Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Most writers on the subject have assumed without hesitation that the relationship was fully adulterous. Even the usually percipient Briffault unhesitatingly concludes that the relationship was not only sensual but consummated: but if we inspect the references he gives in support of this view we find that they always refer to intimate caresses or to clasping of the naked body, but never refer to such ideas as climax, satisfaction, complete possession and the like.(23) A few writers, however, such as Lucka, have maintained the contrary view.

There are various facts which make the assumption of actual adultery rather unlikely— for instance, the fact that bastard children are seldom if ever referred to. Indeed, the husbands of the ladies in question accepted the relationship and supported the troubadours in their castles, sometimes elevating them to knighthood if they were not knights already. In early Celtic times such tolerance might have been inconclusive, but in twelfth-century Provence husbands were not, as a rule, prepared to be cuckolded openly. Again, we should hardly expect priests to bless an open adultery. Certainly by the fourteenth century the relationship had become so conventional that Petrarca, a canon of the Church, could write passionate sonnets to Laura without arousing any comment.

Denomy, a Jesuit, whose avowed object is to prove the sensual character of the love of the troubadours, accepts that the relationship was never consummated. He concludes: “The analysis reveals that from Guillaume IX there has existed a constant tradition and conception of pure love— ‘fin amor ‘….. arising from the contemplation of the beauty of the beloved and effecting a union of the hearts and minds of the lovers. It was a love that yearned for, and at times was rewarded by, the solace of every delight of the beloved except physical possession of her by intercourse. Far from being pure in the accepted sense, or disinterested, it is sensual and carnal in that it allows, approves and encourages the delights of kissing and embracing, the sight of the beloved’s nudity and the touching and lying beside her nude body-in short, all that fans and provokes desire.”(59)

As I shall show in a moment, this question of consummation is of some psychological significance, and we can approach it from another angle. I have argued, in the previous chapter, that the matrist’s chief fear is of incest. We may therefore ask, did the troubadours betray any signs of incest fears? For if they did, it becomes intelligible that they might hesitate to consummate a relationship which seemed incestuous in character, as a relationship with a mother substitute necessarily must seem.

The rules governing “courtly love” as it was called, were elaborately worked out and were written down about 1186 by one Andrew the Chaplain, at the court of Queen Alienor. This Treatise on Love was immediately translated into the principal foreign languages, and became a standard work.(36) It is therefore rather striking that, in the third part of the work, when he comes to consider reasons why it may be inadvisable to love at all, the reason which he places before all others is that “love leads to incest”. This is hardly the reason which would first occur to one today.

Thus in the troubadours we have a body of men each of whom loves and obeys a woman who is powerful and superior 😮 himself, and with whom he may never sleep, apparently for ear of incest. It can hardly be called “psychologising” to diagnose this as love of a mother figure.