medieval women’s love poetry for men’s learning

While women enjoy reading fiction much more than men do, men could make their tools more useful with study of medieval women’s love poetry. Men struggling to find love commonly look to women for guidance. But understanding what women say and write about love requires literary sophistication that many men lack. Studying medieval women’s love poetry can help men to gain needed literary sophistication.

Medieval women’s love poetry tells men what women want, but only if men are discerning readers. Consider a poem that a medieval woman in a convent wrote:

We love only those men whom prudent Excellence has molded,
whom Deference has advised to look on us with modesty.

Ovid, that knight of the unchaste Amours, has tricked you,
persuading you to love that poem
by which unhappy men are seduced and not made finer.
If we forgive your faults, that’s because we judge
you have regained worth through the antidote of right reason.
But tell that boy Cupid to lay down his biting whip —
or does he castigate you about vexing, false hopes?
A lady’s grace will grant whatever is honorable —
this she will give to one who always requests with all deference.

{ Illos diligimus quos sculpsit provida Virtus,
Quosque Modestia se monuit spectare modeste.

Te non castorum decipit miles Amorum
Ovidius, que te suasit carmen amare
Quo subvertuntur miseri, non erudiuntur.
Si condonamus tibi culpas, diiudicamus
Antidoto sane rationis te valuisse;
Posce tamen puerum mordax sedare flagellum —
An te castigat quem spec mendosa fatigat?
Gratia domnarum quicquid prestabit honestum;
Hoc illi reddit qui cuncta modesta requirit. } [1]

That’s poetic fiction. Ovid doesn’t trick men. Ovid tells the truth. Men must show that they cannot easily be tricked. Women will accept resources from beta-men providers, but they love alphas. The most numerous alphas, and the types most accessible to ordinary men, are jerks, badboys, and rogues. Some men complain bitterly about women, just as some women complain bitterly about men. Learning to appreciate fiction is a better way. Pretend to be a jerk, badboy, or rogue to stir a woman’s desire.

Testing is different in medieval women’s words than in modern science. Consider another medieval poem that another nun wrote:

Let men whom lewdness delights depart from our company —
if you should be of that sort, stay away!
Even men tested in a thousand ways are only just admitted
and our circle includes them moderately, with modesty.
As for those to whom Excellence wants us to give our pledge,
when the moon signals time, she takes care to mold them well,
so secretly they grow in good reputation and skillfulness.
Let them be duly refined, with manners of distinction.
Therefore, before you come to us, preen your feathers
(if Reason gave you any when she created you),
so that you are not fouled in any part with ingrained malice.
Regarding he who has fame for goodness like our own,
our maidenly company desires the gift of his greeting.

{ Quos incesta iuvant, consortia nostra relinquant —
In quorum numero si converseris, abesto!
Vix admittuntur qui rebus mille probantur
Sed tamen hos medice complectitur atque modeste.
Denique quis Virtus nostrum vult credere pignus,
Illos extrema curat bene fingere luna,
Ut sermone bono clam crescant atque perito,
Moribus egregiis sint undique rite politis.
Ergo quam venias prius ad nos, instrue pennas
Si quas imposuit Ratio tibi, quando creavit,
Ne qua parte dolo sis oblitus inveterato.
Quem similis morum sibi iunxit fama bonorum,
Illi vestalis chorus obtat dona salutis. } [2]

The modern empirical science of seduction recognizes the central concern of this poem as “shit-testing.” That involves a woman hurling shit (unwelcoming, challenging, dismissive words) at a man to see how he responds. Learned authorities in seduction recommend responding to shit tests illogically, laconically, and lewdly. Some examples:

Question: “You are not like other men of refinement, courtesy, and chivalry. Why didn’t you remove your hat when you entered our convent?”
Answer: “i don’t wanna get you pregnant

Question: “What is your parentage?”
Answer: 8=====D~~ {ascii penis; only possible with modern texting technology}

Statement: “You’re not in the Duke’s favor.”
Response: “gay”

If this knowledge had been more widely available to medieval men, convents would have become nurseries, the Archpriest of Hita would have never written Libro de buen amor, and the population explosion associated with the rise of mixed-sex factory work would have occurred centuries earlier. It’s a matter of literary sophistication. Men pass women’s thousands of tests with strong verbal subterfuge.

Medieval women’s love poetry depreciates the value of child-bearing to men. In a medieval poem, the two sisters Alais and Yselda address the more knowing Lady Corenza. Alais says:

Lady Carenza, you whose body is so lovely,
give some advice to my sister and me,
and, since you know how to discern what’s better,
advise me as your experience suggests:
Shall I, in your opinion, take a husband,
or shall I stay unmarried? — that would please me,
for I think to breed has little to commend it —
yet it’s too troubling to be husbandless.

{ Na Carenza al bel cors avinenz,
donaz conseil a nos duas serors,
e ccar saubez mielz triar la meilors,
consilhaz mi second vostra’escienz.
Penre marit a vostra conoscenza?
o starai mi pulcela, et si m’agenza,
que far fillos non cuiç que sia bos
e ssens marit mi par trop anguisos. } [3]

Notice that Alais first appeals to Lady Carenza as a woman of bodily beauty and then as a woman of knowledge and experience. In love from men’s immediate perspective, bodily beauty is paramount. Being husbandless is troubling to Alais because she has no one to assign to household chores. She also has to teach again and again new men how to please her in bed. Yet why would she think that “to breed has little to commend it”? Her sister Yselda elaborates:

Lady Carenza, I’d enjoy taking a husband,
and yet I think having children is a penance —
for after that the breasts will hang right down,
and the belly be wrinkled and wearisome.

{ Na Carenza, penre marit m’agenza
mas far infanz cuiz qu’es gran penitenza
que las tetinas penden aval ios
e llo ventrilh es ruat e’noios. } [4]

In despising the bodily effects of pregnancy, this poem is similar to Aelred of Rievaulx’s medieval account of the nun of Watton’s miraculously removed pregnancy. When women age, their breasts tend to hang down and their bellies wrinkle. Men experience similar effects of aging. Beauty fades. Children are forever. If a woman doesn’t understand those realities, a man should move on to another.

Medieval love poetry teaches men that a loyal woman always remembers her man’s high value. Making clear one’s high value to a woman doesn’t come easily to Christian men, who strive to be humble and compliant (“like a lamb led to the slaughter…”). Good men know that pride is a great sin. They must develop an evil spite for the sake of love. The medieval woman poet (trobairitz) Comtessa de Dia provided an instructive lament. She sang:

I have to sing of what I would not wish,
so bitter do I feel about him whose love I am,
as I love him more than anything there is;
with him, grace and courtesy are no avail to me,
nor my beauty, merit or understanding,
for I am deceived and am betrayed as much
as I would rightly be had I been unwelcoming.

{ A chantar m’er de so q’ieu no volria,
tant me rancur de lui cui sui amia,
car eu l’am mais que nuilla ren que sia:
vas lui no.m val merces ni cortesia
ni ma beltatz ni mos pretz ni mos sens,
c’atressi.m sui enganada e trahia
com degr’esser s’ieu fos desavinens. } [5]

Praising a woman’s grace, courtesy, beauty, merit, or understanding doesn’t earn her ardent love. Women who claim otherwise are deceiving and betraying themselves. A high-value man isn’t welcoming to the woman he wants to love. He welcomes others. He doesn’t want to be her friend. He makes her strive to be a friend to him:

Friend, comfort me in this — that I never failed you
through any behavior of mine;
rather, I love you more than Seguis loved Valensa,
and it delights me that I vanquish you in loving,
my friend, for you are the most excellent.
To me you show arrogance in words and presence,
and are well-disposed towards everybody else.

It amazes me that your being turns to proudness
with me, friend — and for this I am right to grieve:
it is not fair that another love takes you from me,
however she may address or welcome you; —
and remember how it was at the beginning
of our love … God forbid
that the separation should be fault of mine!

The great merit that shelters in your person,
and the rich worth you have, disquiet me —
since there’s no woman, far or near,
who, if she would love, does not submit to you

{ D’aisso.m conort car anc non fis faillensa,
amics, vas vos per nuilla captenenssa,
anz vo am mais non fetz Seguis Valensa,
e platz mi mout que eu d’amar vos venssa,
lo mieus amics, car etz lo plus valens;
mi faitz orgoil en digz et en parvenssa,
e si etz francs vas totas autras gens.

Meraveill me cum vostre cors s’orgoilla,
amics, vas me per q’ai razon qe.m doilla;
non es ies dreitz c’autr’amors vos mi toilla,
per nuilla ren qe.us diga ni.us acoilla,
e membre vos cals fo.l comenssamens
de nostr’amor, ia Dompnedieus non vuoilla
q’en ma colpa sia.l departimens.

Proessa grans q’el vostre cors s’aizina
e lo rics pretz q’avetz m’en ataina,
c’una non sai loindana ni vezina,
si vol amar vas vos no si aclina }

The reward for you maintaining your high value to her is her loyalty to you:

yet you, my friend, have enough discernment
to know who is the loyalest.
And remember our understanding.

My worth and my nobility must speak for me,
and my beauty, and still more my loyal heart

{ mas vos, amics, ez ben tant conoissens
que ben devetz conoisser la plus fina,
e membre vos de nostres covinens.

Valer mi deu mos pretz e mos paratges
e ma beutatz e plus mos fins coratges } [6]

You must stay the course and pass the test:

and so I send you, where you are staying,
this song, which shall be my messenger;
and I want to know, my fair gentle friend,
why you are so hard and strange with me —
I don’t know if it is pride or evil spite.

But I also want you to tell him, messenger,
that many suffer great loss through too great pride.

{ per q’ieu vos man lai on es vostre estatges
esta chansson que me sia messatges,
e voill saber, lo mieus bels amics gens,
per que m’etz vos tant fers ni tant salvatges,
no sai si s’es orgoills o mal talens.

Mais aitan plus vuoill li digas, messatges,
q’en trop d’orgoill ant gran dan maintas gens. }

She will continue to love you loyally if you respond rightly:

be here late tomorrow evening bring wine [7]

Such literary sophistication is difficult for most men to understand and learn. They must overcome that difficulty.

Medieval women’s love poetry tends to be regarded as an arcane study. It shouldn’t be. Truly understanding medieval women’s love poetry teaches men how to secure enduring pleasure in a woman’s love.

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Read more:

Notes:

[1] …cum matre Cupido, ll. 8-9, 18-25, Latin text and English translation (modified to follow the Latin more closely) from Dronke (1968) vol. II, XXXI, pp. 433-4. This poem is among so-called love-verses probably from Regensburg (in present-day Bavaria, Germany). It is in the single, chaotic manuscript, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 17142. The Regensburg love verses were probably written late in the eleventh century. They are from young women in a convent to their cleric-teacher from Liège. He apparently was pursuing amorous affairs with his students. The women students emphasize their moral superiority to their teacher and urge him to show deference to them. For gynocentric discussion, Dronke (1968) vol. I, pp. 221-9 and Dronke (1984) p. 92.

[2] Hunc mihi Mercurius florem dedit ingeniosus, ll 5-17, from Latin text and English translation (modified to follow the Latin more closely) from Dronke (1968) vol. II, XVII, p. 426. This is another “love-verse” from Regensburg. As this poem makes clear, women students in medieval Europe could be just as complacent and self-righteous as some women students today.

[3] Na Carenza al bel cors avinen, st. 1, Occcitan text from Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995), English trans. Dronke (1984) p. 101. Rialto provides the Occitan text and Linda Paterson’s prose translaton of the whole poem. Paterson’s translation is similar to Dronke’s. The poem survives only in garbled form only in one manuscript. Other editors assign lines to voices differently. See, e.g. Paden & Paden (2007) p. 151. The poem probably dates to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Id. It’s a trobairitz lyric.

[4] Id. st. 3.

[5] Comtessa de Dia, a trobairitz (woman troubadour) probably active in the twelfth century, A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria, st. 1, Occitan (Old Provençal) text from Bruckner, Shepard & White (1995, English trans. Dronke (1984) p. 103. Subsequent quotes above from this poem are similarly sourced seriatim and cover the whole poem. The Occitan text and alternate English translations are available here and here. A musical score for the poem has survived. YouTube has some wonderful  performances of the song, including the one above. The liner notes for Robin Snyder’s album La Domna Ditz provides background on Comtessa de Dia:

The powerful Comtessa de Dia states plainly her desire to sleep with someone other than her husband (“Estat ai en greu cossirier”) and advises women not to worry about court gossips (“Ab ioi et ab ioven m’apais”).

The text of A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria in those liner notes is missing two stanzas.

[6] Dronke described the Countess as “trying to rationalize irrational emotions.” He perceptively observed:

the rhetoric mirrors the obsessive quality of the lady’s questioning and rebuking: she turns the same thoughts over and over, reverting to them each time with a new attack. Each time we are brought to share her own wonderment more keenly: the injustice of it all — how was it possible?

Dronke (1984) pp. 10-5.

[7] Just to avoid any misunderstanding, this line is not from the medieval poem. I made it up based on my brief study of leading modern seduction authorities.

References:

Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White, eds. and trans. 1995. Songs of the Women Troubadours. New York: Garland.

Dronke, Peter. 1968. Medieval Latin and the rise of European love-lyric. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1984. Women writers of the Middle Ages: a critical study of texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Paden, William D., and Frances Freeman Paden. 2007. Troubadour poems from the South of France. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.

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