Calves

Peter Godman

  • Andreas Capellanus on Love translated by P.G. Walsh
    Duckworth, 329 pp, £28.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 7156 1436 3

‘Knights should be naturally endowed with slim calves and neat feet whose length exceeds their width as if moulded by a craftsman, but I observe that your calves are on the contrary pudgy, bulging, round and stunted, and your feet are as broad as long, and gigantic to boot,’ jibes a countess to a commoner, referring not to his shoe-size (‘gigantic to boot’) but to the dimensions of his feet, in this stylish but not always lucid translation. The commoner replies:

Your objections to my bulging flabby legs and big feet are not securely grounded; we are told that within the boundaries of Italy dwells a count with slender legs ... He is radiant with every mark of beauty; he is said to be endowed with all manner of riches. But rumour has it that he is wholly lacking in integrity ... On the other hand there is in Hungary a king whose legs are markedly bulging and fat, and whose feet are long and square ... But, because the glory of his outstanding integrity of character is attested, he has deserved to obtain the fame of the royal crown, and his praises are proclaimed throughout almost the whole world. You must therefore examine not the quality of my feet or legs but the manners which I wear and the person I am become through my own efforts ... For by censuring calves you appear to despise the nature created by God.

These passages are illustrative of the quality of thought and argument that informs much of Andreas’s treatise on love. The question is: why has anyone troubled to take it seriously?

For Andreas has been taken very seriously indeed. Acclaimed as a privileged witness to the proceedings of the ‘courts of love’ that are supposed to have been held by one of the most brilliant patronesses of literature in the High Middle Ages, Marie, Countess of Champagne, Andreas is said to have provided the secular aristocracy with its guide to polite loving. Thick books have been written to show that his work was ‘the codex of courtly love’, an index to the ideas expressed in the Latin and vernacular love-lyric of the 12th and 13th centuries. Small wonder, then, that the last English translation of De Amore, published by J.J. Parry over forty years ago, is entitled The Art of Courtly Love. ‘Read Andreas, and you have at your fingertips the risqué recommendations followed by the ladies and gentlemen of Medieval Europe in the conduct of their love-affairs. Understand De Amore, and you have cracked the troubadours’ code of love.’ Such are the claims made for Andreas and his work. But if they are probed even a little, they prove to be as podgy, bulging and stunted as the commoner’s calves.

There is no firm evidence to link Andreas Capellanus with the circle of Marie of Champagne: the author of De Amore is described as a capellanus of the royal court of France and nothing in the documents demonstrates that Marie’s chaplain wrote the work. De Amore’s date of composition may be half a century later than the period (the 1180s) favoured by Walsh: any time between 1174 and 1238 is possible. The very existence of the courts of love upon whose judgments Andreas is assumed to have drawn has been seriously doubted, while the equation of the feelings described in De Amore with the love the troubadours sang has been persuasively challenged. There is instead a growing tendency to present Andreas against a background of love casuistry, and to regard his treatise as a hybrid of scholastic debate and Ovidian humour. In Walsh’s Introduction, which speaks of the ‘patchwork texture’ of Andreas’s book, the older views of De Amore keep uneasy company with some modern research. This is not hard to understand, for the reverential and the sceptical opinions of Andreas are scarcely reconcilable.

De Amore is made up of three books. Book One describes the nature of love and how to win it; Book Two instructs on how to preserve it; and Book Three condemns love. The first book, and in particular its series of eight dialogues between lovers of different social ranks, has attracted special attention as a source of Andreas’s opinions on love. But it is not Andreas who speaks in these dialogues: it is his personae, who contradict and disbelieve one another repeatedly. Love emerges from these pages as nothing more coherent than a contest between natural instincts and reason, and the attempts of the participants in the dialogues to invest their urges with idealistic motives are treated with irony and scepticism.

In the moral world of Andreas’s treatise, which makes little room for divinity, the god Amor is reduced to a mere fiction for lust. In Amor’s place Andreas erects a mock-deity of the law. As Rüdiger Schnell has shown in a stimulating recent book, Andreas used his considerable knowledge of canon and Roman law to construct an ironical counterpart to treatises on marriage.[*] He did not set out to ‘codify courtly love’ but employed the commonplaces and recurrent themes of love poetry in a mock-tract on the ‘rules’ governing extra-marital relationships. ‘Adulterous’, ‘carnal’, ‘courtly’ love is viewed in the De Amore from the perspective of marriage and is expounded in a parody of Medieval marriage tracts, just as the 21 judgments on love-problems which appear in Book Two mimic the rulings of the lawyers and canonists.

In the third book, which repudiates love and denounces women, medical imagery is dominant. Love had been visualised as an illness at the very beginning of Book One, and Book Three parodically prescribes a cure of violent misogyny. Women are arraigned of every vice, including willingness to do anything for a free dinner. Love, the fount of all good in Book One, is now the source of all evil. Sex makes you lose sleep and grow senile faster. These are not, as some have thought, the assertions of a codifier of courtly love adding a moralistic post-scriptum or an apologetic afterthought to his first two books in order to placate the Church. They are a natural and light-hearted development from the mock-misogyny repeatedly attested in Books One and Two of De Amore, written by a cleric as intimately acquainted with the sophisticated arguments and rhetorical style of pastoral tracts, sermons, satire and medicine as he was well versed in the law.

Recognition that Andreas’s irony derives its force and point from his wide learning should make us think again about the man, his work and his audience. The dim figure of Walsh’s Introduction, with his limited reading and borrowed quotations, is no more plausible than the splendid author of the source-book read by troubadours in the moonlight and by aristocrats in the bath. Andreas was writing neither for the lay aristocracy, whose interest in his work has never been proven, nor for vernacular poets, who had no need of what he had to say. De Amore is addressed to clerics, an audience whose literary culture and legal knowledge equipped them to understand his allusive parody. When Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, denounced De Amore in 1277, the general target of his condemnation was what was being read in the Arts Faculty of the University of Paris – the natural and perhaps the only true home of this clerical jeu d’esprit.

Love, its ostensible subject, is subordinate, for much of De Amore, to an intense preoccupation with social class. The claims of virtue and achievement as opposed to the privileges of noble birth, debated throughout Book One, take on a changing and provocative character as they are attributed first to a commoner and then to an aristocrat. Class distinctions are represented in the half-humorous, half-sinister imagery of birds of prey. On one level, it is argued that love is only genuine when it ignores social rank. On another, the odd spot of force is recommended in sexual relations with peasants. Parody in De Amore acquires a sharper edge when it is applied to the delicate subject of breeding. What Andreas lacks as a thinker he makes up for by his sensitivity, doubly revealing in its deliberate exaggeration, to social distinctions. Calves, as the lady remarked to the commoner, are a question of class.

[*] Andreas Capellanus (Münster, 1981).