Hilary Mantel

Monks Before Women

Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages

By

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‘What do we know about love in twelfth-century France?’ asks Georges Duby. Indeed, what do we know about love? Until quite recently in the history of the world, we’ve only heard one side of the story – the male version. And even that is partial; we’ve only heard from those men who were literate.

Duby’s greatest problem is the nature of the evidence. If you want to know what women were like in the Middle Ages, your evidence will issue largely from the scriptoria of monasteries. And there is a further problem, which bedevils all historians of society. We can find out what the rules were, for a given people at a given time; we know how the Church and State said they ought to behave. But we don’t know how they did behave, in practice. You might think that poems and stories would be a better guide to reality than the chronicles of female saints; yet nothing much is left to us that is not stylised, idealised, worked over by vested interests.

Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages is a book of essays, research papers and preliminary findings. Georges Duby’s tone is tentative and scholarly. His chosen period of study does not throw up many anecdotes, many life stories, so sometimes his writing is dry and abstract, but from his flashes of plain speaking and his well-chosen examples one senses that he is a man of strong imaginative sympathy.

The general reader’s interest is drawn by this simple question: were they anything like us at all? Was there love in marriage? Before it, after it? Duby finds little evidence of love and no basis for guessing at its existence. Boys of good family – we know very little about any other class – were wrenched from female company at the age of seven, and began to learn their business: fighting. Marriage was not a relationship between individuals, but one between families. ‘On the wedding night a very young girl who had barely reached puberty was handed over to a rough boy whom she had never seen before.’ One boy mangled his bride so badly that she was unfit for her only duty, breeding. An understanding Pope gave him a dispensation so that he could have a second go with another wife.

And what of those pale knights of myth, loitering through the legends and poems of ‘ courtly love’? The rituals of courtly love – ‘It is debatable whether the sentiment ever existed outside literary texts’ – were devices for social control, Duby seems to say. The notion of the ideal, unattainable woman – who was usually the wife of the top man in the district – taught young thugs the concept of deferred gratification, and kept them loyal to their lord; essentially, it set up a relationship between men, not between a man and a woman. And of course, as has long been suggested, amor fine marked out the nobs from the naff. Young knights copulated with the lower orders, but cherished finer feelings for women of higher rank. The uppity classes – merchants and mercenaries propagated themselves like dumb beasts.

‘Courtly love’ and its meaning is one preoccupation in these essays; another is the Church’s increasing interest in regulating marriage and defining it. The early Church thought it a necessary evil. If people would persist in having sex, the Church had better make rules about it: make sure they didn’t do it too often, and never on a Sunday. Then came a proliferation of heretical sects who wouldn’t do it; who knew the flesh belonged to the devil, and should not be perpetuated. So (to put a complex argument very crudely) the Church elevated marriage, emphasised its sacramental character – and battled with the State for control of this most interesting of social institutions.

Among Duby’s later essays, ‘Physical Pain in the Middle Ages’ provides much promising material for speculation. It is hardly possible to imagine a society that does not pity the sick, but Duby points out that no one bothered much with organising hospitals before the end of the twelfth century. The whole book is thought provoking; we should cherish and read our social historians, so that we can debate with those who seek to base social policy on crude and coarse generalisations about human nature.

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