Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Chivalry and the Submissive Man

Chivalry is a term related to the medieval institution of knighthood. It is usually associated with ideals of knightly virtues, honor and courtly love. The word is derived from the French word chevalier, meaning one who rides a horse. Duties to women is probably the most familiar aspect of chivalry and contained what is referred to as courtly love, the idea that the knight is to serve a lady, and after her to treat all ladies with gentleness and graciousness. Today, the terms chivalry and chivalrous are still used to describe courteous behavior of men towards women. Once a radical change in mores, the code of chivalry now lingers in such common practices as men holding doors for women or rising when a woman enters the room. Many scholars trace the Western desire for an all-consuming passionate romance to chivalry.

With respect to the concept of chivalry as practiced in medieval times, courtly love is to me a most interesting aspect. Courtly love was an acknowledged relationship between a man and woman which involved a marriage-like ceremony with the gift of a ring to the man from the woman. In the poetry and romances inspired by this relationship we see the idea of love as a requisite to bonding. Courtly love was the beginning of women's liberation in the western world, at least insofar of women’s hearts and bodies, though not directly the economic and political status of women. Women were given the central role in the relationship and given freedom to express sexual feelings and ponder their own hopes and their destinies.

The courtly love relationship had certain rules, similar to the vows exchanged during a wedding ceremony. The knight pledged certain things to the lady and he was expected to woo, or pursue, her, which is the source of our modern courtship behavior. It evolved into such courtesies and gallantries as opening doors, writing poetry, observing formal manners, and asking for a lady's hand on bended knee. Women were treated with honor, not as property. The knight pledged always to be passionate but she controlled his “virtue,” that is, whether or not ejaculatory release was permitted. He underwent ritual testing to see if he had the discipline of restraint necessary to love. The woman was not required absolutely to forego her own pleasure, but she was in full control and could veto the advances of the man at any stage when then engaged in intimacy.

Women sought a man of passion, but with self-control and the ability to be unselfish. Under the rules of courtly love, the woman “gentled” the man and used his passion to create their bond, bonding that occurred as a result of the natural male biological response to delayed gratification. If the knight passed his tests and the lady accepted him as her lover, he pledged obedience to her rule in the realm of love. Such obedience sounds very much like the male submissive role of today. By submitting the man was acknowledging that men should not be in control of women or their sexuality. Chivalry freed the woman to assert herself in the realm of love, assuring her satisfaction. She set the pace and the mood, directing or redirecting the man's attention as he deferred to her.

While not expected to be passive in love, waiting on her every word, a knight was expected to offer complete obedience and his sexual advances were expected to be tempered by moderation. The relationship was fundamentally Tantric in sexual expression in the sense of sharing a spiritual connection and sustained intimacy.

Interestingly, men seem to have provided the original courtly love inspiration but it was women who later refined the inspiration into the practice of courtly love. Men were seeking their own liberation probably for spiritual reasons, influenced by the monks and the heretical cults steeped in older Gnostic traditions as spiritual quests fill the literature of courtly love, the search for the Holy Grail being one theme.

The concept of courtly love I think has relevance for men and women today as they seek to form new relationship paradigms. Courtly love seems to embody most clearly and fully a dominant female, submissive male archetype that over the ages has refused to die and now in modern times seems to be seeking rebirth.

1 comment:

Slow Learner said...

I like your take on it :) As a medievalist, though, I would hasten to add that the woman's dominance in *love* was not to extend to the bedroom- that when it came to sex, a man's job was to be Top and the woman's to be Bottom: anything else is handled as unnatural. 'Anything else' almost certainly happened, but I've not found anything yet which suggests that it was in any way ok for a medieval courtly lover to be submissive in the bedroom. He just had to get the lady's say-so, and then all systems go.

Courtly literature is very interesting for the way it *plays* with gender power, that's for sure!