Sonnets in the Renaissance
Professor Daniel Breen
26 March 2007
A View of Love: A Cynical Construct Taken Seriously
Of the range of emotions available to man, love is often made out to be the most complicated. For such a simple concept-putting another‟s needs before your own, this
sentiment creates more heartache and despair than any other feeling. I believe that because of this Andreas Capellanus wrote his Treatise on Love, a piece that may or may
not have been intended as a mockery of the concept of courtship in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries but definitely comes across as one now. This Treatise outlines the
way one should think and act in a relationship, taking out all of the guess work which would make the piece attractive to anyone struggling with love. Andreas Capellanus‟
Treatise of Love was intended to be a farce of courtly love despite having his concepts taken seriously by his contemporaries including one troubadour poet, Guillaume IX of Aquitaine, who sides with Capellanus and another, Marcabru, who shows how Capellanus should not be taken so seriously. Similarly, Capellanus speaks on lust and The Countess of Dia and Bertran De Born exemplify nicely, Capellanus‟ statements.
In Andreas Capellanus‟ work, Treatise on Love, the concept of love is made into a
sarcastic reflection of what love truly is. Capellanus presents love not as a feeling of genuine affection towards another individual, but as a vehicle for lust. Instead of providing the reader with a genuine means of giving and receiving pure affection, Capellanus outlines a seduction manual that describes a means of receiving instant personal gratification rather than an authentic relationship. With his first line, Capellanus describes the direction in which his entire piece heads:
Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive
meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to
wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to
carry out all of love‟s precepts in the other‟s embrace. (28)
To say that Love is in and of itself an inborn suffering is to say that love is a solitary act that is meant solely to satiate the desires of the individual rather than complete another. Love in Capellanus‟ mind then is completely internalized, void of the thoughts and
desires of the one being loved, and focused on only the one that is suffering.
As love is defined, it is an emotion and action that speaks nothing of suffering; it is to be a means of joy and pleasure. However, it is through perversion, the hoarding of love by an individual to satisfy their own desires that suffering ensues: “this suffering is
inborn […] it does not arise out of any action; only from the reflection of the mind upon what it sees does this suffering come” (29). Capellanus too recognizes the destruction of
love misused, but he does nothing to remedy this within himself or for others. He could have easily recommended that the lover externalize his love, make it about the needs of the one he is infatuated with and not his self, thus relieving him of pain and allowing for a true relationship. Instead, a means by which the mind can be temporarily appeased is presented to the reader, the lover in distress, by satisfying his carnal desires.
On the whole, this understanding of Capellanus‟ Treatise is incongruous with the
interpretations of the aristocratic understanding of love of the time. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the rules and guidelines outlined by Capellanus were considered to be the way in which persons were expected to behave in the arena of love and a means by which to successfully court their interests. There is no wonder that Capellanus is held in such esteem because included in the Treatise are model conversations between persons
representing different levels of society. With these examples anyone and everyone has a means by which to seduce any member of the opposite sex regardless of status or position.
To have love and a means by which to love outlined so clearly with a definitive set of rules that if followed will result in instantaneous gratification and prolonged satisfaction from a beloved is an appealing proposition; who then would not use this system as a means by which to expedite his own search for a partner? With Capellanus‟
help, lovers are now able to express their affection to one another and retain that love, doing so within their own class and/or across the hierarchal structure, if they so choose, and do so in simple, seemingly common sense terms. Naturally, any means by which to have something as difficult and confusing as love simplified and structured would be of great interest and benefit to all who read it.
The troubadour poets of the time too held a similar point of view as Capellanus; so much so that at times it seems they are speaking about the Treatise directly; if not
speaking about its content, rather the need for something that outlines the facets of courtly love like the Treatise does. Guillaume IX of Aquitaine says in his poem:
A man who wants to be a lover
must meet many people with obedience,
and must know how to do
the things that fit in court,
and must keep, in court, from speaking
like a vulgar man. (R7)
Guillaume understands that within certain social parameters persons must conduct themselves in specific manners and having a resource similar to that of the Treatise
would be beneficial to many a courtier. Guillaume too has no problem with a systematic approach to the presentation of love for “it gives great joy to any man who upholds/its
rules” (R6-7). According to Guillaume, love is a formulaic device that can be presented
in a methodical and organized manner, therefore making it static, ridding it of all surprise and intrigue. An understanding that completely complements Capellanus‟ perception of a
love, so much so that some of Guillaume‟s lines completely set up what Capellanus says
in his Treatise. Guillaume writes, “[w]hat shall it profit you, my comely lady, /if your love keeps me far away?” (R8). According to Capellanus, it will profit this lady
everything to keep her lover at bay for distance, as well as not speaking to or spending time with a love, is one of the best ways in which to keep a love: “[t]oo many
opportunities for exchanging solaces, too many opportunities of seeing the loved one, too much chance to talk to each other all decrease love” (154). Capellanus answers
Guillaume‟s question that the woman wishes to keep her love fresh by spending little time with her lover. Guillaume may not agree with Capellanus, but the woman in his poem seems to, thus setting up Capellanus‟ Treatise and showing how the Treatise may
not always offer the best advice. Heaven forbid that someone spend too much time with the one that they supposedly love, but in a context where love may or may not be a synonym for lust, this advice then is not completely surprising.
However, one troubadour that has a opinion differing from that of Capellanus is Marcabru who is similarly cynical as I am when it comes to the concept of love presented by the Treatise. Marcabru understands that an internalized love, one that is set on personal pleasure, is corrupt and will not last. This love then is not love but lust:
whoever settles down with Lust
wars against himself;
for afterwards, […],
Lust shows such fools its cruelty. (R20)
These lines highlight the internal struggle that I discussed in the opening paragraphs. Capellanus‟ view of love therefore must be lust otherwise there would be no “inborn
suffering” for as Marcabru points out it is lust, not love, which causes one to “war against himself.” And, as Capellanus would have it, the lover is forced to settle with lust as Marcabru advises against for if one gives in then they are subject to all of lust‟s cruelty and torment.
Marcabru‟s understanding of love does differ from that of Capellanus. Although
this position may come across as somewhat ambiguous at times, he continues to remain steadfast in his opinion:
Love deceives and tortures
a man by cooling down his lust.
They are liars, for the happiness of lovers
is Joy, Patience, Restraint. (R20)
The first two lines in this passage would at first appear to complement the ideas of Capellanus as Marcabru appears to be saying that love is doing the deceiving and torturing in and of itself, but it is the love struggling with lust that is causing the pain. The lust does not want to let go and in order to do what is best for the lover, love must painfully remove the lust giving the illusion that it is love which voluntarily causes the pain. Love, however, cannot be the cause of the pain because as we see in the next two lines, traits associated with love are joy, patience and restraint. Nowhere in Capellanus‟
Treatise does the reader see any mention of these three traits, especially when it comes to an association with love; Capellanus‟ love is one associated with manipulation, deception and pain.
To complicate things even further, Capellanus too discusses lust, separate from love, but one that is binary in its relation to love: in several instances lust is a precursor to love, and in others lust is a byproduct of too much love (similar to my prior arguments). For starters, Capellanus states that love can be begotten from lust: “[f]or when a man
sees some woman fit for love and shaped according to his taste, he begins at once to lust after her in his heart; then the more he thinks about her the more he burns with love” (29). Lust in this instance is the fuel that ignites this man‟s passion and it is this passion that
grows into love. Lust, however, as a perversion of love cannot give rise to the pure state of what it is in essence a corruption of. To make the claim that an impurity is at the base of these person‟s emotion, how strong, how genuine will the love that the lover burns
with be when it is brought to fruition? This passage is just another example of Capellanus‟ use of love as a vehicle for lust. Lust is spawned from love, but love and love alone can be begotten from itself.
Lust in its other sense, as expressed by Capellanus, is closer to the mark with regard to the true nature of lust and its origins. Once more this understanding is derived from the perversion of love argument, but in this instance, Capellanus specifically states what I have been expressing:
An excess of passion is a bar to love, because there are men who are
slaves to such passionate desire that they cannot be held in the bonds of
love—men who, after they have thought long about some woman or even
enjoyed her, when they see another woman straightway desire her
embraces […]. Men of this kind lust after every woman they see; their
love is like that of a shameless dog (33).
Here lust renders the lover to the basic level of animalistic instinct. His tendencies are ravenous and insatiable. The lover has lost control and the love he once felt has become something else. For the first time Capellanus expresses the possibility and process by which love can become corrupted and give rise to lust; passion in this case has corrupted him and his sight has betrayed him by making him long for something more than he already has.
Capellanus further compliments himself in this instance for his main theme, present throughout the Treatise, is that love is improperly derived from sight:
A beautiful figure wins love with very little effort, […] for a simple lover
thinks that there is nothing to look for in one‟s beloved besides a beautiful
figure and face and a body well cared for. I do not particularly blame the
love of such people, but neither do I have much approval for it (34).
It is through the eyes of the lover that his passion most readily grows. Sight distinguishes an attraction and facilitates a means by which one can meditate on his love. Love cannot be as superficial as mere beauty, similarly, Capellanus continues: “I believe you should
not seek for beauty so much as excellence of character. Be careful therefore, […] not to
be taken in by the empty beauty of women” (34-5). So far Capellanus‟ most sound
advice, and the best way to avoid the lust that his guidance seems to promote. Love should be based on emotional compatibility and someone that is pure in heart will most likely prevent the lover‟s love from being corrupted. Beauty in and of itself can tarnish
and leave one unsatisfied, but excellence of character cannot be neglected so easily. If love begets love, and goodness begets goodness, than excellence too must beget excellence. Beauty may be associated with things that are good, but it can falter and be found to be inferior, so to base love on it is risky, “for „beauty never pleases if it lacks goodness,‟ and it is excellence of character alone which blesses a man with true nobility and makes him flourish in ruddy beauty. […] Character alone, then, is worthy of the
crown of love” (35).
The troubadour poet, Bertran De Born could benefit from Capellanus‟ advice for he appears to be one of the “shameless dogs” fueled by lust and the fruit of his eyes. In
his sequence born writes:
her adroit and glorious young body,
for the eyes can see, beholding my Better-than-Good,
what pleasure it would be to hold her nude (Reader 30, line 47-50).
Born clearly lusts after this woman with his eyes, but as his sequence shows, it is not solely this woman that he longs for; Born mentions ten different women whom he desires in one way or another. All qualities expressed are physical and each woman makes up for what another lacks. How good of character can these women be if they do not even hold the physical features that Born is drawn to? The woman that Born lost, the one that he is trying to replace with these ten women did not even have excellence of character that he mentions; perhaps he could not identify that character out of spite because she seems to have had enough to leave him. Born is a “shameless dog” indeed, Capellanus
seems to have hit the nail on the head on this one and just to reiterate the point: “men
who, after they have thought long about some woman or even enjoyed her, when they see another woman straightway desire her embraces […]. Men of this kind lust after every woman they see; their love is like that of a shameless dog” (Capellanus 33).
To see the matter from the other point of view, and to further validate Capellanus‟ argument, The Countess of Dia is a woman with beauty, wit, manners and, so it would seem, an exceptional character:
I draw strength from one thing, I never did wrong,
my friend, toward you, by any act,
no I loved you more (R24, line 8-10
To be blameless in the arena of love is to present as exceptional a character as any I can think of. It would appear that The Countess is speaking to one of Capellanus‟ “shameless dogs” who is interestingly enough not drawn to her for either her beauty or character:
Pity does not help me toward him, not courtliness,
nor my beauty, nor my good name, nor my wit;
and so I am cheated and betrayed as much
as I‟d deserve to be if I were ugly (R24, line 4-7).
My name and high descent should help me,
And my beauty and the purity of my heart most of all (R25, line 29-30).
The Countess is a beautiful woman who, as Capellanus states, “wins love with very little effort” (34). She too has excellent qualities being intelligence, wit, a good name, a pure heart and a character that is beyond reproach, but she seems to have trouble finding love. The Countess is pure, love is pure but her lover finds no interest in her, he must be corrupt; lust has overtaken him and corrupted his perception of The Countess. Here is just one example of how lust hurts someone, here initially and then down the line as is the case with Born who will end up not only hurting himself, but all those that he lusts after.
With all that said, what then can be determined about Capellanus‟ Treatise and his
overall intent with the duality between his representation of love and lust? Capellanus‟ strongest arguments and the ones that seem to be the least contradictory are those centered on lust and love at its most pure. Love is merely the act of putting the needs of someone else before your own, and it is goodness of character, as Capellanus states time and time again that this goodness deserves love because goodness of character is what will reciprocate pure love. Similarly, Capellanus understands that lust is derived from a perversion of love; love in excess or with the wrong motives.
Capellanus‟ love so resembles lust throughout his Treatise, which is often so
difficult to distinguish between the two on their own. This is Capellanus‟ irony. His
comment on love is that it is so perverted, so misunderstood that a person‟s
understanding of what they believe to be pure love is in fact corrupted to begin with.
Therefore, Capellanus‟ love is a cynical construct bent on sarcastically presenting this to his reader through guidelines and listed rules on “love.”
It is still possible for love to be pure and to be exchanged in its purity. Unfortunately for the reader that takes Capellanus at his word, none of his advice is sound in this regard. The scenarios and contexts through which Capellanus presents love is to make a mockery of those that truly love in this manner and to make a statement for those that are more aware of these subtleties. With that said, Capellanus seems to present guidelines by which not to love, a manual of what not to do if you will.
If anything, Capellanus outlines several scenarios which are committed by persons in “love,” even today. He was not making anything up when he wrote his
Treatise but wrote a comprehensive observation of people in love and for the most part summarizes how they behave and sarcastically sets them up as absolutes in the arena of love. This piece is not so much an outline as an observation of misdirected lovers. As Marcabru shows, Capellanus‟ piece should not be taken as serious, although, for several
centuries he was. Capellanus intended for his Treatise to be seen more as an eye opening
statement of the state of love in the twelfth century. Few seem to have gotten the joke and the piece was regarded in high esteem for some time. Love is not something that can or should be outlined and set in terms of absoluteness; it is a dynamic emotion unique to all that experience it and subject to trial and error. Love should be surprising and exciting, a pleasure and a joy, not a chore.