Mabonagrain enthralled: Joie de la Cort shows folly of courtly love

Joie de la Cort

Joy, the love of the knight Mabonagrain from the time of his childhood, asked him to promise to give her a gift. She didn’t specify the gift. In modern Ovidian love literature, that’s called a “shit test.” Present-day teachers of love advise a response such as picking up a pebble, giving it to your girlfriend, and saying, “Here, a gift just for you.”

Mabonagrain lacked Ovidian love learning. Mired in ignorance like many men today, Mabonagrain disastrously failed his girlfriend Joy’s shit test:

Who could deny his love
a gift? No courteous lover
could refuse her any pleasure.
He’s obliged to oblige her, without
hesitation, as best as he can.
So I said I would, of course,
but she said she also wanted
my solemn oath. So I swore it
and offered anything else
she might like, but my oath was enough.
I’d promised, but didn’t know what [1]

Joy then declared the gift to be that he would not leave the garden in which she and he lived until a knight came and defeated him in battle. Being defeated in battle implied being seriously injured or perhaps killed. In short, Mabonagrain’s girlfriend had bound him to rules only slightly less oppressive for a man than the modern, legal institution of marriage.

Mabonagrain pretended to like his circumstances even while he despaired of them. He explained:

I’d never known what she wanted
but once I saw what the dearest
creature in the world craved,
what choice did I have? I’ve done
my best to pretend I approve,
since once she knew I didn’t,
her heart would never be mine
again — and God knows nothing
could make me let that happen.
Which is how my lady has kept me
here, all these years [2]

The choice of standing up for his own inherent human dignity as a man apparently never occurred to Mabonagrain. Instead, he remained in the garden as his girlfriend Joy’s captive. He perpetuated his captivity by killing many knights in battle. Such violence against men often serves to sustain gynocentrism.

In Arthurian romance, violence against men is pervasive. In this particular Arthurian romance, Erec, seeking fame and devaluing his own lifespan, claimed Joie de la Cort. That literally means “Joy of the Court.” In Celtic languages, joy seems to have been associated with women and “bright, pure beings.”[3] Mabonagrain’s girlfriend Joy appeared to be a bright, pure being. She was actually a man-oppressing woman who caused many men to die fighting against Mabonagrain.

Erec prevailed against Joy and the perverse meaning of Joie de la Cort. He defeated Mabonagrain in battle and blew a horn that gave Mabonagrain his freedom. The joy of a man breaking free from oppressive gynocentric captivity — such a rare event! — pleased everyone at court. It created a new, liberating meaning for Joie de la Cort.

Violence against men wasn’t necessary to create the liberating meaning of Joie de la Cort. Mabonagrain should have been wise enough to pass his girlfriend’s shit test. He should have been bold enough to walk out from under her rule.[4] Emancipating men ultimately depends on freeing them from mental slavery. Liberating men’s minds will bring Joie de la Cort across centuries and will delight women and men far and wide. Let that horn sound!

Every single
soul was filled with such pleasure.
They couldn’t stop singing
and dancing and making merry.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide {Erec and Enide} ll. 6058-76, from Old French translation (modified slightly) from Raffel (1997) p. 191. The Old French text is available in Foerster (1909). I use line numbers from that edition. Many manuscripts of Chrétien de Troyes’s romances are available online.

Raffel’s phrase “courteous lover” highlights the relation of this text to the man-abasing ideology of courtly love. The underlying Old French:

N’est pas amis, qui antreset
Tot le buen s’amie ne fet
Sanz rien leissier et sanz feintise,
S’il onques puet an nule guise.

Erec et Enide ll. 6059-62, from Foerster (1909) p. 168. Scholars have failed to appreciate the extent to which Chrétien de Troyes mocked the new, oppressive ideology of courtly love.

Mabonagrain’s beloved isn’t literally called Joy in Chrétien de Troyes’s romance. King Evrain, however, says to Erec, “in just a moment Joy / Will arrive, and bring you sorrow.” Erec et Enide ll. 5825-6, trans. Raffel (1997) p. 184. The first person Erec met in the garden was Mabonagrain’s beloved. Meeting her prompted Erec’s fight with Mabonagrain. King Evrain expected Mabonagrain to kill Erec.

[2] Erec et Enide ll. 6079-86, trans. Raffel (1997) p. 192. The subsequent quote is from ll. 6166-9, trans. id. p. 194.

[3] Sayers (2007) pp. 18-21.

[4] Sterling-Hellenbrand celebrated as a “female space” the garden in which Mabonagrain’s girlfriend held him captive. Sterling-Hellenbrand (2001) p. 50. That “female space” became the site of many men’s deaths. Characterizing the garden as a “female space” is unfair to women. Not all women are like that.

Nightbringer’s entry on Mabonagrain’s lady displays the women-are-wonderful effect. That entry declares:

One is tempted to hypothesize that this damsel made her request of Mabonagrain because she wanted to keep him safe with her, secluded in their garden from the violence of the age.

The best cure for such failure in reasoning is reading some Old French fabliaux and learning to appreciate Boccaccio’s humanistic genius.

[image] Three court musicians, perhaps including Berthold Steinmar von Klingnau, who flourished in the second half of 13th century. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, made between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 308v. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Foerster, Wendelin, ed. 1909. Chrétien de Troyes. Erec und Enide. Halle a.S.: M. Niemeyer.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Erec and Enide. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sayers, William. 2007. “La Joie de la Cort (Érec et Énide), Mabon, and Early Irish síd [peace; Otherworld].” Arthuriana. 17 (2): 10-27.

Sterling-Hellenbrand, Alexandra. 2001. Topographies of gender in middle high German Arthurian Romance. New York: Garland.

One thought on “Mabonagrain enthralled: Joie de la Cort shows folly of courtly love”

  1. “Oh how difficult to free a slave from the chains which he reveres!”


    Most men like their bondage; since bondage imposes no obligation upon them other than fidelity to and prostration before a perceived Better.

    Freedom requires one to take responsibility for oneself…freedom involves dispensing with dependency and forging your own way in the world…and most importantly, freedom involves independent thought and faith in yourself rather than some self appointed Better.

    Modern man positively recoils from this type of approach to life; as being a lobotomized zombie is a far simpler course to chart…and consequently the living death that modern life is for most western men has been normalized.

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