One of the great achievements of the Middle Ages, Europe’s courtly culture gave the world the tournament, the festival, the knighting ceremony, and also courtly love. But courtly love has strangely been ignored by historians of sexuality. With Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality, James Schultz corrects this oversight with careful analysis of key courtly texts of the medieval German literary tradition.
Courtly love, Schultz finds, was provoked not by the biological and intrinsic factors that play such a large role in our contemporary thinking about sexuality—sex difference or desire—but by extrinsic signs of class: bodies that were visibly noble and behaviors that represented exemplary courtliness. Individuals became “subjects” of courtly love only to the extent that their love took the shape of certain courtly roles such as singer, lady, or knight. They hoped not only for physical union but also for the social distinction that comes from realizing these roles to perfection. To an extraordinary extent, courtly love represented the love of courtliness—the eroticization of noble status and the courtly culture that celebrated noble power and refinement
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What can the study of courtly love and the history of sexuality learn from each other? In Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality, James A. Schultz draws on key texts from the German tradition to explore the answers to this question.
From the history of sexuality, Schultz shows, one learns to be suspicious of modern assumptions about the male and female body, the origin of desire, and the categories of sexuality. He finds that courtly love is not provoked by sex difference or an intrinsic desire but by extrinsic signs of class status: bodies that are visibly noble and behaviors that manifest exemplary courtliness.
From the study of courtly love the history of sexuality can come to terms with a topic it has generally ignored but that represents nevertheless one of the most consequential medieval discourses on bodies and their pleasures, an object of fascination to contemporaries and an influence on European thinking about love for centuries. Compared to other “sexualities,” courtly love exhibits an extraordinary congruence with social forms. It manifests itself as courtly discipline, through rituals of welcome or knightly service. It promises not only the joy of lovemaking but also the distinction that accrues to those who have mastered the disciplines of courtliness. It represents the eroticization of noble status and courtly culture: the love of courtliness.About the Author:
James A. Schultz is professor of German at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of three previous books, including, most recently, The Knowledge of Childhood in the German Middle Ages, 1100–1350.
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