Polemical Introduction to “The Troubadours & the Beloved” Essays



As stated at the opening of the program last week, the Gypsy Scholar is one of those people who, if they’re going to recognize any of our holidays at all, want to go past the habitual superficiality and commercialization and look for a deeper meaning and significance. But with the highly commercialized and, as far as our main holidays go, light-weight Valentine’s Day, it’s a little bit more difficult to find a deeper meaning other than the saccharine hearts-and-flowers ambiance with which we’re so familiar; a day that seems merely a commercial excuse to perpetuate the most sentimentalized aspects of the reality of romantic love—or should I say, in anticipation of its critics, the “illusion” of romantic love. As I said in my opening essay on Romantic Love last week: Surely, on a popular level, we all take “romantic love” for granted in our modern courtship rituals, our hearts-and-flowers Valentine’s Day observances, and even in our penchant for the “romantic comedies” that draw us to the cinema for romance by proxy.  And, certainly, again, there are those who are so tired of all of this that they would like to forget about it entirely.  Thus for many couples Valentine’s Day amounts to a dinner, a movie, and a good lay.  Not that there’s necessarily anything necessarily wrong with that; it’s just that (as some hard-nosed critics would have it), it’s ultimately unsatisfying for our deeper yearnings for love.  Be that as it may, the Gypsy Scholar, being the incurable romantic that he is, attempted, in his first essay on the Troubadours & the Beloved, to see if there was anything of real substance to be found in Valentine’s Day.

Before I get into my polemic directed at the nay-sayers of “romantic love”—those who I said would like nothing better than to ignore Valentine’s Day—it would be useful to get some historical perspective on the background on the holiday.



1.       The Origins of Valentine’s Day


The origins of Valentine’s Day, like the origins of love itself, are obscure and complicated—a combination of myth, history, chance, and marketing.  Of course, one could go in the Christian direction and think of St. Valentine the martyr. Legend has it that a certain third-century priest named Valentine persisted in performing marriage ceremonies despite a ban by the Roman emperor Claudius II (Claudius was persuaded that single men made better soldiers for his army). Thrown into jail, St. Valentine was executed on February 14, circa the year 270. It seems that Valentine had formed a relationship with his jailor’s daughter and he signed his last message to her “From your Valentine,” or so the legend goes.  St. Valentine’s Day was on the official Church list of feast days from 496, when Pope Gelasius I established it, until 1969, when Pope Paul VI dropped it from the calendar.  This hagiographic legend is thus one way to give more religious weight to Valentine’s Day.  Be this as it may, for historical fact instead of legend the first valentine on record was sent in 1415 by Charles, duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

While it is true that St. Valentine gives Valentine’s Day a more respectable ambiance, just as there’s a deeper background to St. Nicholas, who is associated with our Christmas tradition and Santa Claus (as I have previously presented in my Christmas essay), so too is there is an earlier, suppressed background to the patron saint of Valentine’s Day.  In point of fact, the heretical Valentinian Gnostics believed sex could have a sacramental dimension. Their founder, Valentinus (c. 160 AD) emphasized the idea of spiritual marriage as a divine union—a union with God—not as a social contract, which was, after all, the Roman Church’s view. The Valentinian Gnostics took a particular interest in the special relations that they believed existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, who also symbolized for them the union of the heavenly Christ with the heavenly Sophia (Wisdom). Added to this, they held the view, like Plato did, that the original state of humankind was one of androgyny, and that the fall into matter was at one and the same time the division of the sexes.  Thus, a “spiritualizing” of sex was considered to represent a restoration of the original union of male and female and, thereby, a return to God.  But by the fourth century, this idea had been suppressed by the Church of Rome.  So the Gypsy Scholar would ask: Did we end up with the wrong St. Valentine for the name of the holy-day/holiday for lovers?  In other words, just like the dating of Christmas, one can discover, underneath all the glamorization and commercialization of our Valentine’s Day celebration, another Christian late-coming co-optation of an earlier religious myth; a survival of an age-old pagan fertility mythico-ritual, under the god Eros.  (This seems to hark back to a religious mythic complex that predates classical Greek and Roman times, which had to do with the love and “sacred marriage,” the heiros gamos, between a god and goddess, such as the Sumero-Bablyloian myth of Inanna and Dumuzi.  It even seems to go further back—way, way back—to the Neolithic Goddess culture. As I will argue in an upcoming essay, this has intriguing implications for the Troubadour culture of the South of France).  Be that as it may, the most direct link to our Valentine’s celebration happens to be the pre-Christian or pagan custom that took place in preparation for the Roman festival of Lupercalia, which started February 15.  The names of the town’s maidens would be collected and then drawn at random by the local bachelors; in this fashion couples were paired off for the year. 

The Gypsy Scholar would argue that Valentine’s Day, while it has a Christian cast to it, has, at its most momentous, its roots in a pre-Christian spiritual tradition, and was revived in part in the Latin “High Middle Ages.” Thus, he doesn’t know what you think of when Valentine’s Day comes along, but the Gypsy Scholar thinks of the Troubadours of the “twelfth-century Renaissance.” 

There are certain substantial clues you can find for this association with Valentine’s Day, one more substantial but less direct than St. Valentine the martyr. When you google “Valentine’s Day,” besides St. Valentine, you will find the name of the most famous English author of the Middle Ages, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 - 1400).  Why? Because “medieval Europeans thought February 14 was the date on which the birds started to mate.  They got this idea from a dream-vision poem, “Parlement of Foules,” by Chaucer: “for this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his mate.” What is significant is that Chaucer was heavily influenced by Troubadour poetry.  In fact, he wrote stories about courtly love in his epic, “Canterbury Tales.”  Furthermore, the association I’m positing is substantiated because it is said of his “Parlement of Foules,” (or “Parliament of the Birds”) that it was the first reference to the idea that St. Valentine’s Day was a special day for Romantic love and lovers.  This is doubly significant, since I have written about the Arabic/Persian origins of courtly love.  It seems that Chaucer’s “Parlement of Foules,” was based on the poem by the Sufi mystic, Attar, “Conference of the Birds,” 1177.  A more specific historical connection is the fact that the year Chaucer died, 1400, was the first Valentine’s Day, when the French royal court held a “Court of Love” (Cour Amoreuse), in which ministers met after mass in “joyous recreation and talk about love.” Love poems were presented before the ladies, who judged them and awarded a golden crown for the best one. 

Therefore, the Gypsy Scholar feels that all this means Valentine’s Day is actually a deeper and more spiritual holiday than the one we have come to know through contrived ad campaigns and the pop love songs identified with “romantic love.”

And speaking of “romantic love,” the Gypsy Scholar will next deal with the $64, 000 question that always comes up on Valentine’s Day.


1.       Valentine Heart



2.       Romantic Love, Just An Illusion?


I know it as surely as my death, since I have learned from the agony itself: the noble lover loves love stories. Anyone yearning for such a story, then, need fare no farther than here: for I shall story him well of noble lovers who of pure love gave proof enough: he in love; she in love….


Gottfried von Strassburg, the early 13th-century author of Tristan and Isold, is talking about that special kind of love that the world had never seen before the 12th century—amor.  Other poets and writers, beginning in the 12th century, retold the story of the two ill-fated lovers, those like Chretien, Béroul, Thomas, Marie de France, and, finally, Wagner. I say retold because it was an ancient legend before it was written down, probably, scholars speculate, of Welsh or Irish origin. I begin with this story of love and death because it has been seen as the prototype of “love in the Western world.” As we shall soon see, its ideal of “romantic love” has survived in the literature of modern times. Given, the split between sacred and profane love instituted by the early Christian theologians that dominated medieval thought and its application to holy wedlock, and given the attacks on romantic love in the context of modern relationships by psychologists and behavioral scientists, the question is: Is romantic love anything but an inferior form of love, if not an illusion, that mature couples should grow out of? Is it no deeper than how it is portrayed in the next formulaic, run-of-the-mill romantic comedy? 

It looks like the Gypsy Scholar is going to take up, given sorry state of relationships today, yet another historical lost cause. I’m talking about that much-beleaguered species of love, “romantic love.”  It doesn’t seem that anyone of any expertise these days has anything good to say about it and, thus, if this endangered species of love goes extinct, then good riddens! Valentine’s Day progressively brings out the nay-sayers who seem to enjoy a cynical pleasure in demonstrating how silly romantic lovers are and how, by comparison, their relationships are soberly grounded in reality. (Not that there isn’t enough to criticize about the commercialized lover’s holiday.) They seem emboldened in this cynicism. After all, hasn’t science now proven that “romantic love” is nothing but a bio-chemical reaction?  And who would be foolish enough to doubt the latest findings of science, except the most wooly-minded, incurable romantic?  Thus, at the risk of proving what many have suspected all along, the Gypsy Scholar is going to argue that it’s not a chemical that is responsible for “romantic love,” but what they used to call a divine agent, a god; that god being Eros (the unsentimentalized Cupid of our Valentine’s Day). No, not the release of neurotrophins from the brain but the influx of amor in the heart through the eyes.  Romantic love was not an illusion, but a “divine visitation.”


So, through the eyes love attains the heart:

For the eyes are the scouts of the heart,

And the eyes go reconnoitering

For what it would please the heart to possess.

And when they are in full accord

And firm, all three, in the one resolve,

At that time, perfect love is born

From what the eyes have made welcome to the heart.

Not otherwise can love either be born or have commencement

Than by this birth and commencement moved by inclination.


By the grace and by command

Of these three, and from their pleasure,

Love is born, who with fair hope

Goes comforting her friends.

For as all true lovers

Know, love is perfect kindness,

Which is born—there is no doubt—from the heart and eyes.

The eyes make it blossom; the heart matures it:

Love, which is the fruit of their very seed.


(Guiraut de Borneilh c. 1138-1200?)


In the poetry of the Troubadours, then, “love is born of the eyes and heart, in the world of day, in a moment of aesthetic arrest, but opens within to a mystery of night.”


2.       Crazy Love


Let the Gypsy Scholar start off this defense of “romantic love” by clearing up a fundamental confusion. That is to say, the ideal of “love”—amor—of the Troubadour poets and the Romantic poets is not the bourgeois notion of “romantic love.” This modern version—that within marriage—is what I would call the domestification of “romantic love.” By definition, the original ideal of the Troubadours was a “love”–amor—outside marriage, or wedlock, which was socially sanctioned by the Church and, therefore, “illicit,” since it was not for the expressed purpose of procreation.


However, the troubadours, minnesingers, and epic poets of the century, in their celebration of amor, remained in Nietzsche's sense "true to this earth," this vale of tears where the devil roams for the ruin of souls. For in their view, not heaven but this blossoming earth was to be recognized as the true domain of love, as it is of life, and the corruption ruinous of love was not of nature (of which love is the very heart) but of society, both lay and ecclesiastical: the public order and, most immediately, its sacramentalized loveless marriages.


In Courtly Love, or cortezia, the emphasis was on the difference between the cult of “true love” (which was both earthly and heavenly), or fin’amors, as contrasted with the fals’amors of the majority (which was merely earthly); characterized by inconstancy, insincerity, and petty jealousy, and which excluded them from the loving elite. This fin’amors was also to some a “distant love,” which could only be attained by a renunciation of the deceitful love that characterized normal relations between men and women.

The modern critics of “romantic love”—the Marxists, psychotherapists, neuroscientists, the priests or ministers, and the rest—each in their own way tell us that what we know and cherish as “romantic love” is an illusion. For instance, the psychologists and the behavioral scientists tell us that “romantic love” is extremely short-lived, and that married couples who endure move past this initial illusion to a more mature kind of love and settle into something more real, which some call “companionship.” While, admittedly, there are some good correctives to today’s notion of a sentimentalized and commercialized “romantic love,” it nonetheless could be asked: If the brunt of the attack on “romantic love” is that it’s an illusion, how many other things about or contemporary lives are then susceptible to the same charge? For instance, to name perhaps the greatest, the churchmen have told the people, from the days of the Troubadours on, that the only real form of love is that of God, agape or caritas.  Yet, to an increasing number of thinking people (beginning with Marx and Freud), this loving father-God is the biggest illusion of all!  Shall we then outgrow the childish illusion of monotheistic religion along with the childish notion of romantic love? (I should note here that my analogy of illusions is not as imprecise as it might at first appear. In fact, there is a significant connection. The heretical Cathari of southern France, associated with the Troubadours and finally hunted down in the Church’s Albigensian crusade, believed, as all true Gnostics did, that Jehovah, was in reality a tyrannical usurper—“the demiurge”—; a false God.  So it looks like some of our detractors of romantic love are burdened by a greater illusion than the troubdaour/cathari—or the rest of us incurable romantics.)

Of course, the criticism of illusion, when coming from the medical camp, amounts to a verdict of pathology or disease.  Actually, this criticism was there at the very beginning of the phenomenon of “romantic love;” it was seen as a kind of insanity.  But what seriously complicates the issue is that the Troubadours themselves agreed and yet had a positive take on the insanity charge; for it was an insanity visited upon the lover, through the eyes and heart, by the god Eros and, thus, a divine insanity, at once a curse and a blessing.  This means that mad lovers (whether then or today) are not susceptible to reason.  They are not going to be talked out of their madness by the level-headed experts.  Let me not ignore the “scientists” in this put- down of “romantic love.”  We recently hear that what we experience as “romantic love” is nothing but chemical reactions in the brain. Of course, these are the same rat-maze reductionists who tell us that “consciousness” itself is nothing but the epiphenomenon of brain chemistry. (Here, I’m talking about the reigning materialistic/mechanistic scientific model, or “illusion.”) 

As to the temporality issue in the put-down of “romantic love.”  Again, the charge is that this form of love is too short lived and, by implication, relationships, especially marriage, just don’t last. News flash! “Romantic love lasts little more than a year, Italian scientists believe.”  Leaving aside other very good reasons for the high failure rate of couples, like economic, for the moment, one could ask: Isn’t time relative in relationships?  The Romantic poets, the heirs of the Troubadours (indeed, they are credited for single-handedly rediscovering them and bringing them back from disrepute), were particularly outspoken on this issue. They would rather have a short-lived, intense, and profound love affair than a mediocre and lifeless marriage that dragged on interminably.  In fact, they applied this sensibility to life itself; speaking metaphorically, they preferred the blazing but momentary life of the comet to the long but dull life of the stone.  Compare D. H. Lawrence, an heir to the Romantics: “Love is the flower of life, and blossoms unexpectedly and without law, and must be plucked where it is found, and enjoyed for the brief hour of its duration.” 

And last, but not least, there’s the criticism of “romantic love” as simply too fraught with agony to be worth it.  But again, thinking of the Troubadours, this is a matter of perspective. A so-called “bad” love-relationship can teach the lover more about life than a so-called “good” one. Thus, this in itself is no valid negation of “romantic love.”  (Indeed, I have, in a previous essay, documented the positive value the Troubadours put on unrequited love and the dark side of love—“love’s wound.”  And, besides, where would we get the perverse bluesy pleasure that only the sad love song can give!)  The sanitized, domestic “romantic love” that is the straw-man of the hard-headed critics is a love that is divorced from love’s wound, a “romantic love” that would be unrecognizable to the Troubadours.


As the glow of love’s inward fire increases, so the frenzy of the lover’s suit. But this pain is so full of love, this anguish so enheartening, that no noble heart would dispense with it, once having been so heartened. (Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan and Isold)


3.       Light My Fire


At the risk of oversimplification, this is the old battle of the hard-headed realists against dreamers.  To be clear, my essays on “romantic love” are historical in nature, celebrating the love—amor—of the Troubadours in poetry and song.  And they generally apply to today only in that the convention of “romantic love” is carried on, beginning in the sixties, in popular love-song (but not just any inane love song that hits the pop charts). However, by implication, my past essays do affirm “romantic love” today, albeit with reservations. I do believe that “romantic love” still maintains an energy and deeper dimension that can be used as a path to a greater life—even a spiritual path to higher consciousness, if not transcendence.  If this qualifies me as one of those “incurable romantics,” then so be it. Thus, in a wider sense, my essays do serve to champion “romantic love,” but a deeper vision of it that has been generally ignored in the our conventional notion.  As I put it in my last essay: For the Troubadours of Courtly Love and the later poets of the medieval Romance tradition this “love” ranged from expressions of pure sexual desire to a selfless ideal worth even the sacrificing of one’s life.


. . . nature in its noblest moment—the realization of love—is an end and glory in itself; and the senses, ennobled and refined by courtesy and art, temperance, loyalty and courage, are the guides to this realization. Like a flower potential in its seed, the blossom of the realization of love is potential in every heart (or, at least, every noble heart) and requires only proper cultivation to be fostered to maturity.


This love was properly of a third kind, an alternative to both the Church’s agape and the pagan’s purely erotic. The Troubadours called it amor.  Mythologist Joseph Campbell is amazed that theologians still don’t get this (and, I would add, neither to today’s secular critics):


It is amazing, but our theologians still are writing of agape and eros and their radical opposition, as though these two were the final terms of the principle of "love": the former, "charity," godly and spiritual, being "of men toward each other in a community," and the latter, "lust," natural and fleshly, being "the urge, desire and delight of sex.” Nobody in a pulpit seems ever to have heard of amor as a third, selective, discriminating principle in contrast to the other two. For amor is neither of the right-hand path (the sublimating spirit, the mind and the community of man), nor of the indiscriminate left (the spontaneity of nature, the mutual incitement of the phallus and the womb), but is the path directly before one, of the eyes and their message to the heart.


The whole meaning of their [the troubadours] stanzas lay in the celebration of a love the aim of which was neither marriage nor the dissolution of the world. Nor was it even carnal intercourse; nor, again—as among the Sufis—the enjoyment, by analogy, of the "wine" of a divine love and the quenching of the soul in God. The aim, rather, was life directly in the experience of love as a refining, sublimating, mystagogic force, of itself opening the pierced heart to the sad, sweet, bittersweet, poignant melody of being, through love's own anguish and love's joy.


Admittedly, this was the ideal, and I don’t want to be misunderstood as “idealizing” the Troubadours, for they were sometimes guilty of not living up to the ideal or, as we would say today, just trying to score.  (Those who, from a religious perspective, condemn romantic love in favor of the love of God, using the worse examples of lovers, are the very same who would defend God’s love in spite of the fact that his priests fall short of the ideal. Pray tell, shall we not apply the same standard to the priests of amor?)  However, to the psychological experts, whether they are psychotherapists or marriage counselors, or the authors of the generic self-help books, the cherished illusion of “romantic love” needs to be outgrown in favor of a sober assessment of the relationship, usually the matrimonial one.  It is instructive to know that these authorities on the correct way to love are actually the successors to those 12th-century churchmen who had little patience or tolerance for the “sublime”- or “refined love”— fin’amors —of the Troubadours, a love that ennobled and made gentle the heart of the lover, usually a knight, even raising to mystic heights. To quote Joseph Campbell again:


It is again a mystic theme of individual experience in depth, opposed to the sacramental claim, this time, of marriage. For in the Middle Ages marriage, sanctified by the Church, was a socio-political arrangement, bearing no relationship to the mystery and wonder of love. In the words of Professor Johan Huizinga in his eloquent little book, The Waning of the Middle Ages, “From the side of religion maledictions were poured upon love in all its aspects.” From the side of the court, on the other hand, and of the poetry of experience . . . love “became the field where all moral and cultural perfection flowered.” Love was a divine visitation, quelling mere animal lust, whereas feudal marriage was a physical affair. The lover, whose heart was rendered gentle by the discipline of his lady, was initiate to a sphere of exalted realizations that no one who had experienced such could possibly identify (as the Church identified them) with sin. One has but to read the poems of Dante's Vita Nuova to realize to what spheres of mystic trans port the courtly way of love might lead.


As opposed to the general assumption that this is a consensus among the psychotherapeutic community at large, there are dissenting opinions.  There are, in fact, those who, while admitting that the initial attraction is a mutual case of projection—the putting of one’s fantasy of the ideal mate on an ordinary human being—nonetheless see a positive value in this psychological projection mechanism of romantic lovers.  In fact, becoming aware of the projection, far from negating the feeling of love or, in the worst case scenario, terminating the relationship, serves, through working with the projections, as a method or path to a deeper love—not a love that is something other than “romantic” (the love of eros), but a deeper level of it.  In other words, the couple can achieve a psychological wholeness by integrating the other—the alienated and projected feminine and masculine aspects respectively—into their psyches. This could be termed the “psycho-spiritual path of romantic love.” Now this necessarily begs the question I put forth to challenge what I perceive as the main illusion in the area of “love in the Western world” in my essay “The Troubadours & the Beloved: The Secret Cult of the Eros-Rose.”  Is the (theological) separation of “profane,” or earthly love from “sacred” or heavenly love valid?  Consequently, I have shown that for the Troubadours and later the Romantic poets, the answer is a resounding No. Without going into my argument for the reunion of profane with sacred love, as presented in my essays, I will simply repeat the observation from Joseph Campbell:


It is amazing, but our theologians still are writing of agape and eros and their radical opposition, as though these two were the final terms of the principle of “love.”


The Gypsy Scholar began this section by making a distinction between the “romantic love” that was initiated by the Troubadours—amor—and the “romantic love” that is the brunt of the criticism from today’s nay-sayers, which should be properly recognized as the domestification (and sentimentalization) of amor.  In other words, that’s not amor; that ain’t amore!  To justify the assertion, Gypsy Scholar will give two prime examples of the anti-bourgeois character of “romantic love.”

To start at the very beginning of the notion—the famous story of Tristan and Isolde.  And then to the Romantics between the late 18th and early 20th centuries, who had rediscovered the Troubadours and evolved the notion.  In Tristan and Isolde, the lovers are told that the love potion will be the death of them both and that eternal death in hell awaits them. Tristan’s reply was absolutely blasphemous for its times; never had anyone dared to speak like this:


So then, God's will be done, whether death it be or life! For that drink has sweetly poisoned me. What the death of which you tell is to be, I do not know; but this death suits me well. And if delightful Isolt is to go on being my death this way, then I shall gladly court an eternal death.


The second example of the anti-bourgeois nature of “romantic love” comes from the Romantic-Symbolist dramatic prose-poem Axel (1885) by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. The scene takes place in the Byronic hero’s occult castle, where he has just met his true love.  They dream of the glorious future, but Axel suddenly declares their dreams are far too magnificent to be fulfilled in everyday, unimaginative reality, the reality too many of us are content to live in.  The following passage is taken from a study of the play and serves to challenge contemporary judgments of the illusory and transitory nature of “romantic love.” 


       Sara turns out to be a Rosicrucian, too: her escape from the convent has been signalized by the blooming of the mystic rose. She and Axel embrace in an ecstasy: for the first time, these two chaste and haughty spirits have found objects worthy of their passion. . . . They are holding the whole world in their hands—they have love, youth, social position, power, the supernatural backing of the Rosicrucian spirits and . . . treasure—“all the dreams to realize,” says Sara.

       But here Axel, “grave and impenetrable,” strikes an unexpected note. “Why realize them?” he asks. “They are so beautiful!” And to her plea of “come and live!” he replies: “Live? No. Our existence is full—and its cup is running over! What hour-glass can count the hours of this night! The future? . . . Sara, believe me when I say it: we have just exhausted the future. All the realities, what will they be to-morrow in comparison with the mirages we have just lived? . . . The quality of our hope no longer allows us the earth! What can we ask from this miserable star where our melancholy lingers on save the pale reflections of such moments? The Earth, dost thou say? What has the Earth ever realized, that drop of frozen mud, whose Time is only a lie in the heavens? It is the Earth, dost thou not see? which has now become the illusion! Admit, Sara: we have destroyed, in our strange hearts, the love of life—and it is in REALITY indeed that ourselves have become our souls. To consent, after this, to live would be but sacrilege against ourselves. Living? Our servants will do that for us! . . . Oh, the external world! Let us not be made dupes by the old slave, chained to our feet in broad daylight, who promises us the keys to a palace of enchantments when it clutches only a handful of ashes in its clenched black fist! . . .

       He proposes that they shall kill themselves at once. Sara demurs: she suggests one more night of love. But Axel begs her not to be trivial. “Oh, my beloved,” he tries to explain to her, “to-morrow I should be the prisoner of thy wondrous body! Its delights would have enchained the chaste energy which animates me now!”—and then, their love could never endure: some cursed day they would find it burnt out. She pleads still: “But remember the human race!” “The example I leave it,” he answers, “is well worth those it has given me.” “Those who fight for Justice say that to kill oneself is to desert.” “The verdict of beggars,” he declares, “for whom God is but a way to earn their bread.” “It might be nobler to think of the general good!” “The universe devours itself: at that price is the good of all” And he finally succeeds in persuading her: they drink a goblet of poison together and perish in a rapture.


4.       Dance Me to the End of Love  



Romantic lovers living an illusion?  “Living? Our servants will do that for us!”—you won’t find a greater indictment of bourgeois values and its notion of love than from this courageous Romantic hero.  (It should be pointed out here that one of the many virtues of the courtly “code of love” was courage.) Axel’s ideal of love may be criticized as too radical and dark, but you can’t at the same time claim that this kind of “romantic love” is too sentimental.  Axel reminds of the extreme ideal of love between Tristan and Isolde. Axel has thrown down the gauntlet—just who is living an illusion, the true romantic lovers or romantic love’s detractors? Therefore, judging from the opinions of those who put down the contemporary, domesticated form “romantic love,” it doesn’t seem they are very informed of the original’s beginnings, its history, or even its portrayals in literature.  For that matter, many of us are either ill-informed of this also, or, if we are, fail to appreciate how revolutionary “romantic love” actually was in the Middle Ages, when the Church controlled both love’s passion and women, marriage being a strictly social arrangement. In other words, the troubadour “code of love,” championed by the women of the court, was undermining the code of masculine domination.

The Code of Love of Eleanor of Aquitaine was an attempt of women to create their own world and dethrone masculine oppression and mastery, a practical way of rebelling against the prevailing social mores and consciously adapted to serve this end. Eleanor’s daughter, Marie de Champagne, ruled that love had no power as between the parties to a marriage, and justified her ruling on the grounds that in love everything depended on both parties giving themselves freely, whereas marriage implied obligation and coercion, which was the death of love.


The poles of the older social order were Pope and Emperor, priest and people, the soul and God. The poles of courtly society were the lady and her “man,” her lover, who owed fealty to her alone. . . . Once upon a time it was manifestations of the Godhead that had made the heart . . . leap up in fear and trembling. Now the heart had become the last resort against the princes and powers of this world.


This “cult of love” purified and refined the rugged warrior-knight into a poetic gentleman. These noble ladies knew well enough that men regarded them as loot or merchandise.  In feudal society marriage was an important political and commercial transaction, as it was to be in the bourgeois society that succeeded it.  For a long time feudal society took no account of love as an emotion felt by individuals for each other, but these courtly ladies prescient of a new age in which every man of breeding understood the arts of love and in which Woman would come into her own, educating men in the ripeness of her wisdom.


       Once women are free to bestow their favors and affections where they will, the whole structure of patriarchal society starts to crumble.  In the spiraling progress of the history of ideas this seems to be the point that we have once again reached.  Now it is an idea whose time has come and no crusades have so far been launched by Church and State to quell it.  If the Black Virgins really do carry a charge from the [pagan] goddesses, perhaps, now that they have been ‘found’ again, they are whispering in our ears like the female serpent of Eden ….


       Also during the Middle Ages in the same south of France where woman’s sexual power was once venerated in the Paleolithic cave sanctuaries, there flourished the poets known as troubadours and trobaritzes, whose songs of courtly love honored woman as man’s spiritual inspiration and celebrated erotic love between woman and man…. It is a powerful legacy, this legacy of romance and ritual that the medieval troubadours and trobaritzes left us despite the condemnation of the pleasures of sex by the Church.  And it is a legacy that, as we have seen, stems from more ancient roots: from a time when sexuality was associated with the sacred rather than the profane and the obscene.


The earliest French lyric, troubadour poetry, ushered in a challenge to the prevailing social order. Some scholars of the period tell us: “The new thing with the troubadours is simply the celebration of heterosexual emotion. . . . real passion.” They also laud the “revolutionary implications of troubadour poetry,” which, by its very existence “announced that love has been missing from out civilization: here it is, what are you going to do about it.”  Whether the put down of “romantic love” comes from the theologians (sin) or the doctors (disease), the Minnesinger (German troubadour), Walther objects:


Whoever says that love is sin,

Let him consider first and well:

Right many virtues lodge therein

With which we all, by rights, should dwell.


For mythologist Joseph Campbell, the implications of the Troubadour ethos are even more revolutionary; for the arrival of the Troubadours signals for Western Europe the dawning of a new mythology and age, one in which the cultural and spiritual hegemony of the Church’s ecclesiastical order is overthrown and, for the first time, in the name of amor, the individual, his or her unique experience in this world, and the human heart are the primary focus of spirituality.


In the broadest view of the history of world mythology, the chief creative development in the period of the waning Middle Ages and approaching Reformation was the rise of the principle of individual conscience over ecclesiastical authority. This marked the beginning of the end of the reign of the priestly mind, first, over European thought and then, as today we see, in all the world. And therewith a new world age dawned . . .


. . . it was immediately thereafter that new mythology—quite new—neither of animal nor of plant divinities, nor of the cosmic order and its God, but of man, gradually came (and is still coming) to the fore, which is, in fact, the only creative breath now operating for the future mankind centered in its own terrestrial truth, blessedness, and will.

       Let me note before passing on, however, that even in the twelfth- and early thirteenth-century flowering of Arthurian Romance the beginnings may be recognized of this new mythology of man who in his native virtue is competent both to experience and to render blessedness, even in the mixed field of this our life on earth. Take the mystery of the Grail: For what reason, pray, should a Christian knight ride forth questing for the Grail when at hand, in every chapel, were the blessed body and blood of Christ literally present in the sacrament of the altar for the redemption and beatitude of his soul?

       The answer, obviously, is that the Grail Quest was an individual adventure in experience.


The point that Campbell is trying to make here is that the “flowering of Arthurian Romance,” from the poems/songs of the Troubadours created, in the medieval social milieu that was heretofore theocratic, the first stirrings of what we know today as the autonomous individual, whose authority was his or her own conscience based on experience.  This is truly a revolutionary step in the evolution of consciousness, one that is not generally associated with the Troubadours of the twelfth century, but with the sixteenth-century Reformation.  Thus Campbell sees it as the dawning of a new age. One thinks of a renaissance.  Here, it should be noted that one historian has called the period of the Troubadours the “twelfth-century Renaissance.”

I have tried to remedy this ignorance of the origin and hidden nature of “romantic love” in my previous essays. The critics of romantic love—from the churchmen to the scientists—can throw all the polemical buckets of ice-water on hand at the parade of mad lovers who insist in indulging in their romantic illusion, but it didn’t do any good in the medieval period and it has done no good in the modern.  (It seems that Campbell’s jab applies to the critics I’m talking about, because he states that if they themselves remembered the transformative power of love when they were young, they wouldn’t be so quick to make their “nothing but” pronouncements.)  Even one as devout as St Bernard of Clairvaux, preaching monasticism and Mariology in the time of the Troubadours, couldn’t help himself making a connection with amor in his interpretation in the embarrassingly erotic Song of Songs, the text of the Bible that encouraged many Troubadours in their erotic poetry.  He knew these mad lovers weren’t susceptible to reason:


I am not unmindful of the fact that the king's honor loveth judgment. But intense love does not wait upon judgment. It is not restrained by counsel; it is not checked by a sense of false modesty; it is not subject to reason. I ask, I implore, I entreat with all my heart: Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.


As the song goes: “Ah the dreamers ride against the men of action / Oh, see the men of action falling back.” Again, for those dreamers of amor, the Troubadours, the rapture of love in this transitory life on earth, where all things die, was the ideal; not the Church’s ideal of love to be had in life after death.

Finally, there is the issue of the criticism that love is a form of madness, in modern terms, a disease with no cure.  The answer has come down to us from those first legendary lovers, Tristan and Isolde, themselves: 


       And so he [Tristan] came to the heart of the word: l’ameir, l’amour—to which he answered: “Oh my lovely one, so it is, also, with me: l’ameir and you: you are my torment. Isolt dear, queen of my heart, you alone and my love for you have undone and robbed me of my wits. I have gone so completely astray that I shall never again be restored. There is in this entire world nothing dear to my heart but you.” Isolt replied: “Sire, and so you are to me.”

       “And since the lovers now realized that there was between them just one mind, one heart, and one will, their pain began at the same time to subside and to come to light. Each regarded and addressed the other more boldly: the man, the maid; the maid, the man: the sense of difference between them was gone. He kissed her and she kissed him, lovingly, sweetly; and that, for Love’s cure, was a delightful start.”


What the psychiatric critics of “romantic love” don’t know when they charge that it’s a disease, is that there ain’t no cure for “love,” for amor, or, to put it in a positive way, the only cure for the disease of love is love. One of the greatest of the Provencal poetical masters, Bernart de Ventadorn (c. 1150-1200?) put it best:


This love smites me so gently

At heart and with such sweet savor!

Of grief do I die one hundred times a day,

And of joy revive, again a hundred.

My malady, indeed, is of excellent kind;

More worth, this malady, than any other good:

And since my malady is so good for me,

Good, after the malady, will be its cure.


Though we have come a long way past the initial revolutionary stage of “love in the Western world” (making even marriage an arena wherein “romantic love” can play itself out), the Troubadour’s challenge with “romantic love”—amor—still seems relevant: “here it is, what are you going to do about it,” because it ain’t going away and because there ain’t no cure for love or lovers.


5.       Ain’t No Cure for Love


In conclusion, the Gypsy Scholar’s previous essay, “Introduction and Overview” to the Troubadours & the Beloved series, suggested that our Valentine’s celebration of romantic love still retains dim vestiges of an ancient and deeper tradition, which was identified as that of eros.  While it would be premature to give the arguments for this here, suffice to say that our notion—still highly regarded by some lovers today—of “true love” comes from the Troubadour conception, which (as mentioned above) was called fin’amors, and it had its own code.  We have, to some extent, the amors, but we don’t have the fin’, which reflects the code. (Again, fin’amors means “refined-” or “sublime” love.)  The “ideal” in courtly love (and, again, the was an ideal that not every knight or troubadour attained) was self-renunciation through service to the Beloved.  (And, that “Beloved” may not have been taken literally in the poetry/songs of the Troubadours.)  The unattainable Lady could be pursued but she couldn’t be forced; her grace or her gifts she must be willingly bestowed on her lover, if he won her favor.  “Jealously” was a cardinal vice in this code of love; for even if courtship included sensuality, the lover had no right to possession.  Thus, though we no longer have a romantic love with a code, we may take a lesson here.  This brings the Gypsy Scholar to the last polemical argument in defense of romantic love.

 Some of “romantic love’s” critics like to portray the Troubadours as head-in-the-clouds poets who could believe in their ideal of love and their beloved—the Rose—because they looked at the world through rose-colored glasses, knowing nothing of the real world and its harsh realities. But as Campbell points out:


Now it is a matter of no small moment that in the period of this idyllic poetry the world of harsh reality should have been about as dangerous and unlikely a domicile for amor as the nightmare of history has ever produced. We have mentioned the devastation of southern France. The whole of Central Europe likewise was in a state of hideous turmoil.


He cites the example of one Troubadour, Gottfried who tells his listeners, that though love is the very being of life, it is everywhere brutalized.   I repeat it here to close my essay, because it reminds of something one of our presidential appointees recently said that created such a stir in the media.  It was that “Americans are a nation of cowards.”  (The Troubadour “code of love” that made courage a primary virtue, along with a sense of honor, trueness, and integrity. Romance was a social code and individual determination of courage, fidelity, and relationships were important to life and justice.)  This polemic has been directed at the critics of romantic love.  But now the Gypsy Scholar will turn the tables on them and end with a criticism, but of a different kind. The charge of cowardliness is cited here because not only does the Gypsy Scholar feel that it accounts for the attitude of anti-romantic critics dealt with in this essay, but, to a certain extent, with few exceptions, it indicts all of us—the Gypsy Scholar included.  


       I pity Love [he writes] with all my heart; for though almost all today hold and cleave to her, no one concedes to her due. We all want our pleasure of her, and to consort with her. But no! Love is not what we, with our deceptions, are now making of her for each other. We are going at things the wrong way. We sow black henbane, then expect to reap lilies and roses. But believe me, that cannot be. . . .

       It is real1y true, what they say, "Love is harried and hounded to the ends of the earth." All that we possess of her is the word, the name alone remains to us; and that, too, we have so bandied about, misused and vulgarized, that the poor thing is ashamed of her name, disgusted with the very sound of it. She is cringing and flinching everywhere at her own existence. Misused and dishonored, she sneaks begging from house to house, lugging shamefully a sack all of patches, crammed with her swag and booty, which she denies to her own mouth, and offers for sale in the streets. Alas! It is we who have created that market. We traffic with her in this amazing way and claim then to be innocent. Love, the queen of all hearts, the free-born, the one and only, is up for public sale! What a shameful tribute is this that our mastery has required of her! . .

       We cultivate love with embittered minds, with lies, and with deceit, and then expect from her joy of body and heart: but instead, she bears only pain, corruption, evil fruit, and blight—as her soil was sown.



 Or, as the song goes, thinking of Valentine’s Day again: “Everybody wants a box of chocolates / And a long-stemmed rose / And everybody knows.”


6.       Everybody Knows


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