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Women of the Romance Countries By John R. Effinger Characters: 25842

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Women of the Midi

It must have been part of the plan of the universe that the sunny southern provinces of France should have given to the world a gay, happy, and intellectual society wherein was seen for the first time a concrete beginning in matters of social evolution. There the sky is bright, the heavens are deep, the sun is warm, mountainous hills lend a purple haze to the horizon, and the air is filled with the sweet perfume of thyme and lavender; and there came to its maturity that brilliant life of the Midi which has been so often told in song and story, and which furnished inspiration for that wonderful poetry which has come down to us from the troubadours. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in particular, Provence was filled with rich and populous cities, brilliant feudal courts abounded, and noble lords and ladies not only encouraged song and poetry, but strove to become proficient in the gay science, as it was called, for their own diversion.

Under such conditions, it is not surprising to find that women occupy no unimportant place in society and that their influence is far-reaching. Love and its pursuit were the chief concern of the upper classes; and it was but natural, when the intellectual condition of the time and its many limitations are taken into consideration. What was there to consume the leisure hours in that far-away time? There were no books, there were no newspapers, as there are now, accurate knowledge was impossible in scientific study, there was no theatre or opera-in short, there were none of the things which form the usual means of relaxation and amusement to-day; and so, as a matter of course, yielding to a most human instinct, the tender passion became an all-absorbing topic, and served without exception as the inspiration for poetic endeavor. Love they could know and feel, and of it could they sing with understanding, because they felt it to be real and personal, and subjectively true at least. Of the great external world, however, their knowledge was exceedingly crude; and the facts in nature had become so strangely distorted, through centuries of ignorance and superstition, that the solemnly pronounced verities of the time were but a burlesque upon the truth. Belief in the existence of the antipodes was considered by ecclesiastical authority as a sure proof of heresy, the philosopher's stone had been found, astrology was an infallible science, and the air was filled with demons who were ever waiting for an opportunity to steal away man's immortal soul. Geography did not exist except in fancy; history could be summed up in the three magic words, Troy, Greece, and Rome; and the general notions current regarding the world and its formation were fantastic in the extreme. In the realm of natural history wondrous facts had come to light, and it was averred that a stag lived to an age of nine hundred years; that a dove contemplated herself with her right eye and God with her left; that the cockatrice kills animals by breathing upon them; that a viper fears to gaze upon a naked man; that the nature of the wolf is such that if the man sees him first, the wolf is deprived of force and vigor, but if the wolf first sees the man, his power of speech will vanish in the twinkling of an eye. Furthermore, there were curious ideas current concerning the mystic power of precious stones, and many were the lapidaries which were written for the edification of the credulous world. The diamond was held in somewhat doubtful esteem, inasmuch as the French word diamant, minus its first syllable, signified a "lover"; the beryl, of uncertain hue, made sure the love of man and wife; and Marbodus is authority for the statement that "the emerald is found only in a dry and uninhabitable country, so bitterly cold that nothing can live there but the griffins and the one-eyed arimasps that fight with them."

But the men and women of Provence could not forever stand with mouths agape in eager wonder and expectation; these were tales of interest, no doubt, and their truth was not seriously questioned, but this was not life, and they knew it. There was red blood in their veins, the heartbeat was quick and strong, and love had charmed them all. It must not be supposed, however, that this was a weakly and effeminate age, that all were carpet knights, and that strong and virile men no longer could be found, for such was not the case. All was movement and action, the interests of life were many, and warfare was the masculine vocation, but in the very midst of all this turmoil and confusion there sprang up a courtly ideal of love and a reverence for women which is almost without parallel. The sanctity of the marriage tie had not been respected during the feudal days, the union for life between men and women had, generally, other causes than any mutual love which might exist between the two, and the right of divorce was shamefully misused. While in other parts of Europe women sought relief from this intolerable condition of affairs by giving their love to Christ and by becoming His bride in mystic marriage through the Church, in bright Provence, aided by the order of chivalry, they were able to do something for the ideals of love in a more definite way and to bring back to earth that all-absorbing passion which women had been bestowing upon the Lord of Heaven. Inasmuch as the real marriage of the time was but a mariage de convenance, which gave the wife to the husband without regard for her own inclinations, and without consideration for the finer things of sense and sentiment which should find a perfect harmony in such relationship, it came to be a well-recognized fact that love and marriage were two things quite distinct and different. A wife was expected to show a material fidelity to her lord, keep her honor unstained, and devote herself to his service; and this done, she was allowed to bestow upon a lover her soul and better spirit.

A quaint story with regard to the Chevalier de Bayard, though of somewhat later date, will serve to illustrate this condition of affairs. The brave knight had been brought up during his youth in the palace of the Duke of Savoy, and there, mingling with the other young people of the house, he had seen and soon loved a beautiful young girl who was in the service of the duchess. This love was returned, and they would soon have married in spite of their poverty if a cruel fate had not parted them. Bayard was sent as a page to the court of Charles VIII., and during his absence his ladylove, by the duke's order, was married to the Lord of Fluxas. This Bayard found out to his bitter sorrow when he returned some years later, but the lady, as a virtuous woman, wishing to show him that her honest affection for him was still alive, overwhelmed him with so many courteous acts that more would have been impossible. "Monseigneur de Bayard, my friend," she said, "this is the home of your youth, and it would be but sorry treatment if you should fail to show us here your knightly skill, reports of which have come from Italy and France." The poor gentleman could but reply: "What is your wish, madame?" Whereat she said: "It seems to me, Monseigneur de Bayard, that you would do well to give a splendid tourney in the city." "Madame," he said, "it shall be done. You are the lady in this world who first conquered my heart to her service, but now I well know that I can naught expect except your kiss of welcome and the touch of your soft hand. Death would I prefer to your dishonor, and that I do not seek; but give me, I pray you, your muff." The next morning heralds proclaimed that the lists would be opened in Carignan, and that the Chevalier de Bayard would joust with all who might appear, the prize to be his lady's muff, from which now hung a precious ruby worth a hundred ducats. The lists were run, and after the last blare of trumpet and clatter of charger's hoof, the two judges, one of them being the Lord of Fluxas, came to Bayard with the prize. He, blushing, refused this great honor, saying he had done nothing worthy of it, but that in all truth it belonged to Madame de Fluxas, who had lent him the muff and who had been his inspiration. The Lord of Fluxas, knowing the chivalry of this great knight, felt no pang of jealousy whatever, and went straightway to his lady, bearing the prize and the courtly words of the champion. Madame de Fluxas, with secret joy but outward calm, replied: "Monseigneur de Bayard has honored me with his fair speech and highbred courtesy, and this muff will I ever keep in honor of him." That night there was feasting and dancing in the halls, next day, departure. The knight went to take leave of his lady, with heavy heart, and many bitter tears they shed. This honest love endured until death parted them, and no year passed that presents were not exchanged between them.

So there was a social life at this time and place which was filled with refinement and courtesy, and it centred about the ladies of the courts. Each troubadour, and many of them were brave knights as well, sought to sing the praises of his lady, devote himself to her service, and do her bidding in all things great and small. There was a proverb in Provence, it is true, which declared that "A man's shadow is worth a hundred women," and another saying, "Water spoils wine, carts spoil roads, and women spoil men"; but, in spite of all this, devotion to women was developed to a most unusual degree, and there was even an attempt made to fix the nature of such soft bondage by rule and regulation. Southern natures were so impetuous that some checks upon the practice of this chivalric love seemed to be imperative, as thinking people felt that love should not go unbridled. Justin H. Smith, who has written so entertainingly of the Troubadours at Home, says that it was their expedient to make love a "science and an art. Rules were devised, and passion was to be bound with a rigid etiquette like that of chivalry or social intercourse. It was to be mainly an affair of sentiment and honor, not wholly Platonic to be sure, but thoroughly desensualized. Four stages were marked off in the lover's progress: first, he adored for a season without venturing to confess it; secondly, he adored as a mere suppliant; thirdly, he adored as one who knew that the lady was not indifferent; and finally, he became the accepted lover, that is to say, the chosen servitor and vassal of his lady, her special knight."

To the coarse and somewhat stupid barons of the time infidelity was an act of absolute self-abandonment, and they felt in no way jealous of these fine knights who were more in sympathy with their wives than they could ever hope to be. So the lover became an accepted person who had rights which the wife did not conceal and which the husband did not deny. The husband literally owned the body of his wife, it is true, but the lover had her soul, for the feudal customs gave to the woman no moral power over her husband, while the code of love, on the other hand, made of woman the guide and associate of man. It was all a play world, of course; the troubadour knight and lover would discuss by means of the tenso, which was a dialogue in song, all sorts of questions with his lady, or with another of his kind, while the slow, thick-headed husbands dozed in their chairs, dreaming of sudden alarums and the din of battle. Here, however, was afforded opportunity for a quick display of wit, and here was shown much nimbleness of mind, and, all in all, woman profited by the intercourse and became, as has been said, more than the "link between generations," which was all she had been before. It was in the great hall, about the wide hearth, after the evening meal, that the harp was sounded and the tenso was begun which was of such interest to the singer and his fair chatelaine; and among the questions of serious import which they then discussed, the following will serve by way of illustration: "Which is better, to have wisdom, or success with the ladies?" "Which is better, to win a lady by skill or by boldness?" "Which are greater, the joys or the sorrows of love?" "Which brings the greater renown, Yes or No?" "Can true love exist between married persons?" Futile and ridiculous as all this may seem to us to-day, the very fact that women were here put upon the same footing as the men, even upon a superior footing, as great deference was shown them by their knightly lovers, all this was but an indication of the fact that woman's place in society was surely advancing. Thus, outside of marriage and even opposed to it, was realized that which constitutes its true essence, the fusion of soul and mutual improvement; and since that time love and marriage have more often been found together, and the notion has been growing with the ages that the one is the complement of the other. Marriage, as has been sa

id, was but an imperfect institution at this time, and in many cases it appears that the code of love, as it may be called, was quite superior to the civil code. For example, the feudal law allowed a man to beat his wife moderately, as occasion required, but respect was one of the fundamental laws imposed by the code of love. Again, the civil law said that a woman whose husband had been absent for ten years, and whose whereabouts was unknown, had the right to marry again, but the code of love decreed that the absence of a lover, no matter how prolonged, was not sufficient cause for giving up the attachment. In short, in this world of gallantry the ideals of love were higher than they were in the world of lawful wedlock, and the reason was not far to seek.

It cannot be said, however, that these lofty ideals of Platonic affection which so strongly characterize this brilliant and courtly society were always carried out to the letter, and it must be admitted with regret that there are many cases on record where the restraints and formalities of etiquette were insufficient to check the fateful passion when once its fires were burning. Every forbidden intrigue was fraught with danger; indeed, the injured husband is sometimes alluded to as Monsieur Danger, but here, as elsewhere, stolen sweets were sweetest, and the risk was taken. Vengeance, however, followed discovery, and swift was the retribution which overtook the troubadour when guilty of faithless conduct. The tragic story of Guillem de Cabestaing, who came from that district of Roussillon which is said to be famous for its red wine and its black sheep, will serve to show how love could not be bound by laws of honor and how quick punishment came to pay the score. Guillem, the son of a poor knight, came at the age of twelve to enter the service of my lord Raimon of Roussillon, who was also his father's lord, and there in the castle he began his education. An esquire he became, and he followed his master in peace and in warfare, perfected himself in the gentler arts of song and music, and paid no small attention to his own person, which was fair and comely. On an evil day, however, my lord Raimon transferred young Guillem to the service of his wife, the Lady Margarida, a young and sweet-faced girl who was famed for her beauty, and then began the love between them. Raimon was soon jealous and then suspicious, but false words from false lips allayed suspicion for a time. Then Guillem, in a song composed at his lady's command, revealed the love which united them, though all unconsciously, and then the end was near. One day, Guillem was summoned from the palace into the dark wood by his master, but when Raimon returned Guillem did not come with him; in his stead was a servant, who carried something concealed beneath his cloak. After the dinner, which had been attended with constant jest and laughter, Raimon informed his wife that she had just eaten the heart of the luckless troubadour! Summoning her words with a quick self-control, the Lady Margarida vowed that never after would she taste of meat, whereat Raimon grew red with rage and sought to take her life. But she fled quickly to a high tower and threw herself down to death. That is the tragedy, but this fidelity in death received its reward; for when the king heard the tale, and who did not, as it was soon spread abroad, Raimon was stripped of all his possessions and thrown into a dungeon, while lover and lady were buried together at the church door at Perpignan, and a yearly festival was ordained in their honor.

For many hundreds of years after the decay of all this brilliant life in southern France, the statement was repeated that courts of love had been organized in gay Provence, which were described as assemblies of beautiful women, sitting in judgment on guilty lovers and deciding amorous questions, but the relentless search of the modern scholar has proved beyond a doubt that no such courts ever existed. A certain code of love there was most certainly, of which the troubadours sang, and whose regulations were matters of general conduct as inspired by the spirit of courtesy and gallantry which was current at the time, and very often were questions relating to the tender passion discussed in extenso by the fairest ladies of the south, but more than that cannot be said with truth. The fiction is a pretty one, and among those who are said to have presided at these amorous tribunals are Queen Eleanor, the Countess of Narbonne, and the Countess of Champagne, and Richard C?ur de Lion has even been mentioned in this capacity. The courts were held at Pierrefeu, Digne, and Avignon according to tradition, women alone could act as judges, and appeals might be made from one court to another. This tradition but goes to show that after the decay of the Proven?al civilization, its various ideas and ideals were drawn up into formal documents, that the spirit of the age might be preserved, and they in turn were taken by following generations in good faith as coexistent with the things which they describe.

It was but natural that in a state of society like the one mentioned, women should long to show themselves possessed of poetic gifts as well as men. It must not be supposed that the wife of a great baron occupied an easy position, however, and had many leisure hours, as her wifely duties took no little time and energy, and it was her place to hold in check the rude speech and manners of the warlike nobles who thronged the castle halls, as well as to put some limit to the bold words and glances of the troubadours, who were often hard to repress. Her previous education had been bestowed with care, however, the advantages of a formal and punctilious etiquette had been preached more than once, and she was even advised that the enemy of all her friends should find her civil-spoken; so, my lady managed her difficult affairs with tact and skill, and contrived in many cases to acquire such fame for her moderation and her wisdom that many poets sang her praises. It was her pleasure also to harbor these troubadours who sang her praises, and learn from them the secrets of their art; and in this pleasant intercourse it often chanced that she was inspired by the god of song, and vied with them in poesy. The names of eighteen such women have come down to us, and fragments from most of them are extant, though the Countess of Dia seems the most important of them all, as five of her short poems are now known to exist. The Lady Castelloza must be named soon after, for her wit and her accomplishments. She once reminded a thoughtless lover that if he should allow her to pine away and die for love of him, he would be committing a monstrous crime "before God and men." Clara of Anduse must not be forgotten in this list, and she it was who conquered the cold indifference of the brilliant troubadour Uc de Saint-Cyr; still, however numerous her contributions to poetry may have been, but one song remains to us, and that is contained in a manuscript of the fourteenth century. It should be said that the reason for the small amount of poetry which these women have left behind them is easily explained. Talents they may have possessed and poetical ability in abundance, but there was no great incentive to work, inasmuch as poetry offered them no career such as it opened up to the men. A troubadour sang at the command of his noble patron, but with the women poetry was not an employment, but a necessity for self-expression. It is altogether probable that their efforts were for the most part the result of a sudden inspiration, their mirth or their grief was poured forth, and then they relapsed into silence. Other than in this way the voice of the woman was rarely heard in song, unless she took part in the tenso, or song of contention, and then her words were uttered as they came, without premeditation, and were lost as soon as sung.

The city of Toulouse was a centre for much of the literary life of the time, and it was during the reign of Count Raimon VI., who was a poet of no small merit, that the art of the troubadours reached its culmination. For half a generation, it is said, his court was crowded with these poets, and he dwelt with them and they with him in brotherly affection. With the terrible Albigensian Crusade, the voice of the singer was no longer heard in the land, and the poetic fire, which had burned with so fierce a blaze at times, smouldered for long years, until in the beginning of the fourteenth century the flames burst forth anew. At that time a company of poets, and they were of bourgeois origin and not of the nobility, determined to take vigorous measures to restore the art of the troubadour to its former high position, and to this end they founded the Collège du Gay S?avoir, which was to support and maintain annually in Toulouse a poetic tournament called Les Jeux Floraux, wherein the prizes were to consist of flowers of gold and silver. With the definite establishment of these Floral Games the name of a woman has been intertwined in most curious fashion; and although many facts are recorded of her life and deeds, there are those who deny that she ever lived. This remarkable woman was called Clémence Isaure, and the story has grown up that some years after the founding of the Jeux Floraux she left a sum of money in trust which was to serve as a permanent endowment for this most illustrious institution of her native city. Then it was that the Collège du Gay S?avoir became a thing of permanence, and brilliant were the fêtes which were celebrated under its auspices. First, a golden violet was bestowed upon the victor in these poetic contests, and the winner was decreed a Bachelor of Poetry; then, two other flowers were added, the eglantine and the marigold, and he who won two prizes was given the degree of Master; while he who won all three became forthwith a Doctor.

To prove that Clémence Isaure really did exist in Toulouse a tomb was shown which seemed to bear her name; and so strongly rooted is this belief, that her statue is held in reverence, and every year in May, even to this day, when the date for the Jeux Floraux arrives, the first thing on the programme for that solemn occasion is a formal eulogy in honor of this distinguished patroness. More than that, in the garden of the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, in that semicircle of twenty marble statues grouped about the parterre and representing some of the most illustrious women of France, Clémence Isaure has an honored place, and her counterfeit presentment by the sculptor Préault is considered one of the finest of the number.

In support of the claim that such a woman never existed, and in explanation of the tradition itself, the learned ones inform us that with the definite establishment of these Floral Games the good citizens of Toulouse thought it best to follow in the footsteps of their bold and plain-spoken troubadour ancestors in a somewhat timid manner, and the poems which were then written were not addressed to some fair lady in real life, but to the Holy Virgin, who was frequently addressed as Clemenza [pity], and from this word the story took its rise. After a certain lapse of time, Clemenza, personified so often in their impassioned strains, became a real person to their southern imaginations, and a tomb was conveniently found which seemed to settle the matter without question. It is even asserted that the city of Toulouse is enjoying to-day other bequests which were made to it by Clémence Isaure, and that there is no more reason for doubting her existence than for doubting the existence of any other historical character of long ago. In any event, the Floral Games are still held yearly, the seven poets have become forty in number, and they compose a dignified Academy, which has some ten thousand francs a year to bestow in prizes. And the number of the prizes has been increased, as now five different flowers of gold and five of silver are bestowed each for poetry of a certain kind, and in addition there is a gold jasmine which is awarded to the most excellent prose article, and a silver pink which is a sort of prize at large, and which may be given for a composition of any character.

This belief in the actual existence of Clémence Isaure is still held by many, and, in fact, the legend seems stronger than the facts adduced against it; but whatever the truth may be, the story symbolizes in a most beautiful and fitting way the part which woman has played in this Proven?al country in the encouragement given to song and poetry. It was the women who gave the real encouragement to the troubadours and inspired them to their greatest efforts, and it seems but poetic justice, at least, that in Toulouse the only existing institution representative of those old troubadour days should claim a woman as its greatest patron.

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