Saturday, February 14

Medieval Saints and Lovers

I write historical thrillers and have long had a fascination for all things medieval. One of the aspects of medieval life that has always intrigued me has been people’s devotion to saints. I’ve touched on other blog posts, where I looked at saints' relics.

Medieval Saint Valentine
Public Domain
Hang on a minute, I hear you say. This blog is for Valentine’s Day, for lovers. Should I be looking at preserved body parts here? I think not. But I would like (like our medieval forebears would have) to look at the saints that might appeal to us at this time when all thoughts turn to love. You might be surprised by the findings.

Let’s kick off with the saint who names the day. Saint Valentine himself. As with many saints, the origins of who he was (and there is evidence there may have been three saints) are vague. But don’t expect him to have been elevated to sainthood because of any kind of special involvement with lovers.

Valentine was a holy priest in third century who helped out persecuted early Christians. He was arrested and tried before the prefect of Rome. The prefect tried to make him renounce his faith but Valentine refused. The prefect ordered Valentine be beaten with clubs, which still didn’t make him change his mind. He was then beheaded. His execution took place on February 14, about the year 270. Interesting that the record is clear about the date being February 14, but a bit hazy about the year.

This can be explained when we fast forward to medieval times.  The concept of courtly love with aloof, desirable women was hugely popular during this period. Troubadours celebrated these women through song and poems. In the fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer brought the popularity of courtly love to new heights with his poem The Parlement of Fowles.

Alain Chartier
Edmund Blair-Leighton, 1903
Public Domain
This poem first introduced the idea of Valentine’s Day being a day for lovers. The Cour Amoreuse was founded in the French Medieval Court, supposedly in honour of women. It first met on Valentine’s Day in 1400, ruled over by a ‘Prince of Love’ who was a professional poet. Noble ladies heard various love-poems and presented prizes to the winners.

But what’s interesting is that in the canon of Catholic saints, Saint Valentine isn’t the saint of wistful lovers in the throes of a new romance. He is the patron saint for those who have already found their perfect partner.

Being the patron for those seeking love actually belongs to the Archangel Raphael. Saint Raphael, according to legend, helped Tobias enter into marriage with Sarah, who had seen seven previous bridegrooms perish on the eve of their weddings. (That has to be a run of bad luck if there ever was one.) Saint Raphael is the patron saint for what is called happy encounters (how sweet!).

The Angel Raphael
leaving the family of Tobias
Rembrandt, 1637
Public Domain
You could of course always try the Welsh Saint Dwynwen. She is the Welsh patron saint of love and friendship, who lived during the fifth Century and was one of the 24 daughters of King of Wales, Brychan Brycheiniog. (When I came across those statistics, I felt perhaps that Brychan should patron saint of something, but I wasn’t quite sure what).

© Copyright Robin Drayton

Dwynwen founded a convent on Llanddwyn, on the west coast of Anglesey, where she was joined by other broken-hearted women. After her death in 465AD, a well named after her became a place of pilgrimage and it remains there today.

There are also of course related saints: Saint Agnes, patron saint of virginity. Saint Anne, the patron saint of fertility and childbirth and Saint Gerard Majella, patron saint of motherhood, both good to call on when Saint Agnes has gone off duty. And of course, good old Saint Fotino, the patron saint of erectile dysfunction, who has a reassuring big white beard, but alas, I couldn't find a usable image.

St. Agnes
Caesare Dandini, 16th C
Public Domain
So, lovers of love, you are not restricted to just Valentine on February 14. You can take your pick of saints- just like the medievals did.

Friday, February 6

The Medieval Romances of Chrétien de Troyes

The Accolade
Edmund Blair Leighton, 1901
Public Domain
If I were to ask you if you knew the story of Sir Lancelot, then I suspect you would answer in the affirmative. Chain mail. One of King Arthur’s knights. Caused all sorts of bother with Guinevere. Yes, you know all about him. But if I were to ask you who Chrétien de Troyes was, you might not have such a ready answer. It might surprise you to know that he is the medieval writer credited with bringing the legend of said Sir Lancelot along with the other Arthurian legends into the genre known as romance. And of course, writing about a British king, Chrétien was French.

It is frustrating that we know very little of Chrétien’s life. He was writing between 1160 and 1172, and it is suggested that he had a position as herald-at-arms at the court of his patroness in the city of Troyes. His patroness was the Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Familiar to us all will be the notion of Courtly Love: this was also a concept running through Chrétien’s work.

Marie played a major part in taking this romantic ideal and promoting it as fashionable behaviour. Devotion and courtesy featured, but so did adulterous love. It should be remembered that adultery was considered amongst the gravest of sins by the medieval church. But Marie’s influence, and perhaps that of her mother, created a surge of interest amongst European aristocracy. (One commentator describes her as ‘this celebrated feudal dame’, a description which, to my eternal regret, conjured up a medieval Mae West on first reading.)

The End of the Song
Edmund Blair Leighton, 1902
Public Domain

Chrétien wrote in Old French, rather than Latin. He composed at least five romances and two lyric poems. The word ‘romance’ also comes to us from this period. The Old French word romanz was first used in a literary sense to distinguish words written in vernacular French (romanz) from those in Latin.

So how did Chrétien happen on tales of King Arthur for inspiration? It would seem that Chrétien, like all good writers of historical fiction, liked a bit of a borrow from the past. Irish, Welsh and Breton legends have some mentions. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, written in 1137, introduced the Arthurian legend to continental Europe.  This was a Latin history written in prose. Anglo-Norman poet Wace produced Roman de Brut in 1155, a version of the history now in French couplets.

King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table
Michael Gantelet, 1472
Public Domain

Wace’s King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table (Wace’s is the first known mention of the Round Table; Chrétien has that for Camelot) were undoubtedly a more refined bunch than those written of previously. But they were still a group of fighters, rather than lovers. If his version were a historical novel, it would have swords and sandals on the cover, no question. It would take Chrétien to bring on the cover with the headless lady in the big dress.

In Chrétien’s romances we have knights riding out on adventures, fighting bravely against other warriors, monsters and magical creatures. And of course, the knights are also in pursuit of the love of their fair lady, often a love they lose, only to fight to get it back again. This latter storyline might be familiar to readers of the contemporary romance genre. But forget stereotypical images of swooning ladies.  Chrétien doesn’t hold with damsels in distress. His ladies can be just as courageous and daring as his knights. When one considers the powerful woman that was one of Chrétien’s patrons, along with other powerful female patrons, this is hardly surprising.

God Speed!
Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900
Public Domain

So what of the romances? First is Erec et Enide, with its straightforward tale of love, estrangement and reconciliation on an adventure-filled journey. It is set in Brittany and depicts King Arthur sitting on a throne emblazoned with a leopard. Such court scenes may have been inspired by Henry II’s  Christmas 1169  court at Nantes in Brittany.

Second is Cligès, which is written against the background of the Tristan and Iseut story. It is an adulterous tale in which Cligès falls in love with Fenice, his uncle’s wife. She feigns her death with a magic potion, so they can be together.

Third up is Lancelot, or The Knight with the Cart. By far the most famous romance of Chrétien’s, it is the first tale of the adulterous love between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. Though she is cruel to him, he obeys her every command and wish. Readers may not be familiar with its name, The Knight with the Cart. It is so called because in his search for Guinevere, Lancelot rides in a cart meant for convicted criminals. He is concerned for his honour (albeit briefly), but she is very displeased that he would hesitate in his search for her.

The Parting of Sir Lancelot & Guinevere, 1874
Julie Margaret Cameron
Public Domain

Fourth is Perceval, a very lengthy yet not completed tale. Again, it introduces a story which has inspired so many, many more tales of searches and quests: the quest for the Grail.

Last, but by no means least, we have Yvain, or The Knight with the Lion. It is a spectacular romance and adventure, with a lion, a giant, a magic fountain and the widow who falls in love with Yvain, her husband’s killer.

In Time of Peril
Edmund Blair Leighton, 1903
Public Domain

Lancelot and Guinevere. The Grail. King Arthur. Camelot. Chivalrous knights. All part of the popular cultural imagination, thanks to Chrétien de Troyes. We may not know much about him. But my goodness: we know about his stories. We are still retelling them today.

De Troyes, Chretien: Arthurian Romances, Penguin Classics (1991)
Encyclopaedia Brittanica: Chrétien de Troyes
Jones, Terry & Eriera, Alan: Medieval Lives, BBC Books (2004)
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J & Lindow, J. (eds.): Medieval Folklore, Oxford University Press (2002)
Norton Anthology of English Literature: Chrétien de Troyes:
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)

Note: I originally posted this article on English Historical Fiction Authors on February 1st 2015.

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