About Powers of Literature:
What's "romantic"? Let's talk sex!
The pagan North Men of the longships (Scandinavian Norse Men) maintained the life style of Achilles far into the Middle Ages. After centuries of sailing, sacking, and singing of the heroes, however, they eventually sought out easier lines of work. Some of them moved to Normandy (northwest France), mixed with the locals and took up Christianity, Frankish warfare, and even chivalry. They became dukes and counts, and for some of their amusement Chrétien de Troyes wrote secular poems in Old French, from roughly 1160 to 1191 AD. (More on Chrétien below in footnote #1.)
Our reading for this lesson is Chrétien's worldly-wise The Knight of the Cart. It is one of the oldest surviving tales about the court of King Arthur, but the first point to be made about it is how surprisingly Hellenic it seems.
The simple plot of Chrétien's story is classical, even though the characters are not Greeks. There are two kingdoms: Arthur's land of Logres and Meleagant's realm of Gorre. One by one the people of Logres mysteriously are taken away and held forever in Gorre. Neither Arthur nor anybody else is powerful enough to bring any of the captives back. Then one day, as our story opens, Queen Guinevere herself is taken away to Gorre by Meleagant. Three knights follow after them to rescue her: Kay and Gawain from Arthur's court and--mysteriously out of nowhere--a stranger knight who is unnamed through most of the story, Lancelot of the Lake. Kay is beaten, and Gawain is too slow to help, but Lancelot, after many adventures, thrashes Meleagant, frees the Queen, and releases all of the captives in Gorre to go home to Camelot.
How is this story classical? Chrétien's Lancelot is a literary descendant of Heracles, Orpheus and other heroes drawn from ancient mystery rituals, necromantic figures who miraculously travel to the land of the dead and bring them back to the living. Lancelot's rescue of Guinevere is particularly reminiscent of the Alcestis legend, dramatized in Euripides' play of 438 BC, where mighty Heracles wrestles and defeats Death at the grave of the young Queen of Thessaly and restores her to her husband and children. (Like Heracles, Lancelot has a superhuman grip; see his match with the knight of the ford in The Knight of the Cart.)
The freeing of the captives in Gorre also compares with the release of the youths of Athens from the Minotaur by the hero Theseus [as described in Lesson 14]. And there are many other classical recoveries of the dead, too, including
Chrétien describes Lancelot's journey from Logres to Gorre as if it were a passage from life to death. Consider:
As in the Odyssey, where Odysseus is described as if he were a survivor of adventures that are not humanly survivable, the knight of the cart escapes deadly situations through seemingly superhuman powers. Homer's living/dead Odysseus is a Hellenic ghost or hero-spirit that returns unburied to haunt Ithaca; perhaps he may have been a character at an ancient shrine where guests could dine and "visit" the dead [recall Lesson 7 and Lesson 8]. But what kind of living and/or dead thing is Chrétien's Lancelot?
A similar thing, apparently. Even though Chrétien has Lancelot attend mass and receive burial in the cemetery of a Christian monastery, other features of the knight's character are pre-Christian. Lancelot is "of the Lake," evidently referring to his upbringing by the Lady of the Lake. Some sources later than Chrétien give her name as Nimue (thought to be a corruption of the Greek Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses), and her magic tricks of witchcraft include the power to bring the dead back from the water. "The Lake" probably refers to a place of necromancy, like Lake Acheron or Lake Avernus of classical days, where the souls of the dead were conjured up to the surface for visitors to see, and Lancelot himself is one of the risen dead, hence "of the Lake" and his "upbringing" by the witch of the Lake. No wonder then that on his quest Lancelot can discover his own tomb, among other tombs of Arthur's famous knights.
Yet in spite of the pre-Christian spiritual elements in Chrétien's story, it would be a stretch to claim that The Knight of the Cart is about ancient magic, hero rituals, or resurrection of the dead. These themes may have been on the minds of singers whose stories about Lancelot were known to Chrétien, but we can only speculate about that. Whatever Chrétien's sources may have been, they no longer exist. What we can say for certain is that Chrétien was interested in flesh and blood. The Knight of the Cart is about love. It's a romance.
Romance comes to us from the European Middle Ages. Within a few centuries after the fall of Rome, so separate were the church and state (the "mind" and "body" of medieval Europe, as suggested in Lesson 11) that even their languages split apart.
The vernaculars were known as "romance" languages, because they were Romanesque or Roman-like languages. Tales characteristically told in romance languages were called "romances."
Medieval romances in the beginning were oral, rather than written, and even after they began to be written down in the twelfth century, they were composed in verse, in the forms of songs that at least theoretically could be sung (compare the Homeric songs). Verse and prose translations of these old songs, as well as imitations and parodies of them, appeared in great numbers across all of Europe for more than 500 years.
Stories in this long and dominant tradition shared common literary features, including:
Fictions with similar features, but composed at times other than the Middle Ages, are described nowadays as "romances" too: "Greek romances" from classical antiquity, "Elizabethan romances" from Renaissance England, "Shakespearean romances" from the great one himself, "Gothic romances" from 18th century and 19th century revivals of medieval fiction, and even "modern romances" from anywhere that contemporary light reading materials are sold (mostly to young ladies).
Romances have been popular with young people throughout the ages because they model behaviors of courtship, but these behaviors aren't limited to marital or premarital love. In fact, the earliest romances of the Middle Ages generally tell of adulteries between champion knights of old and adventurous queens married to inattentive kings. Lancelot and Guinevere are the leading romantic couple of this type.
In later medieval versions of the Arthur legend, the love of Lancelot and Guinevere is portrayed as an evil lust that destroys both the lovers and the fellowship of Arthur's Round Table (as in, for example, Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur, English cir. 1469-1485). This tragic version of the Arthurian legend is well known these days because it was popular with Victorian moralists and modern schoolmasters who liked to imagine Guinevere as an old penitent nun, sorrowing day and night for having hurt Arthur, Britain and God by her infidelity. [See image left, Guinevere as she appeared in a schoolbook of Arthurian stories published in 1911.]
In the earliest romances, however, there are happier endings, much less moralizing and considerably more emphasis on depicting the irresistible power of the sex drive. In the earliest of all existing Lancelot stories, Chrétien's The Knight of the Cart , when the knight follows the desire of his heart without reservation, the Queen returns his love by sleeping with him, and there appears to be no scandal in their unrestrained, secret devotion to each other.
The early romances are not philosophical or religious parables about detachment of the mind or soul from the body. The romantic lovers in these tales don't understand what is happing to them as they fall into sexual obsession, but from a modern biological point of view they are simply animals engaged in Darwinian sexual selection of the most attractive mates, regardless of any man-made rules about marriage, kingship or social responsibility.
The romancers of the Middle Ages didn't know about Darwin or genes or DNA, of course. But they knew about sex, and they clearly saw connections between human and animal reproductive behavior. It's "back to nature" for the lovers in their stories. Very typically, the jealous husband-king is in charge of the repressive environment indoors at court, so the romantic couple meet outside, often in woods or other wild settings where there's little or no civilization, they roam freely with the animals, and nature has its way with them for a time.
A comic example is Beroul's The Romance of Tristan (Anglo-French, cir. 1150), probably one of the oldest medieval romances to be preserved to our time. Here Sir Tristan and Queen Iseult run away deep into the forest beyond the castle, far from King Mark's court and its prying, scandal-mongering gossips. Out in the woods they avoid Mark's hunting expeditions, and they frolic merrily by themselves for three years until the magic love potion starts to wear off, they repent a little, Iseult formally returns to Mark, and everybody tries to save face by pretending that nothing really happened (but it did!), and that nothing is continuing to happen (but it is!). The villains of this piece are the tattle-tale courtiers who invite King Mark to smell that the queen is having an affair under his nose. The king is too foolish to believe his senses.
With only minor changes, the same adulterous tale could be told as a tear-jerker love tragedy, as in Thomas of Britain's Tristram and Ysolt (Anglo-Norman cir. 1175) and Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristram and Isolde (German cir. 1210). By any spelling of their names in any language, all of these Tristans and Isolts are happy only in the wilderness, where they can fulfill their desires. Civilization inhibits them, separates them, and finally does them in. They might be seen as literary vestiges of the hunted wild beasts of stone age cave painting [recall Lesson 2]. All of this art discovers the animal within.
The central conflict in medieval romance, whether tragic or comic, can be summed up genetically. Human bodies had been conditioned by many hundreds of thousands of years in the wilds. But there came a time when this "natural" environment disappeared, and people felt out of place in the new civilization that they had made. This emotional disorientation accelerated with the arrival of the High Middle Ages (roughly 1000 - 1500 AD), a distinct period of rapidly rising population, urbanization, sophisticated art, and increasingly dominant social institutions. Outside of remote wilderness areas still remaining in a few parts of Europe, "natural" behavior now became maladapted. People were expected to obey new, artificial codes of social conduct. Feudalism prescribed rules for each social class and occupation. Monogamy began to be strictly enforced in secular society, and celibacy was demanded of priests, monks and nuns. In its social ministry the church hunted down the archaic animal self, now described in terms of "sin" or "vice," by which was meant all of the instinctive urges and impulsive desires inherited from the first humans.
Artists during the High Middle Ages found financial support from increasingly powerful and wealthy patrons, leaders of the church and emerging secular states. Under this patronage system, literature and other arts inevitably came to endorse the developing social order. Where the earliest romancers had celebrated romantic love, especially extra-marital love, later romancers generally idealized the wife who was a chaste "lady" and the faithful man-servant who could be trusted with her, even overnight, even for several nights in succession. Unlike Tristan and Isolt, this well-behaved literary couple of the later Middle Ages served the pleasure only of their liege lord.
This model of socially responsible sexual restraint is promoted in, for example, the Pearl Poet's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Middle English, cir. 1350-1400, link to the text here, if desired). In this moralized romance, virtuous Gawain travels far from Arthur's court to the Green Knight's home, deep in the wilderness. There he is tempted to commit adultery with the Green Knight's lovely and accommodating lady ("more beautiful than Guinevere"). He fends off her attempted seductions at his bedside for three nights, only on the final morning agreeing to receive a garter from her as a secret token of her love. Embarrassed Gawain tries to hide the garter from his host, but the Green Knight isn't fooled, because he has arranged all of the flirtations in advance, as tests of Gawain's honor. Although Gawain has not been completely honest, the Green Knight is so impressed with Gawain's chastity that he decides not to behead Gawain with his battleaxe, as he had planned to do. Instead Gawain receives only a little nick on his neck, and he flees from the terrifying wood back to the safety of Camelot. The Green Knight represents nature in this story, but nature is devilish: it lures promiscuous males into a surprise death trap.
In the High Middle Ages and later--the time of Dante, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur--sexual rivalry, lust and jealousy often were portrayed in art as evils that had destroyed the greatest of kingdoms in the past. Like Camelot, Troy itself now was seen as having fallen due to the adulterous triangle of Menelaos, Helen and Paris. The later romancers elaborated this moral by adding to the traditional Troy legend new romantic tragedies, especially the story of Priam's son Troilus in Giovanni Boccaccio's Il Filostrato (Italian c. 1341) and Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (Middle English, c. 1385). Christian poets didn't use Zeus to explain the fall of Troy, and unlike prophets most of them didn't care to explain it as the Lord's work, either. They thought that they had found a more natural explanation in the human condition itself, in the unrestrained sexual appetite that draws males into brutal rivalries.
The neutering of medieval romance reached its logical conclusion later in the Renaissance, in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590-1596), written by a Puritan poet for a virgin queen, Elizabeth I of England. Spenser's various knights of the faerie queen Gloriana (=Elizabeth) embody only ideals of holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice and other virtues of self-restraint and social responsibility. There's nothing about Lancelot and Guinevere here. Prudent Elizabeth avoided the Guinevere model of queenship and, like Gawain, she kept her head. Her genes died with her, but her tomb is well visited today, nonetheless. She seems to have made the choice of Achilles, accepting the limit of nature to receive "unwilting" cult fame [recall Lesson 4].
In any case, evolution of a more complex society from an older order, modeled on animal life, did not happen only in the development of Hellenism out of Zeus-man culture. [Recall the beastly Zeus-men from Lesson 6.] There's an important parallel much later in Western Europe, in the moralizing trend of the High Middle Ages and Renaissance. The romances of this period, if we had time to study them at length, would show the full range and development of romantic ideals from uninhibited sexuality of the Paris/Helen or Lancelot/Guinevere type through the Gawain kind of polite flirtation to completely disembodied Platonic love.
Chrétien appears to stand at roughly the same early point as Homer on the timeline of literacy, when some memories of an ancestral dark age were maintained in songs. This dark age was not Helladic but Arthurian. It was dark because King Arthur reigned (if ever) some five hundred years back in the mists of preliteracy from Chrétien's day, roughly the same remote distance as legendary Achilles and Odysseus from Homer. [For pseudo-historical and legendary Arthurs, see the Arthurian timeline below in the notes on this page].
Chrétien's art shows a generally Homeric conception of human nature, too. The feeling of anger toward sexual rivals, and the feeling of love toward sexual partners, belong to the same emotional syndrome. Homer's "anger" and Chrétien's "love" characterize the ancestral drive to reproduce, to make descendants, to create life beyond death. Where Homer's Zeus-men want to be remembered as fathers of the Hellenes, so that descendants will bring gifts and fair words to sustain them at their graves, Chrétien's "sirs" are sires who fight to earn the right to mate with the best females and so to be reborn into future generations.
Like Homer's Zeus-men, Chrétien's knights are preoccupied with fighting to win and to keep mates. From a modern biological point of view, this behavior is essentially Darwinian. (Historically of course it's more accurate to say that Darwin was romantic.) "Survival of the fittest" is codified in Chrétien as a simple rule of "honor": it's dishonorable for a knight to rape a damsel, unless he has first battled and defeated her man at arms. Chrétien describes this honor code of the days of old, back in Arthur's time and also long before Arthur's time, as follows:
In those days the customs and privileges were such that, if a knight found a damsel or lorn maid alone, and if he cared for his fair name, he would no more treat her with dishonor than he would cut his own throat. And if he assaulted her, he would be disgraced forever in every court. But if, while she was under his escort, she should be won at arms by another who engaged him in battle, then this other knight might do with her what he pleased without receiving shame or blame. [The Knight of the Cart, in vv. 1293-1368.]
The knight, like Hektor in the Iliad, is a protector of women and his reputation. Damsels, like Andromache and Briseis, are still to be "won" militarily by defeating their mates and defenders.
Now here's the surprise, the twist that transforms the old Homeric story about angry, sexually possessive males into a romance such as Chrétien's patroness Marie, the Countess of Champagne, perhaps would have preferred to hear. Unlike Andromache and Briseis, Chrétien's women do not grieve about their status as slaves or as booty to be passed along from master to master. On the contrary, they are flattered by the men's brawling over them and only too happy to mate with the strong man who comes out on top. They remain unattached to particular husbands or beaux, for they always are ready to upgrade whenever the opportunity is offered. It's the knights who are enslaved; the sirs faithfully serve the damsels as if they were goddesses. This fantasy system, with women in total control of sexual power, is known to us as "courtly love." (More on courtly love below in footnote #7.)
In The Knight of the Cart Guinevere owes no fidelity to Arthur, since he fails to defend her. When Meleagant arrives at court and boasts that he is more powerful than Arthur and all of Arthur's knights, and that he will take Guinevere away with him into the woods, Arthur manages only a meek reply that "he must needs endure what he has not the power to change. . ." [vv 31-172]. So Meleagant takes the Queen from passive Arthur without a fight. It's Lancelot who pursues Meleagant and eventually beats him up, so it's Lancelot who proves his worthiness to sleep with Guinevere. She puts Lancelot off for a time, but ultimately she is ashamed not to go to bed with him, after he has shown so much courage and martial valor for her sake [vv 4441-4530].
Throughout Chrétien's story Lancelot encounters a series of damsels who fall all over him when he demonstrates his fighting superiority to their male partners. These women are all Guineveres. In one especially remarkable episode, an unnamed enchantress invites Lancelot to stay overnight at her castle, if he will sleep with her. Lancelot worries about being unfaithful to Guinevere, but he never turns down an invitation to spend the night, so he rides along with the enchantress to her place. She invites him to her bed only after she has arranged for him to be attacked by her household servants, armed with swords and battleaxes, and pretending to rape her. She's turned on when Lancelot shows that he can thrash all of her men.
In Chrétien's Arthurian world, a knight defends his lady's "honor" by defending her from his rivals. Whether she actually has any sexual loyalty or fidelity is beside the point. The only question is whether her defense--her physical defense by force of arms--is potent enough to keep intruders away. Might makes right. Questions of honor are settled through trials by combat.
Chrétien emphasizes this pragmatic view of honor when Meleagant accuses Guinevere of sexual misconduct (vv 4755-5006). Meleagant can see that the Queen has been sleeping with somebody, but he happens to be mistaken about who she has been sleeping with. He thinks that her secret lover is Sir Kay. For Guinevere to mate with weakling Kay would be dishonorable, of course, because Meleagant already has beaten Kay almost to death. But Guinevere is not so dishonorable as to bed down with losers. Her actual lover is Lancelot, who already has beaten Meleagant in combat once. And Lancelot has spent the whole night with Guinevere, so he can safely swear on a pile of holy relics that Meleagant is a liar in accusing the Queen of having slept with Kay. The controversy is resolved by a second fight between Meleagant and Lancelot, which Lancelot wins, as always. Lancelot's victory means that Guinevere is honorable, for she has mated only with the fittest knight.
At the end of The Knight of the Cart, when everybody returns to Camelot, Guinevere still loves Lancelot, but she is praised for keeping this love secret from Arthur and his buddies at court. She avoids stirring up unnecessary jealousies and rivalries among the men. Her deception may not look right morally, as modern monogamous people have been trained to think about morality, but it is understandable biologically. If the Queen can conceive an heir by Lancelot, then the next king won't be another dud like Arthur, who can't defend his people. The heir may be a dedicated and effective protector instead, the "fittest" alpha male of his time, another Lancelot. More selfishly, the Queen's own genes will have blended with strong male escort genes that best assure their future survival.
For Chrétien civilization appears to be a somewhat frustrating compromise between biological drives and social realities. All of the women in The Knight of the Cart want Lancelot, but they can't all have him. None of them wants Meleagant, who can't win against Lancelot even though Meleagant fiercely fights to the death and cheats as much as he can. Obviously, none of the women want any of the less violent, more polite knights, either. These less determined men "game" the courtship system. They want to be loved, and so they try to give the appearance that they are worthy of a woman's attention, and yet they really are not interested in dying or killing for love. If they duel and lose, they expect mercy. They participate in combat only as a sport, where the male champions can be determined without the killing and mayhem and other real violence that accompanies true warfare.
Chrétien humorously portrays this refined sport in the jousting tournament at Noauz. ("Noauz" means "worst" in Old French; the knights in the jousts appear "worst" by holding back their best efforts to destroy each other.) These players engage in mock-battle on the field to display themselves to the damsels in the grandstand who are watching to select their mates:
Like arrows the knights at once fly out, spurring and pricking from either side, some to relieve this knight, others to add to his distress. While some thus try to aid their lords, many a saddle is left empty in the strife and fray. . . Then the knight [Lancelot in disguise] directs his steed and makes a very skilful thrust against a certain knight, whom he strikes so hard that he carries him a hundred feet or more from his horse. His feats with sword and lance are so well performed that there is none of the onlookers who does not find pleasure in watching him. Many even of those who bear arms find pleasure and satisfaction in what he does, for it is great sport to see how he makes horses and knights tumble and fall. He encounters hardly a single knight who is able to keep his seat. . .
And the damsels, who amazed were watching him, all said that he might take them to wife; but they did not dare to trust in their beauty or wealth, or power or highness, for not for her beauty or wealth would this peerless knight deign to choose any one of them. Yet, most of them are so enamored of him that they say that, unless they marry him, they will not be bestowed upon any man this year. And the Queen [Guinevere], who hears them boast, laughs to herself and enjoys the fun, for well she knows that if all the gold of Arabia should be set before him, yet he who is beloved by them all would not select the best, the fairest, or the most charming of the group. One wish is common to them all -- each wishes to have him as her spouse. One is jealous of another, as if she were already his wife; and all this is because they see him so adroit that in their opinion no mortal man could perform such deeds as he had done. . .
When the tournament broke
up, they all searched and asked for him, but without success, for he fled
away, having no desire to be recognized. The knights are disappointed and
distressed, for they would have rejoiced to have him there. But if the
knights were grieved to have been deserted thus, still greater was the
damsels' grief when they learned the truth, and they asserted by St. John
that they would not marry at all that year. If they can't have him whom they
truly love, then all the others may be dismissed. Thus the tourney was
adjourned without any of them choosing a husband.
The jousting tournament is a mate selection mechanism, like battle but not so deadly. A similarly non-lethal exhibition of male rivalry in other animals would be called a "display," where individuals compete before potential mates to show off as the best of breed. Lancelot looks like the fittest knight at Naouz, at least when Guinevere lets him display, so the "love" of all damsels for him is quite natural. Each young lady probably will have the best protection if she marries Lancelot, and her genes probably will have the best chance of survival in future generations if they are blended with Lancelot's.
The terminology of modern biology was not yet available in Chrétien's day, obviously. But nature could be observed and described before Darwin came along. Because of the subtle images that Chrétien uses to describe the jousting at Noauz, we can just make out an underlying prototype of stags butting heads to win the right to mate with the does of the herd. The lances of the knights at the tournament are so many that "they suggest the appearance of a wood," and Lancelot's chief rival rides a spirited horse "swifter than a stag." And when the Queen desires him to do his best, Lancelot fights "like a wild man."
Now for the birds and bees
Chrétien's tournament at Noauz compares with common sexual selection arrangements in the animal kingdom where males display themselves in the best light (or even a false light) to coax females to choose them as mates. For example, some species of birds such as sage grouse flock together in leks ("lek" is Swedish for "party"), where the males puff themselves up, and begin to dance and strut and coo vigorously, while the females examine the performers to pick sexual partners. There are clear winners and losers in this male beauty contest. The top performer achieves most of the matings at the lek, while average males attract no females at all. It's hard to resist comparing rock music festivals where the number one hit band of the season attracts disproportionately large numbers of groupies.
In most species of animals having complex nervous systems, as in the sage grouse, males display and females choose. There are many variations from this pattern, but females typically hold most or all of the sexual power, as in courtly love. The reason for these characteristic animal sex roles appears to be mathematical. Sperm cells are produced in prolific quantity, so they are cheap and must be advertised for sale, but eggs are precious because their supply is far more limited. The numbers are especially lopsided in birds and mammals. Humans are among the most lopsided of all species, since our offspring tend to be singletons (not multiples) and each one requires an unusually long period of gestation and rearing.
Mating usually costs the male almost nothing, so typical male reproductive strategy is simply to mate with as many females as possible. Philandering is an obvious way for him to pass the most genes into the next generation. Mate choice can be a more serious decision for the female, however. With a limited number of eggs, there are a limited number of genes that she can pass into the next generation, so her reproductive strategy is to mate only with the best male genes available. It makes genetic sense for her, like the damsels at Noauz or Homer's Penelope, to reject all but the best suitor.
But which male has the best genes, or the most sexual attraction, and how do females decide? Scientists have been trying to answer these questions for many different species. For example, in the mating of guppies--very small fish with tiny brains the size of pin heads--females prefer to spawn with males who appear to be unafraid of predators. The successful male suitors swim near predators, when the girls are watching, but apparently it's only a show. When no female happens to be looking, all of the males avoid predators as much as they can. (Compare Chrétien's Lancelot who only fights best when he knows that Guinevere is looking.)
[Note: on guppy love, see Lee Alan Dugatkin, The Imitation Factor: Evolution Beyond the Gene (Free Press: New York 1999). Dugatkin also has shown experimentally that young inexperienced female guppies imitate the mate selections made by more experienced females; indeed this is Dugatkin's main point, that even lower animals "learn" from one another and have "culture" in the sense that they are driven to copy one another's behavior. Guppy groupies?]
Why lady guppies have this mate preference for "brave" mates is a mystery. Are the preferred males chivalrous or simply foolish? The trait of swimming near predators, even if only during a courtship display, would not appear to be aligned with a strong natural instinct for survival. Guppies have no defenses against predators except to keep away from them. By choosing partners who risk all for love, are the females making wrong choices for the success of their species?
Charles Darwin recognized this problem of dangerous display, too--not in guppies but in many other species. He was especially troubled by peacocks. He knew that the bigger and brighter the tail, the more that peahens are attracted. "The sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick," he said.
The peacock's tail did not confirm the theory of natural selection, as Darwin at first formulated the idea in The Origin of Species (1859). A long, heavy, brightly ornamented tail not only seems unnecessary for peacock survival, but it appears to be a big liability. Surely, the theory of natural selection would have predicted peacocks more fit to survive with shorter, lighter, less spectacular tails, so that the birds would attract fewer predators, would escape them more easily and would save a lot of energy?
It was only later that Darwin accounted for peacocks' tails and similarly fantastic extravagances in animals, especially in males. He provided scores of illustrations in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) to show that these seemingly useless ornamentations and exaggerated physical features had developed through sexual selection. Peacocks have spectacular tail feathers because that's what peahens for many thousands of generations have preferred in their mates. Males with fancy tails had lots of offspring; males with plainer tails did not. Darwin's speculation about sexual selection has now been confirmed by rigorous scientific experiment in many, many species.
But still the question remains: why the attraction to fancy tails? One theory is that a big, colorful, heavy tail once may have been an indicator of fitness for survival. That is, in the peacock's evolutionary past an especially showy tail in fact may have indicated an individual male's relative health, strength, stamina and mating ability. This is not to say that it still serves as a reliable fitness indicator for today's further evolved, larger-tailed peacocks.
Mate selection in humans appears to be based on fitness indicators that can change to a degree with new fashions and technologies. In Chrétien's time competitive jousting tournaments may have indicated which knights had the most courage, desire, strength, stamina, and thrusting ability. But a jousting indicator would have become absurdly outdated by the time of the last wandering knight, Don Quixote (published 1605), when the invention of explosives and guns had doomed chivalry. The ranks of men who still found it romantic to charge into the teeth of cannon and rifle fire were decimated in the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, World War I and other modern displays. Popular fitness indicators in contemporary America seem to include football and other competitive sports, pop music and other arts, conspicuous displays of economic well-being, and relative physical conditioning, though of course military models of manhood are not obsolete.
indicators can evolve through repetitive sexual selection to the point of
exaggeration that they become liabilities to the species. For example, if peahens choose mates with larger and larger
tails until all peacocks are so
handicapped that they can't escape from tigers, then the species will have designed
itself for extinction. It's often theorized that various past extinctions in
the animal kingdom could have occurred because sexual selection was carried to
unsupportable extremes. Of course, humankind eventually could share such a fate. The preference for
Lancelot, repeated through so many generations, already seems to have designed a race
of men competitively armed with doomsday
weapons. The next step in our self-design could be a model that is fearless of
A common complaint about literature is that "it's all sex and violence." These features are staples even in the classics, as we have seen in Homer and Chrétien de Troyes, and now we understand the reason.
Natural selection and sexual selection explain (among others things) why representational art should take war and love as characteristic subjects. Human behavior can be described generally in terms of the intimidation of rivals through weaponry and the attraction of mates through ornamentation. The essential elements of the human beast always lurk there for perceptive observers to note--whether they happen to be ancient poets or modern biologists.
Which brings us to the myth of the genes, the story of the ancestors, as biologists tell it today. It's a tale of organisms that survived and reproduced only to help genes to survive and reproduce. The bodies of human beings, and all other species, are the genes' "survival machines," as geneticist Richard Dawkins describes them. (See The Selfish Gene, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). That is, over the long course of prehistory, genes slowly assembled us as robots or hosts to shield and nurture them. Building our cells and organs, including our brains and even our dispositions, they fortified themselves against hostile forces in the environment. And so we go to war against their rivals (that is, genes of other species as well as genes of rival humans) and then the survivors among us return home for sex, so that they can live in combination with good partner genes happily ever after--or at least into the next generation. This quest is conducted for their benefit.
A striking aspect of this modern genetic myth is how familiar the story seems in terms of story-telling tradition. Odysseus, Lancelot and many other famous literary characters, from Krishna to Superman, appear to embody perfectly what genes would want in a human survival machine: unsurpassed survival skills and irresistible attractiveness to the opposite sex. Is this only coincidence? Or can it be that genes have promoted these potent characters to instruct human beings to serve the genes more perfectly? Is literature, at least in some significant part, gene propaganda that makes us more useful to them: more deadly to rivals and more attractive to lovers? The provocation of fighting and stimulation of sex clearly have been among the foremost powers of literature traditionally.
Few theories of art ever have been devised with any serious scientific basis, but that's perhaps one reason why the arts have been marginalized in our scientific age. Maybe the arts are like the peacock's tail. That is, maybe they're not only beautiful and entertaining but also functional biologically. Are they part of the weaponry or ornamentation that serve the genes in human beings?
At least one theorist has claimed that literature and the other arts have such a function, as ornamentation or display. In The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), Geoffrey Miller asks why the human brain evolved. He argues that it evolved through mate selection. That is, our ancestral mothers favored mates with brains, and so our ancestral forefathers devised various competitive displays to show off their brains for the women. Some of these courtship competitions became the seemingly idle practices that we today call "the arts." Painting, sculpting, making music, singing, telling stories and stating persuasive arguments are ways that artists have made themselves appealing to sex partners through the ages. The appeal of the art may be direct, as when a girl paints herself with lipstick and eye shadow, or it may be indirect, as when a sophist wins a debate and gains recognition and dominant status for wisdom or thought. (Higher status increases the chances of success in courtship.) Socrates was not handsome, but he was eloquent and he had two wives.
As a display of sexual fitness, writing romances may be as close to face painting as it is to sophistry. The romancer makes a conspicuous showing that he (usually in the old days he, but sometimes she, as was the case with the Breton romancer Marie de France) is an expert in romantic affairs, one who knows intimately how great lovers act.
Commentators are often tempted to draw connections between the romancer's art and his or her personal love interests. (Shakespeare in Love, anyone?) According to his prologue, Chrétien wrote The Knight of the Cart at the request of the Countess Marie, a lady "who surpasses all others alive." He flattered her and all women with art acknowledging the romantic power of their sex over men. If Marie identified herself with Guinevere, who then who would be her Lancelot? Chrétien literally identified with Lancelot in the act of composing a story written largely from Lancelot's point of view. The refusal to name "the knight of the cart" through most of the story may be Chrétien's expression of his identification with Lancelot.
We can only guess why Chrétien never finished the story, but maybe in the end he hesitated to climb into the cart, knowing that it could mean his death. Another possibility--there are lots of possibilities--is that Marie already was dead when Chrétien wrote his story about rescuing Guinevere from Gorre. If so, he was among those leading the way for Dante whose search for dead Beatrice would lead to The Divine Comedy.
1. Chrétien de Troyes: not much is known about "Chrétien de Troyes." All of our information about him comes from his surviving writings. These include five romance narratives written in rhyming octosyllabic couplets from about 1160 AD to about 1191: (Érec et Énide [ca. 1165], Cligés [ca. 1176], Le Chevalier de la Charrette [about Lancelot ca. 1180?], Le Chevalier au Lion [about Yvain ca. 1177? 1179-80?], and Le Conte du Graal [about Perceval ca. 1190]). At least two surviving lyric songs also are said to have been composed by him, songs in the style of the Old Provençal troubadours. Chrétien also claims to have written a romance entitled Du roi Marc et d'Iseut la Blonde (which would make him one of earliest romancers of the Tristan story), as well as various translations or retellings of material from Ovid, the great Roman poet of love, but these writings are lost.
Chrétien apparently wrote at Troyes, which is about 90 miles southeast of Paris on the Seine. This place, named after old Troy of Homeric fame, was a major residence of the court of the counts of Champagne. In the time of Chrétien's "lady of Champagne" Marie, this court apparently had became one of the foremost literary centers in Europe. The countess was daughter of Louis VII of France and the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, who introduced troubadour love poetry to northern France and Britain and the crusader Near East, and who later married Henry II of England, begetting Richard I, the Lionheart, the most chivalrous of English kings, as well as King John of Magna Carta fame. The nature of Chrétien's relationship to Marie is uncertain. I assume that he was a courtier in her court, but literary historians generally seem to imagine that he was a hired professional composer and she was his patroness.
There are no Arthurian romances surviving today that are known to be older than Chrétien's tales. We have earlier chronicles about Arthur, composed in Latin but not in romance languages (see more detail in note 4 below). These earlier Latin stories focus on Arthur, not on the adventures of Arthur's knights of the round table, the subject in Chrétien's stories and in Arthurian romance generally.
Chrétien's literary fame is reflected in all of the copies made of him, not only by other creative writers who later turned the Arthurian romance into a literary epidemic throughout Europe, but by also by scribes who copied Chrétien's manuscripts. For instance, there are eight different thirteenth-century manuscripts of The Knight of the Cart that still exist today, an unusually high number of survivals for that distant and turbulent age. Variations among manuscripts require Chrétien's editors and translators to make a lot of judgment calls in deciding which version to follow.
2. More Chrétien and Lancelot reads:
Owen, D.D.R (Trans.): Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances (Everyman Library, London, 1987) contains English translations of "Erec et Enide," "Cliges," "Yvain," "The Knight of the Cart," and Chretien's incomplete "Perceval," all well worth reading. I especially recommend "Yvain," an extraordinary masterpiece about married love. Owen's edition replaced W.W. Comfort's rather dated Victorian translation in the Everyman Library catalogue. There's also a fairly recent recent Penguin paperback with English translations of the same stories by William W. Kibler: Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances (Penguin Classics, London, 1991).
Anonymous: Lancelot of the Lake (Trans: Corin Corely; Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989). An English translation of one of the earliest prose romances concerning Lancelot.
Malory, Sir Thomas: Le Morte D'Arthur (Ed: Janet Cowen; Penguin Classics, London, 1969). This fifteenth century prose collection of Arthurian stories was among the first books to be published by printing press in English, and it remained the official collection of Arthurian matter, as far as later generations in England were concerned.
For a full list of Arthurian matter, see David Adrien Tanguay's page at http://www.thinkage.on.ca/~dat/arthur.html
3. Very brief bibliography for Chrétien: Roger Sherman Loomis, Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien de Troyes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949); Leslie Topsfield, Chrétien de Troyes: A Study of the Arthurian Romances (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Karl D. Uitti & Michelle A. Freeman, Chrétien de Troyes Revisited. Twayne's World Author Series (New York: Twayne, 1995); John Stevens, Medieval Romance: Themes and Approaches (New York: Norton Library 1974).
cir. 407 AD. Roman occupation of Britain ends. As soon as the Romans withdraw their troops, Saxon invasions of Britain begin. The Romanized Britons' wars of resistance against these Germanic "barbarian" invaders become intense by the mid-400's. The Britons' appeals to Rome for help against the Saxons are unsuccessful, as the Roman Empire is crumbling.
cir 455-485. The embattled Britons turn to Ambrosius Aurelianus for leadership against the Saxons. He is successful in a series of battles, culminating in the Battle of Mount Badon in about 485. According to 6th century historians, this battle halted in Saxon advance for about 50 years. The Saxon conquest of Britain was not completed until about 600. Beginning in about 800, historians (starting with the monk Nennius) began to identify Arthur as the victor at Mount Badon, and modern scholars who want to find a "historical Arthur" usually follow this tradition and equate him with Ambrosius Aurelianus. This identification, however, conflicts with the Norman French idea, prevalent during the Middle Ages, that Arthur was the last of the British kings (see 1136 below).
1066. Norman French under William the Conqueror invade England and defeat of the last Saxon King, Harold, at the Battle of Hastings.
cir. 1136. Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welshman and imaginative story teller, completes his History of the Kings of Britain in Latin, an influential work greatly elaborating on the events of Arthur's day, including Merlin's magic, the treacherous love of Mordred (not Lancelot) and Guinevere, the final battle with Mordred, and other details that today are taken to be traditional parts of the Arthurian legend. In Geoffrey, Arthur is featured as the last in a long line of glorious British kings, one who would have conquered the Roman Empire except for Mordred's revolt. Geoffrey's emphasis on the idea that the pagan Saxons were not natives in the British Isles was good spin for the Norman conquerors, who had merely got rid of the Saxon intruders, as Arthur formerly had tried to do.
Geoffrey claims that he is merely translating an old British work that he found at the library at Oxford; he also claims that he knows about Arthur from an "ancient book" written in Welsh that English historians are unable to read. These claims are not verifiable today, and they were questioned by scholars in Geoffrey's own time.
cir. 1150. Beroul's Romance of Tristan (though not about Arthur) helps to establish romance as a literary type. Another Tristan by Thomas of Britain appears in about 1175.
1155. Wace publishes Roman de Brut, a pseudo-history describing the foundation of Britain by descendants of Trojan Aeneas; Wace is the first to speak of the Round Table in connection with Arthur. Layamon's pseudo-history, Brut, follows in about 1190. These works attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth's British history.
cir. 1160. Chrétien de Troyes begins writing Arthurian romances and Marie de France writes her Breton lays at about the same time.
cir. 1190. Glastonbury monks claim to excavate the graves of Arthur and Guinevere.
cir. 1191. Richard the Lionheart (Richard 1 of England) presents "Excalibur," Arthur's supposed sword, to King Tancred of Sicily while they are on the Third Crusade.
cir. 1200-1210. Romance spreads into German in Robert de Boron, Merlin; Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzifal; Gottfied von Strassburg, Tristan.
cir. 1278. Arthur's bones are said to be reburied at Glastonbury Abbey. Images of the Abbey ruins at:
cir. 1300. A collection of native Welsh fantasy tales, Mabinogion, contains two stories in which Arthur appears. Scholars often date "Culhwch and Olwen" to the late tenth century because it seems to contain very ancient materials, but it doesn't show any influence by Geoffrey of Monmouth's work. "The Dream of Rhonabwy" also is of unknown date; it is sometimes dated as late as the 14th century, the date of our manuscript of the Mabinogion.
cir. 1350-1400. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight composed in England by an anonymous contemporary of Chaucer's.
cir. 1420. The Book of Taliesin composed (Taliesin is Arthur's supposed bard).
1470. Sir Thomas Malory while in prison writes Le Morte D'Arthur, a collection of Arthurian stories. The book is published by the famous early English publisher William Caxton in 1485; the new technology puts the Arthurian stories in front of a much wider readership than at any time before.
1590-1596. Edmund Spenser, in honor of Queen Elizabeth 1 of England, composes The Faerie Queene, the longest and most most elaborate romance ever written in English.
1691. John Dryden and Henry Purcell compose a masque (a courtly musical and poetical entertainment), King Arthur or the British Worthy.
1834-1885. Alfred Lord Tennyson writes several versions of his Idylls of the King. See presentation on the Idylls at: http://www.olemiss.edu/courses/engl205/idyllsart.html
1865. Richard Wagner's opera, Tristan and Isolde is produced; another romantic opera Parsifal is produced in 1884.
1889. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) publishes his burlesque, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
1938-1958. T. H. White writes four Arthurian novels published together in 1958 as The Once and Future King.
1975. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a film sendup of the Grail romance (traditionally associated with Percival), is released.
1982. Marion Zimmer Bradley publishes the popular novel, The Mists of Avalon.
1987-1997. "The Pendragon Cycle" of four Arthurian novels is published by Steven Lawhead.
5.Greek romances: examples from the Hellenistic period include Longus' Daphnis and Chloe and Heliodorus' The Ethiopian Story. These are usually considered to be the oldest surviving novels in the west.
6. Reads in genetics and evolution
Darwin's theory of sexual selection asserts that animals, including human beings, to a large extent have designed their own species.
Human beings, as Darwin could see, had designed horses, sheep, cows, dogs, chickens, pigeons and all other domesticated species through artificial selection over the course of countless generations. Careful breeding had designed animals that produce much more milk or eggs or wool or speed than necessary for the animals' own survival. By Darwin's time (the Victorian era) even the people, or at least the aristocrats, had been bred by artificial selection for hundreds of years. Royals, lords, gentry no more intermarried with commoners than they bred their spaniels with their sheep dogs. This rigid class system was a vestige of medieval knighthood; although Victorian sirs often went to war in distant corners of the British Empire, they no longer earned their titles through martial competition with each other.
See Malte B. Andersson, Sexual Selection (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton U Press 1994) for a thorough overview of sexual selection and hundreds of examples. Among the topics discussed are: the selection and evolution of mating preferences; relations between sexual selection and speciation; constraints on sexual selection; and sex differences in signals, body size, and weapons.
On the relationship of sexual selection to the human brain see Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (New York: Anchor Books, 2000). Miller speculates that the arts, morality and language are human ornamentation, comparable to the colorful plumage of birds, designed to attract mates.
For discussion of genes a basic text remains Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). There are lots of books applying Darwin and Dawkins to human behavioral problems. A few I recommend include: Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are (New York: Random House, 1994); Helen Fisher, Anatomy of Love, A Natural History of Mating, Marriage and Why We Stray (New York: Ballantine, 1992); Matt Ridley, The Red Queen, Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (London: Penguin, 1993); and for a popular self-help book, Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan, Mean Genes: Taming Our Primal Instincts (Cambridge Mass: Perseus Books, 2000).
7. Courtly love
For a textbook on courtly love written at the court of Countess Marie of Champaign, in Chrétien's time, see Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, tr. John Jay Parry (New York: Columbia U Press 1941). A discussion of courtly love as an influence of western civilization appears in Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World, tr. Montgomery Belgion (New York: Harper & Row, 1956).
8. Romanesque in architecture: at the same time that the medieval romances were coming into fashion, a new architectural movement, in imitation of Roman classical style, developed in western Europe. The Romanesque style is represented by such awesome structures as St.-Sernin in Toulouse, Notre Dame la Grande in Potiers, and St.-Etienne in Caen, all three in the south of France and dating to the early 12th century, Durham Cathedral in England (cir 1093-1130), St Ambrogio in Milan (late 11th century to 12th century), Pisa Cathedral and Baptistry and Leaning Tower (1053-1272), The Baptistry in Florence (1060-1150), Speyer Cathedral in Germany (cir. 1030-1150), and Tournai Cathedral (1110-1215). Sculpture also was revived in this period, mostly in conjunction with the ornamentation of the great cathedrals. Painting remained relatively unchanged from earlier medieval styles; the Bayeux Tapestry (cir 1073-1083) depicting the Battle of Hastings, is a famous example.
9. Fitness indicators and sexual selection. What do you find attractive and unattractive in individuals of opposite sex?
What do you think of your own sexual attractiveness or unattractiveness? Has this been a major concern in your life?
Is there a gender bias in our discussions of fitness indicators and sexual selection? For example, when we say that, in general, males display and females choose, are we accurately describing how courtship works? If behavior is described in terms of weaponry and ornamentation, is this description more accurate for males than for females?
For a woman's perspective on romance, contemporary with Chrétien's writing, see The Lais of Marie de France, tr. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (2nd ed., New York: Penguin 1999).
10. Parody and satire of romance: In later literature, romance became an easy mark for ridicule. The standard formula was simple. Place a romance hero or heroine in a realistic setting to exploit the delusion in acting out the romantic fantasy. Examples include Beaumont and Fletcher's dramatic farce The Knight of the Burning Pestle (a grocer tries to become a knight) and Miguel de Cervantes' comic Don Quixote. Another tactic is simply to parody romance by stringing together all of its worst cliches into a send-up, as in Geoffrey Chaucer's "Tale of Sir Thopas" from The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's tale (in modern translation) is as follows:
The Merry Words of the Host to Chaucer
When told was
all this miracle, every man
"O holy Mary,
drew aback full fast;
And now he
swore, by ale and bread,
Recommended reading for this lesson is The Knight of the Cart by Chrétien de Troyes
Image left: the Harrowing of Hell from a medieval French manuscript illumination.
Note how Lancelot is not named in this story until Guinevere finally calls him by name in Gorre. Because she knows his name, she has control over him, as in magic. (Compare the cyclops' power over Odysseus.)
Image left: Lancelot opens his own tomb, illustration from a medieval manuscript of Chrétien's story.
"The first to write as a vernacular poet was moved to do so because he wished his verses to be understood by a lady who found Latin hard to read" (Dante, La Vita Nuova 25:35, cir 1295 AD).
English joined the romance language family only by force of arms after 1066 AD when the Norman French under William the Conqueror seized the British Isles from Saxon control. French and Latin-like words then invaded and occupied large parts of the English tongue. Romance tales also came into English with the Norman conquest. There is nothing like them earlier in Anglo-Saxon literature.
Chretien's Knight of the Cart, the oldest of all surviving Lancelot stories, was recast into the Old French Prose Lancelot in the 13th century, the primary source for Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, which in turn has been the source of modern retellings of the Arthurian legend, including Lord Alfred Tennyson's Idyls of the King, T.H. White's Once and Future King, and dozens of modern popular novels, films and poems.
Modern versions of the Tristan story include Matthew Arnold, Tristram and Iseult; A. C. Swinburne, Tristram of Lyonesse; Joseph Bédier, Tristan and Iseult; and E. A. Robinson, Tristram. Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde is based on the version of Gottfried von Strassburg.
Image left: the Green Knight's lady visits sleeping Gawain in this racy illustration from a medieval manuscript.
Image left: medieval manuscript illustration of Lancelot entering Gorre.
"Chivalry" means horsemanship. The ideal is for the rider and his mount to move as one four-legged animal with the mind of a man and the physical strength of a horse. (Compare centaurs of ancient mythology.) Duals between such creatures were called jousts, and they were performed by unmarried men for the admiration of unmarried women.
Compare the honor code in Homer: Paris, taunted for stealing Helen without fighting for her; Agamemnon, taunted for taking Briseis without fighting for her; Antinoos and other suitors, taunted for failing to string the bow to win Penelope.
Chrétien's passive Arthur in The Knight of the Cart is the Norman image of Arthur. He is doomed Arthur, the last king of the Britons, the unwarlike one who did not protect his people from the invading Saxons. According to Anglo-Norman propaganda, the Britons had to wait for William the Conqueror to free them from Saxon barbarism. William succeeded where Arthur had failed.
Image left: male sage grouse displaying for females at a lek. The champion male at this exhibition will obtain about 80% of all of the matings in the arena. Experiments have demonstrated that the female birds copy one another's mate choices.
Figures left: colorful male guppy and plain colored female guppy. The color itself is a display; females make mate selections in part based on male coloration. In most animal species, the males display and the females choose.
Image left: the peacock's tail was the origin of Darwin's theory of sexual selection. The tail was not a random accident of nature, or an advantage to peacocks in their struggles against predators and disease. It was designed by countless generations of peahens who happened to prefer it in their mates.
Image left: Don Quixote and sidekick Sancho Panza seek to rescue damsels in distress from large apartment buildings in downtown Madrid.
Image left: young Darwin the romantic thinker.
Image left: Krishna with consort Radha. His main attributes are his power in war and his charm among young women.
Image left: in the posture of a suitor to the queen, a scholar presents his book; image from a medieval French manuscript illustration.
Compare the arming of Sir Topas with the divine arming of Achilles in Iliad xviii. 368. [recall Lesson 5]