#MedievalToo

While teaching a course on medieval love, a professor finds himself having a very different response to the material than his students.

November 21, 2018
 
 
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While the country broke out in a rash of Me Too blisters last fall, I cloistered myself away and taught a seminar, Love in the Middle Ages. My students, hip to the headlines, recognized our course material as retrograde. But I was learning all of the wrong lessons. A sloppy scholar and a second-rate poet, I took the troubadours as my amatory guides, for (outside of class) I had become the victim of an insatiable, extracurricular crush.

After all, the premodern imagination saw us male lovers as victims of our desires. Consider an example from the 14th century: Chaucer’s tragic hero, Troilus, mocks people who fall in love. Ever vengeful, the god of love afflicts Troilus with an unquenchable need for Criseyde.

Troilus begs, coerces and threatens suicide. “Co-dependent,” my students diagnosed him, and they icked out over Troilus’s friend, Pandarus, a “pervy wingman.” But I defended these predators in my lectures, because I identified with the lovestruck. Like Troilus, I had been wounded by love’s arrows and had fallen for someone somewhat less enamored. And, like Troilus, I experienced my passion as a disease:

"And from this day, then robbed him Love his sleep,
And made his meat his foe; and then his sorrow
Did multiply, that, whoso took keep,
It showed in his hue, both eve and morrow …"

I arrived for class in yesterday’s blazer, bags under my eyes and espresso in my beard.

According to Gerard of Berry (a 12th-century physician), the best cure for lovesickness is sex with the beloved. Second best: sex with somebody else. Of course, my undergraduate syllabus could never address such doctoral-level topics.

My students did, however, read Ovid (the ancient Roman poet, popular throughout the Middle Ages). And they censured Ovid when he described the Rape of the Sabine Women as a precedent for his mackin’ style. But, in my own agitated state, I took to heart Ovid’s assertion that all women can be wooed through persistence. (Although I needed to extrapolate somewhat, since I’m gay.)

I invited my reluctant lover to the theater and bought us nosebleed seats. There, as Ovid said, we could “sit side by side as close as you can; and that is easy, for the rows compel closeness, even if she [lege: he] be unwilling.” The date ended with the promise of another.

But the following week, a curt text terminated our dinner plans. Undaunted, I showed up at the man’s doorstep with sunflowers and takeout oxtail (his favorite). “This is not ideal,” my crush said, but he let me in.

Actually, I relish in my boo’s idealism -- his quest for perfection, which is deeply ingrained in his training as a ballerino. But it is perhaps the very idealism of medieval fin’amor that was the biggest turn-off for my students.

Reading Dante’s La Vita Nuova, one literature major pronounced: “Beatrice is not depicted as a person, but a demigod.” Similarly, a creative writer classified Dante’s idolatry of Beatrice as “dysfunctional” and “unhealthy.”

Students scolded Dante’s deification of Beatrice, on the grounds that Dante’s love is impractical, inefficient and inadequately concerned with mental and physical well-being. In contrast with contemporary dating -- which is often a venal question of matching one’s interests, career goals and preferred modes of instant gratification -- Dante sacrifices earthly happiness, and he orients himself toward the heavens. Dante’s love, by definition, devolves from the afterlife, thus rendering meaningless one’s health and functionality in this world.

In a vatic frenzy, Dante composed stunning -- or offensive -- verses for Beatrice. And with no less devotion -- but with considerably less talent -- I penned 50 sonnets for my love.

In the process, I began to see him in terms of Ciceronian philosophy. But this is a complicated point that I was too lovesick to teach clearly: in the first century BC, Cicero had argued that friendship can only exist between good men. Medieval people romanticized and heterosexualized that notion, making Ciceronian friendship the basis for their cross-gendered romantic ethics.

The moral of that story? I, in turn, re-queered the whole corpus of medieval love literature. And I used Dante’s poems as models for my own sonnets, which praised my sweetheart as the apotheosis of classical virtue.

You might say that I came on a little strong.

But my heady sonnets did soften the guy’s heart. So, one day in class, I asked my students what they would do if someone had written La Vita Nuova for them. Students assured me that they would file restraining orders or, at least, “block him on Facebook.”

I thought that I had been spittin’ mad game. But by contemporary standards, the techniques of my medieval romance would appear desperate, unattractive and/or illegal. De gustibus!

Having taken the pulse of the milieu, I decided to practice more restraint. Therefore, I did not employ the most unmodern technology of medieval courtship, the polemic, which was theorized by Andreas Capellanus (the 12th-century authority on courtly love). Capellanus advised lovers to attain their beloved’s mutual consent through sustained, rational argument. Incidentally, Capellanus thereby demonstrates the vast moral progress that separated the Middle Ages from Ovid. (But my students insisted that “Capellanus is still a misogynist!”)

In any case, I declined to write a diatribe of the type that Capellanus recommends.

Instead, I began writing love poems for strangers on the subway, and I texted my crush a smiley face, hoping that he texts back.

Bio

A. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the New School.

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