Stanford professor puts desire in a medieval context

Stanford Professor David Lummus examines how desire evolved from an unattainable fantasy in the Middle Ages to the promise of "happily ever after" today.

Wikimedia Commons 'Dante meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinita' by Henry Holiday, 1884.

'Dante meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinita' by Henry Holiday, 1884. Beatrice, Dante's unattainable beloved, looks away as he tries to get her attention on the streets of Florence.

It's Valentine season once again. And although Americans have adopted the medieval vocabulary of romance with words like courtship, chivalry and loyalty, the European poets who first described these ideas would find it hard to relate to our modern motto "happily ever after."

Unlike today, when we expect romance to yield tangible results, bards of the Middle Ages who sang about their desires never expected their true love to reciprocate.

Confined by social traditions dictating whom one could marry, the upper classes were often left no choice but to love from afar. Courtiers therefore used love songs as "expressions of fantasies that were never to be fulfilled," said David Lummus, assistant professor of Italian at Stanford.

Lummus, whose research centers on medieval and early modern Italian literature and intellectual history, noted that poets of the Middle Ages would likely find our contemporary love rituals completely alien. Medieval desire, said Lummus, was expressed as an ideal to be constantly sought, but rarely attained.

With songs like those attributed to the 11th-century troubadour William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, who lamented, "I never had the joy of what I loved, / and I never will, as I never did ... I want what I cannot have," medieval lovers would have a hard time relating to our contemporary version of love.

Lummus said that his study of romance in medieval lyrics and poetry came about because, like today, love is an unavoidable literary theme.

However, Lummus said, "love in the Middle Ages wasn't just about sex or the idealization of a lady"; rather, the desire that could be felt for another person was tied to the cosmic structure of the universe. "Love," Lummus said, "was the way God made himself present in the world."

In Dante's Divine Comedy, the poet brings in his real-life beloved, Beatrice, to be his spiritual guide through Heaven. Dante's love for Beatrice is so strong that even if he can't be with her (sadly, she died young), he can be spiritually uplifted by her existence.

Dante's love for Beatrice, Lummus said, is his favorite medieval love story. It combines the historical example of a poet's unattainable desire with a profound meditation on what love is, "from a bond between individuals, to the force that moves the stars."

 Adored, but off limits

 The inaccessible beloved was described in the songs of 11th- and 12th-century French troubadours, including Bernart de Ventadorn, who wrote, "I cannot keep myself from loving / one from whom I shall get no favor ...  she left me nothing / but desire and a heart still wanting."

Lummus' colleague Marisa Galvez, assistant professor of French, describes these early entertainers as poets who composed and performed songs in small courts throughout Europe from the 11th to 13th centuries. Galvez, a current fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, said their audience was "limited to the residents of the courts, who delighted in the poetry's conceptual and artistic sophistication."

The courtly culture consuming these love poems was based on rigid feudal rules with subjects owing strict obedience to their lords. This dynamic found its way into the love songs, which depicted a poet's beloved, the object of his desire, in a position of power similar to that of his lord. The socially superior lady was therefore "romantically inaccessible," said Lummus.

With court marriages being political and economic arrangements, he said, "it is no wonder that medieval theorists of love described erotic desire as something that happened outside of marriage."

Italian love poems seek meaning

When courtly love songs came to Italy in the 13th century, two major changes occurred. First, Lummus said, the songs performed by troubadours at court evolved into written poems, shared between friends and recited. Several sonnets between Dante Alighieri and his friends, including Guido Cavalcanti, remain, showing how poets shared their art and thoughts with each other, even offering romantic advice through their poems.

Cavalcanti, in one of his sonnets, for example, interprets one of Dante's dreams: "You saw ... every joy and every good that man can feel," referring to Dante's love for Beatrice. Love poetry had become separated from the formal French court traditions and became more about a personal interpretation of desire.

Secondly, the desire Italian poets wrote about became more philosophical in nature, with its object changing from a courtly lady into an "angel-like being," Lummus said. As medieval Italian poets began reinterpreting courtly love through a philosophical lens, their love poems came to reflect a preoccupation with seeking meaning – something that is intangible and elusive.

The evolution of courtly love from France to Italy, Lummus said, shows how traditional discourses of desire can be adapted to new social and political contexts, where they remain revelant because they reflect different values and power structures.

Today, television shows like How I Met Your Mother presuppose an ideal object of desire and a fantasy about its attainment, not so different from what these poets wrote about. But a notable difference remains between medieval and modern notions of desire – our expectation of a relationship of equality, Lummus said.

Stanford students relate to romance

Stanford students are getting a taste of how different the discourse of desire was hundreds of years ago in Lummus' winter 2013 course Courtly Love: Deceit and Desire in the Middle Ages. Lummus is asking students to consider French and Italian medieval love literature through the theories of 20th-century philosophers like René Girard, Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek, each of whom addresses courtly love in his works.

Yet the poems' greatest contribution, Lummus said, is that they capture something about human nature. "Beyond their historical value, these poems are also reflections on the human condition as a state of insatiable desire," he said.

Veronica Marian is the communications coordinator at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,