Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Queen's Secret: Adultery and Political Structure in the Feudal Courts of Old French Romance

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Queen's Secret: Adultery and Political Structure in the Feudal Courts of Old French Romance

Article excerpt

Adultery is a prominent subject of romances, and royal adultery seems to have exercised a particular fascination for medieval French poets. Some of the best known examples of the romance genre recount the story of an adulterous liaison between a queen and a knight. In these stories marriage is a political arrangement that may have sentimental attachments, but it is not motivated by love; love characterizes the queen's adulterous liaison with her knight. Many critics have interrogated the prominent connection of love and adultery in these stories, and the political significance of the queen's adultery is usually acknowledged in studies of the romance love ethic: it is treason against the king to have an affair with his wife. Yet while the effect of adultery on the king's position in his court has been the subject of critical study, the function of adultery within the political structure of medieval romances remains unexamined.

The queen's adultery takes place in a royal feudal court and it is constantly scrutinized, often discovered, and repeatedly rehidden. Love has a dual character in these stories: it provokes exemplary loyalty and passion and it is transgressive. The ambiguous status of adulterous love is seen in the ambivalent attitude toward the lovers taken by the narrator and the characters in the romance. They sympathize with the lovers, but they do not condone the adulterous liaison without reserve. The queen and her lover sometimes display a similarly undecided view of how well their liaison must be kept secret. Although they try to hide their relationship from the one party who threatens it the most, the king, they often seem indiscreet, even reckless, and little concerned with maintaining the secret of their adultery. The narrative development and drama of the story create and depend on this ambivalence: the queen and her lover repeatedly try to hide their liaison, their enemies constantly try to discover it, and the king wavers between belief in the lovers' innocence and certainty that they have betrayed him.

Some of the best known Old French romances recount the successive discoveries and cover-ups of a queen's sexual transgression, but adultery is not only a narrative structure in these stories. As an integral part of the social and hierarchical organization of the court it is also part of a political structure within which its status is also ambiguous, both necessary and prohibited. This essay explores how the queen's adultery mediates relationships between the king and his vassals and establishes a necessary equilibrium between powerful factions whose contests for power are played out in the feudal court through accusations of adultery against the queen.

The Knight's Secret

The limitation of women's power in medieval romances is cloaked by the representation of an apparent agency: the courtly lady commands her lover's service and obedience. According to the tenets of love established first in lyric love poetry and adopted in romances that recount courtly love liaisons, the first requirement that the lady makes of her lover is that he keep their affair secret. He must never speak of his lady and above all, he must never reveal her identity. Discretion is required of the male lover as a demonstration of his worthiness to love. A narrative representation of the importance of secrecy in love is found in the thirteenth-century Chatelaine de Vergi, a short romance that recounts the story of the courtly love relationship of the lady of Vergi and her unnamed knight.(1) The story closely follows lyric love poems in its description of the secret liaison between a married lady and a knight, but the narrative's setting in a feudal court provokes a conflict between feudal values and the values of courtly love that leads to a tragic ending for the lovers.(2)

In La Chatelaine de Vergi the chatelaine and the knight meet in a secluded garden whenever they can avoid discovery. …

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