'The Love We Court:' Medieval Discourses of Love and the Performative Politics of Romantic Love

Author: Sandra Price

Price, Sandra, 2018 'The Love We Court:' Medieval Discourses of Love and the Performative Politics of Romantic Love, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Fundamental to the intelligibility of romantic love in contemporary Western romance culture is its common signifier ‘falling in love’, constituted as a ‘magical’ emotional experience of a ‘true’ and ‘special’ kind of love invested with erotic power. Thus far, feminism has paid only sporadic attention to what constitutes ‘falling in love’ and its emotional configuration. While many feminists argue that its emotions are not pre-social but socially and discursively constructed, feminist analysis of romance and its effects are almost always contemporary. Despite general agreement across disciplines that romantic love is the ancestor of medieval ‘courtly love’, historical or genealogical approaches are few. This study addresses that gap in feminist knowledge, investigating the ‘psycho-emotional erotics of falling in love’ and interrogating its construction through a historical and historiographical genealogy—informed by both mainstream and contemporary feminist theory.

The birth-place of courtly love was the medieval royal and aristocratic courts of Occitania where the troubadours wrote their verse lyric. The lyric form called the cansos was the first and most significant artistic influence on the falling in love narrative which has had profound and enduring impacts on Western romance culture. Against the current of still prevalent readings of amorous content in the cansos, this thesis argues that the cansos represent public forms of medieval social and political love—namely courtliness and ennobling love—not sexual/affective love as we know it today; an argument with implications for how romantic love has historically been constructed and understood. In addition, I argue that the troubadour’s veneration of aristocratic women in the cansos was not, primarily, in response to their feminine virtue or sexual allure, but to their social status and power as territorial lords, motivated as least in part, by noblewomen’s capacity to patronise troubadour works of art and career advancement.

The sophisticated noble courts of Occitania were rich in practices that centred on the display of virtue and emotion in creating the sociality and civility of daily court life. The discourses and practices arising in that environment are analysed by examining the socio-political and cultural forces behind the creation of the cansos. Lyric’s appropriation for romance and the inculcation of the ‘falling in love’ narrative in Western romance culture over time is explained through the interaction of intertextuality and lived experience. Aspects of performativity, speech acts and the interpellation of ideology are considered in showing how romantic love is ‘the effect, not the cause of discourse’. This proposition has the political potential of subverting the ‘magical’ erotics of chemistry ‘embodied’ in heterosexual attraction central to the narrative of falling in love, and reconceptualising romantic love as one of human agency and power.

Keywords: 1. Feminism, 2. 'Falling in love', romantic love, genealogy, 3. Medieval discourses of love, courtly love, courtliness, ennobling love, 939-1200.

Subject: Women's Studies thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Dr Heather Brook