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The Court of Love: Introduction


1 Leonard, Laughter, p. 101.

2 Skeat, Chaucer Canon, p. 133.

3 Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 240.

4 Miskimin, Renaissance Chaucer, p. 231.

5 Leonard, Laughter, p. 98.

6 Leonard, Laughter, p. 99.

7 Leonard, Laughter, p. 103.

8 Friedman, "In Love's Thrall," p. 173.

9 Fletcher, "Edition of MS R.3.19," p. 536.
The Court of Love -- a deft and humorous treatment of courtly genres, images, and conventions -- deserves more critical attention than it has received. Although it is usually categorized as a dream vision, the lover, Philogenet, does not fall asleep, and the poem perhaps can better be described as a rhetorical primer of courtly erotic desire. For readers conversant with the allegorical love-vision there is much here that is familiar -- the lover-poet, the guide, the rules of love, allegorical personages, personified abstractions, the birds' Matins on May Day -- and the poet's primary achievement seems to be his easy ability to incorporate all of these literary motifs, as well as the attendant genres -- the complaint d'amours, the lovers' dialogue, and the courtly panegyric -- into a single, engaging, and coherent narrative. Indeed, although the poem has sometimes been seen as simply a compendium or patchwork of careworn courtly literary motifs, these familiar conventions are nonetheless treated with an invention and wry humor that revivifies the genre of love allegory.

Frances McNeely Leonard accurately suggests that "[t]he poet constructs the court out of places, personages, and rules drawn almost at random from the literature of love and stitched together with a cheerful disregard for their earlier allegorical significance."1 After the customary apology for his poetic ineptitude, the eighteen-year-old lover (later identified as Philogenet), says that when he has attained "ripe corage" (line 45, meaning either psychological or sexual maturity) he is compelled to visit Love's Court (lines 1-112). There he meets the king and queen of Love -- Admetus and Alceste -- borrowed from Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. Chaucer's chaste and charitable Alceste is here disdainful and somewhat "straunge" (line 734) and presides over a venal and chaotic collection of miserable devotees. Not knowing how to conduct himself, Philogenet is provided with a female guide, Philobone, who gives him a tour of the spectacular glass temple where Venus and Cupid preside over an eclectic mix of mostly unhappy lovers, including a large contingent of malcontent religious (lines 113-301). The lover is then enjoined to follow the twenty statutes reserved for lovers, which include, among other familiar restraints, secrecy, fidelity, misery, patience, humility, discretion, deception, and starvation, in addition to the rigorous sixteenth statute which demands extraordinary sexual fortitude (lines 302-630). With a billion (!) other supplicants the lover then offers his own prayer, a light parody of Marian panegyrics, to Venus' golden icon (lines 631-86). He is then introduced to Pity's tomb and Philobone secretly confesses that Pity is indeed dead and that women accept their lovers' advances only to satisfy their own desires.

Somewhat absurdly, Philogenet loves but knows not whom; he finally learns that his own lover is named Rosiall (after her tendency to blush). After the requisite Vinsaufian portrait cataloguing the details of her exceptional physical beauty (lines 778-819), he presents her with a lengthy "bille" or formal petition to receive his service as her lover. There then ensues the familiar lovers' dialogue, reminscent of both The Craft of Lovers and La Belle Dame sans Merci, in which the commonsensical (or "daungerous," in courtly parlance) Rosiall presses for more particulars ("Whate is youre name?" -- line 904) and insists that a few glib, formulaic compliments will not win her heart (lines 820-994). As a reliable sign of his sincerity, Philogenet swoons; he is then accepted, provided he uphold the rigorous twenty statutes (with some leeway granted in fulfilling the demanding sixteenth) (lines 995-1024). He must, however, be instructed in the more advanced "guyse" ("customs," line 954) of the court, and Philobone introduces him to some of the usual personified suspects (borrowed ultimately from The Romance of the Rose) representing the less salient features of sensual pursuits: Despair, Hope, Lust, Liar, Envy, and Flattery (lines 1025-92). A gap in the text here opens on a large group of disgruntled clerics and nuns (borrowed from Lydgate's Temple of Glass) who lament their enforced service to Diana, the goddess of chastity (lines 1093-1190). More personified abstractions appear -- Dissemble, Shamefastness, Avaunter ("Boaster"), and Private Thought -- representing the familiar vicissitudes of human courtship (lines 1191-1316). Following another textual lacuna, Rosiall agrees to accept Philogenet, following the dictates of the resurrected Pity (lines 1317-51). The poem concludes with a macaronic choir of birds on May Day, appropriating the language of Matins and Lauds, singing in praise of love (lines 1352-1442).

Paradoxically, The Court of Love has been largely ignored by modern readers by virtue of its association with Chaucer. John Stow was the first to print the poem with Chaucer's works in 1561. The poem continued to appear both with Chaucer's works and, in a popular translated version by Arthur Maynwarning, with Ovid's Art of Love, until the nineteenth century. Indeed, it was Swinburne's passing admiration for the poem in a discussion of Blake's lyrical poems that, in part, sparked the infamous and acrimonious exchange with Frederick Furnivall who, on the basis of new language and rhyme tests, had insisted that the poem was spurious. Ejecting the poem from Chaucer's canon was not without controversy, and Skeat settled the debate by demonstrating, at considerable length, that its language was much later than the time of Chaucer, although the text is not as late (c. 1535) as he had hoped to establish.

Indeed, in his zeal to disassociate the poem from Chaucer's canon, Skeat, perhaps inadvertently, sealed its critical fate for most of the twentieth century. Although Skeat says he has "nothing to say against" the poem itself, his treatment is consistently pejorative, so that the author's ignorance of Middle English becomes not simply linguistic, but, rather, a sequence of literary "offenses."2 I believe that for Skeat the poem was a canonical anomaly, a derivative, anachronistic, and deliberately archaized product of the sixteenth century, stupidly accepted as Chaucer's by generations of readers (and editors). Subsequent commentators, including William Neilson and Josef Schick, read the poem as a tapestry of literary allusions, inspired primarily by Lydgate's Temple of Glass, but also by Chaucer's love poetry, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and The Romance of the Rose. C. S. Lewis suggests that the poem is largely a "pastiche," perhaps intended as a forgery, although he does praise the poem as "light," "graceful," and "sophisticated," especially compared to other literary efforts of the "Drab Age."3 Lewis is also the first to read The Court of Love as a parody of courtly genres, an approach that has proven quite popular with the few modern critics who have considered the text. Although in her survey of Chaucerian imitations Alice Miskimin dismisses the poem as an "interminable," "turgid and mindless" allegory,4 for Frances Leonard "it is a thoroughgoing parody of the courtly convention at the same time that it is made up of bits and pieces taken from earlier poems in the convention."5 Assuming the poem is a product of the Renaissance, Leonard suggests that "the Court of Love stands finally for nothing but inactive rigidity";6 the lover's success represents an "elevation of the active life," a "new world," without moral dilemma, which rejoices in the "fallen life, exults in the sexual drive."7 Finally, Bonita Friedman felicitously describes the piece as "a swan song to the medieval English love allegory" and as a "celebration of a fading genre and a compendium of the stereotypes and sophistical clichés of that genre."8 Friedman reads the allegory as a form of "ironic cautionary verse," which is intended to "mock humorously" both the misguided devotion of the erotic lover and the various motifs borrowed from other allegorical love visions. I would suggest, however, that although the numerous exaggerations are obviously meant to be parodic, the poem is more accurately a parody by virtue of its imitation of well-known conventions rather than because of its mockery or derision of courtly literary traditions.


The Court of Love is extant in one manuscript -- Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.19 (fols. 217r-234r) (T) -- and the copy is both incomplete and sometimes careless. The poet has clearly attempted to archaize his text, using, for instance, the problematical final -e in unlikely, and incorrect, forms (whate, thowe), and Bradford Y. Fletcher is correct in his assessment that "it will only scan if one assumes extensive deterioration of ME inflections."9However, in plurals and genitives, the final -e and -es are both retained and usually sounded: loves (lines 67 and 91), estates (line 84), armes (line 86), tales (line 412), woundes (line 390). Skeat's edition of the poem (which silently incorporates many of Bell's readings), although by virtue of vigorous conjectural emendation is a highly readable and coherent text, is nonetheless schizophrenic by modern conventions of textual editing; he somewhat inconsistently both modernizes spelling and grammar (for instance, he deletes the final -e when it is not sounded although it is grammatically correct) but also sometimes restores Middle English forms and spelling. My editorial approach has been to present the text, warts and all, as it appears in the manuscript, only correcting what seem to me to be obvious scribal errors that interfere with sense. All emendations follow those previously established by Stow, Bell, or Skeat, and are accounted for in the Textual Notes.

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