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Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost…

Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility

by C. Stephen Jaeger

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The author deserves praise for identifying the significance of this topic and attempting this broad survey. But the topic deserves better than the poor literary quality this book exhibits. I'm not sure whether to blame the author, the editor, or both. The author also cannot be said to have mastered his subject. What he criticizes in one place he exhibits himself in another. A better grasp of theology would also perhaps have helped him overcome some of his difficulties.
Despite these shortcomings, the book is well worth reading, not least for the translations of the texts that are included. The other major reason to be glad of its publication is that it provides a rare, almost unique, example of an attempt to deal with the world it describes on its own terms (leaving aside how successfully it does this -- at least it makes an honest attempt) rather than the anachronistic projection of our own sensibilities that is sadly so common. ( )
  qwaal | Aug 25, 2014 |
I thought it was brilliant. A different perspective on medieval love. Where study tends to compartmentalise into institutions and period – spiritual friendship in a religious setting, courtly love – Jaeger sees commonalities, and a line of evolution. I had difficulty working out what this book was about, exactly, before I bought it. It isn't gay history, although he does remark that history of homosexuality has come closest to looking at the continuity he sees; however, that history excludes the entry of women onto the scene. Then, the scholarship on courtly love, Jaeger tells me, as of this moment in time, can only see that love-cult as bursting suddenly out of nowhere; this book is as much about the back story to courtly love. So, it's about medieval ideas of love, and he notices more consistency than has been noticed. Across specialities. Across genders, for ideas of 'ennobling love' took that leap – with consequences, yes, but most of the sensibility intact. Courtly love had a history, as its own practitioners suggest: “Not one courtly poet to my knowledge shares C.S. Lewis's sense that what they depicted was an 'entirely new way of feeling,' or Peter Dinzelbacher's that they were among the discoverers of love in the West. On the contrary, Chretien and Gottfried thought of themselves as trying to breathe new life into a dying ideal.” But the ennobling love that went before, because it was male, because it was public, is so far from our norms that we don't trace the line.

This book is an antidote to our dismissal of medieval ideas and experiences. Ours are so different, that we have found theirs hard to believe in. We see hollow talk, insincerity, because our own fundamentals have changed. Jaeger gives account of this change, so that you can start to be self-aware and take away your assumptions, before you look at medievals. I've rarely met a book that tells me how modern I am. Jaeger likens himself to an anthropologist in approach of a foreign culture. I had a real sense in this book that our modernities are being stripped away, to see them as they were. That is not easily or often done; it was exciting here because few achieve it. People with medieval interests probably need to read this, I began to think. I began to lament that I don't see this sensibility in fiction, for example – is it too alien for a modern audience to even want to know? Last year I read two novels on Richard Lionheart, who, you can see in the blurb, is his Exhibit A – then I read this book and recognise just how modern-thinking those novels were. Sorry, this is an aside, from a fiction lover. It's to stress the great utility of this book, which attempts, more deeply than the average, to resurrect the medieval mind. It has uses beyond Europe, too. Its first subject is 'charismatic love', the love of kings (to/from) and public expression of emotion. I found his thoughts here very relevant wherever there are kings, charisma and a public love that we, privates that we are, strongly tend to misunderstand. What we can't conceive of, we suspect is fake.

I had dips of interest, but I think that was only because the chapter-and-verse of examples can be less exciting than the general statement of ideas. It's still a definite five-star for the importance of its thought. In the latter stages of the book the above doesn't go, as they invent a love we remain familiar with; but he brings home the bravery of the creation. Among those featured are Charlemagne and his court, that was a great love-fest between courtiers and king; and Heloise, who single-handed, by his account, originated much of our passion. There is a tail piece on the fate of courtly love in later centuries; in the 19th he can only name Stendahl as a true believer – other literature only attacks Heloise's heritage: “An odd destiny for ennobling love in the modern period: it is virtually never seen as a viable mode of loving that establishes a life with dignity.”

Worthwhile from two angles: One, to understand the 'lost sensibility' – and not blot or blur it with our conceptions. Two, to see how we have narrowed down our own experience of love. There is much here in the field of love that we have rejected or forgotten. I think Jaeger, discernibly, sees this as cause for regret, as often as not. You realise that the medievals would see us as impoverished on love. Not liberated. That the book leaves you in this headspace is a testament to its neutrality as well as its reach. Or in other words, the author has taken his modern glasses off, successfully. Come and do the same.

PS. It's not hard to read. Jargon level very low. ( )
1 vote Jakujin | Apr 1, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812216911, Paperback)

"Richard, Duke of Aquitaine, son of the King of England, remained with Philip, the King of France, who so honored him for so long that they ate every day at the same table and from the same dish, and at night their beds did not separate them. And the King of France loved him as his own soul; and they loved each other so much that the King of England was absolutely astonished at the vehement love between them and marveled at what it could mean."

Public avowals of love between men were common from antiquity through the Middle Ages. What do these expressions leave to interpretation? An extraordinary amount, as Stephen Jaeger demonstrates.

Unlike current efforts to read medieval culture through modern mores, Stephen Jaeger contends that love and sex in the Middle Ages relate to each other very differently than in the postmedieval period. Love was not only a mode of feeling and desiring, or an exclusively private sentiment, but a way of behaving and a social ideal. It was a form of aristocratic self-representation, its social function to show forth virtue in lovers, to raise their inner worth, to increase their honor and enhance their reputation. To judge from the number of royal love relationships documented, it seems normal, rather than exceptional, that a king loved his favorites, and the courtiers and advisors, clerical and lay, loved their superiors and each other.

Jaeger makes an elaborate, accessible, and certain to be controversial, case for the centrality of friendship and love as aristocratic lay, clerical, and monastic ideals. Ennobling Love is a magisterial work, a book that charts the social constructions of passion and sexuality in our own times, no less than in the Middle Ages.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:15 -0400)

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