Get a Room: Private Space and Private People in Old French and Middle English Love Stories

Get a Room: Private Space and Private People in Old French and Middle English Love Stories

By Alice Jane Cooley

PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2010

Abstract: This study explores the way in which one circumstance of daily life in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries—the relative scarcity of private space—influenced the literature of courtly love. It presents the argument that because access to spatial privacy was difficult, although desirable, stories of illicit love affairs carried on under these precarious circumstances had a special appeal. In these narratives we can observe a tendency for emotional privacy to be invested in trusted confidants and servants, and for spies and meddling figures to pose a special danger. Both of these character types are frequently shown to have privileged access to private space as well as to private knowledge. The framework for this study is provided by a discussion of the material background to developing ideas of privacy, which argues for a greater resemblance between medieval and modern concepts in this area than has previously been acknowledged.

The remainder of the study is concerned with literary examples. Medieval French adaptations of the Ars Amatoria show subtle changes in emphasis which can be attributed to the different status of privacy in the medieval world as compared to Augustan Rome. The Lais of Marie de France, in particular Guigemar, Yonec, Milun, Eliduc and Lanval, are discussed in relation to the concept of the female household, a specific category of private space within the medieval castle. Three of the romances of Chrétien de Troyes—Cligès, Lancelot and Yvain—present significant variations on the theme of love mediated by third parties and flourishing in private space. Five different versions of the Tristan and Isolt story are discussed, showing their consistent preoccupation with the roles played by helping and hindering figures. The study concludes with a consideration of three works by Chaucer. Troilus and Criseyde gives prominent place to the most fully developed example of a character who mediates between lovers, Criseyde’s notorious uncle Pandarus, while The Miller’s Tale and The Merchant’s Tale both centre on lovers’ quests for privacy, but do so to mock rather than to celebrate the conventions of courtly love.

One scene of a crumbling mural in Runkelstein Castle, painted around 1400, shows a ship under sail, its deck crowded with figures. A sailor is hauling on a rope in the background, and in the ship’s prow two trumpeters blow their instruments at the rail, marking the importance of the voyage. In the waist of the ship, well dressed men and women appear deep in conversation. In the stern, raised above the crowds and facing away from them, another man and woman stand together. The labels that hover above their heads are no longer readily legible, but they are scarcely needed. The woman wears a crown and raises a cup to her lips; the man holds out his hand as if the cup has just left it. Tristan and Isolt are depicted in their most iconic moment, drinking the potion that precipitates their tragedy by supernaturally cementing their love. What is surprising about the picture is that this intensely private experience seems to be happening with all sorts of other people present.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Toronto

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