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Medieval Thinking about Sexual Appetite & Romantic Love

[The following passage by C. S. Lewis is from “Courtly Love,” the first chapter of his book, The Allegory of Love, 1936.]

A nineteenth-century Englishman felt that romantic love could be either virtuous or vicious [i.e. immoral] according as it was directed towards marriage or not. But according to the medieval view passionate love itself was wicked, and did not cease to be wicked if the object of it were your wife. If a man had once yielded to this emotion he had no choice between “guilty” and “innocent” love before him: he had only the choice, either of repentance, or else of different forms of guilt.

This subject will delay us for a little, partly because it introduces us to the true relations between courtly love and Christianity, and partly because it has been much misrepresented in the past. From some accounts we should conclude that medieval Christianity was a kind of Manicheeism seasoned with prurience; from others, that it was a sort of carnival in which all the happier aspects of Paganism took part, after being baptized and yet losing none of their jollity. Neither picture is very faithful. The views of medieval churchmen on the sexual act within marriage (there is no question, of course, about the act outside marriage) are all limited by two complementary agreements. On the one hand, nobody ever asserted that the act was intrinsically sinful. On the other hand, all were agreed that some evil element was present in every concrete instance of this act since the Fall. It was in the effort to determine the precise nature of this concomitant evil that learning and ingenuity were expended. Gregory, at the end of the sixth century, was perfectly clear on this question: for him the act is innocent but the desire is morally evil. If we object to the conception of an intrinsically wicked impulse towards an intrinsically innocent action, he replies by the example of a righteous rebuke delivered in anger. What we say may be exactly what we ought to have said; but the emotion which is the efficient cause of our saying it, is morally bad. But the concrete sexual act, that is, the act plus its unavoidable efficient cause, remains guilty. When we come down to the later Middle Ages this view is modified. Hugo of St Victor agrees with Gregory in thinking the carnal desire an evil. But he does not think that this makes the concrete act guilty, provided it is “excused” by good ends of marriage, such as offspring. He goes out of his way to combat the rigourous view that a marriage caused by beauty is no marriage: Jacob, as he reminds us, married Rachel for her beauty. On the other hand, he is clear that if we had remained in the state of innocence we should have generated sine carnis incentivo. He differs from Gregory by considering not only the desire but the pleasure. The latter he thinks evil, but not morally evil: it is, he says, not a sin but the punishment of a sin, and thus arrives at the baffling conception of a punishment which consists in a morally innocent pleasure. Peter Lombard was much more coherent. He located the evil in the desire and said that it was not a moral evil, but a punishment for the Fall. Thus the act, though not free from evil, may be free from moral evil or sin, but only if it is “excused by the good ends of marriage.” He quotes with approval from a supposedly Pythagorean source a sentence which is all-important for the historian of courtly love—omnis ardentior amator propriae uxoris adulter est, passionate love of a man’s own wife is adultery. Albertus Magnus [the teacher of Thomas Aquinas] takes a much more genial view. He sweeps away the idea that the pleasure is evil or a result of the Fall: on the contrary, pleasure would have been greater if we had remained in Paradise. The real trouble about fallen man is not the strength of his pleasures but the weakness of his reason: unfallen man could have enjoyed any degree of pleasure without losing sight, for a moment, of the First Good. The desire, as we now know it, is an evil, a punishment for the Fall, but not a sin. The conjugal act may therefore be not only innocent but meritorious, if it has the right causes—desire of offspring, payment of the marriage debt, and the like. But if desire comes first (“first” in what sense I am not quite sure) it remains a mortal sin. Thomas Aquinas, whose thought is always so firm and clear in itself, is a baffling figure for our present purpose. He seems always to take away with one hand what he holds out to us with the other. Thus he has learned from Aristotle that marriage is a species of amicitia [friendship]. On the other hand, he proves that sexual life would have existed without the Fall by the argument that God would not have given Adam a woman as a “help” except for this purpose; for any other, a man would obviously have been so much more satisfactory. He is aware that affection between the parties concerned increases sexual pleasure, and that union even among the beasts implies a certain kindliness—suavem amicitiam—and thus seems to come to the verge of the modern conception of love. But the very passage in which he does so is his explanation of the law against incest: he is arguing that unions between close kinsfolk are bad precisely because kinsfolk have mutual affection, and such affection would increase pleasure. His general view deepens and subtilizes that of Albertus. The evil in the sexual act is neither the desire nor the pleasure, but the submergence of the rational faculty which accompanies them: and this submergence, again, is not a sin, though it is an evil, a result of the Fall.

It will be seen that the medieval theory finds room for innocent sexuality: what it does not find room for is passion, whether romantic or otherwise. It might almost be said that it denies to passion the indulgence which it reluctantly accords to appetite. In its Thomist form the theory acquits the carnal desire and the carnal pleasure, and finds the evil in the ligamentum rationis, the suspension of intellectual activity. This is almost the opposite of the view, implicit in so much romantic love poetry, that it is precisely passion which purifies; and the scholastic picture of unfallen sexuality—a picture of physical pleasure at the maximum and emotional disturbance at the minimum—may suggest to us something much less like the purity of Adam in Paradise than the cold sensuality of Tiberius in Capri. It must be stated at once that this is entirely unjust to the scholastics. They are not talking about the same kind of passion as the romantics. The one party means merely an animal intoxication; the other believes, whether rightly or wrongly, in a “passion” which works a chemical change upon appetite and affection and turns them into a thing different from either. About “passion” in this sense Thomas Aquinas has naturally nothing to say—as he has nothing to say about the steam-engine. He had not heard of it. It was only coming into existence in his time, and finding its first expression in the poetry of courtly love.

The distinction I have just made is a fine one, even as we make it centuries after the event with all the later expressions of romantic passion in mind. Naturally it could not be made at the time. The general impression left on the medieval mind by its official teachers was that all love—at least all such passionate and exalted devotion as a courtly poet thought worthy of the name—was more or less wicked. And this impression, combining with the nature of feudal marriage as I have already described it, produced in the poets a certain wilfulness, a readiness to emphasize rather than to conceal the antagonism between their amatory and their religious ideals. Thus if the Church tells them that the ardent lover even of his own wife is in mortal sin, they presently reply with the rule that true love is impossible in marriage. If the Church says that the sexual act can be “excused” only by the desire for offspring, then it becomes the mark of a true lover, like Chauntecleer [from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales], that he served Venus [the Roman goddess of love and beauty]

More for delyt than world to multiplye.

This cleavage between Church and court, or, in Professor Vinaver’s fine phrase, between Carbonek [Carbonek Castle was where Lancelot was denied the vision of the Holy Grail] and Camelot, which will become more apparent as we proceed, is the most striking feature of medieval sentiment.

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