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Eroticism in the Middle Ages (A. de la Croix)

Here is a surprising and very informative book published in the Texto collection of Tallandier editions. As the author reminds us, to speak of eroticism about the Middle Ages (period spanning from the 5th to the 15th century) is to commit a linguistic anachronism.

Eros or the desired anachronism

The word, derived from the Greek Eros, appears in the middle of the 16th century and does not take on its contemporary meaning until the end of the 18th century. But, what other term to choose to evoke the gigantic evolutions, during these 10 centuries which stretched from the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476) to the fall of Constantinople (1453), in the fields of desire and sexuality? From the vision of the couple and of love? It is all the more relevant in that it immediately breaks, in the reader's psyche, the generally accepted obscurantist image of the medieval period. It also subtly recalls that sensual games have always been, have always whipped imaginations and creativity and troubled bodies at all times, even during this period commonly portrayed as dark or boring and not very inclined to games of the senses. Big mistake. Of course, this long period is dominated by the influence of the Catholic Church which demonizes the bodies to better appeal to spirituality. However, between theory and practice, the gap is wide and there are real 'counter-cultures', above all via the trobadors then the popular carnival rites that are not very Christian, the obscene sculptures, see the light of day and flourish, revealing, by their echo, the concerns of the men and women of the time. The author's style is not bombastic and he sometimes allows himself funny and necessarily naughty winks without taking anything seriously from his chronological study. What are the main lines of this evolution of mentalities through the prism of eroticism?

From masculine antiquity to the religious Middle Ages

The author starts from the influence of Antiquity, of the Greco-Roman culture by relying on the most famous Greek philosopher: Plato. The latter's essay, devoted to love and desire, 'Le Banquet', seems opportune to start. Here love is above all masculine and homosexual. The women are sent back to the part of the house reserved for them. "The lover and the beloved are differentiated. First of all by age: the lover is a mature man, his favorite is young and hairless. Their feelings are not identical: one has made the choice of the other.We will find this inequality of feeling, unchanged, in the relationship of the lover and his beloved as described in the 11th century by the Spanish Arab Ibn Hazm in his treatise 'On Love' which anticipates on the conception of courtly love which will develop in the Middle Ages in Provence then throughout Christian Europe. "Christianity, frankly heterosexual, will not modify (hence the importance of evoking it) this approach amorous in the couple where amorous reciprocity is not required. Another common line between Antiquity and the Middle Ages: the distinction between a 'beautiful love', which we guess is reserved for an elite, sensitive to the beauty of the soul above all, and a more despicable love , only carnal and explicitly called popular. Dante (1265-1325), illustrious representative of courtly love, thus speaks of a love 'worthy of the court', differentiated from the raw drive, reserved for the villains of the plebs.

Courtly love or the discovery of women

Born in the courtyards of feudal fortresses in the heart of Occitania, in the 11th century, courtly love was carried by these troubadours, poets, musicians and often lords (women - nobles, necessarily - even) who were to experience immense success throughout Europe. The author explains to us their art, often repetitive in our eyes now greedy for incessant innovations, which is based on the same themes treated (love, nature) but, "in the style of jazzmen", by playing on tiny variations and therefore here double meaning of the words, examples in support. Why consider courtly love so important? Because it will revolutionize the approach of the couple. And to quote André le Chapelain, at the end of the 12th century: "nothing that the lover obtains from his beloved can have charm if she has not granted it to him of her free will." Reciprocity : finally ! The troubadours call to pay homage to the lady now often compared to a lord of whom they would be the liege man. The tensions which agitate the period and mentalities, especially the permanent duality between the taste for beauty and pleasure and the fear of the sin of lust, lead to many different approaches in many poets. For example 'Tristan et Yseut', by Chrétien de Troyes, which reveals more a passion of lovers for death than for love. Interesting comparisons and cross-checks by the author. Besides, let him speak here (still on the subject of Chrétien de Troyes but, for his work 'Cligès'): "(his) purpose is nothing less than the reconciliation of love and the couple. we can see how far we have come in a short time: from the discovery in Occitania at the end of the 11th century of the feeling of love for women, a feeling until then reserved for virile friendship and which requires the reciprocity of desire, to praise adulterous passion, here at the end of the 12th century, a writer proposed an innovative, egalitarian model of love. A loving and desiring relationship lived through perilous initiation trials and not at the end of any ceremony. "

The Announcement of the Cynical Renaissance

In the 13th century, however, “the success of Guillaume de Lorris' 'Roman de la Rose' will mark the end of the great courtly dream with brilliance” and open a new chapter. The impact of these 17,000 worms was immense at the time. Feminine perversity, the inanity of amorous hopes that makes her hero say: "I give more value to my two small hammers and my wallet than to my city and my harp." No need for subtitles. , I think. A cynical skepticism that heralds the Renaissance. Arnaud de la Croix continues by describing the popular 'expressive' carnivals and the sensual games with the clothes of the time, full of transparency. Decidedly, whatever the period, that love games are complicated (and influenced)! But this book is devoured and enlightens us in a way that is both learned and joyful. It even makes us want to love a little more and reread the classics mentioned!

- 'Eroticism in the Middle Ages (body, desire, love), by Arnaud de la Croix, Texto collection, Tallandier editions, April 2013.

Video: The Middle Ages for kids - Five things you should know - History for Kids Updated Version (January 2022).