Thursday, March 27, 2014

Chivalry and the Sentimental Novel

Tristan and Iseult by Edmund Blair Leighton (1853-1922)
Yesterday's post began a discussion on the curious intersection of love and suffering in 14th and 15th century literature, specifically the sentimental romance. While we looked at the mythologized life story of Macías the Lover yesterday, today I would like to talk about some historical factors influencing the emergence of the genre.

The literature produced in this genre generally had an extremely predictable plot, which in turn placed greater emphasis on the authors' ability to invent and describe new forms of love-induced torture for their characters. Some of the suffering was allegorical (for example, The Prison of Love opens with the protagonist allowing himself to be lead by a wildman - symbol of loss of reason - into a tower where he sits upon a burning throne where he will always hurt but never be consumed - symbol of the burning passion of the heart and the fiery punishments for such passions awaiting him in hell). In other cases, the suffering was real and physical, and certainly the deaths at the end were always permanent. 
Entering the allegorical
"prison of love"

Unlike other European renditions of fated love stories (see the stories of Tristam or Lancelot), the characters in Iberian sentimental romances never enjoyed any kind of physical union - there was no kissing or embracing and there certainly was no sex. Frequently, the lovers only occupied the same physical space for a few brief, fleeting moments. The pain and punishment resulting from those few moments came in spite of an utter lack of hope that love would've ever manifested itself physically. Truly, then, this is a genre of all pain and no pleasure. The desire, it seems, grows in the pain and not the temporary fulfillment of sexual fantasy. 

In her book Clio, Eros, Thanatos: The 'Novela Sentimental' in Context, Theresa Ann Sears posits that a shift in social and economic relationships lead to such aesthetic trends in 15th and 16th century western European literature. "National monarchies had slowly undermined the feudal relationships based on exchanges of protection for goods and services," she writes. "Advances in weaponry were eroding the efficacy of troops of mounted, armored knights, putting greater emphasis on, on the one hand, a professional soldiery, and on the other, conscripted or hired infantries. Such changes resulted in an increasingly idle aristocracy that indulged (negatively) considerable social disruption and decadence, and (more ambiguously) in an aesthetization of its role." 
Image of Amadis of Gaul, Spain's most beloved
protagonist of a chivalric novel

These changes in social dynamics undoubtedly influenced artistic production. I believe that as the role of the knight became destabilized by changing strategies in armed conflict, a gap widened in the popular imagination of heroism. Slowly, the chivalric knight of the high middle ages faded - the noble and proud figure, mounted on his horse and prepared to suffer any hardship in service of his king, receded from reality into fiction. In the absence of a heroic cause for which to suffer and die, a different one was summoned to take its place: women. 

The so-called "religion of love" integrated religious imagery with sexual metaphors, blasphemously elevating the "perfect" feminine to god-like status (think: Act 1, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet, in which Romeo convinces Juliet to kiss him by equating their lips to the hands of saints that press together in prayer). Knights needed to serve a higher purpose, and if their king had no urgent save-the-Christian-world errand on which to send them, they remained at home, surrounded by the people who had always remained home (women!). Women became the inspiration for "heroic" deeds and tragically "noble" deaths. 

Frontispiece of La Celestina revealing
the text's ending
Of course, this lead to some problems for women (see my previous post on the wide-spread, public debate on women during this same time period). But this was also indicative of a growing problem for men. The masculine identity was in crisis, and I believe that the pain, torture, and deaths of the male characters in sentimental romances are indicative of this profound cultural crisis. Attempting to define themselves negatively (i.e. writing about the defining characteristics of women to indicate what men are not) only succeeded in turning the once-herioc male trope of chivalric novels into a purposeless, impotent, lost soul, pinning after little more than an affair.

Women were lambasted repeatedly and as a result the "religion of love." Clergy were scandalized by the idolatrous fascination with "perfect" women that were supposedly suddenly in abundance; other men of the court also rejected this idealized image of women. So the "religion of love" faltered - the perfect object of desire was now painted in popular imagination as nagging and emotionally unstable. Along with this debate, the sentimental romance genre waned in popularity until coming to an abrupt and definitive halt in 1499, with the publication of Fernando de Rojas' La Celestina
From Chapter 5 of La Celestina 
Note: Celestina is depicted as a nun
Written as if it were a play (though not necessarily intended to be performed), this text parodied all of the fundamental elements of the sentimental novel. The star-crossed lovers were not all that attractive, they were half-witted and decidedly uncharming, their servants found them pedantic and silly and made no effort to hide their disdain. Worst of all, rather than appealing to the "godliness" of the object of desire, the story appeals to the black magic of the alcahueta (go-between, procuress, "witch") who gives the work its name. (Interestingly, the title of the work was not originally La Celestina, but because this ugly, greedy, devil-consorting witch was such a great character, her name quickly replaced the original title to sell more copies).

Much of La Celestina is quite funny but it comes to the same customarily tragic ending that all sentimental novels do. But the damage to the genre has been done - the successful parody of the entire pleasure/pain trope had been reduced to foolhardiness and superstition.

Nevertheless, La Celestina came at the end of almost a century of sentimental romance production. The proliferation of Macías' story alone in these novels, in lyric, in Spain, in Portugal, is enough to indicate that pleasure and pain have a natural alliance, in spite of Fernando de Rojas' parody of the sentimental genre. I am interested in finding out more about how that alliance worked in the minds and hearts of 15th-century writers and readers... so stay tuned!

Until next time -- keep rustling!


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