Dreams of Love: Franz Liszt and la Dame aux Camélias

Marie Duplessis in 1845. J.C. Olivier

The archetype of the beautiful, doomed courtesan has appeared so often in media over the past two centuries that it has become a cliché. Think of La Traviata, Carmen, Les Misérables, even Moulin Rouge—their stories have become tragedies that titillate while serving as precautionary tales about the dangers of sex work. People live vicariously through these stories while condemning the heroines they want to emulate and their real-life counterparts. Real life isn’t like an opera.

Except for when it is. Though there have been countless sex workers in history living extraordinary lives, this archetype in popular media can be traced back to just one: Marie Duplessis (1824 – 1847), known by her contemporaries and immortalized by Alexandre Dumas fils as la Dame aux Camélias.

Though much of what people know about her today comes from Dumas’s fictionalized version of her life, there’s more to the story of the woman who inspired so much art—and possibly music—during her short life. Today, we’re going to look at the real story of Marie Duplessis and the romance that inspired Liszt’s Liebesträume.

Marie Duplessis was born Alphonsine Plessis in Saint-Germain-de-Clairfeuille on January 15th, 1824. Her father, Marin Plessis, was the son of a sex worker and a country priest. Marin Plessis was far from a model father—Alphonsine was his second daughter, and he was apparently so disappointed she wasn’t a boy that he abused his wife until she left the family to seek out work as a maid in Paris, where she died when Alphonsine was eight.

Neglected and unwanted, Alphonsine was sent to live with her mother’s cousin, Madame Boisard, who raised her with her own daughters until Alphonsine was raped by a farmhand at age twelve. Blaming Alphonsine for her own attack, Boisard sent Alphonsine back to her father, who promptly sold her to a man in his seventies who lived in the middle of nowhere.

Although Alphonsine had no idea where she was, she escaped a number of times and attempted to find work in laundries or shops in the surrounding villages. Eventually she made it Exmes, where she worked as a maid until her father reappeared, briefly sold her to an umbrella manufacturer, then took her to Paris. Marin Plessis died later that year.

Paris is where the legend of la Dame aux Camélias really begins. At fifteen, Alphonsine was an orphan temporarily staying with poor relations in the Rue des Deux-Écus. Later, it was claimed that she became a courtesan because she had expensive tastes, but the truth was probably less glamorous. Abandoned, raped, or abused by everyone who was supposed to care for her, she was alone again, and she was hungry. Nestor Roqueplan, the director of the Théâtre des Variétés, later remembered meeting her before she changed her name. Dressed in rags, she was “gazing longingly at a friend potato stall” on the Pont-Neuf. Feeling sorry for her, he bought her a cornet of pommes frites.

Not a year later, Roqueplan was stunned to see that same starving girl on the arm of a nobleman in the Ranelagh Gardens. Marie Duplessis had arrived.

She named herself Marie after the Virgin, and she claimed she added “du” to her surname because she wanted to buy the Plessis estate at Nonant. It wasn’t the new name that made her a success, however. As Gustave Claudin describes her in Mes Souvenirs:

Her distinction, grace, and charm were sure to make her a star in the world of gallantry…Marie Duplessis was thin and pale, and had magnificent hair which came down to the ground. She was wayward, capricious, and wild, adoring today what she had hated yesterday, and vice versa. She possessed the art of elegance to the highest degree. You could certainly say of Marie Duplessis that she had style. No one tried to copy her inimitable originality. As long as the florists could provide them, she carried bouquets of white camellias.

She was charming and tirelessly kind in a way that endeared her to polite society, gaining her access to places other courtesans could never hope to enter. Still in her teens, Marie had seen too much, but it wasn’t her past that gave her the melancholy that was noted to interrupt her joyful moods—it was her lack of future. From Albert Vandam, An Englishman in Paris:

She had a natural tact and an instinctive refinement which no education could have enhanced. She never made grammatical mistakes, no coarse expression ever passed her lips. Lola Montes could not make friends; Alphonsine Plessis could not make enemies. She never became riotous like the others, not even boisterous; for amidst the more animated scenes she was haunted by the sure knowledge that she would die young, and life, but for that knowledge, would have been very sweet to her. 

At some point during her short life, Marie had contracted tuberculosis. It was both common and very contagious, though it was still not widely known how it was spread. Though many people were able to live with it, Marie’s case was already advanced. She knew she was dying, and so did everyone else.

Marie Duplessis, by Édouard Viénot

It didn’t detract from her popularity, however. She was widely regarded as a great beauty, with actress Judith Bernat gushing, “She had an angelic oval face, black eyes caressing in their melancholy, a dazzling complexion and, above all, splendid hair. Oh, that beautiful black silk hair!” Her considerable beauty was made all the more poignant by the knowledge that it wouldn’t last forever.

Still, Marie lived an exciting life. After learning to read with the help of one of her lovers’ grandmothers, she read the papers every morning, played piano, and attended the theater religiously, where she was a favorite patron and given box seats to the opening night of every show. She collected art and artists in equal measure, hosting literary salons at her museum-like apartment, where she impressed Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Sue, and Théophile Gauthier with her wit.

At the height of her popularity, she was said to have one lover for every day of the week. She chose each one, and she was so in demand that they were obliged to accept the arrangement and settle for sharing a wardrobe in her room. Still very childlike in many ways—by 1845, she was only twenty-one and still went to expensive restaurants just to fill up on sweets and macarons—she didn’t spend all of her money on frivolities; while she lived, she donated twenty thousand francs to the church every year.

Lisztomania

Exhibit A: Liszt in 1837. Ary Scheffer. I mean–

By 1845, the only person in Paris with more of a following than Marie was composer Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). Liszt was a Hungarian piano virtuoso who had shown such promise as a child, he’d been sent to study piano in Vienna at nine, gave his first formal concert there at eleven, and published his first piece of music in an anthology with adult experts at age twelve. By sixteen, he was living in Paris with his mother, who he supported by teaching piano lessons while drinking and smoking heavily, a habit that made him so ill that a Paris newspaper ran an obituary on him in error when he was seventeen. Needless to say, he didn’t have much of a childhood either. Like Marie, he made up for his lack of traditional schooling by reading as widely as he could in what little spare time he had.

Women liked Liszt. So much so, in fact, that Countess Marie d’Agoult left her husband and family to live with Liszt in Geneva when he was still in his early twenties. They had three children—Blandine, Cosima, and Daniel—but had more or less called it quits by 1840, when Liszt returned to touring.

When Lisztomania struck Paris shortly thereafter, Liszt was thirty-three and, by all accounts, a total smokeshow. It wasn’t only that he was considered handsome, which he absolutely was, but his skill and stage presence made his audiences crazy—particularly the women. His music was exciting, avant-garde, and technically challenging, and he threw himself into it, regularly adding or changing things as he went to play up to the crowd. They ate it up in a way that wouldn’t be seen until Elvis entered the building a century later.

Exhibit B: Liszt in 1843

Women literally climbed over each other to touch him, fighting over his discarded handkerchiefs and gloves. Broken piano strings were turned into keepsake bracelets, stolen coffee dregs were preserved in tiny glass bottles, and one woman even saved one of his cigar butts from the gutter and had his initials embedded into it with diamonds.

Lisztomania was viewed as a serious and likely contagious condition by medical professionals at the time, who warned of its ability to cause mass hysteria—his audiences were rowdy in a way other classical audiences weren’t—and asphyxia, given how many ladies fainted in his presence.

Liszt wasn’t immune to the attention, but he must have loved his work—throughout the 1840s, he toured constantly, regularly giving four concerts a week.

He met Marie Duplessis in the foyer of a theater in 1845. He was there with drama critic Jules Janin, who described their first conversation:

Head held high, she made her way through the astonished throng, and we were surprised, Liszt and I, when she came and sat down familiarly on the bench beside us, for neither of us had ever spoken to her. She was a woman of wit and taste and good sense. She began by addressing herself to the great musician; she told him that she had recently heard him, and that he had made her dream…and so they talked throughout the third act of the melodrama…

As different as their backgrounds were, they had a lot in common. Though he was still touring Europe and playing several nights a week, he gave her piano lessons in her apartment. They were lovers while he was in town, and though she continued to see others, her love for Liszt endured.

While he was away, Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, convinced her to move to the country with him so her tuberculosis might be helped by the fresh air away from the city. When her condition did not improve and her patience with Dumas wore thin, she returned to Paris.

There, Marie surprised everyone by quickly marrying the Comte de Perregaux, becoming a countess in 1846. It ended as quickly as it began. With Marie’s tuberculosis worsening, Perregaux grew tired of her and left her at her Paris apartment, refusing her money for maintenance or medical bills. Marie’s time was running out.

When Liszt returned to Paris, they stayed together once again. He later wrote about this visit and what she’d said that had haunted him:

“I shall not live; I’m a strange woman, I shan’t be able to cling to this life that I cannot live and I cannot bear. Take me with you, take me away wherever you want; I shan’t be in your way, I sleep all day, in the evening you’ll let me go to the theater, and at night you can do what you like with me!” 

In the same letter, Liszt continued:

I’ve never told you how strangely attached I became to that charming creature during my last stay in Paris. I’d told her that I would take her to Constantinople, because it was really the only possible journey I could take with her.

Although Liszt had wanted to take her away, Marie didn’t make it to Constantinople. Desperate to extend her short life, Marie spent the rest of her money visiting health spas around Europe, but it was no use. At the end of January, she went to her last play, Les Pommes de Terre Malades, a vaudeville act at the Palais-Royal. She died at three o’clock in the morning on February 3rd. She was 23.

Her grave today. Note the lipstick hearts and kisses.

Marie was buried at the Cimetière de Montmartre. She had asked to be buried in a quiet place at dawn with no fuss, but her funeral became a public event, after which her apartment was opened up and all of her possessions and carefully curated treasures were sold off. Like Liszt’s fans, everyone wanted a piece of her, some souvenir to help them emulate the timeless, haunting beauty of la Dame aux Camélias. A year later, Dumas published his story, setting himself up as the romantic hero in the tragedy of her life.

The real romantic hero, however, was on tour when it happened, but he was rather quieter about it. “Poor Mariette Duplessis. She was the first woman with whom I was in love,” Liszt wrote to the Countess d’Agoult, the mother of his children and still a friend. “Some unknown, mysterious chord from an antique elegy echoes in my heart when I recall her.”

Liszt lived another forty years after Marie’s death. By the late 1850s, he had made so much money from touring that, like Marie, he gave most of his income to charity. He continued to tour and taught free piano classes, and though he had a few other affairs, none of them lasted. After two of his children, Blandine and Daniel, died in the early 1860s, he entered the church, where he became an abbé and was ordained as an exorcist in 1865. He continued teaching, performing, and working with the church until he died of pneumonia at 74.

La Dame aux Camélias

The advertisement for La Dame aux Camelias starring Sarah Bernhardt, by Alphonse Mucha

Barely a year after Marie passed away, Alexandre Dumas fils published La Dame aux Camélias, a thinly veiled dramatization of her life. Because he had been one of her lovers and was young enough that no one believed he could have made it up, it was mostly taken at face value and became a runaway success when it was adapted into a play. In spite of his famous father, Dumas was illegitimate and had no fortune of his own, so he must have been delighted to make his while cashing in on the death of the woman who broke his heart.

Because his depiction of her is flattering if sensational, readers assumed he was in love with her; if he had been, he wasn’t anymore, only playing to the public’s adoration of her. They loved her, and they were the ones buying the book. On opening night of the play years later, he took his final act of strange revenge on Marie by giving Sarah Bernhardt, the actress playing her onstage, the last letter he had written to Marie, denouncing her and ending the relationship she had already given up on by returning to Liszt in Paris.

If he had loved her in life, Dumas hated her in death, so it’s ironic that it was his book made her immortal. Marie’s beauty made tuberculosis a fashionable disease, the symptoms of which are still held up to be beauty standards to this day. La Dame aux Camélias was later adapted into La Traviata, which became the template for every tragic romance about young, beautiful, doomed sex workers ever since, up to and including Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

But we haven’t come all this way to let Dumas have the last word. A key hint to Marie’s true nature might have been in plain sight all along. In the Victorian language of flowers, camellias stood for longing. In Marie’s own words, spoken to actress Judith Bernat not long before she died:

“Why did I sell myself? Because honest work would never have brought me the luxury I craved for, irresistibly. Whatever I may seem to be, I promise you I’m not covetous or debauched. I wanted to know the refinements and pleasures of artistic taste, the joy of living in elegant and cultivated society…I’ve always chosen my friends. And I’ve loved, oh, yes, I’ve really loved, but no one has ever responded to my love. That is the real horror of my life.”

Although Dumas’s book remains the most widely known memorial to Marie Duplessis, it wasn’t the only one. In 1850, Liszt completed Liebesträume (Dreams of Love), the title echoing the first conversation he had with Marie. It was a three-part series of piano solos based on poems by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath. It has been argued that he chose these to illustrate three different types of love, but read together, they are also three stages of one great one, played out in his brief yet monumental romance with Marie—love at first sight, erotic love, and love after loss. You can see (and listen) for yourself here:

Liebesträume No 1.
Hohe Liebe (Holy Love) by Ludwig Uhland

In the arms of your love you lie intoxicated,
The fruits of life beckon to you;
Only one glance has fallen upon me,
But I am richer than all of you.

I gladly do without earthly joy
And, a martyr, I gaze ahead,
For over me in the golden distance
Heaven has opened.

Liebesträume No 2.
Seliger Tod (Blessed Death) by Ludwig Uhland

I died
From the delight of love;
I was buried
In her arms;
I was awakened
From their kisses;
I saw the sky
In her eyes.

Liebesträume No 3. [excerpt]
O Lieb, so lang du lieben kannst (O Love, As Long As You Can) by Ferdinand Freliligrath

O love, as long as you can,
O love, as long as you may,
The time will come, the time will come
When you will stand at a grave and mourn!

You will kneel alongside the grave
And your eyes will be sorrowful and moist
Never will you see the beloved again
Only the churchyard’s tall, wet grass.

You will say: Look at me from below,
I who mourn here alongside your grave!
Forgive my slights!
Dear God, I meant no harm!

Yet the beloved does not see or hear you,
He lies beyond your comfort;
The lips you kissed so often speak
Not again: I forgave you long ago!

Jessica Cale

Sources
Baxter, John. Montmartre: Paris’s Village of Art and Sin
Ollivier, D. (ed): Correspondance de Liszt et de la Comtesse d’Agoult
Richardson, Joanna. The Courtesans: The Demi-Monde in 19th Century France
Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt, The Virtuoso Years (1811–1847)

Love and Hate in the 19th Century: Say It With Flowers

language_of_flowers_by_alphonse_mucha

Language of Flowers. Aphonse Mucha, 1900.

Although floriography existed in the ancient world and throughout the Renaissance, it hit its height of popularity in the nineteenth century. Mary Wartley Montagu is credited with bringing it to England in the early eighteenth century from her travels to the Ottoman Empire, where the court was fascinated with tulips. Tulipomania had come and gone a hundred years before, but European interest in botany was just beginning, contributing in no small part to the success of guides to the language of flowers.

Several such guides were available throughout the nineteenth century, many of them embellished with illustrations or even poetry. Hundreds of editions were sold around the world, and the craze influenced popular culture, with floriography appearing in books by Austen and the Brontes. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood used it extensively in many of their paintings, using the symbolism of the flowers to communicate themes to their audience in a language they would understand.

In a society as relatively repressed as Victorian Britain, floriography must have presented tantalizing possibility. One could say anything without saying anything at all. Rather involved love affairs could take place almost entirely with flowers. Whole conversations could be had in a single bouquet. It had the added benefit that it would have been a hobby for the genteel; it required a certain degree of literacy, knowledge of botany, and means with which to obtain the plants necessary to communicate one’s message. While one might pass daisies (“I share your sentiment”) every day, African Marigolds (“vulgar minds”) or Helmet Flowers (“knight-errantry”) might present a greater challenge.

Interestingly enough, for every plant with a positive meaning, there is at least one more with a severely negative one. Reading Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers (1884), it is reassuring that those courted by people they didn’t fancy could put them off without being outwardly rude, from Red Balsam (“touch me not”) to the rather frightening Wild Tansy (“I declare war against you”).

Whether you’re researching a book, decoding a painting, or just looking for a Valentine’s idea for your loved one (or worst enemy), floriography is good fun. Here are some lists of my favorites. Scroll to the bottom for links to some nineteenth century guides you can read in full online or download for your e-reader. Have fun!

A Beginner’s Guide to the Language of Flowers

“When nature laughs out in all the triumph of Spring, it may be said, without a metaphor, that, in her thousand varieties of flowers, we see the sweetest of her smiles; that, through them, we comprehend the exultation of her joys; and that, by them, she wafts her songs of thanksgiving to the heaven above her, which repays her tribute of gratitude with looks of love. Yes, flowers have their language. Theirs is an oratory that speaks in perfumed silence, and there is tenderness, and passion, and even light-heartedness of mirth, in the variegated beauty of their vocabularly.” – Frederic Schoberl, 1834.

3275986767_d4dd7fb33d_b

Positive

Almond (flowering) Hope
Ambrosia Love returned
Arbor Vitae* Unchanging Friendship. Live for me.
Cloves Dignity
Clover, four-leaved Be mine
Coreopsis Arkansa Love at first sight
Coriander Hidden worth
Corn Riches
Daffodil Regard
Daisy, Garden I share your sentiments
Forget Me Not Forget Me Not
Ivy Fidelity. Marriage.
Lemon blossoms Fidelity
Mallow, Syrian Consumed by love
Oak Tree Hospitality
Oak Leaves Bravery
Pine-apple You are perfect
Potato Benevolence
Ranunculus You are radiant with charms
Snowdrop Hope
Strawberry Tree Esteem and Love
Tulip, Red Declaration of love
Tulip, Variegated Beautiful eyes
Tulip, Yellow Hopeless love
Venice Sumach Intellectual excellence
Walnut Intellect. Strategem.
Water Lily Purity of heart
1870s_vinegar_valentine_snake_proposal_declined

A “Vinegar Valentine” from the 1870s

Negative

Achillea Millefolia War
Aconite (Wolfsbane) Misanthropy
Adonis, Flos Painful recollections
Agnus Castus Coldness. Indifference.
Almond (common) Stupidity. Indiscretion.
Amaranth (cockscomb) Foppery
Apple, Thorn Deceitful charms
Asphodel My regrets follow you to the grave.
Bachelor’s Buttons Celibacy
Balsam, Red Touch me not
Barberry Sourness of temper
Basil Hatred
Bay leaf I change but in death.
Bay (Rose) Rhododendron Danger. Beware.
Belladonna Silence
Belvedere I declare against you
Bilberry Treachery
Birdsfoot Trefoil Revenge
Blue-flowered Green Valerian Rupture
Burdock Touch me not.
Butterfly Weed Let me go.
Carnation, Striped Refusal
Carnation, Yellow Disdain
Chequered Fritillary Persecution
China or Indian Pink Aversion
Citron Ill-natured beauty
Clotbur Rudeness. Pertinacity.
Coltsfood Justice shall be done
Columbine Folly
Convulvulus, Major Extinguished hopes
Creeping Cereus Horror
Crowfoot Ingratitude
Cypress Death. Mourning.
Dragonwort Horror
Enchanter’s Nightshade Witchcraft. Sorcery.
Flytrap Deceit
Fool’s Parsley Silliness
Frog Ophrys Disgust
Fuller’s Teasel Misanthropy
Fumitory Spleen
Garden Anemone Forsaken
Hand Flower Tree Warning
Hellebore Scandal
Hemlock You will be my death
Hydrangea Heartlessness
Japan Rose Beauty is your only attraction
Leaves (dead) Melancholy
Lavender Distrust
Lily, Yellow Falsehood
Licorice, Wild I declare against you
Lobelia Malevolence
Mandrake Horror
Milfoil War
Mosses Ennui
Mourning Bride Unfortunate attachment
Moving Plant Agitation
Mushroom Suspicion
Nettle, Burning Slander
Pennyroyal Flee away
Raspberry Remorse
Rose, York and Lancaster War
Rue Disdain
Saint John’s Wort Animosity
Spiked Willow Herb Pretension
Tamarisk Crime
Tansy (Wild) I declare war against you
Thistle, Scotch Retaliation
Trefoil Revenge
White Rose (dried) Death preferable to loss of innocence
Whortleberry Treason
Wormwood Absence
My love in her garden. Victorian Valentine card

Victorian Valentine by Kate Greenaway

Sexy

African Marigold Vulgar minds
Darnel (ray grass) Vice
Dittany of Crete, White Passion
Dragon Plant Snare
Everlasting Pea Lasting Pleasure
Fleur-de-Lis Flame. I burn.
Geranium, Lemon Unexpected meeting
Geranium, Nutmeg Expected meeting
Grass Submission
Jasmine, Spanish Sensuality
Linden or Lime Trees Conjugal Love
Orange Flowers Bridal festivities
Peach Blossom I am your captive
Quince Temptation
Rose, Carolina Love is dangerous
Rose, Dog Pleasure and pain
Tuberose Dangerous pleasures
Vine Intoxication

 

mechanical_valentine_06

Weird

Aloe Grief. Religious superstition
Cereus (Creeping) Modest genius
Christmas Rose Relieve my anxiety.
Cistus, Gum I shall die to-morrow
Colchicum, of Meadow Saffron My best days are past.
Dandelion Rustic Oracle
Helmet Flower (Monkshood) Knight-errantry
Houseleek Domestic industry
Indian Cress Warlike trophy
Lady’s Slipper Win me and wear me
Lint I feel my obligations
Oats The witching soul of music
Passion Flower Religious superstition
Persimon Bury me amid Nature’s beauties
Poppy, White. Sleep. My bane. My antidote.
Prickly Pear Satire
Violet, Yellow Rural happiness

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Greenaway, Kate. The Language of Flowers (1884)

Schoberl, Frederic. The Language of Flowers; With Illustrative Poetry (1834)

Tyas, Robert. The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora (1836)

*Arbor Vitae was also slang for penis at this time.

 

The Art of Courtly Love: Romance in 12th Century France

lancelot_and_guinevere_by_herbert_james_draper

Lancelot and Guinevere. Herbert Draper, 1890s.

De Amore, more commonly known as The Art of Courtly Love, was written in the late twelfth century by Andreas Capellanus (Andreas the Chaplain) as a guide to the theory and practice of love. Capellanus was a friend and contemporary of Chretien de Troyes and though he was not really a literary figure himself, his manual offers an invaluable insight into life in the French court. Along with medieval manners, the rules of love were taught and probably practiced to a point.

The idea that love as we know it was invented in this period is frankly ridiculous. Even if you’re inclined to believe that love is a construct rather than a feeling (science would disagree), Capellanus and de Troyes did not invent what we would call romantic love. Ovid’s The Art of Love and The Cure for Love predate Capellanus’ text by some twelve hundred years and contain many of the same ideas: that women’s power over men is absolute, men must do anything necessary to please them (including neglecting basic necessities such as sleep and food), and that a little jealousy goes a long way.

Many of the ideas or “rules” still hold true today, but one of the starkest differences is the irrelevance of marriage. Ovid and Capellanus agree that marriage has nothing to do with love – it is not the object of falling in love, and it’s not an excuse to not fall in love with someone other than your spouse. The obstacle of a husband can even make love sweeter because it is forbidden.

Similar ideas also existed in 11th century Spain. In 1022, Ibn Hazm compared contemporary ideas about love to that of the Bedouins and ancients including Ovid and Plato. He agrees that people in love may experience jealousy and palpitations, but also subscribes to Plato’s idea of soulmates, that true love is a reunion of souls that have been separated since creation. He differentiates between love and passion: passion may be felt for any number of people, but true love can only be felt for one.

meister_der_manessischen_liederhandschrift_001

From Codex Manesse (14th century)

By the time Chretien de Troyes was writing at the end of the twelfth century, the ideal of chivalry had firmly taken hold among knights and courtiers as a code of social and moral conduct. In addition to piety, prowess, and generosity, it was common for knights to pay court to the wives of their masters or to other great ladies. This was accepted and even encouraged not as an attempt to make off with the woman, but to honor your lord by honoring his wife. Nothing was expected to come of it. Alternatively, some people preferred the idea of platonic love or “pure love,” which was a spiritual, non-physical devotion thought to improve the character of the lovers, because people in love are selfless and they constantly try to better themselves for the sake of their beloved (in theory).

So far, so PG. Were there people engaged in extramarital affairs? Did people ever marry for love? Of course. Just because love was separated philosophically from marriage at the time does not mean they did not sometimes coincide. We can no more generalize about love and marriage in the middle ages than we can about the same subjects today. What we can do, though, is read Capellanus’ rules and see what they tell us about the medieval vision of love:

The Rules of Love

I. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
II. He who is not jealous cannot love.
III. No one can be bound by a double love.
IV. It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing.
V. That which a lover takes against the will of his beloved has no relish.
VI. Boys do not love until they reach the age of maturity.
VII. When one lover dies, a widowhood of two years is required of the survivor.
VIII. No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.
IX. No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love.
X. Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice.
XI. It is not proper to love any woman whom one would be ashamed to seek to marry.
XII. A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.
XIII. When made public love rarely endures.
XIV. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.
XV. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
XVI. When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.
XVII. A new love puts to flight an old one.
XVIII. Good character alone makes any man worthy of love.
XIX. If love diminishes, it quickly fails and rarely revives.
XX. A man in love is always apprehensive.
XXI. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
XXII. Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.
XXIII. He whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little.
XXIV. Every act of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved.
XXV. A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved.
XXVI. Love can deny nothing to love.
XXVII. A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved.
XXVIII. A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved.
XXIX. A man who is vexed by too much passion usually does not love.
XXX. A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.
XXXI. Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women.

Having read this, indulge me for a moment and apply it to the medieval literature you know. I’ll make it easy for you. Probably the most enduring love story of the middle ages is that of Lancelot and Guinevere. It’s still being re-imagined in countless books, films, and TV, but from a modern perspective, it’s always problematic. Guinevere is read by most as thoroughly unsympathetic, cheating on “poor Arthur” with his dreamy right hand man. She is jealous, unfaithful to Arthur, and incredibly demanding (remember that sword bridge he crossed for her in The Knight of the Cart?), and plenty of people have delighted in writing Lancelot a nice, sane girlfriend to replace the crazy Queen who is obsessed with him.

Okay, I’m exaggerating, but only a little. Read through Capellanus’ rules and think about Lancelot and Guinevere again. It’s only a bad relationship through modern eyes. As a romance in the twelfth century, it was not about the infidelity, but a story about the perfect love. Guinevere is unfaithful to her husband, jealous, and demanding, yes, but this is what proves her love for Lancelot. Lancelot does everything she asks and more because he is completely devoted to her. Her marriage is irrelevant because she doesn’t love Arthur; she is faithful in her heart to Lancelot, and that’s all that matters. Everything they do, good or bad, is for love of each other, and that’s how you know it’s real. This story was not a precautionary tale for wives. In every instance Guinevere is almost punished, Lancelot betrays the King to save her. It’s a romance, and at the time, it may have been the ultimate one.

Chretien de Troyes’ romances and Andreas Capellanus’ manual were written at the same time for the same audience and shared the same ideas. The latter can be used as a key to better understanding the former, and both offer an invaluable insight into the theory and practice of love in twelfth century France.

Jessica Cale

A note on the sources: I used the 1941 translation of The Art of Courtly Love by John Jay Parry. His preface and introduction include extensive notes on the historical context of this text, notably references to Ovid, Plato, and Ibn Hazm. There are other translations of this available, but his information is what I used for the beginning of this post. Comparisons between this text and the romances of Chretien de Troyes are my own and based in part on a thesis I wrote on the subject for Swansea University in 2007.

Further reading:
The Art of Courtly Love. Andreas Capellanus.
The Knight of the Cart. Chretien de Troyes.
Le Morte d’Arthur. Thomas Malory.
Lancelot du Lac (The Vulgate Cycle).