Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility

Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility

Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility

Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility


"Richard, Duke of Aquitaine, son of the King of England, remained with Philip, the King of France, who so honored him for so long that they ate every day at the same table and from the same dish, and at night their beds did not separate them. And the King of France loved him as his own soul; and they loved each other so much that the King of England was absolutely astonished at the vehement love between them and marveled at what it could mean."

Public avowals of love between men were common from antiquity through the Middle Ages. What do these expressions leave to interpretation? An extraordinary amount, as Stephen Jaeger demonstrates.

Unlike current efforts to read medieval culture through modern mores, Stephen Jaeger contends that love and sex in the Middle Ages relate to each other very differently than in the postmedieval period. Love was not only a mode of feeling and desiring, or an exclusively private sentiment, but a way of behaving and a social ideal. It was a form of aristocratic self-representation, its social function to show forth virtue in lovers, to raise their inner worth, to increase their honor and enhance their reputation. To judge from the number of royal love relationships documented, it seems normal, rather than exceptional, that a king loved his favorites, and the courtiers and advisors, clerical and lay, loved their superiors and each other.

Jaeger makes an elaborate, accessible, and certain to be controversial, case for the centrality of friendship and love as aristocratic lay, clerical, and monastic ideals. Ennobling Love is a magisterial work, a book that charts the social constructions of passion and sexuality in our own times, no less than in the Middle Ages.

C. Stephen Jaeger is Professor of Germanics and Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. He is the author of The Origins of Courtliness: Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals, 939-1210, and The Envy of Angels: Cathedral Schools and Social Ideals in Medieval Europe, 950-1200, all available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.


With this book now out of my hands and in those of readers I can say with Richard of St. Victor, “What a happy and inexhaustible subject love is. No writer tires and no reader wearies of it.” He (and I) did not mean to foist benevolence on our readers with that last phrase, but to speak as readers ourselves, who had the good fortune to spend several years studying the subject. I would only add, “No teacher tires of teaching it!”

The “Search” of my subtitle is not just mood music. I sensed in a few texts a way of loving that seemed to me as strange as unicorns and stigmata, and just as alien to my experience and that of my world. Over the years I tracked it like an archeologist of the emotions gathering fragments from some layer of the human psyche that had shattered and dispersed centuries ago and was detectable only like rock traces on the top of a buried site.

How “lost” the sensibility is that I’ve tried to reconstruct was brought home to me every day in the year of an American president caught up in a scandalous affair with a young woman drunk on love, lust, and power. The culture of love this study deals with found ennobling force in the erotic attraction that power and charisma exert. The counterpoint of degrading and exalting love was for me a lesson in the usefulness, in fact the pragmatism, of a social value which molds the erotic into an instrument for the exercise of power, parallel to wisdom and strength of character as a ruler’s virtue, and which thrusts degradation back onto those who see shame and not nobility in the muted eroticism of kings, queens, princes, knights, bishops, and saints in love with their “minions.”

This book is about a kind of love that conferred honor on those who practiced it. The book’s goal is limited; it aims at one strain of love among many. I do not want to suggest exclusivity by putting this strain in the foreground. In the background at varied distances, interlaced with my main subject, are other forms of love: sexuality of any gender combination, romance, wedded love. Ennobling love is an important strain because it links politics, the social life, and the emotions. It is a means of peace-making, treaty-making, and treaty-keeping, of giving and receiving prestige, rank, and standing, and of recognizing “virtue.” It is the source of a morality and a heroism of self-control and self-mastery. Studying it shows how passion and social action, love and the . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.