Feminism: The Trial of Lancelot by Heather Dale

[Content Note: Rape]

The Trial of Lancelot by Heather Dale

This song has been running through my head recently, particularly the verse by Sir Tristan, which is so melancholy and sweet:

Sir Tristan spoke: I love my uncle's wife.
For her I gladly suffer, she is my heart's delight.
Iseult, the one who tempts me and she for whom I'm pure,
my love for her confounds me, and is all of which I'm sure.
I understand my brother's contradictions...”

And it's been in my head since I've been reading A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. In the section on chivalric love, Tuchman notes that chivalric love was usually adulterous-by-design:

Courtly love was understood by its contemporaries to be love for its own sake, romantic love, true love, physical love, unassociated with property or family, and consequently focused on another man’s wife, since only such an illicit liaison could have no other aim but love alone.

If the love affair can offer no real social or material benefits and has a host of drawbacks, then it must be true love!

But -- turning away from the mythology of Arthur and Lancelot and Tristan, as well as the golden voice of Heather Dale -- I thought it was interesting to note that historically there was another facet at work here. Tuchman notes that though chivalric love "remained artificial, a literary convention, a fantasy (like modern pornography) more for purposes of discussion than for everyday practice," still in theory it was supposed to elevate women into objects of worship, passion, and desire rather than being merely property and child-bearing wombs.

Yet Edward III's rape of the Countess of Salisbury serves to remind us that this 'elevation' wasn't genuine. When the Countess refused to follow the pattern of "[the man's] declaration of passionate devotion, virtuous rejection by the lady [...] [then winning] the lady’s heart by prowess", Edward brutally and violently raped her, presumably angry that the object of his "passionate devotion" wasn't following the script.

When we talk about the conventions of chivalric love, it's important to remember that the 'power' over men that women supposedly had because of chivalric love was nothing more than a male fantasy -- in much the same way that the 'power' over men that modern conventionally attractive women supposedly have is nothing more than a male fantasy. Being attractive and desirable and desired doesn't actually make women safe from sexual assault or from workplace harassment, because the supposed power granted to them is only there as part of a script in which, ultimately, the man is supposed to get what he wants from the woman.

And that's just one of the reasons why chivalry is a detrimental system for women: because whatever power women supposedly hold in such a system is an illusory fantasy granted to them only so long as they continue to play by the patriarchal script.

Update: To be clear, this post is not about one individual who did embody chivalric love or one individual who didn't. And it's not about whether chivalric love as an ideal was ever practiced as the ideal, and if so, when and where and when it stopped being the case. And it's not about progress from the 4th century or the 14th century or to today. That is not what I am talking about.

What I am talking about is how any system that doesn't truly empower women -- any system that is ultimately a rape culture, for example -- is a system that doesn't respect women's choice. And any illusion of choice that the system gives is merely a pornographic fantasy as far as the larger culture is concerned: the woman has "choice" only as long as she "chooses" what the man wants. And that is not Choice.

Or, as Margaret Atwood put it:

Once she wasn't supposed to like it. To have her in a position she didn't like, that was power. Even if she liked it, she had to pretend she didn't. Then she was supposed to like it. To make her do something she didn't like and then make her like it, that was greater power. The greatest power of all is when she doesn't really like it but she's supposed to like it, so she has to pretend.

Whether he's making her like it or making her dislike it or making her pretend to like it is important, but it's not the most important thing. The most important thing is making her. Over, from nothing, anew. From scratch, the way he wants.

When a woman's choice isn't respected -- by the larger culture, not just an individual man because we talk about Patterns here, not individual cases -- then the choice isn't genuinely real. It's an illusion or an erotic fantasy, but it doesn't "count" as far as society is concerned. And that's true both Then and Now. The chivalric example is just one example of a system that is hostile to choice.

But it's not the only example of a system that is hostile to choice.


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