Love and Marriage in Medieval and Renaissance Poetry
by Elmer G. Wiens
Medieval and Renaissance literature develops the concepts of love and marriage and records the evolution of the relation between them. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Christian love clashes with courtly love, as men and women grapple with such issues as which partner should rule in marriage, the proper, acceptable role of sex in marriage, and the importance of love as a basis for a successful marriage. Works by earlier writers portray the medieval literary notion of courtly love, the sexual attraction between a chivalric knight and his lady, often the knight's lord's wife. The woman, who generally held mastery in these relationships based on physical desire and consummation, dictated the terms of the knight's duties and obligations, much like a feudal lord over a vassal. This microcosm of romance between man and woman was anchored by the macrocosm of the bonds among men and their fealty to their lord. The dominance of women and fealty to the leader in courtly love contrasts with the dominance of men and fealty to God in Christian love.
In the romantic lai, "Lanval," Marie de France examines the eroticism and power of a woman's love that transcends the courtly love of Arthurian legends. The anonymous author of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" exposes the stupid games and atrocities of Arthur's Camelot, the superficiality of courtly love in Morgan le Fay's realm, and the infidelity of wives trapped in arranged, medieval marriages. In the "Miller's Tale" and in the "Wife of Bath's Prologue," Chaucer unearths many silly consequences of marriages not based on love, while in the "Wife's Tale" he provides an example proposing the possibility of love within marriage. The Wife of Bath's account of the battles for supremacy and the family assets with her five husbands puts forward the perverse effects of medieval marriage law, the macrocosm of religion and state subverting the microcosm of marriage. Alison's survey of antifeminist theological, philosophical, and fictional literature indicates changes in people's attitudes that are needed for marriage to develop as a healthy, productive institution. Moreover, given the circumstances of her times and the nature of women, she presents a convincing case that sex is of utmost importance and that women should rule.
Following Chaucer, Spenser's Faerie Queene stresses the importance of religion as a mediator in love, marriage, and other secular matters. The pride inherent in sexual love opens one to temptation of the other deadly sins of lust, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, and gluttony, abnegating one's spiritual joy and enervating one's physical, mental, and moral strength. Redcrosse's physical, sexual attraction to Duessa contrasts with his chaste, sacred love for Una. This conflict and Redcrosse's consequent guilt comes to a head when he enters the cave of Despair. Only through the intervention of religion, personified in Una's love, does Redcrosse evade eternal damnation wrought of suicide. Spenser's epic and romantic story expands through allegory to the macrocosm of Britain as an imperial, Protestant nation.
Despair, anguish, and anxiety pervade much of Renaissance poetry. In "On Monsieur's Departure," Elizabeth Tudor anguishes over the conflicting claims of heart and duty. The macrocosm of the state's demands completely overshadows her microcosmic needs as a woman, rendering her essentially androgynous. In his sonnets, Shakespeare suffers anxiety over his inconstant lovers and the depredations of time. Sidney despairs over the marriage of his beloved to another man in "Astrophil and Stella," wondering if the moon observes such unrequited love frequently. However, other poets, Spenser in "Amoretti," and Donne in "The Good Morrow," celebrate love and sexuality in marriage and their positive generative outcomes. They affirm that one's feelings are more important than one's relationship to the community, an instant of time more important than an eternity of time. The microcosm of marriage, man and woman, eclipses all macrocosmic relations in "The Sun Rises," the only relevant reality being the lovers in bed.
Works Cited and Consulted
The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Volume One. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Addison-Wesley, 2003. (1143-1191).