Romantic Love as Fiction and as Life
By Brother Anthony of Taize (An Sonjae)
Sogang University, Seoul
This article was published in Medieval English Studies (The Medieval English Studies Association of Korea) 1 (1993)
The Beginning of Romance: Medieval Love Literature
The Troubadours, poets in the southern part of France, first began to write poems in which the man humbles himself before a woman that he loves with an intense admiration. In these poems, the man offers to become the Lady's servant, to live only for her, if she will only recognize his feelings. There is no question of marriage, often the lady is already married. The main Troubadours are:
Guilhem IX Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine (1071- 1127)
Cercamon (fl. 1135-45)
Bernart de Ventadorn (fl. 1150-1180)
Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine was first queen of France then, after a divorce, became queen of England. Guilhem IX was her grandfather. She encouraged the writing of narrative poems about the problems of intense love in northern France and England. These narratives are called in French 'Romans' - romances. Love is here a unique union and an immense problem at the same time.
First came stories of King Arthur and his queen Guivevere's adultery :
1131 Geoffrey of Monmouth: Historia Regum Britanniae (Latin)
Then the story of Tristan and Iseult, which was revised for Eleanor, shows the tragic side of irresistible but impossible love between man and woman:
1150 Thomas: Roman de Tristan (1210 German version by Gottfried von Strassburg)
The same interest in intense and problematic love is found sometimes in the Classical Romances:
c. 1155 Roman de Thebes (from Statius: Thebaid)
Roman d'Eneas (from Virgil: Aeneid)
Wace: Roman de Brut (from Geoffrey of Monmouth: Historia)
and lastly: Benoit de Sainte-Maure: Roman de Troie (from Dares/Dictys) which was later rewritten in Latin as a work popular for centuries to come:
1287 Guido delle Colonne: Historia Destructionis Troiae.
Then for Eleanor's daughter Marie de Champagne, in the north-east of France, Chretien de Troyes began to write the great psychological romances, where romantic love leads at last to marriage, or to disaster:
Chretien de Troyes
1170 Erec et Enide
1178-80 Yvain (The knight with the lion) and Lancelot (The knight on the cart)
1180- Perceval (The Grail) (unfinished)
Pretending to be written in1190 but in fact from about 1225, Andrea Capellanus: De Arte Honeste Amandi (in Latin) is a satiric attempt to make a theory out of all this fiction.
Le Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose): the 'allegory of love,' the first part is more like a lyric game of love, the second part blames women for causing men so much unhappiness:
c. 1230 the first 4058 lines, by Guillaume de Lorris
c. 1275 the remaining 17,622 lines, by Jean de Meun
Romantic Love ceased to be a matter of mere fiction when Dante experienced it as a profoundly theological vision on the basis of personal experience:
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
1290-4 La Vita Nuova
1304-8 De vulgari eloquentia
1315-20 La Divina Commedia
Dante's vision was followed in a more intellectual and more intensely individualistic, though also theological, way in Petrarch's Italian poems:
Francesco Petrarcha (1304-1374)
1374 final version of Rime sparse (the Canzoniere)
Then literary fiction and autobiographical love were recombined in a new and modern way:
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)
1336 Filocolo (prose romance of Floris and Blancheflour)
1339 Teseida (epic of Theseus, Palamon, Arcite)
1340 Filostrato (Troilo and Criseida, derived from the Roman de Troie)
As a result of all the above, Chaucer could write the first two works in English in which romantic love is central: Troilus and the Knight's Tale. In both works, love is the greatest happiness, and a source of intense unhappiness, and in both, the emotions and the pain are almost entirely experienced by the men, not the women.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343?-1400)
1385-90 Troilus and Criseyde (from Boccaccio's Filostrato)
? The Knight's Tale (from Boccaccio's Teseida)
Tristan and Iseult, Lancelot and Guinevere, Aeneas and Dido, Troilus
and Criseyde, Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura... Intense love of
man and woman is a central subject in European literature. As the names
above indicate, too, there is no clear distinction made between people
who had historical existence and those who have only ever existed in imaginary
fictions. This paper traces the development of literary portrayals of love
during the High Middle Ages, from the 12th to the 14th centuries. Modern
European love literature began with crafted lyrics and fictional narratives
about power and oppression, identity and difference, but later we find
writers who claim to be writing about their personal experiences.
In the middle ages and the renaissance, the male lover is usually the central figure; in many cases the woman does not even realize how much she is loved. In many works, the initial focus is on the conflicts in the male psyche. The ideal of love looked for, if not always found, is a situation where the woman and the man experience identically strong feelings for one another. Once the male has expressed his feelings, the central conflict within the woman centers on how she should respond, given her position in society.
Society is present because the women and men represented in this literature, and for whom it was written, are economically and politically powerful, part of the ruling class usually, and therefore concerned with their fragile reputation. Conflict between the private and the public provokes a demand for secrecy. The lovers find themselves isolated, enclosed in a private world of intense and conflictual feelings; this aspect of romantic love may even be partly responsible for the development of western individualism.
It began in southern France when some poets began to wrestle with the Problem of the Feminine. In the following centuries writers in all the European countries began to write about the relationship between men and women. Some produced 'love lyrics' while many others wrote narrative fiction. These fictional narratives about knights, ladies, and love, are usually called 'romances'. It is because love is so important in the romances that any intense and socially troubling form of love came to be called 'romantic love.'
Around 1100, Guilhem IX was Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine, in south-western France. He was a poet, too, and a vigorous soldier, who was not accustomed to control his sexual appetites; he wrote a number of poems in which he tells how women met along the road become his sexual partners in a very 'unromantic' although sometimes rather exhausting way. But one day he wrote a new poem, Farai chansoneta nueva, and European love literature has not been the same since:
I shall make a new song
before the wind blows and it freezes and rains.
My lady (ma dona) is trying and testing me,
to find out how much I love her.
Well, no matter what quarrel she makes,
she will not loose me from her bond.
Rather I become her servant, surrender to her,
so she can write my name in her contract.
Now don't go thinking I must be drunk
if I love my good lady;
for without her I cannot live...
In another of Guilhem's poems we find almost all the other themes that go to make up what used to be called 'courtly love' (the expression is not used today, it is often called fin'amors instead), and which became 'Petrarchanism' in the renaissance:
Already rejoicing, I begin to love,
for I am made better by one who is, beyond dispute
the best a man ever saw or heard.
By her joy a sick man can recover,
by her wrath one well can die,
a wise man turn to childishness,
a fine man see his beauty change,
the most courtly man become a churl,
and any churl become courtly.
In these poems we are struck by the strong conflict and tension between joy and pain, private feelings and social roles. The woman's beauty has such power that it can bring the man life or death, depending on whether her response is kind or cruel, positive or negative. This soon developed into an extended parody of the Christian religion's language about mercy and grace, the medieval Love Religion game.
A few years later the troubadour Cercamon could write paradoxical words of a kind that was going to be repeated for centuries to come:
I neither die, nor live, nor get well,
I do not feel my suffering, and yet it is great suffering,
because I cannot tell the future of her love,
whether I shall have it, or when,
for in her is all the pity
which can raise me up or make me fall.
I am pleased when she maddens me
when she makes me stand with open mouth staring,
I am pleased when she laughs at me,
or makes a fool of me to my face, or my back;
for after this bad the good will come
very quickly, if such is her pleasure.
Finally, between 1150 and about 1180, Bernart de Ventadorn brought this poetic game to its perfection:
In good faith, without deceit,
I love the best and most beautiful.
My heart sighs, my eyes weep,
because I love her so much and I suffer for it.
What else can I do, if Love takes hold of me,
and no key but pity can open up
the prison where he has put me,
and I find no sign of pity there?
This love wounds my heart
with a sweet taste, so gently,
I die of grief a hundred times a day
and a hundred times revive with joy.
My pain seems beautiful,
this pain is worth more than any pleasure;
and since I find this bad so good,
how good will be the good when this suffering is done.
What is most striking is the paradoxical terminology; the poet takes such pleasure in expressing his unhappiness. Love is so wonderful that even all the frustrations imposed by social inequality, and the near-impossibility of union, cannot weaken it. The poems, though, are clearly 'complaints' in the sense that they are veiled attacks on the lady's present coldness, and represent hope that she will later accept the offered love. The pain is used as a psychological weapon in an attempt to compell the woman to yield to the man's will.
Eleanor of Aquitaine
In one poem Bernart's lover says that he is suffering more than Tristan did in his love for 'Izeut la blonda.' To understand this, we have to turn to Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204); she was Guilhem IX's grand-daughter, she probably brought Bernart de Ventadorn to her court in Poitiers in the 1170s. She married King Louis VII of France in 1137 when she was 15, but in 1152 she divorced him and married Henry Plantagenet, who soon after became King Henry II of England. One of her daughters by the first marriage, Marie, married the Count of Champagne in 1159, and set up a court in Troyes modelled on her mother's in Poitiers, and both courts were centres of literary and artistic culture.
Just at this time continental French writers encountered Celtic folktales: in 1131 in England Geoffrey of Monmouth completed his Historia Regum Britanniae. This introduced the heroic Celtic figure of Arthur to Europe; in the latter part of the story Arthur's queen, Guinevere, is reported to have left Arthur and to be living in adultery with his enemy, Mordred. Out of this ancient legend, later writers were to make a new myth.
Geoffrey's sources were partly written, partly oral (Monmouth is caught between Wales and England). Later, story-tellers from Britany and Wales seem to have toured France telling other old Celtic tales to entertain people in the palaces. From them, perhaps, Chretien de Troyes got his material.
Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin History was turned into French (Anglo-Norman) verse by Eleanor's official historian Robert Wace. This Roman de Brut was finished by 1155 when Eleanor had just arrived in her new kingdom of England. There is not much about love to be found in it, but it cannot avoid the tragic love-triangle Arthur-Guinevere-Mordred. Wace's Brut had been preceded by an adaptation into French for Eleanor of Statius's Thebaid, the Roman de Thebes, in which the dangers of love are recognized and skillfully avoided by Antigone. Love became an increasingly important part of the 'Romans', the long poetic narratives written for Eleanor's court.
In 1150, or soon after, a French writer, Thomas, composed a Roman de Tristan, also for Eleanor, adapting a story which had already been circulating in France for a number of years. (Thomas's version is only preserved in fragments, and is best known through the reworking of his Roman by the German Gottfried von Strassburg, one of the great poems of European literature despite its being unfinished.)
The Tristan is from start to finish a love story. It has no military action, no other focus than the tragic conflict between private passion and social duty. Tristan fetches Iseult from Ireland as the bride of his uncle Mark, king of Cornwall. On the boat they inadvertently drink a 'love potion' designed for the royal wedding night, and fall hopelessly in love. In the older story this was only a temporary problem, the effects of the potion wearing off after 3-4 years, but in Thomas it gives birth to a lifelong passion from which only death can free the lovers.
The rest of the tale is about their love-suffering: hiding for a time in the woods where Mark finds them asleep in a cave, luckily with a sword between them. Their love cannot be, and cannot not be; finally, after years of pain, separation and reunion, they die and are buried on opposite sides of a church; plants spring from the graves and twine together over the church roof.
The love-pain in the Roman de Tristan is caused by two love-triangles: Iseult is married to Marc, but loves and is loved by Tristan; in the later part of the poem Tristan, in despair, marries another Iseult, 'of the white hands,' but cannot love her or forget the first Iseult. In this situation everyone suffers; love has become the biggest problem a powerful man can face, precisely because his physical strength is completely useless in dealing with it. The centre of the action is in the human heart, the conflict between what ought to be and what is.
In the mid-1150s, another poet writing for Eleanor adapted Virgil's Aeneid into the Roman d'Eneas. Here love-interest arises in the relationship of the hero with two women, Dido and Lavinia. Dido's love is in the end shown as a fole amor, (crazy love) excessive and doomed. In explicit response to the Tristan story, Lavinia's role is greatly developed as a successful quest for mutual and undivided love, the antidote to the triangles of Tristan, and the adulterous love of the troubadours.
Just after she has said she has no use for love, Lavinia sees Eneas from a window and is struck by Cupid's arrow. She spends long sleepless nights struggling to understand her feelings for him. She wants to love, and fears to, has to choose between two men; she must suffer too because she has no idea of Eneas's feelings towards her. Finally it is she who declares her feelings to him, and they develop a leal amor, (true love) trusting, equal to the honour of each, leading to marriage.
Then in 1155 the new court historian Benoit de Sainte-Maure dedicated to Eleanor his Roman de Troie, 30,000 lines based on the Latin narratives about the Trojan War of Dares and Dictys, with 22 battles and three tragic love stories. This was the most copied among the romances, it still exists in 30 manuscripts. In 1287 it was turned into Latin prose by Guido delle Colonne, a work that survives in 130 Mss and was read throughout Europe until the 17th century. It was Benoit who created the story of the tragic love of Troilus for the fickle Briseis, which he set alongside that of Jason for Medea, and Achilles for Polyxena. In each of these stories, at least one of the lovers dies.
Eneas and Troie already show the influence of Ovid in the long passages of psychological introspection they contain. For Benoit, the central point of the story was Briseis's change of heart; the emotional climax lies in Diomedes's encounter with her. We find him weeping, pale, analysing his feelings in monologues, wooing her insistently despite her indifference, and at last gaining her: 'May God grant Troilus happiness! Since I can no longer cherish him, nor he me, I shall yield and surrender myself to Diomedes...' she says; Troilus was only a teenager, after all!
There is an implied narrative, a love story, in the lyrics of the troubadours. But Tristan and the Thebes-Brut-Eneas-Troie romances give explicit scenarios of fictional love. Love between a man and a women, they show, is the most wonderful thing. It is also the most terrible thing. By the time Benoit created the story of Troilus and Briseis (it was Boccaccio who changed her name to Criseida), a strong reaction had set in against the power of women's beauty. In the Roman de Troie the women are blamed for the way in which noble, heroic men are brought low by the power of love. Poetry that at first idealized women soon provoked an anti-feminist reaction. The most revolutionary thing about Benoit's Briseis is the way in which she is ideal enough in beauty to inflame Troilus, but realistic enough to give him up for Diomedes. She is a sensible woman, it's the men who are mad!
Five other romances mark the beginning of modern fiction, all the work of one man, Chretien de Troyes. Of his life almost nothing is known, but before being at the service of Marie of Champagne he seems to have been in Eleanor's court, where he would have been able to read the new classical romances and hear the debates they caused. Chretien's five verse romances are works of a highly creative imagination. It is possible to see them all (except the incomplete Perceval) as responses to the problems posed by Tristan.
Erec and Enide (1170), the first romance with an Arthurian setting, is the story of a man who falls in love with a woman he does not know well; he marries her, then they have to learn to live together through sharing danger and hardship. Can love and honour of arms be reconciled, or must a man who loves a woman loose his manly skills? They set out together on adventure, each tests the other and is taught. Erec forbids Enide to speak; but three times she warns him of danger, breaking his command to save his life. It is a study of love with a real woman, with echoes of the social dangers inherent in the idealizing approach of fin'amors. Exclusive and life-long mutual love in marriage triumph in the end.
In Cliges (1176), we start with an idyll between a couple who fall in love and marry; as in Erec and Enide the love- triangle is rejected in favour of the exclusive one-on-one relationship. In the second part, the couple's son Cliges loves Fenice and is loved by her but she is forced to marry his uncle, the emperor of Constantinople.
In this triangle, the themes of the Tristan story are rejected: Fenice will not be Iseult; the magic potion she uses gives her husband the impression of sexual relationship while in fact she remains intact. At the same time she refuses to have a sexual relationship with Cliges so long as she is his uncle's wife. A potion of the kind later to be used by Juliet at last delivers her and she is united with Cliges, having broken the triangle by her seeming death.
In the late 1170s Chretien wrote two yet more fantastic romances at the same time, Yvain and Lancelot (The knight with the lion and The knight on the cart). In Yvain, the initial situation is a triangle, caused when Yvain kills the knight of the magic fountain and falls in love with his widow, Laudine. Time allows their union, but while Yvain simply loves, the lady is only brought to accept his love by her maid's persuasion. The next part of Yvain returns to the conflict between love for a woman and martial activity in a man's public life. Yvain leaves his wife to go on tourneys, promising to return by a certain day; then he forgets and she sends a message rejecting him for ever. After many adventures, during which he rescues a lion that then always follows him, he nearly kills his dearest friend in a combat by mistake. He decides to try to get Laudine back, and succeeds, thanks again mainly to her maid's help. This reliance on the cunning of a servant seems to suggest an ironic touch.
Lancelot is the starting-point of a huge literary tradition, and again it can be seen as a re-writing of Tristan. The Arthurian court offers merely a setting for Chretien's first three poems, but here the central triangle involves Arthur himself, his wife Guinevere, and Lancelot, who is given the traditional role of Guinevere's lover, in place of Mordred. The subject-matter of this tale is the obsessive fin'amors of Lancelot for Guinevere, a love that endures endless testing and cruelty from the beloved. Misunderstandings and conflict bring both of them to the brink of suicide, before Guinevere, who has been abducted by the mysterious Meleagant, calls Lancelot to her; he rips the bars from her window and they are united.
In the rest of the poem, Guinevere exploits her total control of Lancelot's will to bring him to ever higher feats of knighthood, but the moral conflict inherent in their adultery was not resolved when Chretien turned the story over to another writer to finish. In the 13th century prose 'Vulgate' romance, adapted by Malory, it is the discovery by Arthur of their affair, years later, that brings about a break between him and Lancelot, and the tragic collapse of the Round Table.
The fundamental tension that Chretien examines in all his romances involves society: two people in love are happier alone together, but they have wider responsibilities they cannot avoid. Above all it involves difference: the man falls dramatically in love with a woman who in many cases is not ready to reciprocate. The active person is the man, yet his love makes him entirely dependant on the lady's response. Their relationship evolves through long periods of introspection expressed in monologue. Chretien is often seen as the father of the psychological novel, but Thomas and Benoit went before him, with the inner monologues they give their characters.
Around 1225, a satirist of a new generation composed an Ovidian handbook on love, De Arte Honeste Amandi, mocking the literature of the court in a text purportedly written in 1190 by another servant of Marie de Champagne, Andreas Capellanus. This work was given too exalted a position by C.S. Lewis in his Allegory of Love.
In the 13th century, the most important development in romantic love is expressed in the contrast between the two parts of the Roman de la Rose. The first 4058 lines, written about 1230 by Guillaume de Lorris, represent in allegory the power of a beautiful lady, the sight of whom is enough to captivate the lover's heart. The fragment was 'completed' forty years later by Jean de Meun, in 17,622 lines of encyclopedic content, where the dominant tone is strongly anti-feminist; love, it says, is no ideal but a terrible danger for any man. In the end, the male is allowed to 'pluck the rose' that is the allegorical goal of his quest, but it has come to seem a pointless triumph, and the work fails to see what Thomas and Chretien knew, that sexual union is the beginning of a relationship, happy or unhappy, not the end of a quest.
Then romantic love entered real life! It happened in Florence at 3 o'clock one afternoon in 1283, when an eighteen year old youth met a girl a few months younger dressed in white accompanied by two older friends: 'e per la sua ineffabile cortesia... mi saluto molto virtuosamente tanto che mi parve allora vedere tutti i termini della beatitudine.' (And by her unspeakable courtesy... she greeted me with such skill that at that moment I seemed to glimpse all the farthest bounds of bliss.)
The love-experience meditated on in the autobiographical narrative and poems which make up Dante's La Vita Nuova begins with the sight of the Lady. Unlike the romances, the man here is no soldier, and is in control of his physical desire. Sex as such is not at all involved; yet once again, the effect on the man of seeing the woman is a sickness; he cannot speak, he grows pale and almost faints. The great distance that marks their relationship is such that all his desire (and it is largely frustrated) is to hear Beatrice greet him: Salute (which means salvation!) Then on June 8, 1290 he was writing a poem in her praise:
So long a time has Love kept me a slave
And in his lordship fully seasoned me
That even though at first I felt him harsh,
Now tender is his power in my heart.
But when he takes my strength away from me
So that my spirits seem to run away,
My fainting soul then feels overcome1 And my face is drained of all its colour,
For in me Love is working up such power
He makes my spirits rant and wander off
That rushing out they call1 My Lady, begging her to grant me grace.
This happens every time she sees me
and I am humbled more than you'll believe.
he had written those words, he says, when he learned that 'the God of Justice had called this most gracious one to glory under the banner of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose name was always spoken with the greatest reverence by the blessed Beatrice.' This unfinished poem stands in the centre of the Vita Nuova, before it are poems about the growth of his love, and after it are the poems in which he comes to understand that the dead Beatrice is now even more his love, leading his pilgrim soul into a new life of heavenly vision:
Beyond the sphere that makes the longest round
Passes the sigh which issues from my heart;
A quickened understanding that sad Love
Imparts to it keeps drawing it on high.
When it has come to the desired place
It sees a lady held in reverence
And who shines so, that through her radiance
The pilgrim spirit gazes upon her.
In Dante, the relationship of man and woman is transformed radically by the exclusion of sexual possession as the goal of desire. Instead, the sight of the beloved becomes a form of Platonic contemplation of Absolute Living Beauty, an image of God. Beatrice's death became for Dante the starting- point of a life of action. He began to study the philosophy of Aristotle, he became active in Italian politics, finally he fulfilled the promise made at the end of the Vita Nuova and wrote again of Beatrice. She is his guide through the heights of Paradise in the Divine Comedy, until at last she withdraws and Dante is left face to face with the Woman Herself, the Blessed Mary in the highest Glory. What had started as a poetry of tragic frustration and destructive lust becomes, in Dante, the way of eternal life.
The parallels between Dante and Petrarch are so striking that many critics, from the earliest times, have doubted whether Petrarch's Laura really existed. Yet he wrote the most detailed information about her on the page of his Virgil manuscript where he only recorded the deaths of his closest and dearest: 'Laura... first appeared to my eyes in my youth, in the year of our Lord 1327, on the sixth day of April, in the church of St Clare in Avignon, at matins; and in the same city, also on the sixth of April, at the same first hour, but in the year 1348, the light of her life was withdrawn from the light of day...'. Petrarch's Rime sparse contain 267 love poems composed before Laura died and 100 written after her death, culminating in the last great hymn to the Virgin. In both poets the same fundamental idea is found: the male obsession with the image of the Lady is potentially fatal. The only hope is either a rejection or a metamorphosis, a transformation linked in both cases to the death of the Lady.
The main topic in the Rime sparse is not Laura, but the mind of the lover. Petrarch is the centre of his own poetic interest, and the celebration of the female in his poems is in the end designed to enable us to explore the male; The male lover effaces the female, in the act of evoking her:
Petrarch: Rime sparse 132
S'amor non e, che dunque equel ch'io sento?
ma s'egli eamor, per Dio, che cosa et quale?
se bona, ond'e l'effetto aspro mortale?
se ria, ond'e si dolce ogni tormento?
S'a mia voglia ardo, ond'e'l pianto e lamento?
s'a mal mio grado, il lamentar che vale?
O viva morte, o dilettoso male,
come puoi tanto in me s'io nol consento?
Et s'io'l consento, a gran torto mi doglio.
Fra si contrari venti in frale barca
mi trovo in alto mar senza governo,
si lieve di saver, d'error si carca
ch'i'medesmo no so quel ch'io mi voglio,
e tremo a mezza state, ardendo il verno.
132. If it is not love, what then is it that I feel? But if it is love, by God, what kind of thing is it? If it is good, whence comes this bitter mortal effect? If it is evil, why is each torment so sweet?
Amid such contrary winds I find myself at sea in a frail bark, without a tiller,
so light of wisdom, so laden with error, that I myself do not know what I want; and I shiver in midsummer, burn in winter.
By 1335 or so, Giovanni Boccaccio, not yet 30 years old, had read the troubadours, the French original and Guido's translation of the Roman de Troie, Andreas Capellanus, Dante, Petrarch... so he set out to follow Dante's programme for vernacular literature exposed in his De vulgari eloquentia; by 1340 he had written an Italian epic in his Teseida, a study of the will in the Filocolo, and a study of the fire of love in the Filostrato. The Teseida is the source of Chaucer's Knight's Tale, while the Filostrato gave Chaucer the material for Troilus and Criseyde.
Boccaccio probably did not know the stories about Tristan, but in his romance about Troilus we are given a story in which the 'love interest' is so central that military aspects are almost non-existent. From the vast Roman de Troie, with its many pages describing the military exploits leading to the destruction of Troy, Boccaccio selects only the segments dealing with the Troilus-Briseis-Diomedes triangle. These he expands into the story of 'the love and wrath of Troilo' as an exemplum of the folly of falling under the power of 'love's fire'.
Boccaccio had also read La Vita Nuova and the Rime Sparse; in both he found the poet's personal love-story introduced as sub-text to poems shaped in the conventions of the troubadours. So the Greek title Filostrato that Boccaccio gave the work was understood by him as meaning 'a man vanquished and laid prostrate by love' This refers to Troilo, but it equally refers to the poet, as the Proem makes clear. The poem is dedicated to 'Filomena' (the loved one) and tells the story of Troilo who was 'vanquished by love both by fervently loving Criseida and then again by her departure.' So, he informs his lady and his readers in the Proem: 'as many times as you find Troilo weeping and grieving for the departure of Criseida, that many times you may clearly recognize and know my own cries, tears, sighs, and distresses; and as many times as you find the beauty, the good manners, or any other thing praiseworthy in a lady written of Criseida, that often you can understand them to be spoken of you.' His purpose is writing this work (Teseida and Filocolo contain the same subtext) was: 'in the person of someone emotionally overcome as I was and am, to relate my sufferings in song.' The work becomes an emblem of the poet's own unhappiness caused by hopeless love.
This explains the virtual exclusion of the Trojan War from the action, the highly lyrical style, and the oddly laconic mention of Troilo's death. For Boccaccio is not writing a love tragedy; Troilo's death has nothing at all to do with his love. Troilo is refused a tragic fate, both during the poem when he is about to kill himself thinking that Criseida has died, and at the end. The work is about happiness, and the loss of it because of a woman's fickleness. For Boccaccio, Troilo is a negative exemplum as he was not in his sources. He knew that women were not to be trusted, all being fickle and changing like a leaf in the breeze. His falling in love was an act of folly, but that does not excuse Criseida.
Boccaccio transfers the main focus from the woman's betrayal to the intense pain caused by it. In the sources Diomede is present throughout the poem; in Boccaccio he is only introduced with the separation, figured in the dream of the boar that has such an effect on Troilo. This dream, like the promise Criseida makes to be back in 10 days, and the jewel by which Troilus becomes certain of her betrayal, are all the creation of Boccaccio. At the same time, he has transferred to Troilo in the first part of the story all that characterized Diomede's love for Briseis in the sources: self-analysis, slow wooing, pain, constancy and patience.
If we move on to Chaucer's Troilus and Crisyede, it is now easier to sense what he has added to the tale. He has deepened the psychological and literary elements, making the poem even more lyrical. He has also removed the reference to a private love-affair that Boccaccio had introduced in the Proem. This means that the unhappiness Troilus experiences in Chaucer has no reason for being as strong as it is. The result is a story with deep ambiguity, much less judgemental of Troilus, containing a pattern of rise and fall, a sense of 'tragedy' that reaches back to Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. Fortune is more stressed in Chaucer than in Boccaccio. The outline of the 'rise and fall' pattern of Troilus's happiness at the start of Chaucer's work tells us that the main focus of this romance is not political nor social, but inward and private. The 'dramatic' tone that Chaucer gives the work by his expansion of direct speech may even indicate a reference to Seneca, to say nothing of the introspective mode of speech he must have learned from Ovid. The final 'go, little my tragedy' is the sign that Chaucer was conscious of creating something quite new in English, the first romantic love story.
Both Boccaccio and Chaucer sought to enhance the lyrical quality of their work by embedding in the text quotations from earlier lyric poets. For example, Troilus writes a letter to Criseyde after she has gone to the Greek camp; in it Chaucer translates quite closely the words of Boccaccio: 'Gli occhi dolente' (VII, st. 60) 'Myn eyen two, in veyn with whiche I see...'(Bk V.197), but surely did not realize that these words were inspired by a lyric by Dante in the Vita Nuova (chap.31). Yet later we find Chaucer doing just the same thing, independently.
In Book I line 400, where Boccaccio only mentions a song, Chaucer gives the words of the song Troilus sings to express his inner confusion before the contrary effects of love:
If no love is, O God, what fele I so?
And if love is, what thing and which is he?
If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo?
Allas, what is this wondre maladie?
For hete of cold, for cold of hete, I dye.
There is no hint in the text, but this is the sonnet by Petrarch quoted above, the first ever translated into English. No reader in Chaucer's day could have recognized it for what it was. By it we are linked by invisible bonds to Petrarch's love for Laura; this enriches and sheds ironic light on the nature of the love adventure that Troilus is embarking on.
Petrarch's Canzoniere, Chaucer's Troilus, and the Knight's Tale were major sources used by all English Renaissance writers, especially Shakespeare, in writing about love, suffering and destiny. Yet Chauer's treatment of the story of Troilus, and the tone of the Knight's Tale, both suggest that for him there was something strange and foolish in making so much fuss about a woman. Only with Shakespeare were the English able to produce literary works that affirmed without irony or hesitation that romantic love is the most wonderful thing in the world, worth dying for in Romeo and Juliet, but the key to redemption, to social peace and new hope in the Tempest. Not surprisingly, Romance was Shakespeare's favourite genre!
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Troilus and Criseyde: 'The Book of Troilus' by Geoffrey Chaucer edited by B.A.Windeatt (Longman, London, 1984)
W.R.J.Barron, English Medieval Romance (Longman Literature in English Series, London, 1987)
The European Tragedy of Troilus, edited by Piero Boitani (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989)
Chretien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances translated by W.W.Kibler and C.W.Carroll (Penguin Classics, London, 1991)
Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouveres: An Anthology and a History, translations and introductions by Frederick Goldin (Anchor Books, New York, 1973)
Dante: La Vita Nuova translated by Mark Musa (Indiana UP, 1957)
Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The Rime sparse and Other Lyrics, translated and edited by Robert M. Durling (Harvard UP, 1976)