This Valentine’s Day, flip through cable TV listings and you’ll see a bevy of romances. While those movies may feature modern actors and storylines, many of the common themes and conflicts can be traced back to medieval times.
What is considered “romantic” in contemporary Western society — love from afar, willingness to suffer, idealization of the love object — is partly a legacy of themes in medieval romantic poetry, says Jessica Rosenfeld, PhD, assistant professor of English in Arts & Sciences and author of the book Ethics and Enjoyment in Late Medieval Poetry: Love after Aristotle (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
It was those medieval writers who first “defined love and made it the topic for literature,” Rosenfeld says. And movies.
Those medieval writers include Marie de France, Dante, Petrarch and Geoffrey Chaucer.
“Chaucer is best known for the Canterbury Tales, but his Troilus and Criseyde is one of the great medieval romances,” Rosenfeld says.
Much medieval love poetry emphasizes suffering for love that can seem morbid or perverse, Rosenfeld says.
“We still enjoy a story of love overcoming obstacles, but in medieval poetry, it can often seem as though the obstacles and the pain are in fact the goal,” she says.
“One of the things I write about in my book is the way that certain authors found this odd and perverse themselves, and tried to depict the pursuit of love as the pursuit of happiness rather than suffering.”
In medieval Europe, happiness largely was understood in the context of Christianity and therefore was sought in the afterlife, not in the earthly life, Rosenfeld says.
“But love poetry was one place where medieval writers allowed themselves to think about earthly happiness on its own terms,” she says. “One of the central ethical questions — then and now — is how to define happiness, a life well-lived.”
Around the 13th century, Greek philosopher Aristotle’s writings on earthly happiness became available in Latin to literate members of medieval society.
This allowed Aristotle’s ideas about happiness to be applied to questions of love — whether love led to earthly happiness, and whether true happiness was even possible this side of heaven — that were discussed and examined by medieval philosophers and poets, Rosenfeld says.
Many popular medieval romances were set in the life of the court, featuring knights, fair maidens and royalty.
“Many romances explore the conflicts that arise when a knight falls in love — the love affair often takes him away from his knightly duties, though being in love can also strengthen him and provide inspiration in battle,” Rosenfeld says.
“The most famous conflict between chivalric duty and love is, of course, Lancelot’s affair with King Arthur’s wife, Guinevere.”
For more information about Rosenfeld’s book Ethics and Enjoyment in Late Medieval Poetry, visit cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item5731726/?site_locale=en_GB.