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  • Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality
  • William N. Bonds
Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality. By James A. Schultz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. 242. $39.00 (cloth).

Scholars interested in sexuality in medieval Europe have few sources at their disposal until the twelfth century CE. Those that exist—Germanic law codes, decisions reached at ecclesiastical councils, books of penance—are prescriptive rather than descriptive and come primarily from the pens of those Christian clerics who elevated chastity above any overt expression of sexual desire. While many European laity admired monks and celibate priests, bequeathing them a large share of their wealth, few sought to imitate them. It was the extraordinary nature of their lives that gave monks value in society; their lives could compensate God for others' misdeeds. Even the handbooks of penance, which list dozens of sinful sexual acts and relationships and inform confessors of the appropriate penance, may tell us more about clerical perceptions than about the actual behavior of laity.

In the twelfth century, however, sources conveying information about sexuality began to increase dramatically in both number and type. Thus, when James A. Brundage published his magisterial work Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (University of Chicago Press, 1987), he allotted only one chapter of about fifty pages to the period from the sixth century to the middle of the eleventh century CE but five chapters with about three hundred pages in total to the subsequent three centuries. In the twelfth century clerics continued to give sermons, publish theological studies, and legislate, but some started to reflect upon and write about their own lives, most notably, Peter Abelard and Heloise. In addition, works by and for the laity made an appearance and started to proliferate: lyric poetry, epics, romances, satires, and the fabliaux.

An excellent introduction to all these sources is John W. Baldwin's The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200 (University of Chicago Press, 1994). By the end of the twelfth century the lands ruled by the king of France had become a magnet for scholars and poets from all over Europe, many of whom thought and wrote about love and sexuality. Theologians like Pierre the Chanter and his students, prompted by the emergence of competing heterodox views, affirmed the legitimacy of procreative sex within marriage. The faculty of medicine at the University of Paris, immersed in the works of Aristotle and Galen that had recently been translated from Arabic, formulated ideas about the physiology of sex. André the Chaplain, inspired by Ovid, produced a widely read treatise on what might be called the psychology and sociology of love. Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, and Jean Renart composed seminal works of romance, and Jean Bodel published racy fabliaux. With impressive erudition Baldwin [End Page 594] explicates and compares these authors' views on anatomy, sexual desire, coitus and reproduction, and marital and extramarital sexual relations.

Like Baldwin's Language of Sex, James A. Schultz's Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality examines rigorously a small body of texts composed around the year 1200. But Schultz's sample—lyrics and romances written in Middle High German—illuminates only one of the cultures that Baldwin considered: the secular aristocratic court, the locus of courtly love. What justifies this choice, Schultz states, is the fact that most historians of sexuality have ignored the discourse of courtly love, though it was "an object of fascination to contemporaries and an influence upon European thinking about love for centuries" (xvi). One need not be a medievalist to recognize some of the protagonists in this literature—Dido and Eneas, Parzifal, and Tristan and Isold—and to appreciate their enduring significance. What also justifies Schultz's choice are the striking conclusions that he is able to draw from his investigation. These make Courtly Love not only a worthy companion to Language of Sex but a major contribution to the history of love and sexuality.

To organize the material discussed in Courtly Love Schultz has adopted Aristotle's four-part conception of causation: material, efficient, formal, and...


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