00.02.01, Jaeger, Ennobling Love

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Constant Mews

The Medieval Review baj9928.0002.001


Jaeger, C. Stephen. Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility. Philadelphia: Penn Press, 1999. Pp. iii, 304. ISBN: 0-812-23494-4.

Reviewed by:
Constant Mews
Monash University

Few ideals of medieval culture are more complex or more difficult to do justice to than that of love. Ever since Gaston Paris declared that Chretien de Troyes was the inventor of courtly love, debate has raged about whether such a code of illicit, potentially adulterous love really did inform the values of aristocratic society in the High Middle Ages, or whether it is simply an ironic literary artifice on which no historical reality should be imposed. In Ennobling Love C. Stephen Jaeger defends the claim that an ideal of a passionate love that conferred honor and nobility on those who practiced it did function as a moral code within aristocratic medieval society, even if it was an ideal honored more often in the breach than the observance. But whereas so many historians of vernacular literature have claimed that the twelfth century witnessed the genesis of a totally new conception of love, Jaeger argues that ideals of love that can be perceived in both historical and literary texts in the twelfth century continue a tradition of male friendship that can be traced back through the cathedral schools of the eleventh century and the monastic writers of the Carolingian renaissance. He sees this tradition as ultimately drawing for its inspiration on Cicero's ideas about friendship.

Ennobling Love is not modest in its scope. It seeks to trace connections between Alcuin's letters, the twelfth-century biography of Christina of Markyate, Heloise, Wolfram of Eschenbach, Stendhal, and much more. To his credit, Jaeger does not claim to be comprehensive in his survey. He does argue, however, that behind a tremendously diverse range of texts, one can trace "a lost sensibility", a way of thinking about love very different from our own. He is more concerned to discern what he sees as its underlying form than the diversity of voices about love. Jaeger opens his discussion by commenting on the lack of sexual innuendo or moralizing in Roger of Hovedon's account of the friendship of Philip Augustus and Richard the Lion-Heart, an intimacy so close that "their beds did not separate them." This mentality, he argues, is fundamentally the same as that which Shakespeare describes at the opening of King Lear, when Cordelia refused to imitate her sisters in professing her love for her father in public, and is disowned in consequence.

It is hard not to detect a strong current of nostalgia in Jaeger's vision of medieval ideas of love as fundamentally about a code of behavior that is no longer understood. Rejecting what he sees as a narrowly reductionist, post- Freudian mentality, he argues that we should read medieval (and much subsequent) literature about love as relating not to some private notion of sex, but to a broader set of social ideals, originally developed within an all male milieu. He argues that friendship and love were always social ideas of the medieval aristocracy, lay, clerical, and monastic, but that they developed to include women in the late eleventh century. Jaeger does not deny the multiplicity of forms which love could take in the medieval period, but he does maintain that there is an underlying continuity behind its manifestations: "For the purpose of this study it is good to assume with an anthropologist's distancing that all the rich documentation on ennobling love from antiquity to the nineteenth century are voices from an alien, exotic culture and to study it with minimal contamination from ideas and social practices not its own." (5) There are bold claims here about the unitary character of the underlying values of Western civilization, at least within an aristocratic milieu, prior to the nineteenth century, as well as our capacity to study the past without being "contaminated" by the present. While Jaeger is clearly opposed to arguments about courtly love like those of R. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), he prefers to sidestep the many enormous critical debates which beset the interpretation of both Latin and vernacular literature. His style is to let his own translations and readings of both Latin and vernacular texts, some relatively little known, "speak for themselves" as signposts of an imagined culture. Not the least valuable part of his study are his translations of several of the Latin texts that he studies (such as the Metamorphosis Goliae) in an appendix.

Jaeger's "ennobling love" is a broader concept than amour courtois. He examines the poetry of Venantius Fortunatus and Alcuin as well as the letters of the eleventh-century schools to show how the creativity of twelfth-century culture cannot be understood without reference to its own past. Jaeger takes particular pleasure in offering extensive translations of the Latin texts that he studies. A problem that Jaeger does not discuss in detail, yet that bedevils any attempt to interpret these texts to a contemporary reader in contemporary language, is that the Latin language is so much richer than English in the vocabulary of love. Only sometimes does Jaeger indicate whether amor or the more scriptural dilectio is being translated as "love". Jaeger's claim that "the major authority on love prior to the twelfth century is Cicero, not Ovid" (79) is unsettlingly assertive. Cicero speaks more about friendship than about love. Do not Alcuin and Venantius each in their own way illustrate the rich potential of fusing Ovid and scripture in developing ideas about love long before the 12th century? Many different strands of influence combine in the medieval period to create a wide range of ideas about love and friendship. The moral seriousness with which early medieval poets invest amor produces poetry quite different from anything written in the ancient world. Jaeger is quite right to alert enthusiasts for vernacular literature to the rich contribution of medieval Latin lyric (as Dronke did so significantly almost thirty years ago). Yet Ciceronian amicitia, which has always been ennobling, is subtly different from both Ovidian amor and scriptural dilectio. The complexity of medieval Latin literature of love lies in the way different strands of thought about love, Ciceronian, Ovidian, scriptural, are integrated. Jaeger's study rightly alerts us to the richness of these traditions without going into too much detail about any particular author.

Jaeger rightly suggests that the desire of educated women in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries to participate in the discourse of love and friendship played a key role in transforming notions of love that had previously been the domain of men. His discussions of a range of texts from the period, whether it be Ruodlieb, the poetry of Marbod of Rennes, the Regensburg songs, or the letters of Heloise, constitute crucial paving stones to his argument about the Latin sources of the great vernacular epics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Such a bold attempt at encyclopedic synthesis inevitably risks superficiality of treatment. Of Ruodlieb for example, he argues that its presentation of good women as a positive moral force "is to my knowledge new in the Middle Ages" (90). The poem of Marbod of Rennes about a "good woman" is similarly lauded for fashioning "sublime ideals". One has only to look at Jerome to see how traditional it is to contrast good with bad women. Jaeger does not deny that "the cruder view of woman" continues to prevail in subsequent centuries, but does not fully explain how such misogyny is integrally bound up with idealism about love in western literary tradition. Idealising women is a very male trait.

A impressively wide reading of medieval texts underpins this book. Jaeger is concerned to show that they reveal a code of conduct about relationships between men and women emerging in aristocratic society in the High Middle Ages, at least as defined by those writers who wanted to comment on an unattainable ideal, nobility of love between a man and a woman. By fastening on the ethical dimension of the denial of eros, he endeavours to make sense of a literature that to some modern readers might seem absurd in its apparent repression of sexuality. The "romantic dilemma" Jaeger sees as a consequence of extending a traditional system of values (ennobling love) to relationships between men and women also viewed as fraught with danger.

An important part of Jaeger's argument is his claim that educated women in the late eleventh and early twelfth century played a key role in extending ideas of noble friendship to embrace both women and men. In this respect his discussion of "The Epistolae duorum amantium, Heloise, and Her Orbit" plays a key role. He considers the witness of a remarkable collection of over a hundred love letters, exchanged between a famous teacher of philosophy in the twelfth century and a female student and edited by Ewald Koensgen in 1974. Writing independently of my own study of this exchange, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France (New York: St Martin's Press, 1999), Jaeger has come to the same conclusion as myself, that these letters are indeed written by Heloise and Abelard. Jaeger does not distract the reader, however, with explaining how he came to this position. He does not dwell either on what to me is their most significant feature, the gulf in perspective between the man's conception of their love as amor and the idealism of the woman's notion of her love as combining amor, dilectio and amicitia. There is a long romantic tradition of imagining both Abelard and Heloise as sharing fundamentally the same kind of love, characterised by passion and emotional intensity. Jaeger interprets these love letters as both echoing a common common view of love: "Reconciling sublime and passionate love is not a problem in these letters. It happens by the alchemy of experienced passion fusing two lovers body and soul. They are convinced that their attachment is pleasing to God and never express any uncertainty on that score. On the contrary, God is regularly invoked as the protecting spirit of their love" (163). Yet if one pays attention to these letters, these comments on the religious rhetoric of the correspondence apply more to the letters of the woman, but not to her teacher, who is more closely indebted than she is to a concept of love that is founded on passion rather than a sense of religious purity. To celebrate Heloise as the advocate of "passionate love" does not do full justice to those ideals of which she reminded Abelard in her more famous letters, and which she found so singularly ignored in the Historia Calamitatum. Admirers of Heloise, like the author of the Metamorphosis Goliae, may certainly have idolized her as the embodiment of passionate love, but they did not necessarily grasp the full subtlety of her reflection on the ethics of relationships. Undoubtedly these love letters will provoke controversy. Do they reveal a relationship founded on radically divergent perspectives, that eventually came to grief, or do they reveal "true love" that manifested itself in different ways, and was perhaps "edited" by the scribe to highlight a sense of discord between two different voices. As with the more famous letters of Abelard and Heloise, the resolution that a reader adopts will inevitably reflect a judgment about the nature of love.

Jaeger contrasts emphasis on the ethical dimension of medieval ideals of love in both Latin and vernacular literature with a reading that focuses narrowly on concepts of sexuality. He reads courtly love not as a lived code, but as a literary ideal against which relationships were judged by poets of the day. The broad sweep of his claims may prove frustrating to those who search for detailed comment on specific texts. In his final chapter, "The Grand Amatory Mode of the Noble Life", he seeks to identify a few high points in what he sees as an on- going culture, from Christine de Pizan and Castiglione to Stendhal, all of whom speak in one way or another about an ideal of ennobling love. Readers of this overview of Western literature may object that it does not give adequate attention to the issues of gender in these texts, or to those attempts that contest dominant modes of thought. Jaeger's study alerts us to the profound continuities that shape discourse about love in Western tradition. If his book serves to provoke continued debate about Latin and vernacular texts about love, it will have served its purpose. Medieval writing about love is infinitely rich in ambiguity and diversity.

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Constant Mews

Monash University