Sometimes you read something and it’s a great lightbulb clicking moment, suddenly something that’s been vaguely bothering you for years and years takes on a new clarity and makes sense in a completely satisfying way. Today it was this essay on Medieval Lyric poetry. Ever since my Medieval Poetry class in college I’ve been a little niggled by the conventions of courtly love. I guess I sort of knew they were just a literary convention–but maybe not entirely– but what did that mean? Why would anyone create this complex convention that doesn’t describe reality? And then I read this:
When I teach this poetry in my classes in medieval literature, I explain to my students that, as far as medievalists have been able to determine, no real historical person ever acted in the way the fin amours poets repeatedly describe. That is, earlier historians who took fin amours texts as describing what actual eleventh-century humans did in their courts, their gardens, and their bedrooms were, we now know, quite wrong. What a fin amours lyric describes, it would seem, is a set of literary conventions perhaps vaguely resembling reality, but more important, powerfully shaping the possibilities for subject matter, persona, imagery, diction, and more. The abject lover; the distant, cool, yet demanding woman as a love object; the time of spring, May, gardens, birds singing, flowers blooming; the speaker’s desire to become worthy of this woman who disdains him in his current state; the need to take all of this frustrated psychic energy and turn it into finely chiseled verse– this is the stuff, not of life, but of powerful poetic conventions that both give artists a field in which to play and establish standards by which audiences can measure formal, artistic accomplishment.
The closest analogue we might have, I tell students, is the noir detective film, whose conventions they all know intimately (though upon being questioned many admit they have not seen the great initial examples of the genre or read any Dashiell Hammett): the world-weary detective, his worn shoes propped on a beaten wooden desk and a revolver and a bottle of whiskey in the bottom right-hand desk drawer, facing the “gorgeous dame” (conventions go all the way down to particular diction, I remind them) who claims to be in terrible, terrible trouble yet is, all the students know, ultimately going to prove treacherous. All of them know the conventions superbly well, though they cannot tell where they learned them, and all of them know just as well that no real detective actually lives like this or does any of these things. And they know that the pleasure in watching the films that play on these conventions (for instance, Blade Runner and L.A. Confidential) lies precisely in recognizing the artful way the writer and director have inhabited and played with the conventions.
from “From Nothing to Being: Medieval Lyric and Poetic Form as Entelechy” by Gregory Roper
Yes, comparing it to a noir detective story totally makes sense to me now. I know those conventions and that world, even if I don’t entirely understand what drives them. And how do I know them? Yes, I have actually seen The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, so I do know Hammett somewhat. I may even have one of his novels on a shelf, unread. But mostly I know the tropes from dozens of derivative works and parodies and imitations and conscious references. Captain Jean Luc Picard on the holodeck as Dixon Hill stands out. Jessica Jones is a contemporary take on the trope.
Suddenly, yes, I understand medieval chansons much better. Oh and while we’re talking about inhabiting the conventions and playing with them artfully, I do love the way Guy Gavriel Kay brings those to life, playing with the conventions in his fantasy novels A Song for Arbonne and Tigana.