Friday, July 2, 2010

Heresy and Courtly Love

"...Even the songs of the troubadours have become quite heavy-handed against marriage. Some of them say that true love cannot exist in marriage, but only outside of it.” ~ from The Night's Dark Shade by Elena Maria Vidal
Reading up on the past helps to put the present in perspective. Dr. Zmirak wonders, as I have before, if courtly love had some roots in Catharism. To quote:
If you're feeling blue, read up sometime on the Albigensians, who revived the ancient Gnostic idea that the material world was the product of an evil, lesser god -- who blocked our access to the higher, holy, purely spiritual God. (The young Augustine believed this creed in his Manichean period.) The creator-demon enslaved us through all the passions of our bodies (that's how they read St. Paul's disparaging references to "the flesh"), which we must overcome via extreme asceticism, and finally defeat through the triumph of universal celibacy: we should "trap" no more celestial spirits in the cage of suffering flesh. Failing that -- and since this heresy arose in sunny southern France, most did -- believers at least should attempt to prevent conception, or abort their infants. Marriage was held to be blasphemy, adultery innocent, and suicide a sacrament. This heresy claimed to be the true and primitive Christianity, which corrupt clerics had hidden beneath the Church's veneer of ritual and hierarchy.
Troubadour poets encoded Albigensian catechisms in their songs about "mysterious" and unattainable love, helping it spread widely through society's rich and well-armed elites. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the Western idea of passionate, all-conquering (and often tragic) romantic love was invented by these lyrical heretics. Meanwhile, gaunt and earnest mendicants preached this new faith to the common people. So popular did this new religion prove that St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers to combat it by peaceful means, fielding an army of equally fervent ascetics who insisted on the goodness of Creation, the holiness of marriage, and the power of the sacraments to infuse the lumpy imperfections of grossly material life with eternal spiritual meaning. But the heresy was so deeply entrenched, and its followers posed such a revolutionary threat to the social order -- think of them as 13th-century Bolsheviks -- that in the end it took a bitter, international crusade to stop it from spreading. The cruelty of that crusade was not one of Christendom's finest moments, but perhaps the viciousness Catholics were willing to use in stomping out this heresy stemmed from the ugliness and the insidious appeal of its creed.
Its appeal? Why, yes. There isn't much spiritual or intellectual benefit to be had in reading about the heresies of the past unless we try to understand what it was that attracted men to them. Temptation offers people satisfaction with one hand, while it steals away joy with the other -- or else it wouldn't work, would it?

No comments: