Helen and Paris’s love affair in medieval imagining

“The season of flowers has arrived {tempus adest floridum}!” proclaimed a young woman in a medieval love poem. She urged her young women friends to go out and play love games in the flowers with young men students. She imagined a scholar saying to a woman:

O beloved lady, why so distant?
Don’t you know, o dearest one, that you’re ardently loved?
If you were Helen, I’d want to be Paris!
In any case, our love can be made such as theirs.

{ O dilecta domina, cur sic alienaris?
An nescis, o carissima, quod sic adamaris?
Si tu esses Helena, vellem esse Paris!
Tamen potest fieri noster amor talis. }[1]

Helen was famous for her contest-winning beauty. When King Menelaus of Sparta returned to Crete with his wife Helen after the Greek victory in the Trojan War, persons of low estate interpreted Helen and Paris’s adulterous affair to be a horrific curse:

All came to see Lady Helen,
because of whom the world suffered such pain,
because of whom Greece had lost
so many noble knights,
because of whom the world is worse,
because of whom the noble and the best
are dead, vanquished and cut to pieces,
because of whom kingdoms have been laid waste,
because of whom Troy was burned and destroyed.
Such a crowd had never before been seen
as those who came to look at her again
and to gaze in wonder.
Hash words for her were held
among all those of the lower people.

{ Veneient veeir dame Heleine,
Par cui li monz a trait tel peine,
Par cui Grece est si apovrie
De la noble chevalerie,
Par cui li siegles est peior,
Par cui li riche e li meillor
Sont mort, vencu e detrenchié,
Par cui sont li regne eissillié,
Par cui Troie est arse e fondue.
Si faite gent ne fu veüe
Come il la veneit remirer
E a merveilles esguarder.
Fiere parole en ont tenue
Entre eus tote la gent menue. }[2]

Queen Helen of the Greek city of Sparta and Prince Paris of the Trojan city of Troy engaged in an elite love affair. Ordinary persons, particularly the mass of men slaughtered in the Trojan War, suffered greatly from their affair.

This love affair started when Helen heard news that Paris would honor Venus at her temple festival on the Greek island of Cythera. Helen thus decided to attend the festival while Menelaus her husband was on a business trip. There Helen and Paris gazed at each other. The female gaze, so neglected by modern literary critics, had significant effects:

Helen asked and inquired
whose son and from where Paris was.
She marveled at his fierce beauty.
Much she liked him and much he pleased her.
Paris was wise and knowledgeable,
clever, cunning, and crafty.
Quickly he saw, knew, and understood
her fondness for him, and recognized
that she had good intentions towards him.
To him she was not too reserved,
even letting herself go as far as to
tell him some of her feelings for him.

{ Ele ot demandé e enquis
Cui fiz e dont esteit Paris;
Fiere beauté en lui mirot:
Mout l’aama e mout li plot.
Paris fu sage e sciëntos,
Veiziié, cointe e enartos:
Tost sot, tost vit e tost conut
Son bon semblant e aparçut,
E que vers lui a bon corage:
Ne li fu mie trop sauvage,
Anceis s’en est mise ert itant
Qu’auques li dist de son talant. }

Helen and Paris fell in love with each other. Paris then organized a Trojan raid on the festival at Venus’s temple. Many men, Greeks and Trojans, died in the raid’s massacre and subsequent fighting. Nonetheless, the Trojans escaped with much treasure, including Greek women. Among those Greek women was the beautiful Helen. To this raid and abduction “she seemed happily to consent {bien fist semblant del consentir}.”

In contrast to war institutionally structured as violence against men, the women captives were treated well. Rome was founded with the Sabine women’s female privilege. Paris told the Greek women captives about their female privilege:

Those men should be thoroughly dismayed,
the men who are held in our captivity.
But you women will never be held basely,
nor will you be separated from those
whom you love and who love you.
Those men of yours will be liberated.
The women who have husbands here,
or if any one of you has her beloved,
they will all be released and liberated.
In this land you can live
in great joy and in great bliss.
Never will you be made dishonored.

{ Cil se deivent bien esmaier,
Qui sont tenu en chaitivier:
Vos ne sereiz ja vius tenues,
Ne a ceus ne sereiz tolues
Qui vos aiment ne quos ameiz;
Quites delivres les avreiz.
Celes que lor seignor ont ci,
Ne s’aucune i a son ami,
Si l’avra tot quite e delivre.
En ceste terre porreiz vivre
A grant joie e a grant baudor:
Ja ne vos iert fait deshonor. }

Although a captive, Queen Helen effectively resumed her previous position as de facto ruler:

To Helen’s wish and what pleases her,
I will make all Troy obey.
The realm will be under her command,
and she will be the sovereign over it.
Never will one have any fear of bad
if she would like for that person nothing but good.
She can make persons wealthy and prosperous.
No one will oppose her in any way.
To the poorest one among you here
she can give, if she wishes it,
greater wealth and possessions than
the most wealthy woman ever could.

{ E au voleir de son plaisir
Ferai tote Troie obeïr.
Cist regnes iert en sa baillie,
Soë en sera la seignorie.
Ja mar avra paor de rien
Cil a cui el voudra nul bien;
Riches mananz les porra faire:
Ja rien ne l’en fera contraire.
A la plus povre que ci est
Porra doner, se bon li est,
Greignor aveir c’onques n’en ot
La plus riche ne aveir pot. }

Paris declared his loving subservience to Helen:

Now I have so given my heart to you,
and love for you has so inflamed me,
that I am entirely devoted to you.
A faithful lover and faithful spouse
I will be to you throughout my whole life.
Of this you may be sure and certain.
Everyone will obey you
and all will serve you.
Although I have brought you from Greece,
a more beautiful and more rich country
you will find in this land,
where all will be according to your pleasure.
All that you would wish, I will wish,
and so too all that you will command.

{ Or ai mon cuer si en vos mis,
E si m’a vostre amor espris,
Que del tot sui enclins a vos.
Leiaus amis, leiaus espos
Vos serai mais tote ma vie:
D’iço seiez seure e fie.
Tote rien vos obeïra
E tote rien vos servira.
Se vos ai de Grece amenee,
Plus bele e plus riche contree
Verreiz assez en cest païs,
Ou toz iert faiz vostre plaisirs.
Tot ço voudrai que vos voudreiz
E ço que vos comandereiz. }

Paris then apparently served Helen with his masculine biological capability, rightly understood in its full dignity: “she was served most nobly that night {mout la fist la nuit gent servir}.” Helen and Paris were formally married the next day. Just as captive Greece took its captor Rome captive, just as women rule under gynocentrism, the complexities of sex and human culture defy superficial master narratives.

In addition to her commanding authority, the Greek captive Helen also lived a life of extraordinary material privilege. At his children’s request, Trojan King Priam gave Helen the “Alabaster Chamber {Chambre de Labastrie}.” That was a magnificent room resplendent with gold and precious gems. It contained pillars of precious stone, fine mirrors, and animated sculptures. Its alabaster walls permitted persons within the chamber to see what was happening outside, but no one outside could see those inside. The Alabaster Chamber was an enormously expensive and precious possession. It signaled Helen’s worth. Helen in turn gave gifts to Trojans from her other valuable possessions.[3]

After many years of the Trojan War’s brutal violence against men, the famous Greek warrior Ajax Telamon within a ferocious battle thrust a sword through Paris’s beautiful face. Paris immediately fell dead. Dismayed and grief-stricken at Paris’s death, the Trojans carried his body back into Troy on his shield. At Paris’s burial, Helen showed extreme grief in a self-centered lament. She exclaimed:

Alas! At what an inauspicious hour I was born!
Why did such a destiny become mine,
so that the world would be destroyed because of me?
Very strange fruit was engendered
in me by my father when I was conceived.
It’s a great sorrow that I ever existed.
At my birth there came on the earth
anger and sorrow and murderous war,
and joy and peace fell away from the world.
May no such woman ever be born again!
My heart would break, if I had my wish.
Ah! I have brought grief to many a lady,
in that their husbands and their beloveds
have already been buried.
For me no one will ever say a prayer.
Upon me a torrent of curses
are and will be from those now alive
and those who will be born through the ages.
Alas! Why will they hate me?
I am sorry that I ever lived.
I would have preferred never to be conceived.
I am sorry that I was ever born.
At an accursed hour I began life,
at an even more evil hour I shall end my life.
A thousand measures of blood from the valiant bodies
of worthy and loyal knights
have been spilled by my cause.
Who will say my benediction?
Certainly no living persons will do so.

{ Lasse! a quel hore fui jo nee,
Ne por quei oi tel destinee
Que li monz fust par mei destruit?
Bien engendra estrange fruit
Mis pere en mei, quant jo conçui.
C’est grant dolor que onques fui:
A ma naissance vint sor terre
Ire e dolor e mortel guerre;
Del mont chai e joie e pais.
Ja tel femme ne naisse mais!
Li cuers me partireit, mon vuel.
Ha! tante dame ai mise en duel,
Dont lor seignor e lor ami
Sont ja par mei enseveli!
Por mei n’iert ja fait oreisons;
Sor mei torront les maudiçons
De ceus qui sont e qui seront
E qui el siegle mais naistront.
Lasse! por quei serai haïe!
Ço peise mei, que j’oi onc vie.
Ja ne vousisse estre engendree:
Ço peise mei, que onc fui nee.
En maudite hore començai,
En plus male definerai.
Mil mui de sanc de cors vassaus
De chevaliers proz e leiaus
Sont espandu par m’acheison:
Qui me fera beneïçon?
Ço n’iert ja nule rien vivant. }

Despite Helen’s confession of how her life had made the world much worse, people readily sympathized with her crying, as they do generally with women’s tears:

People felt greater pity for Helen
by half more than for Paris.
A thousand tears she cried that night.
Neither man nor woman, young nor old,
could look on her without being moved to tears.

{ De li a l’om greignor pitié
Que de Paris l’une meitié.
Mil lermes fist la nuit plorer:
Ne la poëit nus esguarder,
Hom ne femme, jovnes ne vieuz,
Qu’el ne feïst plorer des ieuz. }

Paris had been brutally killed. Helen was still alive. In accordance with the pleading of King Priam and Ulysses on her behalf, the Greeks didn’t kill the treacherous Helen of Troy. Menelaus took her back as his wife, and Helen again became Queen of Sparta.

The transformation of stories through history can reveal fundamental human social structure. Just as the raging, self-destroying Dido of the Aeneas became the sympathetic “poor Dido” of literary history, the love affair of Helen and Paris became to some a model romance. To escape the shackles of social structure on thought, one must read widely and imaginatively.

The carefree judgment of proud Paris,
and Helen’s beauty, loved excessively,
caused Troy’s fall and the destruction of Ilium.

{ Superbi Paridis leve iudicium,
Helenae species amata nimium
fit casus Troiae deponens Ilium. }[4]

* * * * *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Carmina Burana 142, “The season of flowers has arrived! Flowers now arise {Tempus adest floridum! Surgunt namque flores},” st. 3 (of 3), Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018).

The song book Pious church and school songs of the ancient bishops {Piae Cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcoporum}, first published in Finland in 1582, includes the first nine half-verses of “Tempus adest floridum.” The Piae Cantiones version develops in the direction of love of God rather than heterosexual love. Here’s text and musical notation for all the Piae Cantiones. Here’s a recording of “Tempus adest floridum” from Utopia Chamber Choir’s 2018 album Piae Cantiones.

In 1853, English hymnist John Mason Neale used the melody of the Piae Cantiones‘s “Tempus adest floridum” to create the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” That Christmas carol recounts a legend from the life of the tenth-century Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia. Here’s a comparison of the songs arising from “Tempus adest floridum.”

[2] Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Roman de Troie, vv. 28425-38, Old French text from Constans (1904), English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Kelly (2017).

Subsequent quotes from Benoît’s Roman de Troie are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 4343-54 (Helen asked and inquired…), 4506 (she seemed happily to consent), 4685-96 (Those men should be thoroughly dismayed…), 4701-12 (To Helen’s wish and what pleases her…), 4741-54 (Now I have so given my heart to you…), 4771 (she was served most nobly that night), 22933-61 (Alas! At what an inauspicious hour I was born!…), 23023-8 (People felt greater pity for Helen…).

[3] For a description of the Alabaster Chamber, Roman de Troie vv. 14631-936. Eneas, Polidamas, and Troilus visited Helen when she was in a luxurious ebony chamber. There she gave them some of her valuable possessions as gifts. Roman de Troie vv. 11913-20.

[4] Carmina Burana 99, “The carefree judgment of proud Paris {Superbi Paridis leve iudicium},” st. 1 (of 20), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018). In accordance with the pattern of blaming men for heterosexual relations that go bad, Carmina Burana 99a, attributed to Peter of Riga, more directly absolves Helen of agency:

Love burns Paris, he wants Helen, he abducts her.
The deed is discovered, the enemy arrives, they fight. Troy falls.

{ Urit amor Paridem; vult Tyndaridem, rapit illam.
Res patet, hostis adest; pugnatur; Pergama cedunt. }

Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill (2018). Another song, in contrast, bitterly blames Helen:

The cause of such history was a doom-laden whore,
a death-causing woman, a woman pregnant with evil.

{ Causa rei talis meretrix fuit exitialis,
Femina fatalis, femina feta malis. }

Carmina Burana 101, “I want to weep for Troy, given up to the Greeks by Fate alone {Pergama flere volo, fato Danais data solo},” st. 45, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). As these quotes make clear, medieval Europe embraced a diversity of expression scarcely conceivable today.

[images] (1) Helen and Paris beginning their love affair. Miniature from manuscript of an anonymous French translation, The Book of Famous and Noble Women {Le livre de femmes nobles et renomées} made from Giovanni Boccaccio’s About Illustrious Women {De claris mulieribus}. Made c. 1440. On folio 39v of British Library MS Royal 16 G V. (2) Trojan Prince Paris being killed in the Trojan War. Miniature (color enhanced) from Ancient History to Caesar {Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César}, second redaction. Made in the 2nd quarter of the 14th century. On folio 150v of British Library MS Royal 20 D I. (3) Recording of “Good King Wenceslas” featuring Bing Crosby from his 1955 CBS radio broadcast that was made into a 1956 album A Christmas Sing with Bing Around the World. Via YouTube.

References:

Burgess, Glyn S., and Douglas Kelly. 2017. The Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Mauré: a translation. Gallica, 41. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer. Reviews by Sylvia Federico and by Cristian Bratu.

Constans, Léopold, ed. 1904-12. Le roman de Troie, par Benoît de Sainte-Maure, publié d’après tous les manuscrits connus. Société des Aanciens Textes Français. Paris: F. Didot. Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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