To shag or not to shag, that was the courtly question.

Courtly Love by Kate Beaton

Welcome. Benventuto. Howdy. 

St. James here bringing you the first ‘On This Day’.

An unsaintly Sunday sermon of sorts;

with more sex, probably, and less of the sanctimoniousness.

 

On the 8th June in 1290… 

(I realise today is the 18th, so it’s not ‘this’ day, technically,

but ‘a’ day that has already happened…shh…)

Beatrice Portinari, the heroine and muse of medieval poet Dante Alighieri, died at the age of twenty four, having inspired one of the greatest poetic works ever to be penned. The Divine Comedy. One man’s redemptive journey through hell, purgatory and the celestial spheres of paradise, inspired by the love of a woman. A medieval mid-life crisis. Beatrice may have died young, but she became one of literature’s most famous romantic figures, achieving artistic immortality. If I manage to work out three times a week I view that as an achievement. I need to get bigger goals…

Past lovers why aren’t you immortalising me? I’ll take a shitty diary entry. Anything. Alright I’ll give it a go myself. Sod you all. I am woman hear me immortalise:

‘To the boy who broke my heart,

your carelessness caused me to fart

all over the memory of when we snogged merrily

in that shit pub in Green Park.’

Yeh. Not quite the same, is it? Especially to anyone who’s read Dante.

 

This is not about me having a bee in my bonnet about my lack of a famed poetic presence…this is about the idea of loving from afar until it explodes upon a page like a wayward teenage appendage upon a towel.

 

Beatrice is not your average muse. She is idealised love made literary; the kind that transcends physicality. Like that time I saw David Gandy in an Itsu in Mayfair. He’s just not built like other humans. Thor in a three piece suit. He made my eyes hurt and my knickers…anyway…

Immortalised forever as the beatific one, in reality Dante met Beatrice when they were kids. Twice.

Twice! And even though he married and she did too (a banker, of course, why choose the poet who got exiled?) he loved her from a distance all his life, writing poetry dedicated to his memory of her, long after her death.

Seriously guys, I did some stuff of note right? Actually, don’t answer that…

Now this is not about me having a bee in my bonnet about my lack of a famed poetic presence, but about Dantean love and its resonance today. It’s about the idea of loving from afar until it explodes upon a page like a wayward teenage appendage upon a towel. It’s about the real Beatrice never having had any idea of the depth of Dante’s passion. Nor do we know anything about her apart from Dante’s obsession with her. Literary menfolk fashioning women into who they want them to be? That’s never happened.

Since they essentially had no contact, the Beatrice of Dante’s works was shaped entirely by his own mind. (Uh, welcome to my early teenage years.) In any event, the whole ‘I inspired great poetry without even knowing it’ thing also got me thinking about the potency of desire and the relevance of idealised love in the 21st Century.

 

Desire is a messy, mental business.

I won’t tell you about that time I gave a guy a lock of my hair because, you know, ‘romance’. (FYI, he did not appreciate it.)

 

Whether you’re the one desiring, or the one being desired, desire can be a plaguey bitch. Like when you’re supposed to be teaching a kid about quadratic equations but you’ve zoned out because you’re thinking about your ex pinning you up against a door, or a wall, or maybe the door and then the wall, and then the floor…and then when you snap out of it, the kid is looking at you weirdly, and you wonder whether you vocalised any of your fantasy…

Desire is a messy, mental business.

But what happens when this quadratic-equation-evasion-thought-stalking takes flight and becomes public? Unless you were a groupie in the 70s, is having something written about you, something that may end up having a cultural resonance, just weird? If someone posted a love poem about you on Facebook, wouldn’t you quietly, or not so quietly, freak the fuck out? Perhaps not.

When I was at school, pre-social media, a friend’s boyfriend posted poetry across the pubs of Primrose Hill after she broke up with him, as a testament of his enduring love. Her mother ended up taking them all down and heading over to another leafy suburb to berate his mother for her son’s wanton pennings. Now, I remember thinking that it was all really romantic. Weird? Maybe. But romantic? Definitely. An overblown gesture of the kind we don’t really see anymore. But, that’s just me. I won’t tell you about that time I gave a guy a lock of my hair because, you know, ‘romance’. (FYI, he did not appreciate it.)

In Dante’s era, such poetry-pasting behaviour would have constituted Courtly love. That slippery bugger of a Middle Ages literary innovation that no critic or historian can really agree on. An experience somewhere between an erotic and a spiritual climax – no pressure then. To modern eyes though, is Courtly love OTT? Stalking? Crazy? Moreover, in the wake of the sexual revolution and the varying feminist movements, and in an age when you can, feasibly, shag a different person every night of the week and still have some to spare, maybe these highfalutin shows aren’t needed anymore? Maybe we’re just over it.

 

To shag or not to shag, that was the courtly question.

(Image by Kate Beaton)

 

To paint the medieval picture, a form of Courtly love went a little like this (note: I use ‘man’ and ‘woman’ here, non-binary not really being a medieval thing, update/amend as you please):

Man sees woman walking through a garden, admiring her trim (or overgrown, she’s all woman) bushes. Man is struck by the cosmic vision of her. The vision makes its way to his heart. He’s full blown love-struck.

She hasn’t got a clue she’s being watched – she’s just minding her own business, watching her bushes, bush watching. But she has a cool, standoffish presence and he can’t approach her.

Love struck becomes love sick. He can’t eat, can’t sleep, is down deep in the depths of the love bug. It needs to be released from his system. Like noro. So how does it come out?

In well-crafted verses with a rhyme scheme and plucky metre. He writes these ‘complaints’ in secret to the lady but it’s vital that she knows exactly how he feels, exactly how he is suffering, so maybe he gets his mate to deliver them to her somehow. A man with a verse van.

In the meantime, something has fortuitously happened to make her aware that she has been bush watched (maybe she’s just spotted the fucker) and so when the poems arrive, she knows the source. Lucky that. Would be weird otherwise.

She rejects him. He pouts. She smiles. And that’s the signal he needs. Now, he knows it’s on. She has accepted him as her ‘drut’ (‘dread’ meaning ‘oh revered one’, not “oh shit, there he is again, that weirdo hiding in my bushes”).

So can they make medieval nooky now? Nope. Next up, the tests.

The lover gets a token in kind, a glove or a girdle perhaps. Possibly the sexy kind. And the woman?

The woman gets carte blanche – she can ask him to prove his love through jousting, journeys, deeds: ANYTHING SHE WANTS. Right, this is the bit I can get on board with:

“Lady Penelope told me I looked fat in my corset. Kill her.” 

Has to.

“Bring me some ramen with tofu.” 

Bloke’s got to go to Japan to pose as a tofu farmer and steal said freshly farmed tofu.

“Fetch me the pinky toe of that massive golden Buddha in Thailand so I can flog it and afford a deposit for a flat.” 

“Isn’t that a holy shrine?” 

“Silence poem peeper, fetch me my little gold toe!” 

He’s got to swim to the Far East. And even though he knows it’s sacrilegious, and even though he has to stake out the temples to make a note of the comings and goings of the guards and the tourists and the CCTV angles (it’s sort of ok, it makes him feel like Tom Cruise), he’s still got to hack off the little toe that’s really more the size of a small cow and then swim back. Small cow toe in tact.

And then, when he gets back, the bitch wants those vegan millionaire’s shortbreads you can only get from Whole Foods. And this goes on until she gets bored, which, let’s admit it ladies, is probably NEVER.

 

My fiefdom brings all the wombs to the yard.

 

Do medieval bitches just be crazy? Perhaps. But this was the era when women got dunked backwards into a toilet strapped to a wooden cart if their husband / brother / father / baker deemed them loquacious, and were then paraded around the village (yeh, that happened). So, arguably, this arduous courtly process gave women a little more status then? Well, sort of.

Courtly love ascribed a femininity that was outlined by the patriarchal character of Western culture, but it was also a way to get your sexy time on. And in an age when feudal marriage wasn’t based on love but fiefdom, if I was flogged to the local lord who just wanted my womb and couldn’t get it up because he kept sampling his fief’s wine, I’d definitely want a knight to come my way and fetch me some millionaire’s shortbread before prancing in my bushes, however imbalanced the process might seem.

Courtly love made (much needed) affairs permissible. Cheeky.

To shag or not to shag, that was the courtly question. Whether it was nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous beauty from afar, or, by taking her in her bushes whilst you recite your heartbroken verse to her after you’ve returned from committing acts of sacrilege, end them. Doesn’t sound that different from modern conundrums. If I actually got into bed with David Gandy there would be some sort of let down. I’d go off him. He’s too…Thor-like. Better keep it a dream. Right? Wait…

 

By letting and willing ourselves feel the sting of desire,

the push and pull of its waves,

we live completely.

 

Love’s tricky business. An era-defying truth. But with the right to choose who to marry, shag, avoid, are we not still captivated by the lengths lovers go to win it? Is Hollywood not built on this particular drama? Of course it bloody is. It’s also what social media could have been engineered for. Just imagine what medieval knights would have made of Tinder.

But today, let’s not focus on the ‘if I wine you and dine you with my exploits and poetry will you finally offer up your fanny?’ kind of ‘love’, but on Dante’s kind. The kind where a boy fell in love and lost his tongue. So he wrote. He wrote verse that makes your heart sing, especially if your heart can speak Italian. Even if I’m idealising a love that never transpired. Who cares. It’s a great love story and I’m a 21st Century sucker.

Dante saw Beatrice as a force for good, a force he believed made him a better person. He never really seems overly concerned with her appearance either. Kudos Dante. Don’t we want our lovers to guide us, enrich us, make us better versions of ourselves?

 

Love…bouncing cosmic dust between a mass of bodies 

from Bethnal Green to Barking to Bangladesh.

 

In the Commedia, Beatrice helps him glimpse the divine through desire. We might update that ‘divinity’ to include science, the cosmos, the tree in your back-garden, the ‘all’: the divine in whatever form that takes for you. Love reflected in the bonds that bind us but break borders, bouncing cosmic dust between a mass of bodies from Bethnal Green to Barking to Bangladesh. By letting and willing ourselves feel the sting of desire, the push and pull of its waves, we live completely.

And that’s what it’s about folks. Tell a girl you love her, if you truly do. Tell a guy you love him, if you truly do. Even if they don’t feel the same, they’ll appreciate your honesty. Focus less on looks. Don’t buy a robot sex doll. And fuck people who make you better.

 

…delight in the existence of others…

Allow yourself to become the best version of you that you can be.

 

Dante may have never spoken to Beatrice properly, and yes to our modern sensibilities that may sound a bit sad, weird, stalkery. But at the core of their story isn’t someone wanking over an old photo in bed, their partner next to them, pretending not to hear (although, who knows, the Inferno is quite kinky); at its core is admiration, respect, joy. A recognition of the power of the human spirit and the kindness and redemptive powers we hold within ourselves.

Sex may sell, but Dantean love stirs. So, if you do anything this day, let it be this: delight in the existence of others and treasure the people in your life that inspire you, be those lovers, friends or ghosts. Allow yourself to become the best version of you that you can be.

And fuck people who make you better people. That’s something for us all to aspire to. Right?

 

Got a story of a grand romantic gesture? Or one that went awry? Get in touch.

stjamessundays@gmail.com

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About St. James 5 Articles
St. James is in search of a cat called Elvis on a unicycle. If anyone sees him; holla.

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