Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

The troubadour’s determination to enjoy the pleasures of travelling hopefully involved denying himself the pleasure of arriving: and it may be argued that to enjoy frustration indicates a degree of masochism. Chrestien de Troyes perceived the contradiction:

De tous les maux, le mien diffère; il me plait; je me rejouis de lui; mon mal est ce que je veux et ma douleur est ma santé. Je ne vois donc pas de quoi je me plains.

It is the function of a myth to embody a set of unconscious emotions, to sum up in allegorical form a situation which many are experiencing. The situation of the troubadours is summed up in the myth of Tristan and Iseult, and its various modifications betray the change in unconscious preoccupations. In the earliest Celtic versions, Drestan, or Tristan, is simply a hero with whom Iseult sleeps, before she marries King Mark- an event of a perfectly normal character in the morality of the period.(208) Indeed, in one version, Tristan also sleeps with another lady just before her marriage, and there is no suggestion that any special difficulty was involved. The drama comes from the fact that he has killed the husband of Brangwen, a sorceress who is determined to revenge herself But in the medieval versions, Brangwen recedes into the background, and the central situation is that Tristan is in love with a woman who is already committed to another man-and that man the King, and so a father-figure. Thus the myth is made to embody the central situation of matrism.

The cause of Tristan’s love is that he has drunk a love-potion— his obsession for Iseult is something which comes from outside himself and which he is powerless to resist. When he and Iseult consult the monk Ogrin, he tells him— and what could be more astonishing— that he does not care for Iseult. “Amor par force vos demeine”, comments Ogrin. Furthermore, when Tristan has, after great difficulties, escaped to the forest of Morrois, he lies down with Iseult and places his sword between them: that is, now that all physical barriers to their union have been removed, he erects a barrier himself. He “internalises the prohibition”. King Mark, Iseult’s husband, finds them there asleep, and removes Tristan’s sword, substituting his own-a very appropriate gesture, when we recall the phallic symbolism of the sword.

Psychologists have noted how some patients, with strong mother fixations, fall in love with women who bear some superficial resemblance to their mother; and how, in some cases, the point of resemblance is simply the name. There are cases of men who have fallen in love with three or four women, successively, each bearing the same Christian name. It is therefore significant that Tristan finally marries another Iseult, Iseult Mains Blanches; nor does he ever sleep with her. The version by Thomas of Britain specifically tells us that he married her for her name and her personal appearance: “Pur belte e pur nun d’Isolt.” (Later we shall find other mother-identifiers doing the same thing. For instance, Shelley, prevented by his parents from marrying Harriet Grove, married another Harriet.)

Finally, Tristan, wounded by a poisoned spear, dies. Only Iseult the Fair’s arrival could have saved him, but she comes too late: then she too dies “of a broken heart”. Thus a tale of gallantry and adventure has been turned into a tragedy of unconsummated love. In this preoccupation with frustrated desire we can perhaps see signs of a masochistic turning inward of the death-wish.

The troubadours, who often quoted Tristan, seem to have shown an increasing preoccupation with the idea of death. Thus Aimeric de Belenoi says:

Far more it pleaseth me to die
Than easy mean delight to feel.
For what will meanly satisfy
Nor can nor ought to fire my zeal.