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  • Anger and the “Cour amoureuse” of Charles VI: Medieval and Modern Perspectives
  • Tracy Adams and Michael Potegal, PhD, LP

This essay explores the early fifteenth-century “Cour amoureuse,” or Love Court, associated with the French royal court, in the context of modern psychological work on aggression and flyting, setting up a dialogue between medieval and modern psychological theories of anger. A professor in Pediatric Clinical Neuroscience specializing in the study of anger and aggression comments on an analysis of the “Cour amoureuse” offered by a scholar of medieval studies. The exchange reveals that a distinction present in medieval theories of anger seems to have a basis in neurological reality.

The question of whether societies of the modern era are more or less bloodthirsty than their predecessors arouses heated debate, as the controversy raised by Steven Pinker’s recent The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined demonstrates.1 Still, no one disputes the violence of medieval Europeans, who, recognizing their aggression as a serious problem, sought through various means to limit it. In recent years, scholars have examined many medieval methods of conflict management, including peace rituals, processions, royal entries, and controlled acts of violence, like one-on-one challenges (Throop; Tuten and Billado; Given-Wilson; Offenstadt; Hyams; Petkov).

In addition to examining such straightforward attempts to control violence, recent scholars have also examined formalized contests [End Page 268] for poetic superiority as means of channelling conflict and expressing anger, jealousy and rivalry. This still small but growing subcategory of scholarship provides the background for this study of the widely-known but little examined charter of the “Cour amoureuse,” the Love Court (hereafter the CA) of mad King Charles VI (1368–1422).2 The charter, composed around 1400, that is, during the early years of the Orleanist-Burgundian feud, which pitted the king’s brother Louis of Orleans against the king’s uncle Philip of Burgundy, proclaimed the purpose of the CA to be to praise women and host poetic competitions, although evidence that such competitions in fact were held is scant, with some arguing that it was a complete fiction (Straub 1–14). But even if the love court did not meet, I argue that its charter is a significant document for the medieval history of emotions, although not for the history of love. Rather, the charter, which represents a symbolic attack by the Duke of Burgundy on his nephew and rival for control of the kingdom, the Duke of Orleans, has much to tell us about medieval conceptions of anger.

This essay is divided into two sections. In the first I (Tracy Adams) discuss the document’s social and literary contexts and the court hierarchy that it represents. In the second I examine the assumptions about anger that the document encodes. In keeping with the interdisciplinary aims of this journal, my discussion throughout is commented upon by Michael Potegal, a neuropsychologist specializing in studies of anger and aggression (his commentary is italicized). Thus we situate the CA in the scholarship on medieval political love poetry but also, more broadly, in recent scholarship on aggression, hoping through the exchange to contribute also to the ever more nuanced discussion over the status of anger as an emotion that is both universal and culturally constructed. Potegal observes that although current knowledge of anger is increasingly built on a rigorous experimental foundation rather than anecdotal observation and conjecture, no matter how plausible, many of the findings will come as no surprise to medieval students of emotion, and, indeed, that they are evident in the conflicts embedded in the charter of the CA. I reply that recent psychological accounts of anger do indeed seem to confirm medievalists’ observations about how anger was experienced in the past.

Poetry as politics

Although positions at the French royal court during the fifteenth century were highly prized, life there is described frequently as a sort of battlefield where courtiers vied for superiority, relying on deception rather [End Page 269] than physical aggression to dominate. A long tradition of anti-curial satire depicts courtiers as locked into perpetual contests for power, countering jealousy, back-biting, hypocrisy, and vengeance with their own astute ripostes. The narrator of...


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