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A Strange Medieval Manuscript Taught Me How Couples Flirted and Courted a Thousand Years Ago
I was surprised by what I learned, and maybe even a little envious
When I decided to write a book on the history of the love song, I had no idea of the surprises I’d encounter. To understand what the old love songs really meant, I had to dig deeply into the history of romance, courtship, and sexuality going back thousands of years. Without this sleuthing, the essence and origins of much of this music were hidden from my view.
And some of the old love songs are very strange. The surviving fertility songs from Mesopotamia are so explicit that you couldn’t sing them on the radio today without getting shut down by the FCC—but they also clearly possessed deep religious significance for the original listeners. We’re still not sure if they accompanied actual sexual intercourse or just a symbolic enactment. But these quasi-pornographic songs were at the center of the culture.
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If I had time, I could tell you about Slovakian herders who court their future spouses by cracking their whips—believing that the snapping rhythms are conducive to romance. Or I could tell you how, in some parts of Australia, the bullroarer is believed to compel a woman to fall in love with a man at a distance of eighty kilometers. And then there are cultures that use the same songs to celebrate a romance and mourn a death. And other communities with a whole class of divorce songs, allegedly as significant as the love songs that brought the couple together in the first place.
I could give numerous other examples. But my biggest challenge in writing the history of the love song was grasping the revolution in romance that took place around the year 1100. We are still influenced by this huge shift in the culture. Love songs—which had been censored and prohibited for centuries—finally came out of hiding in Western societies. And in many ways, they remind us of our own popular music. It’s not going too far to say that the origins of how we sing about love today date back to this remarkable period of innovation, almost a thousand years ago.
But there’s something peculiar about this music. Sometimes the songs almost seem like riddles. And the relationships between men and women depicted in these lyrics are so ritualized and stylized that it’s hard to believe that this isn’t just play-acting. Did lovers really act like this?
Historians now call this courtly love—a term that survives in common talk today when we speak of courtship. And even though scholars pretend they understand what this term means, I’m not sure they really do. The surviving texts hint at a way of flirting and romancing that was the reverse of the power structure in the rest of medieval society. Men who practiced those old rules of courtly love celebrated an elevated and idealized view of women, paying homage to them in manner that, once again, approaches the stylization of sacred ritual.
This can’t be true, can it? Dante couldn’t really have spent his life in romantic devotion to a woman he only saw twice—and on the basis of this, not only made her the center of his love lyrics, but also placed her as a guide to heaven in the Divine Comedy? We’re tempted to dismiss this as a fanciful story, not a reflection of Dante’s actual behavior. Yet this unusual relationship between Dante and Beatrice is what the historical record—and the poet’s own testimony—indicates.
Or consider the case of the poet Petrarch, whose lyrics would influence the most popular love songs for centuries to come. His abject devotion to his beloved Laura inspired countless lyrics describing how much he was willing to suffer and grovel in the name of romance. When I learned that Petrarch, in real life, lived with an anonymous woman who was the mother of his children—a lady who apparently showed up in none of his poems—I was actually relieved. It proved that I didn’t have to take all his masochistic claptrap seriously.
But the question continued to haunt me. How did men and woman actually pursue romantic relationships a thousand years ago?
That’s when I luckily discovered München CLM 17142—a little known medieval manuscript that scholar Peter Dronke describes as “one of the strangest in the entire Middle Ages.”
It’s hard to figure out why the manuscript was created in the first place.
The best explanation is that a scholar died, and someone decided to make a copy of all his surviving papers. That’s how around 50 love letters, composed by both men and women, show up in the midst of a crazy quilt of literary fragments.
The scholar must have worked as a teacher, and his students were probably young women of high birth pursuing education at a convent, where they had some dealings with the outside world and weren’t necessarily preparing for a religious life. They almost certainly had interactions with other men, perhaps even of noble or royal birth. But the man they had the most intimate and regular contact with was their teacher—and it’s not surprising if some of these ladies developed a crush on him.
They were lucky that they could send letters and verses to him without supervisors censoring them. This was homework, after all. Writing poetry was part of their education—and in this era, writing poems was itself a romantic occupation. And even if the poems were written in Latin, the language of love is universal.
The young women must have sent gifts too, as a kind of pledge of love similar to what we read about in tales of medieval knights and their beloved noble ladies. But the women were aware that they had rivals—clearly others had romantic thoughts about this same teacher. “I cannot bear to leave you so often, when all our girls are flocking to you,” writes one. Another complains openly that she knows she isn’t the teacher’s favorite. Other letters from men, apparently the scholar’s male friends, suggest that this kind of playful flirtation was not uncommon.
So far, much of this is familiar to us from our own experiences at school—or maybe even from your text messages today. But the most surprising aspect of these medieval communications comes from the confidence with which the women demand a courtly demeanor from their teacher—who is expected to live up to a high standard of chivalry.
This is quite revealing. We know from the surviving stories that knights treat their ladies with an idealized devotion. But apparently these same values permeated the simple flirting of a medieval schoolgirl and her teacher.
Scholar Peter Dronke summarizes the tone of these documents:
“She and her friends set themselves up as arbiters, not indeed of love itself but of ‘good form’ in love. It is they who will decide whether the men who aspire to their company are socially adequate. As such the lovers have no rights or claims whatever—their obligation is to cultivate the qualities which will make them acceptable.”
In other words, the female students not only are willing to school their teacher, but have complete confidence that this is their proper role. We learn from these documents that nothing rude or improper was considered acceptable, and the man must maintain an attitude marked by courtesy, politeness, and virtue.
This perhaps doesn’t rule out physical contact or actual seduction. But the general tone is that the man must rise to a certain level of conduct before any steps toward intimacy could even be considered. “A lady’s grace will grant whatever is honorable,” one of the female students writes, “this she will give to one who always asks with due deference.” I’ll let you judge what favors this implies.
“Love was once a very different kind of game, and its rules may not have completely eradicated preying, grooming, exploiting, trafficking, me-too-ing, etc. But they aimed to do just that.”
The teacher doesn’t dispute this, and even plays along, responding with gallantries and acknowledging that “men have always been vanquished in their struggles with women.” Dronke concludes rightly that “the dominant role of the women is unmistakable.” Even more important, there is nothing ridiculous or overbearing in how this was conveyed, and assuredly nothing of the clichéd dominatrix routines of some contemporary subcultures. At every turn, the woman’s confidence in her authority in matters of romance seems to reflect a general attitude of what constitutes good form in relations between men and women at that time and place.
I have to admit that the sentiments expressed in these private letters from the eleventh century aren’t much different from those in the well-known works of medieval literature from this era. But how striking to see them reflected not only in a book or story, but in a real-life situation where the man is clearly the authority figure, the respected and good-looking (no doubt) teacher, and the women just young students at a convent. Clearly these attitudes about courtship ran deep in society, or at least among these elite subsections of it.
I will stop at this juncture, but clearly comparisons with our own times are hard to escape. The widespread objectification and app-ification of love makes us assume it has always been this way, more or less. Maybe earlier generations had less technology at hand but, we assume, their attitudes and approach were similar to those prevalent today.
But that really wasn’t so. Love was once a very different kind of game, with rules more or less understood by all who played along. And these rules may not have completely eradicated preying, grooming, exploiting, trafficking, me-too-ing, etc. But they aimed to do just that. Someone could stray from this good form, but they were now viewed as a hypocrite—and potentially much worse.
If I had time, I could tell you all the other ways that romantic love contributed to an expansion of human rights during this period. For example: as the cult of romantic love spread throughout Europe, even religious authorities began to put constraints on parents if they tried to force their children into marriages against their wishes. The larger cultural celebration of love and its mutually accepted rules helped to legitimize personal autonomy at a time when it was fragile and under constant attack.
In other words, love had many beneficial qualities back in those distant days—adding to human rights, artistic culture, and (not least of all) less dangerous or exploitative relationships between men and women. Looking back at that fondly, as I do, isn’t just indulging in nostalgia, but a genuine opportunity for reflection and perhaps even learning some new behavior patterns in our own time.