Friday, February 12, 2016

With a Little Help from the Saints: Medieval Lovers.

By E.M. Powell

You probably can't have failed to notice that wherever you turn at present, your senses are assailed by objects of the red, heart-shaped variety. Although it's not a particular wave I personally like to get swept up in, I couldn't fail to be halted by this gem in a local card shop: 'To My Gran on Valentine's Day.'  I did brace myself for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to come crashing through the door at any second, but all remained calm. And just as I was about to deride twenty-first century consumerism for this new level of madness, it occurred to me that, like so much in our world, it is all the fault of the medievals.

From: The Roman de la Rose
The Lover (L'Amans) in bed with a man (Dangier, or Danger) holding a club.

The medievals loved their love and especially of the courtly variety. It found its expression in poetry and among the most famous is the French Roman de la Rose, or The Story of the Rose. It was composed by two authors: Guillaume de Lorris in around 1230 and Jean de Meun in around 1275, some forty years later. The poem takes the form of a dream, in which the dreamer, the Lover, approaches the rose (the symbol of his lady's love) in a garden but is spurned. The Lover then has to learn the rules of love to win the object of his desire. The complete work is over 21,000 lines and was hugely popular amongst the elite of England and France. Several copies are still in existence.

The Lover pierced by an arrow,
kneeling before the God of Love (Diex d'Amour).

I have chosen the images from a manuscript from c1320-1340 for this post. Interestingly, it is a non-religious work, so no saints (of which more later). The fourteenth century also saw the introduction of a custom for lovers within court circles that is still with us: Valentine's Day. February 14th is the day that the medievals reckoned birds began mating. So why not have a day when refined men and women could do the same in elaborate rituals and games?

Male Lovers pierced by arrows.

The poetry of the time again reflects the custom. Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls is the earliest, dating from around 1381. In it, lovers are birds, quarrelling over the finest partner on Valentine's Day.

Female Lovers- and a Monk.

By 1400, the French Court had founded the Cour Amoureuse, or the Court of  Love, supposedly in honour of women. It first met on Valentine’s Day in 1400, ruled over by a ‘Prince of Love’ who was a professional poet. Noble ladies heard various love-poems and presented prizes to the winners. It sounds very charming until one realises that around 600 people took part. One can only suppose that, with those sorts of numbers, everyone probably went home with something out of the day.

The God of Love taking hold of the Lover.

In the fifteenth century, the poet and prior of Hatfield Regis, John Lydgate, wrote ‘A Valantine to Her That Excelleth All’.  And we start to see the custom of the Valentine move beyond the confines of the court. In a letter dating from 1477 Norwich, Margery Brews writes to her fiancĂ© John Paston as her ‘right wellbelovyd Voluntyn’.

Envie (Envy) looking at a pair of lovers.

What's even more interesting is that Margery's mother Elizabeth also writes to John to ask that the marriage takes place on 'Sent Volentynes Day'... [when] every brydde chesyth hym a make.' Yes, we have mention of the bird choosing a mate again. But we also have reference to Saint Valentine. It is likely that clerics began making the connection between a saint and the secular customs around finding a partner. Two third century saints were named Valentine: Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Interamna (modern Terni in Italy). We know little about them other than they were martyred and that is commemorated on February 14. They had never been associated with lovers up the middle ages.

Vilenie (Villainy, Abuse, Baseness)
offering the Lover a potion.

Of course other medieval saints were on hand to help steer the course of true love. Fifth century Saint Dwynwen is the Welsh patron saint of love. Dwynwen was one of the twenty four daughters and eleven sons of King of Wales, Brychan Brycheiniog and his wife, Prawst. When I came across those statistics, I felt perhaps that Brychan should patron saint of something, but I wasn’t quite sure what. Prawst, I continue to feel, should just be regarded with awe.

Oiseuse (Idleness, Ease, Leisure)
admitting the Lover through the gate.

Dwynwen was not as fortunate - or fruitful - in love as her parents. Her love story is of a bleaker kind and she suffered horribly at the hands of a man who should have loved her. After much travail, Dwynwen’s prayers were answered. As a mark of her thanks, she devoted herself to God's service for the rest of her life. She founded a convent on Llanddwyn, on the west coast of Anglesey, where she was joined by other broken-hearted women. After her death in 465AD, a well named after her became a place of pilgrimage and it remains there today.

Tristece (Sorrow or Misery), tearing her hair and clothes.

I think blaming the medievals for the annual fuss about Lovers is fair. But I did find an account where some level-headed souls decided it might be nice to use the day to celebrate neighbourly love. A 1415 charter from Norwich records that the citizens should some together on Valentine's Day, 'make peace, unite, and accord, poore and ryche to ben one in herte, love and charite.' Now, that's more like it. And even if they didn't get a card, I'll bet all the Grans were happy.

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References:
All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
Drabble, Margaret, ed. et al., The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature (3 ed.), Oxford University Press (2007, Online version: 2007)
Knowles, Elizabeth, ed.: The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2 ed.) Publisher: Oxford University Press (2005, Current Online Version: 2014)
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J & Lindow, J. (eds.): Medieval Folklore, Oxford University Press (2002)
Livingston, E.A.,ed.:The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2 rev.ed.), Oxford University Press (2006, Current Online Version: 2013)
MacKillop, James: A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology , Oxford University Press (2004, Current Online Version: 2004)
National Library of Wales: Dictionary of Welsh Biography Online.
Simpson, Jacqueline & Roud, Steve: A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press (2003, Current Online Version: 2003)

E.M. Powell is the author of medieval thrillers THE FIFTH KNIGHT & THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT which have both been #1 Historical Thrillers on Amazon's US and UK sites and on the Bild bestseller list in Germany..

Sir Benedict Palmer and his wife Theodosia are back in book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND. It's 1185 and Henry II sends his youngest son, John (the future despised King of England), to bring peace to his new lands in Ireland. But John has other ideas and only Palmer and Theodosia can stop him. THE LORD OF IRELAND is published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016.

E.M. Powell was born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State) she now lives in the north west of England with her husband and daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. Find out more by visiting www.empowell.com

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10 comments:

  1. Great post. St Dwynwen's day (25th Jan) is celebrated as an alternative Valentine's Day in North Wales. I once walked out to her island off Newborough with my husband on my birthday,and there was not another soul around. It was, I hate to say, quite romantic!

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    1. What- no card shop?! But that indeed sounds like a really special day.

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  2. Excellent post. I had no idea that the custom went back so far, but it makes sense given the focus on courtly love.

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    1. Thanks, Cryssa. And I completely agree. The whole thing somehow has a modern feel to it- not over 600 years old!

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  3. What a refreshing post. I have to say, though, my mind boggles at the idea of delivering 24 daughters and 11 sons and living to tell the tale. Whew!

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    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. Indeed- mine was boggling too! I think Prawst will for evermore have a top place in my historical heroines.

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  4. I can't imagine the hell of sitting through 599 spotty youths reciting their attempts at doggerel, in the hope that #600 might be another Chaucer!

    Thanks for another great post, E. Poor Dwynwen gets my prayers (and thanks these days) every time.
    xxx

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    1. You're welcome! And yes, poor Dwynwen should be acknowledged more. I'm sure she's often in demand.

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