Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature: Martyrs to Love

Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature: Martyrs to Love

Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature: Martyrs to Love

Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature: Martyrs to Love


Some of medieval culture's most arresting images and stories inextricably associate love and death. Thus the troubadour Jaufre Rudel dies in the arms of the countess of Tripoli, having loved her from afar without ever having seen her. Or in Marie de France's Chevrefoil , Tristan and Iseult's fatal love is hauntingly symbolized by the fatally entwined honeysuckle and hazel. And who could forget the ethereal spectacle of the Damoisele of Escalot's body carried to Camelot on a supernatural funerary boat with a letter on her breast explaining how her unrequited love for Lancelot killed her? Medieval literature is fascinated with the idea that love may be a fatal affliction. Indeed, it is frequently suggested that true love requires sacrifice, that you must be ready to die for, from, and in love. Love, in other words, is represented, sometimes explicitly, as a form of martyrdom, a notion that is repeatedly reinforced by courtly literature's borrowing of religious vocabulary and imagery. The paradigm of the martyr to love has of course remained compelling in the early modern and modern period. This book seeks to explore what is at stake in medieval literature's preoccupation with love's martyrdom. Informed by modern theoretical approaches, particularly Lacanian psychoanalysis and Jacques Derrida's work on ethics, it offers new readings of a wide range of French and Occitan courtly texts from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and argues that a new secular ethics of desire emerges from courtly literature because of its fascination with death. This book also examines the interplay between lyric and romance in courtly literary culture and shows how courtly literature's predilection for sacrificial desire imposes a repressive sex-gender system that may then be subverted by fictional women and queers who either fail to die on cue, or who die in troublesome and disruptive ways.


In one of the most widely disseminated lyrics of the early troubadour tradition ('Lanquan li jorn'), presumably in the mid to late 1140s, Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye, sang of his celebrated amor de lonh, or distant love, in the following terms:

Ben tenc lo Senhor per verai
per qu'ieu veirai l'amor de lonh;
mas per un ben que m'en eschai
n'ai dos mals, quar tan m'es de lonh.
Ai! car me fos lai pelegris,
si que mos fustz e mos tapis
fos pels sieus belhs huelhs remiratz!

(Jaufre Rudel 1985: IV, 29–35)

(I indeed consider God to be true, which is why I will see my distant love; but for
every good thing that befalls me, I suffer two bad things, because of this distance.
Alas! If only I could be a pilgrim there, so that my staff and my pilgrim's mat
might be gazed upon by her beautiful eyes.)

Thus, at the very beginnings of what we now call courtly literature, Jaufre evokes his faith in God as a guarantor of his being able to see his distant love. Of course, the precise referent of the amor de lonh is unclear and no doubt deliberately so. The song was probably composed at about the time of the Second Crusade and critics have wondered whether Jaufre was alluding to a woman (and if so whether she is real or fictional), or whether the amor de lonh represents social distance, the Virgin Mary, God, or indeed the Holy Land? The poem is famously susceptible to different readings, but at the very least one can say that religion and worldly love inflect each other in this poetic discourse. Furthermore, Jaufre's imbrication of love and religion is more far-reaching than a straightforward appeal to God for help with his love interests: in the second half of the stanza, Jaufre

For a concise recent summary of the copious critical tradition, see Lazzerini (2001:
54–66, with a select bibliography at 240–1). As Lazzerini suggests, Jaufre's poetry is
intrinsically indeterminate (60–1).

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