Improper History: The Courtly Code

In her new book, Sarah Gristwood has written about the ‘courtly code' to further understand what we know of the Tudors.
Henry and Anne hunting together in an Victorian interpretation.
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Improper History: The Courtly Code

It was years ago now – I’d just written Arbella, my first (and, if I say it myself, successful) historical biography. Some older friends of my husband’s were discussing an acquaintance of theirs, who had likewise just brought out a historical book. “Oh, but he’s, sorry, Sarah, a proper historian,” they said, laughing. In quite a different category to me, then, obviously.

I’d like to think I made the obvious retort, the one with the sexy spin to it: that an improper historian sounded much more saleable. In fact, I think I just fumed slightly – fumed, but without really questioning the validity of what they’d said. I am, after all, a former journalist (boo! hiss!), whose undergraduate degree was in English rather than history. But those questions of legitimacy (what makes a proper historian, and what constitutes proper history) have never gone away. And I’ve had occasion to revisit them just recently.

Holbein’s Henry VIII

I cavilled over the title of my new book, The Tudors in Love (it’s all in the subtitle, for me: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty). After all, to put the word ‘Love’ in the title of a history book is to risk seeing it relegated to the status of an old historical novel; the kind that had some of the past’s most formidable women portrayed on a book jacket with tumbling hair and heaving bosoms, as if played by Joan Collins in the 1950s.

I wanted something less blatant, more allusive – a snatch of poetry, maybe. Needless to say, the publisher’s marketing department wasn’t having any; and indeed, one can see their point. The Tudors = sales (well, usually). Love = sales (well, hopefully). But although this is, yes, the story of a dynasty both besotted with, and fully awake to the utility of, the ideal of romance, it’s also about some 800 years of courtly love: the ‘code’ of my subtitle. A creed born in the 12th century, and still colouring our ideas today.  But courtly love itself has been plagued by exactly the kind of, dare I say snobbish, qualms that dismissed me.

The very term ‘courtly love’ is said to have been invented only in the 19th century; reinforcing doubts as to whether it had any medieval validity. Though in fact, besides earlier phrases like fin’amor, or amour Courtois, I found ‘courtly love’ itself in the 16th century. In 1936, in his classic The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis (a great medievalist, as well as author of the ‘Narnia’ chronicles) described this as a centuries-long force compared to which ‘the Renaissance was a mere ripple on the surface of literature.’ Yet three decades later one Professor Robertson complained that the whole concept lacked intellectual respectability, that too many were ‘teaching medieval texts to the tune of “Hearts and Flowers”.’

I’d like to have pointed out to Robertson that in fact the saga of courtly love is also one of obsession, emotional cruelty, and extreme violence. The literature of courtly love was inextricably entwined with that of the Arthurian stories: like the one that had Guinevere’s lover Mordred imprisoned with her corpse, until forced to dine off her dead body. Oh yeah, and another that talked about Arthur’s queen having the skin of her hands and her scalp flayed off. Flowery? But the trend of scholarship in the 1960s and beyond was to dismiss the idea of courtly love as anything more than a literary game to amuse an effete section of the aristocracy. And now I’m beginning to wonder whether the assumptions behind the doubts cast on courtly love weren’t rooted in the same assumptions used against me.

The ‘proper’ historian our friends lauded was indeed impressive: experienced, academically credentialled. He was also a man, and writing about military history. I am reminded of Virginia Woolf’s observation, that this book was considered important, because it dealt with the activities of men on a battlefield, while that was considered trivial, because it dealt with the feelings of women in a drawing room. For ‘drawing room’ read ‘withdrawing rooms’, the female quarters of a medieval court or castle, and you may have some of the grounds for the dismissal of any study of the centuries-long phenomenon that was courtly love. But the last decades have seen an ever-growing interest in the history of women – and a new interest in the history of emotions. The two are linked, maybe.

The big debate about courtly love has always been as to whether it had any life beyond the page – had any effect on the world of harsh reality. The job of the detractors was made easier by our reluctance (snobbish again, in a different way) to accept that inhabitants of the distant past could have the same mental versatility on which we pride ourselves today.

No, when Andreas Capellanus in the 12th century described actual courts of love (in which famous ladies adjudicated on such knotty points as whether true love was even possible inside marriage) he surely wasn’t describing an actual, observable, scene. But he was making as sophisticated a riff, on what was obviously an idea in widespread currency, as, Lerner and Loewe in the 1960s when they wrote Camelot, the musical and the movie.

No, courtly love did not reflect the often-brutal reality of aristocratic ladies’ lives. But did it, in offering them a dream, open up their sense of possibility?

Anne Boleyn in the Tower.

There’s no space in this article to chronicle the many ways, over subsequent centuries, that I see the dream of courtly love as both colouring and being coloured by the recorded events of history. Suffice it to say that I believe the evidence the detractors demanded, of courtly love impacting real events, is there; they were merely looking for it in the wrong centuries! You should look to the late 15th century, when Henry VII seized on Arthurian legend to give credence to his own arriviste dynasty. To the 16th, when the license it gave to Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn wound up changing the course of English history, and when Elizabeth I used its tropes to sanction her controversial female monarchy.

The symbiotic relationship between fact and fantasy is one which, in our age of ‘fake news’, we are exploring in many different ways, today. We see it in the discussions over TV’s The Crown, and the way its skilful commercial storytelling gets confused with factual history. Did we, did programme makers, pave the way for that, when we began using fictional reconstructions in TV documentaries? Discuss: but in another article, please. This one is too long already.

But there is huge discussion, too, about different questions of legitimacy in history and about what evidence can, or cannot, be accepted. About whose voices matter, and whose, by implication at least, do not. In recent months we’ve seen how a new legitimacy granted to voices hitherto ignored or disregarded allows us to explore historic atrocities.

The overthrowing of the statue of a slave trader in Bristol reflected a widespread awareness that the voice of every slave traded should sound as loud as that of the white man honoured for the money he made from their suffering. Historically, the voices of women have likewise not always been given due heed. They have not even been recorded as extensively as those of their male counterparts. Modern writing, both academic and popular, has sought to address that, but all too often we are struggling with the sources; or rather with the lack of them.

Writing an earlier book, Blood Sisters, about the women behind the Wars of the Roses, I was struck by just where the evidence as to their lives did, and did not, lie. Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III, had to see one of her sons order the execution of another (Clarence), and a third suspected of the murder of her grandsons, the Princes in the Tower. But though Cecily’s personality survives in a list of luxury items she bought, in a description of her religious practices and a furious letter concerning the management of her estates, we have no idea how she felt about the violent conflicts tearing apart her family.

It’s a safe bet she wasn’t wild about them, but whose part she took, how she reconciled herself to the disasters: zip, nada. The records of proper history had let me down, concerned as they were with battles fought and laws passed, with financial transactions (or, as sole variation, with a presentation that amounts to hagiography).

I’d have seized on anything that might open the door onto Cecily’s mental world… Let’s hear it for the gossip, and descriptions of gaddings about. For tales listened to (courtly love!), and indiscrete conversations. Let’s hear it, in fact, for all the messy, malleable, mind-forming stuff that goes to make up improper history ….

Sarah Gristwood is the author of The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Divide Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty and Churchill: An Extraordinary Life.