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Friday, November 19, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Romanticism: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Courtly Love, and Gustave Flaubert

In my introduction to this blog I suggested that the French reputation as lovers might have influenced our decision to vacation there.  But references to “French kissing” and “the French disease” aside, the French reputation for romance started with the tradition of courtly love, which seems to have arisen in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of Richard the Lionhearted.  The history of this romantic tradition, however,  is anything but romantic, and the social conflict surrounding the concept of courtly love -- and French idealization of young women and affairs of the heart --  has been highly contentious.  If we surrendered to the allure of French romanticism in our decision to travel to France, what we found there instead were some natives who have given it a harder look!

Edmund Blair-Leighton's take on courtly love;  The Accolade

In many ways, Eleanor (1122-1204) seems to have been misplaced in the context of the male-dominated High Middle Ages.  She was one of the most powerful  female figures of her time; ruler of a wealthy and culturally influential realm – Aquitaine -- in what is now southwestern France; later she became queen consort first to France and then to England.  And she was a powerful piece in the great feudal game of marital alliances.  She played a key role in the development of love that was, in and of itself, a deconstruction and response to the concept of the political marriage of convenience.  You certainly wouldn’t characterize her marriages as love matches.

Eleanor, Louis VII, and the Second Crusade
Upon the death of her father, Duke William X of Aquitaine in 1137, Eleanor inherited her father’s title and lands.  By the age of 15, she had been given the best education that her father’s court, then a center of culture, could provide.  Upon his death, all its nobles swore fealty to her.  She immediately became a valuable marriage partner to anyone seeking alliance with this province.  William had arranged for Louis the Fat, the aged King of France, to serve as her guardian.  The French King promptly married her off to his son, Prince Louis.  Ten weeks after William’s death, the marriage was performed in Bordeaux.  Five days later, Louis the Fat died and on Christmas of 1137, Eleanor was Queen of France, consort to her husband, crowned King Louis VII.  Louis could then claim the allegiance of Aquitaine for France!  Obtaining the allegiance of his queen would not prove quite so easy.

Eleanor’s speedy marriage after her father’s death was only secondarily about ensuring her own ‘safety.’  It was common for ambitious nobles to kidnap unprotected landed women for their political assets and force them into marriage.  So the danger was real enough.  But Eleanor’s father was looking after his own rights and the rights of his family and allies after his death, every bit as much as protecting his daughter’s welfare.  ‘Dog eat dog’ doesn’t quite cover the tenor of the feudal mating game!

Eleanor's inheritance upon her father's death is in pink.  "Huge tracts o' land!" indeed. These duchies owed allegiance to France (imagine all the pink lands as green) when she married Louis, then to Normandy (or 'Angevin' in this map) when she married Henry.  The correct marriage could alter the map at a stroke. Care to guess if this will cause trouble between France and England later?
The headstrong Eleanor was disappointed with her new husband.  She complained that she had married a monk, not a king!  Although Louis adored her at first, there was plenty of marital conflict from the outset. Eleanor was far too spirited and free thinking for the relatively staid northern Franks and she was not a popular queen.  Rumors circulated about adultery. 

Monk though he may have seemed, Louis was preoccupied with conflicts with the Church.  After eight years of this, Pope Eugenius declared the Second Crusade and asked Louis to lead it.  Guilty about his ‘sins’ for opposing the Church, Louis wanted to atone by making pilgrimage to Jerusalem, so he accepted the charge to raise and lead the expedition.  Back in the 12th century, a Papal guarantee of a place in Heaven granted for leading a Crusade carried a great deal of weight!  Additional troops would be needed beyond those that could be raised from Paris itself.  Eleanor insisted on going along as leader of the Aquitaine military contingent.  How could Louis deny her?  They were, after all, her troops.

Louis VII's and Eleanor's route to disaster at Damascus.  The failure of this expedition would lead to the fall of Jerusalem and the call for the Third Crusade.
The Second Crusade was intended to shore up the declining fortunes of the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem, but Louis was not an effective military leader, and he lacked the military experience or persuasive skills necessary to keep the expedition of diverse contingents together.  He barely escaped death or capture when the Turks attacked the van of his army, and Eleanor’s unpopularity was such that she received a good portion of the blame for the French defeat. In this case, the charges that she was carrying ‘excess baggage’ were no metaphor!  Her sundries were blamed for slowing the army down!  This was ironic in the extreme as she was frequently the unattended voice of reason in the entire campaign.  But she is probably as guilty as anyone of contributing to dissension that would have been a huge challenge even to a truly gifted leader.  Rumors circulated again that she was adulterous and more loyal to her own kin than to King Louis.  Louis and Eleanor quarreled over strategy, and he imprisoned her for opposing his plans to attack Damascus and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  When he went ahead anyway, these moves dissipated the remainder of Louis troops exactly as she had warned.  By the time it was clear that the Second Crusade a failure, the relationship between Louis and Eleanor was in tatters. After many misadventures, including a return to France in separate ships which became lost following naval attack and storms, Eleanor’s reputation was as damaged goods.  Pope Eugenius, however, refused to grant an annulment, and even pressured the couple back into bed together, resulting in Eleanor’s second daughter by Louis.  But having failed to produce a male heir, Eleanor’s reign as Queen of France was finished.  In 1152, Eleanor’s marriage to Louis was annulled in France, with Louis getting custody of the two daughters, and Eleanor receiving church-backed promises that her lands would be restored to her.

Ironically, Louis, who married twice more, was to become the grandsire to Saint Louis who we last visited collecting holy relics and building Sainte Chapelle, with an eye to making Paris the new center of Christendom.

Eleanor, within 6 weeks of receiving her annulment from Louis (and after the failure of two kidnapping attempts in the interim!), married Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, 12 years her senior.  Their marriage would prove to be tempestuous too, but harmonious enough that she conceived five sons and three daughters by Henry over the next thirteen years.  Henry was no monk; he was brazenly unfaithful to her, and she was sometimes furious and sometimes acquiescent to the consequences of these illicit relationships.  Two years after this marriage, Henry ascended to the English throne, making Eleanor queen consort of England in 1154.

The Poitiers location of Eleanor's court is today another Palais du Justice
By 1167, various conflicts, including Henry’s role in the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury; disputes about her claims on lands in France; and Henry’s open affairs, led to estrangement and the Queen of England returned to Poitiers in her own realm.  Between 1167 and 1173, when the fractious sons of Henry II began their uprising against him, Eleanor is said to have operated the “Court of Love.”  Whatever the factual basis, this period was powerful stimulus to the notions of courtly love that were entering the culture of the Late Middle Ages. 

The basis of this amorous philosophy was unrequited romantic and erotic attraction.  In this tradition, women held all the power; their mere glance could freeze a suitors heart, the bestowal of a physical token of affection could be cause for orgasmic delight.  Feelings reigned supreme, and knights would engage in the most extravagant and dangerous quests to prove their affection for the ladies of their desire.  The actual marital status of one’s beloved was largely immaterial, as courtly love was bestowed from afar, and without anticipation of physical consummation.  Actual carnal satisfaction was not the point, and in the tales of the troubadours, when it was taken, consequences, like the fall of Camelot, were seen as condign punishments.  (You may recall that in the Camelot legend, not only is Camelot doomed from the start because of Arthur’s incestuous conception, but the carnal romance between Lancelot and Guinevere divides the Round Table just when unity is most needed.)  While political pragmatism often drove courtship and marriage among the nobility; courtly love emphasized feelings over such realism.  In feudalism, women were chattel to be allocated for political effects by their fathers and husbands; in courtly love, women made decisions of the heart whether to gratify the helpless longing of their ardent admirers.  In retrospect, all of this sounds like the epitome of idealization leavened by a huge dose of wishful thinking!

No doubt Eleanor’s age (52 at the end of this period), her power, and the possible participation of her young daughters in this scheme (they were of marriageable age) lent a certain social credibility to these ideas of courtly love.  Perhaps they represented Eleanor’s none-too-repressed wishes.  Eleanor as a patron of the arts was in a position to be influential in underwriting the spread of these romantic ideas, even though they had been circulating in the culture before her return to Poitiers.  Scholars have also suggested courtly love might serve as a the basis for organizing a court full of suitors for the daughters of Henry and Eleanor, and others have suggested it was a kind of idle parlor game for smart ladies with too much time on their hands.  But by the late 12th century, the tradition of courtly love was strongly associated with French culture and was influencing the legends of the feudal tradition.   Its influence on the Arthurian legend is obvious, but the tragedy of Tristan and Isolde is another example.  Tales of love that violated social boundaries had circulated for years in many cultures, but the practice of signing about them was new, and so was the trickling down of these chansons from the aristocratic culture into the lower classes.  Eleanor was identified as an advocate of courtly romance and was certainly a patroness to the cadre of troubadours who spread its ideas through out the courts of Western Europe.  Songs and poems read aloud in court were the principal means of expression, even among the feudal aristocracy.  Jousting and tournaments, competitions that were also, like so many other things French, crossed the English Channel in 1066 with the Norman conquest and became associated with courtly love about a 100 years later when the troubadours began to sing of courtly love in Aquitaine.  

Troubadours at work
What did the troubadours sound like?  Here is music from Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377), a poet and composer of music in the tradition of courtly love, titled Riches d'Amour (Riches of Love).  He is composing about 150 years after Eleanor's time. Riches d'Amour

Eleanor’s Court of Love came to a crashing halt with the rebellion of her three sons’ against their father in 1173.  Her sons:   Henry the Young King, Richard and John were a handful encouraged to compete among themselves and for the attention of their parents.  Henry II blamed Eleanor for fomenting the rebellion of his sons, and he imprisoned her for the next 13 years until his death enabled Richard to release her.  This imprisonment is the period of Eleanor’s life fictionalized in the work, The Lion in Winter.  How severe was Henry and Eleanor’s marital conflict?  That play is a work of fiction of course, but I have heard of graduate training programs in family therapy that assigned it as a reading!  Perhaps it captures some larger truths about family conflict despite the lack of historical evidence for details in the play and film (There was no Christmas Court in Aquitaine; it was held in Caen that year.  Homosexual relations alleged in the play between Phillip II and Richard were unproven despite plenty of opportunity on the long and testy campaign in the Holy Land together described in the previous post on Chateau Galliard.  I find it hard to imagine these two distrustful competitors ever letting their guards down enough to indulge in sexual love together, even allowing for the family dynamics.  However, Richard’s marriage to Berengaria of Navarre produced no children.)   So Eleanor may not ever have had the opportunity to indulge in her romantic fantasies of courtly love herself, and in reality, her marriages were far from the courtly ideal.  However her position and her extraordinarily long life afforded her influence unparalleled in her age.

Peter O'Toole as Henry and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor in a still from The Lion in Winter, a 1968 film directed by Anthony Harvey, and adapted from James Goldman's Broadway play.
The courtly tradition Eleanor contributed to has long survived her troubled marriages and the influence of it – especially the assertion of idealization over reality -- can be seen in the work of some modern artists, including Gustave Flaubert, the 19th century novelist from Rouen, our next port-of-call. 

Gustave Flaubert in a period daguerreotype.
Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was born in Rouen, and although recognized as a gifted writer early in life, he studied law for a several years in Paris before returning to rural life near Rouen and settling into his chosen career.   We may be enamored of the City of Lights; but Flaubert seems not to have cared for it.  He lived with his mother in Rouen and cared for her after his father died.  With the publication of his masterwork, Madame Bovary in 1857, he was commercially and critically well established, and began to travel more.  However he did not long remain in a community of writers.  He had a deeply ambivalent relationship to bourgeois country life, and he wrote about what he knew.

The title page from Flaubert's master work.  He was not one to be rushed, it took him 18 years to write.

Madame Bovary is the story of a desperately unhappy woman who buys into the prevailing mythologies about the good French life and, trying them out, progressively spirals into depression.  Able to live idealizations only superficially, she is never satisfied.  Eventually she seizes so heavily on materialism that she ruins her marriage, her reputation, becomes deeply indebted, and in an attempt at an operatic death, poisons herself clumsily.  All of these schemes end badly.  Eventually her nice, but unsatisfying husband is destroyed and her daughter is forced to work in the horrible textile mills near Rouen.  We will sail right by the one in Vernon which was built in Flaubert’s time and may well have inspired this reference.  He is ruthless in his criticism of her acceptance of haut couture, sexual affairs, social climbing, and all the bourgeois myths about the French way of life.  Not even Marx does a better job of de-romanticizing the middle class and its foibles.

The Seine near Vernon by Claude Monet, 1894.  We sailed right by here, admittedly in very different light!
Emma Bovary is a woman who seems to have agency only over her own body.  She can charm with it, give it away, and trade with her sexuality, but all of the things she desires are controlled by men in her petit bourgeois life.   She imagines herself to be superior, and yearns for an idealized life of excellence.  What she can give herself she does not value, what she desires she cannot achieve.

Emma Bovary is so acutely drawn, that if family therapists occasionally assign Lion in Winter, psychoanalysts simply can’t stop writing about Emma.  She is deemed perverse, narcissistic, superficial, fetishistic, depressed, and too entitled.  You would think that all of this analysis might somehow rescue the prevailing social ideologies that she pursued to her destruction.   Flaubert may have loved rural Norman life enough to observe it closely, but the sum of his observations is hardly gracious.  He is so modern in his social criticism that we can’t stop reading him, as if Bovary was penned with modern vices very much in mind.  Perhaps that is in part because he is a modern in his voice, and because acute observation is timeless in its own way.  Many of the things we love about French culture: the mythology of la jeunne fille, fabulous fashions, the romance of the aristocracy, bucolic country life, romantic ideals, a pleasure-centered life, and passionate affairs of the heart, all come to terrible, empty ends in Madame Bovary.  

Salammbo, as interpreted by the Czech Art Nouveau master, Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939).  Mucha did much of his best illustration in Paris, becoming famous for his posters of the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, and establishing his style and reputation at the Paris Exhibition in 1900.  Mucha was an early casualty of World War II.  An ardent Czech nationalist, he died from the consequences of his interrogation by Nazi's following its occupation.
What of Flaubert the man?  As a writer, he worked very hard.  He may have romanticized the work, but his creative process was arduous in the extreme.  He would publish just 3 major works in his lifetime.  His next project takes us far from his “here and now” to the romance of Carthage before the Second Punic War; Salammbo.  It is a prequel to the story of Hannibal, a romantic pot-boiler of operatic proportions featuring a heroine who dies tragically in rescuing a cursed scarf dedicated to her goddess.  The middle class is clearly not up for deconstruction this time.  He then returns to the themes of Bovary in his final complete novel, A Sentimental Education.  Flaubert also was a dedicated sexual adventurer and wrote of experimenting with both sexes in brothels in North Africa.   His personal correspondence would reveal a single serious romance, which came to naught in his Paris period.  He would eventually die young of syphilis.   During most of his creative life he lived with his mother.   If his self-report is to be believed, he saved the sexual adventures for trips far from home.  Perhaps all the attributions the analysts have made about Emma Bovary belong more properly to her creator, for it was Flaubert who imagined her.  But what would they make of the fact that his father was a country doctor, not unlike Emma’s husband?   

Simone de Beauvoir, existentialist and intellectual.  Her The Second Sex is one of the founding documents of modern feminism.
But I have connected these stories of French romanticism with a different theme:  The problems that women faced lacking power in French society were little mitigated by the fact of their idealization in it.  This would not escape the attention of another famous French writer; Simone de Beauvoir, the French Existentialist philosopher who wrote about exactly this problem in her seminal feminist book, The Second Sex.  Indeed, though separated by nearly a century, it is quite likely that de Beauvoir and Flaubert would have had a lot to discuss together.  Neither married, being first and foremost married to their work.  Both ardently deconstructed the myths of French life.  And both pursued alternative sexuality and sexual relationships with both sexes.   That polyamorous sexuality is a common element in the stories of Eleanor, Gustave, Emma, and Simone hardly does anything to diminish the French reputation for romance!
Another side of Simone de Beauvoir, taken in Paris right after World War II.


  1. I enjoyed re-reading this post. I didn't remember from my first reading of it too many months ago your clever connection of Simone de Beauvoir with Flaubert and Eleanor. It is certainly true that the concept of courtly love resonates in our (still prevalent) ideas about romantic love. Now feminist scholars, I read, have dug up some quite unsavory things about Flaubert (the real person) and his treatment of women. Those facts do not diminish his masterful and complex portrayal of Emma Bovary. Also, Simone de Beauvoir (the person) has also apparently manipulated and coerced women for Sartre. Again that doesn't diminish, revolutionary importance of her ideas. I guess even the best of us are full of unsolvable contradictions. . .


  2. One might think that Flaubert's nuanced depiction of Emma signified a capacity for sexual love and intimacy. Perhaps his requiring 18 years to complete the work suggests rather obsessive intensity, and intolerance of intimacy.

    However you interpret this, Flaubert does not seem to have been able to blend sexual and emotional intimacy in his everyday life. If so, he would be far from the first person to have had this difficulty since the rise of courtly love, and the prevalence of romantic idealization furthered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom I carefully left out of the original post!

    I see considerable debate about whether Flaubert was a "romantic" writer. I think he idealized realism and perfection in writing, but his depiction of Emma is far from idealizing. There is plenty of room for him to express hostility towards women in his portrait under the guise of realism, and it is hard to argue with those that see hostility in his actual sexual relations.

    As for Sartre and de Beauvoir, it is beyond me to know whether these seemingly exploitative relations propelled her to cogent feminist observations, or whether she knew these all along but found such feminist insights insufficiently helpful to master her feelings for Sartre. And in that, I see hope for all of us. For as persuasive as a life of congruence may be to those who read and study us, it may still be possible for the most flawed of us to grant a useful new view of society to others, even if we cannot use it any too well ourselves.
    Suffice it to say, that much valid social criticism and innovation must come from social outcasts and deviants. We may not like some of what they do, but we can still gain from understanding their perspectives.