The Romance genre, popular in in the aristocratic circles of High Medieval and Early Modern Europe, had classical origins such as Ovid’s Medea and Jason, in a more fairy-tale like form. They were fantastic stories about marvel-filled adventures, often of a knight-errant portrayed as having heroic qualities, who goes on a quest to fulfil his duty to the king and proves his gallantness by rescuing a damsel in distress. Geoffrey Chaucer reworks the genre to criticize male hegemony in his Wife of Bath’s Tale, wherein, the knight is criminal (instead of virtuous) and yet, is rewarded with a beautiful and subservient maiden. The chivalric code involved how the knights were to behave with regard to those beneath them, to ladies, to god, to their king, and to their country. The virtues of integrity and honour, over greed and pride were the solemn oaths that the knights were to follow. The Arthurian legends followed a similar pattern, whereby, the chivalrous knight rescues his unattainable beloved, only to restore her back to her rightful ‘master’ or patriarchal authority (usually, the king). For instance, the unforgettable legend of Sir Lancelot with Guinevere and Tristram with Isolde. In some interpretations during the Middle Ages as well as the Renaissance, the romance ended in tragedy. This was to represent the consequences of transcending social boundaries, specially by those who were meant to uphold them. For example, Alfred Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ ends in the Lady’s death because she transgresses the limitations of male authority. Such works of literature illuminate the patriarchal repression inherent in society, which not only elevates the image of the knight but also objectifies women and projects them as powerless. These ideas of romance and courtly traditions were never fully dissolved, only altered and refashioned.
In the dawning of the Renaissance light, courtly love tradition evolved from the Romance genre as a prose and verse narrative. Baldassare Castiglione, an Italian courtier, authored his book The Courtier in 1527. The Courtier emerged as almost prescriptive, in the courtly love tradition. “Love is simply a certain longing to possess beauty”, says Castiglione, echoing Plato’s idea of beauty that appeals to one’s “senses, rational thought and intellect” and compels lovers (or courtiers) to pursue such beauty embodied by the unattainable beloved or object of desire. Castiglione warns the courtier against passionate love and encourages one to seek to fulfil their desire for a complete union with their beloved (by the means of emotional and intellectual bonding) rather than their carnal desires or “senses”. According to Castiglione, “if they [lovers’ ardour] are inflamed by beauty and their desire for it is guided by rational choice, they are not deceived and they possess completely the beauty they love.” Ergo, Castiglione’s ideals of courtly love involve similar heroic qualities in the knight (or courtier) as represented in the medieval age, but advances a more intimate knowledge of one another, progressing towards the sentiments of Renaissance humanism. Barbara Tuchman offers a fairly concise discussion of courtly love in her book A Distant Mirror:
“If tournaments were an acting-out of chivalry, courtly love was its dreamland. Courtly love was understood by its contemporaries, to be love for its own sake… focused on another man’s wife, since only such an illicit liaison could have no other aim but love alone… As formulated by chivalry, romance was pictured as extra-marital because love was considered irrelevant to marriage, was indeed discouraged in order not to get in the way of dynastic arrangements.”
Soon after Castiglione’s The Courtier, Petrarchan sonnets were to influence English writers such as Philip Sidney and Edmund Spencer, under whom the courtly love tradition flourished. Sidney carries Castiglione’s ideals of courtly love forward and presents a devout lover in his sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella (1591). The beloved is held at a higher pedestal and seen as closer to god, and thus, closer to Ultimate Beauty (as in Neo-platonism). Castiglione critiques such courtly convention which claims to be platonic, but in reality, wasn’t. While Sidney sanctions sexual desires under Protestant ideology, Castiglione disregards such wish-fulfilment as that of “animals that lack reason.” However, he does not forbid it and states that young men “may be excused and perhaps in some sense even permitted” to satiate their sensual desires as “they then display gentleness, courtesy and worthiness”, and when they are older, they “leave sensual desire behind”. This is agreement with Bacon’s views in Of Marriage and Single Life (1625), where he states that wife and children “are impediments to great enterprises”, yet “those that have children should have greatest care of future times”. Castiglione is also in contrast with Spenser and Donne who sanction sexual pleasure. In concord with Sidney, Spencer and Donne, Castiglione delves into the metaphysical plane and claims that “the body in which beauty shines is not the source from which it springs…. [but rather is] a ray of the supernatural.” He further says that an older man is more experienced and hence, can love “more happily than the young” because he is conscious of senses such as sight and hearing which allows him to enjoy “agreeable adornments of the woman he loves” without sexual consummation. Older men (in the prime of their mental capacity) are more inclined to “true knowledge” which makes them better fitting to the image of the ideal courtier.
The Courtier addresses the topic of what constitutes an ideal Renaissance gentleman. In the Middle Ages, the perfect gentleman had been a chivalrous knight who distinguished himself by his prowess on the battlefield. Castiglione’s book changed that. Now the perfect gentleman had to have a classical education in Greek and Latin letters as well, bringing Renaissance humanism into the court. The Ciceronian humanist model of the ideal orator (whom Cicero called “the honest man”), on which The Courtier is based, prescribes for the orator an active political life of service to country, whether in war or peace. Scholars agree that Castiglione drew heavily from Cicero’s celebrated treatise De Officiis (The Duties of a Gentleman), well known throughout the Middle Ages and even more so from his De Oratore, in terms of genre and the issues related to rhetoric. Thus, the ideal courtier figure moved toward a more humanistic ideal, requiring him to not only have traditional chivalric qualities, but also intellectual prowess. His ideal courtier must be, he says, nobly born, with a pleasant disposition, wit, and “a comely shape of person and countenance.” In Courtly Love, C. S. Lewis describes the courtier as one who “must be truthful and modest, a good Catholic, clean in his speech, hospitable, and ready to return good for evil.” The Renaissance was highly influence by Greek traditions which gave rise to the image of the perfect courtier resonating with the heroic protagonists of Greek texts such as Homer’s The Iliad. Hence, Castiglione’s ideal courtier must also be of aristocratic class because they were considered to be superior minds, capable of reason, virtue and strength. This is in contrast with Sidney’s courtier (and lover) who was pining over a lady of noble birth. Additionally, the courtier must possess the quality of Spezzatura or in other words he should be an all-rounder and should also know when to ‘use’ his qualities. Such emphasis on “discretion” draws a parallel between him and Thomas Hobbes, who in his Leviathan (1651), also focuses on the human capacity for knowledge and the importance of one’s “Discretion”. The society exalted the idea of a courtier, compelling him to adhere to such expectations.
Moreover, the courtier must “please and obey his lady”, but also “keep her from going astray”. Castiglione accuses women of ensnaring men and thus, bestows the duty of remaining “modest” and “truly chaste” upon the courtier. According to Castiglione, “he [courtier] must ensure that her thoughts are always pure and unsullied by any trace of evil.” Joan Kelly in “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” points out that both Machiavelli and Castiglione present the epitome of perfection in their topics of leadership and the way a women should be, respectively. In Castiglione’s work where Magnifico states “…because man is more robust, more quickly agile and more able to endure toil…” shows the obvious imperfections of the female gender. Machiavelli, on the topic of leadership in The Prince (1532), also talks of imperfections, “… princes – cannot escape being called cruel”. Like Machiavelli, Castiglione attaches importance to self-image and believes that all courtiers should cultivate the ability to play a variety of roles. Castiglione seems to be reprimanding women for their frailty, yet simultaneously, equates them to men, “Leaving aside, then, those virtues of the mind which she is to have in common with the Courtier (such as prudence, magnanimity, continence, and many others), as well as those qualities that befit all (such as kindness, discretion, ability to manage her husband’s property and house and children, if she is married, and all qualities that are requisite in a good mother)”. Castiglione raises the woman up to the level of the courtier and then renders her to domestic activity, in the same breath. In his handbook for the nobility, Baldassare Castiglione’s description of the lady of the court makes this difference in sex roles quite clear. On the one hand, the Renaissance lady appears as the equivalent of the courtier. She has the same (150) virtues of mind as he and her education is symmetrical with his. She learns everything-well, almost everything-he does: “knowledge of letters, of music, of painting, and… how to dance and how to be festive.” Culture is an accomplishment for noblewoman and man alike, used to charm others as much as to develop the self. But for the woman, charm had become the primary occupation and aim. Whereas the courtier’s chief task is defined as the profession of arms, “in a Lady who lives at court a certain pleasing affability is becoming above all else, whereby she will be able to entertain graciously every kind of man”. Such liberated ideals for women were contrary to Sidney’s desirable woman who was chaste, virtuous and completely passive. Castiglione lends voice to female characters in his Courtier, contrary to the Petrarchan tradition, whereby, the beloved hardly ever speaks, and even when she does, it is in the lover’s voice. Castiglione is one of the few writers to include women in the court and allow them some social standing, “I say that, in my opinion, in a Lady who lives at court a certain pleasing affability is becoming above all else, whereby she will be able to entertain graciously every kind of man with agreeable and comely conversation suited to the time and place”.
Castiglione states that the ideal woman “will always be submissive, charming, and affable and as anxious to please him as she is to be loved by him.” Meanwhile, the ideal courtier must “put her convenience before his own, and love the beauty of her soul no less than that of her body.” C. S. Lewis also describes courtly love by the character of the lover as “abject” and the “lady’s ‘man’”. Ergo, Castiglione’s idea of love is one of give and take, yet it objectifies women who shall be submissive. Spenser’s views emerge in a similar light, in spite of his claims to a companionate marriage, because of his reference to the beloved with “trophy” and a captive “deare”. The idea of love emerges with many facets in the Renaissance. Castiglione advocates platonic courtly love, different from the Romance genre in its focus on intellectual companionship. This is also different from Sidney’s courtly romance as he pedestalizes his beloved who embodies Ultimate Beauty. While Castiglione considers love to be a path to enlightenment and fulfilment, Sidney believes it to be a fatal disease with physical damage such as melancholy, loss of appetite and weeping. Thus, we witness the idea of love emerging in the Renaissance with many nuances and reflections, immortalized by writers like Castiglione and Sidney who despite being sexist and flawed, define the cultural paradigm of the era.