“Courtly Love” by Professor Gabriel O. Emerson, Associate Professor of Italian Studies, University of Toronto.
Sex and love are not the same.
I’ve lectured on this subject in the past and usually, my claim is accepted without argument. What’s more difficult to defend is the claim that one can enjoy romantic love without engaging in sex.
Most people would point out that when you fall in love with someone, you want to have sex with them. Many times. Or constantly.
It isn’t easy to understand why a pair of romantic lovers would forego sex and remain in love. But I study the life and works of Dante Alighieri, who was enmeshed in a non-sexual romantic relationship with a woman, Beatrice Portinari, that lasted for years. So as much as I find it difficult to believe that one can have romantic love without sex, I’m forced to confront that reality on a daily basis.
“In that part of the book of my memory before which little can be read, there is a heading, which says: ‘Incipit vita nova: Here begins the new life’. Under that heading I find written the words that it is my intention to copy into this little book: and if not all, at least their essence.” (La Vita Nuova, Dante Alighieri, Book I, Trans. A. S. Kline.)
So begins Dante’s account of how his new life began when he met Beatrice at the tender age of nine. He declares that since that moment Love governed his soul.
The courtliness of Dante’s love is understandable when he’s young but when he meets Beatrice again when they are both adults, it’s much more difficult to understand. In fact, Dante describes their meeting like this, “She greeted me so virtuously, so much so that I saw then to the very end of grace.”
We could, perhaps, dismiss Dante’s fascination with Beatrice as a kind of religious experience, given his language. But he goes on to describe a vision that he has in which she is naked and wrapped in a crimson cloth, and held in the arms of man who declares himself to be Dante’s lord.
Dante reveals that the lord is Amor, or Love.
What are we to make of this vision?
I think it’s clear that although Beatrice inspires notions of grace and virtue, she still holds an erotic attraction for Dante. He imagines her naked, held in the arms of Love. So his passion for her is not (at least always) asexual. But he never acts on that sexual attraction. He loves her from a distance, chastely, but with a single-minded devotion that puts most lovers to shame.
How does he manifest his love for her?
He writes poetry. She is his Muse, his inspiration. But he makes it clear in his descriptions of her and the effect of her greetings on him that she inspires him to be virtuous. She inspires him to be his best self, to be charitable, to be kind, to be courteous.
So we can say that Dante manifests his love for Beatrice by becoming a better man. By creating works of art. By praising her publicly. This nobility of spirit, word, and deed is indicative of the courtly love tradition.
I’m not suggesting people forego sex with their beloved in order to pursue courtly love. Far from it.
But perhaps it’s the case that Dante illustrates an ideal of what love should inspire in us – creativity, integrity, and nobility.
Add sex with your beloved into the mix and …
Happy Valentine’s Day.
-Professor Gabriel O. Emerson,
Associate Professor of Italian Studies.
About the Author
I am honoured to have been a Semifinalist for Best Author in the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards and for my novel to have been a Semifinalist for Best Romance.
I’m interested in the way literature can help us explore aspects of the human condition – particularly suffering, sex, love, faith, and redemption. My favourite stories are those in which a character takes a journey, either a physical journey to a new and exciting place, or a personal journey in which he or she learns something about himself/herself.
I’m also interested in how aesthetic elements such as art, architecture, and music can be used to tell a story or to illuminate the traits of a particular character. In my writing, I combine all of these elements with the themes of redemption, forgiveness, and the transformative power of goodness.
I try to use my platform as an author to raise awareness about the following charities: Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation, WorldVision, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, and Covenant House. For more information, see my Twitter account (@sylvainreynard).
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