, decides to follow her husband’s Jewish family and to share their destiny after his death. She said to her mother-in-law, "Wherever your people go, I will follow." Such decision requires an infinite amount of trust and love between the people involved. Later, Sir Orfeo rescues his wife from the underworld governed by fairies using the strength of his love and his divine ability to make music by playing a harp. This story has a happy ending for the couple in love just like "The Franklin’s Tale" does. It is almost as if the lovers are being rewarded for being true to the feeling that is higher and stronger than anything they are able to comprehend. They cannot help but remain loyal to each other. They are being rewarded for all the misfortunes that they have to suffer, especially the pains of parting.

The various medieval works of literature discussed in this paper provide insight into some values prevalent in the Middle Ages. People’s attitudes toward love have not changed drastically through the ages. We are led to believe that five hundred years ago, just like today, love was not the only consideration for certain people. Some, like Tristan and Isolt, Sir Orfeo and Dame Herodis, Arveragus and Dorigen treasure and cherish it; others, like the Wife of Bath and Sir Gawain appreciate sovereignty, honor, loyalty, and other values more than loving for its own sake.

Literature reflects many aspects of life. Love is no exception to this generalization. Therefore, it is not fair to say that love and marriage exist in a constant state of conflict in literature. Rather, love should be viewed as a fundamental feeling present in all times, so that its universality and human appeal can be better understood.

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