In case you have been living under a rock, I want to remind you that to pine for a person and to love and to express your love for that person, was, and still remains, an important aspect of literature; medieval literature, from the early to the late period, was no exception. Of course, love and longing can take many different forms. Because it would be beneficial to outline those forms, this post will focus on offering some brief descriptions of the different literary sub-genres associated with love and desire.
One such sub-genre is mourning. This would be the “elegiac mode, where the major themes are loss, sorrow, and resignation” (Treharne 84, Medieval Literature: A Very Short Introduction). The 9th-century Welsh text the “Heledd Cycle” typifies this, as does the Old English texts The Wife’s Lament, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Ruin. Many of these stories exult the sadness of the texts by honing in on motifs; in these ancient elegies, this often meant using the so-called ‘Ubi sunt?’ or, ‘where are they?’ motif.
As one may imagine, the Ubi sunt? would be used to draw attention to terrible events that were out of the speaker’s control– the loss of a loved one in battle, incurable illness, or the impact of a kingdom-wide disaster on an individual or small group; it was a mode of engagement which bordered on the existential and would often exult divine powers.
Provided, loss and mourning was not the only function of texts which talked about desire and love.
In the post-conquest period, for example, “the lyrical voice, it is said, emerges in British and Irish writings with the invention of what is labeled the ‘lyric'” (86), something which is simply a short poem that had spread in popularity in Europe during the 12th century. Said again, this lyric is the time of chivalric love, otherwise known as courtly love.
Contrasted against the idea of the heroic, that powerful individual who performed great deeds to better himself, the lyric and its accompanying courtly love was one dominated by courtly graces (indeed, even its origin is mildly court-like with the lyric’s root being held in music). So this is to say, that chivalric-lyric texts were usually, if not always, aristocratic in nature: with knights performing great deeds to woe their ladies and honor their liege, such narratives of love, called fine amor, or “the relationship between a knight and his lady… the purest love” (88-9), were committed by privileged elements in search of glory for their community and so often upheld religious and moral ideals.
Because of this male-centered loci, it is unsurprising that many lyric texts were heavily misogynistic; the sexuality of women becomes an obsession for the male gaze, often reducing womanly presence to that of an object to be dominated. In many texts, for instance, the male obsession would ratchet up into overdrive with the arrival of Spring and its many reproductive connotations. Writers from Dafydd ap Gwilym, a Welsh noble, to more (contemporaneously) acclaimed writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer often romanticizes physical beauty thus reducing feminine form to mere vulgarities and sexist caricatures.
Finally, there is mysticism sub-set of love texts. In short, mysticism had involved “a loving intimacy with Christ, dependent on sustained meditative focus in order to attain spiritual union with God” (97). So a tradition of Christianity sprang forth texts which would hail the divine. A poignant, albeit perhaps somewhat anachronistic example, would be the Old English text The Dream of the Rood, which uses the crucifixion imagery from Christ’s story to make its point of the sinner redeeming himself through Christ to surmount the Devil.
Mystical Christianity thus demanded, “an emotional bond with God and the saints that insist on an affective piety… inspired by reflecting hard on the sufferings of Christ in his humanity”(98). Many texts in this tradition often evoked sensual signs similar to that of traditional romance between mortals. Done in part to extol the reader to trudge on with their life, and whatever miseries they may endure, the intimate connection with the divine was to inspire the will to march forward and make sense out of the evil besieging the world.