By Alan Fimister | 15 February 2023
It is the opinion of several respectable scholars that the concept of romantic love is a product of the twelfth century, the heroic age of Catholic Christendom. One might think therefore that this is a glory of the ages of faith to be trumpeted as a sign of the wholesome character of Catholic doctrine by preachers and apologists everywhere. Indeed, there is much truth to this. It is quite possible that the ultimate source of romantic love lies in the birth of scholasticism. Although all apostolic churches concur in the view, it was not expressly stated that there are seven sacraments until the time of Peter Lombard (c. 1096–1160). It was not until professional theologians in universities (two mediaeval novelties and mixed blessings) started asking which rites of the church operate independently of the worthiness of the minister and recipient, and then distinguishing their elements into matter, form and intention, that anyone realised that the ministers of the sacrament of marriage are the spouses themselves or that the form consists in the mutual exchange of consent. Up until that point, it was probably assumed that the essence of marriage consisted in the exchange of cows and dowries. The new focus on consent naturally led to an interest in motivations and thereafter to the qualities which might lead one potential spouse to be interested in another in the first place.
One need only compare the Song of Roland (c. 1095) to the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (c. 1160–1191) to get a sense of the magnitude of the social transformation involved. At the same time a dramatic shift in the dedication of churches occurred. In the previous century the preference had been for “macho” saints such as St Michael, St Stephen and St John the Baptist. With this new climate of chivalry came a deluge of Marian dedications. Our Lady, of course, embodies Augustine’s principle that “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us”. St Bernard’s legendary sermons on the Song of Songs begin by asking what the Shulamite means by saying, “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth”. How can one be kissed with a kiss? The first kiss, St Bernard explains, is the Hypostatic Union itself the assumption of human nature by the Eternal Word; the second is the union of the Christian soul with Christ. In a similar vein, St Thomas Aquinas explains that, at the Annunciation, “there is a certain spiritual wedlock between the Son of God and human nature. Wherefore, in the Annunciation, the Virgin’s consent was besought in lieu of that of the entire human nature.” The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin became a perennial feature of lay piety eventually supplemented by the Holy Rosary.
All of this would seem to argue that romantic love should indeed be added to the great gothic cathedrals, parliament, the Summa Theologiae and the Divine Comedy as one of those immortal witnesses to the effortless superiority of the Middle Ages over the preceding and succeeding epochs. And yet, there is a dark side to this tale. Erec and Enide alone among the tales of Chrétien de Troyes features a romantic association of two person free to marry that ends in marriage. Cows and dowries may not be of the essence of the sacrament, but they still exist, they still matter and they did not disappear with the stroke of Peter Lombard’s pen. The literary function of Roland’s love interest Aude may have been solely to drop dead on the news of his death, but the central romance of the Arthurian cycle was a catastrophic and treasonable adulterous affair. At least the treachery of Lancelot and Guinevere was catastrophic. Not every guru of courtly love was so censorious. Andreas Capellanus, who was (as the name suggests) a priest, wrote De amore, an entire manual on the art of adultery. The scholastic insight into the nature of marriage collided violently with the socio-political reality of marriage. It would take six centuries until Jane Austen finally threaded the needle of marital realism and the human heart. For English Catholics the destructive power of extramarital romance is written in letters of blood. It was not the theological polemics of German theologians but Anne Boleyn’s ability to play the game of “courtly love” and manipulate the libido of Henry VIII, withholding and surrendering her charms at just the “right” moment, that successfully destroyed a millennium of Catholicism in our native land.
Nevertheless, for all its potentially destructive power, the connection between the Gospel and romance has, in recent decades, been vindicated in reverse. Christian observance has collapsed and, as night follows day, romance is dead and pornography and computerised fornication reign in its place. Marriage is, after all, the sacramentum magnum, the great mystery which represents to us the union of Christ and the Church. As soon as a society breaks with Christ’s Church it legalises divorce and, as the embers of faith fade into ash, sordid lust and cynical materialism divide the ruins of Christian wedlock between them.
Does that mean that the defence of authentic human love should be the central focus of the dwindling band of faithful Catholics? Many good and pious persons clearly think so. And yet, we must never forget that marriage, although elevated to the dignity of a sacrament, is in essence and origin a natural institution. It is therefore one of those “other things” which will be “added unto” us only if we “seek first the kingdom of God and His justice”. I vividly recall, as a (reasonably) pious teenager, looking for some verses to put into a Valentine’s Day card and stumbling across St John Henry Newman’s poem, “Valentine to a Little Girl”. The great Cardinal had only the same use for such natural passions as St Bernard.
Little maiden, dost thou pine
For a faithful Valentine?
Art thou scanning timidly
Every face that meets thine eye?
Art thou fancying there may be
Fairer face than thou dost see?
Little maiden, scholar mine,
Wouldst thou have a Valentine?
Go and ask, my little child,
Ask the Mother undefiled:
Ask, for she will draw thee near,
And will whisper in thine ear:—
“Valentine! the name is good;
For it comes of lineage high,
And a famous family:
And it tells of gentle blood,
Noble blood,—and nobler still,
For its owner freely pour’d
Every drop there was to spill
In the quarrel of his Lord.
Valentine! I know the name,
Many martyrs bear the same;
And they stand in glittering ring
Round their warrior God and King, —
Who before and for them bled, —
With their robes of ruby red,
And their swords of cherub flame.”
Yes! there is a plenty there,
Knights without reproach or fear, —
Such St Denys, such St George,
Martin, Maurice, Theodore,
And a hundred thousand more;
Guerdon gain’d and warfare o’er,
By that sea without a surge,
And beneath the eternal sky,
And the beatific Sun,
In Jerusalem above,
Valentine is every one;
Choose from out that company
Whom to serve, and whom to love.
Inspired by Newman, I would suggest that, transposed into the spiritual order, the fate of Roland’s fiancé Aude is not so unworthy. To pass away from grief for one’s spiritual bridegroom or for the peerless Lady His mother is the noblest sentiment.
Is there one who would not weep,
Whelm’d in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?
The dignity of chaste and free Christian wedlock cannot be perceived except by an individual and a culture which perceives, in accordance which the dogma of Christ’s Church, that it is happier and more blessed to be wed to the Lord in consecrated virginity than in even sacramental marriage. That, as the Apostles says, “he who marries does well, he who does not marry does better.” Not because he loses himself in unhallowed lust but because he enters by a higher vow into a greater mystery for the sake of which the sacramental and natural state of matrimony was willed by the Almighty from before the foundation of the world.