Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part XX

The Two Venuses in Medieval Commentary…

 The Vulgar Venus and the Lover’s Malady in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale…

     The classical theme of the two Venuses–and the two antithetical loves they separately inspire–was one that continued to be rehearsed, with no alteration of meaning, through the Christian Middle Ages (and, indeed, well into the eighteenth century).  Thus, in a ninth-century commentary on the pagan poet Statius’ Thebaid (first-century A.D.),  Remigius of Auxerre writes, “There are two Venuses, one the mother of sensuality and lust…, the other chaste, who rules over honest and chaste loves.”  An anonymous eleventh-century commentary on Ovid’s Fasti makes the two Venuses responsible for “virtuous love” and “unlawful passion” respectively.  And in his brilliant commentary on the Aeneid,Bernardus Silvestris explicitly calls the heavenly Venus “mundana musica”, that is, the music that composes the world in order, proportion, and harmony:

We read that there are two Venuses, a legitimate goddess and a goddess of lechery.  We say that the legitimate goddess is mundana musica, that is, equal proportion of the parts of the world, which some call “Astraea” [goddess of Justice] and others “natural justice”.  For she is in the elements, in the stars, in times, in inanimate things.  But the shameful Venus, the goddess of sensuality, we call concupiscence of the flesh, which is the mother of all fornication.

For Bernard, then, the “legitimate” Venus presides over the entire providential order, as it had been identified, since time immemorial, with the Pythagorean harmony of the spheres.  His “shameful” Venus, on the other hand, incites the sins of lust, sensuality, and the whole range of carnal and worldly appetites.


Like her celestial counterpart, the vulgar Venus was frequently associated with music in medieval and Renaissance literature and iconography, so that whenever a character is said or shown (in Chaucer’s aforementioned phrase) to “maken melodye”, we are obliged to ask which of the two opposing kinds of music and love his or her actions exhibit:  whether Bernard’s mundana musica–the music of the spirit in harmony with God and the natural order–, or that of the “shameful Venus”–the music, that is, of the flesh, as it seeks inferior goods and pleasures for the satisfaction of its own concupiscence.

The close relation between music and love, and the contrast between their two species, is one of Chaucer’s favourite themes, and he invariably employs it to great comic, which is to say also, moral effect.

At the conclusion of the Knight’s Tale, for instance, the wise Duke Theseus (King of Athens, and therefore symbol and embodiment of reason) prefaces his decree that a marriage should take place with this famous philosophical oration:

“The Firste Movere of the cause above,
When he first made the faire cheyne of love,
Wel wiste he why, and what thereof he mente,
For with that faire cheyne of love he bond
The fyr, the eyr, the water, and the lond
In certeyn boundes, that they may nat flee.
That same Prince and that Movere”, quod he,
“Hath stablished this wrecched world adoun
Certeyne days and duracioun
To al that is engendred in this place,
Over the whiche day they may nat pace…
Then may men by this ordre wel discerne
That thilke Movere stable is and eterne.
Wel may men know…
That every part derryveth from his hool,
For nature hath nat taken his bigynnyng
Of no partie or cantel [portion] of a thyng,
But of a thyng that parfit is and stable,
Descendynge so til it be corrumpable.
And therefore, of his wise purveiaunce,
He hath so wel biset his ordinaunce
That speces of thynges and progressiouns
Shullen enduren by successiouns…

Theseus is about to set in order the murderous strife that has torn apart his kingdom by declaring a marriage, the social institution in which nature’s orderly regeneration and succession occur amongst men.  He appeals, accordingly, to the cosmic harmony that binds the warring opposites and disposes the entire universe in a hierarchical “chain of love”, from the eternal at the top, “descending to the corruptible” at the bottom, of God’s creation.  He invokes, that is, the divine principle of order that is mythologized alternatively as mundana musica or the heavenly Venus.

The cause of all the discord that has destroyed the peace of his kingdom has been the love of two Theban cousins and once-fast friends, Palamon and Arcite, for the same woman, Emily, whom they first glimpse, framed, as usual, by a pululant spring garden, through the bars of their prison of war —a prison that is an objective correlative of their own self-imprisonment to the vulgar Venus.  Without even so much as saying hello to the object of their affections, they are stricken by what Chaucer, following the medical practitioners of his day, calls the “lover’s malady”.

Here is how the poet describes Arcite, in the moments after he has been released from his Athenian cell and banished to his native Thebes:

Whan that Arcite to Thebes comen was,
Ful ofte a day he swelte [grew faint] and seyde, “Allas!”
For seen his lady shal he nevere mo.
And shortly to concluden al his wo,
So much sorwe hadde nevere creature
That is, or shal, whil that the world may dure.
His slep, his mete, his drynke, is hym biraft,
That lene he wex and drye as a shaft;
His eyen holwe and grisly to beholde,
His hewe falow and pale as asshen colde,
And solitarie he was and evere allone,
And awaillynge al the nyght, makynge his mone;
And if he herde song or instrument,
Thane wolde he wepe, he myghte nat be stent.
So feble eek were his spiritz, and so lowe,
And changed so, that no man koude knowe
His speche nor his voys, though men it herde.
And in al his geere [behaviour] for al the world he ferde [behaved]
Nat only lik the loveris maladye
Of Heros, but rather lik manye [mania]
Engendred of humour malencolik
Biforen, in his celle fantastic [a pun:  his physical prison; his imprisoning imagination—the fantasizing part of the brain].
And shortly, turned was al up so doun
Bothe habit and eek disposicioun
Of hym, this woful lovere daun Arcite.


The lover’s malady is yet another enduring literary topos of which we have already seen one example in Lucretius, and will encounter many more along the way; like Lucretius, I trust that you can see that this is hardly behavior that Chaucer invites his readers to emulate.  It is foolish and sinful, and therefore supremely funny.  Arcite is not only a grown man, but a soldier; his dissolving into tears whenever he hears “song or instrument” is amusing in the same way that Robert De Niro’s character in Analyze Thisis amusing when he weeps at a financial planning commercial on late-night television that shows a son and his elderly father out fishing together.  De Niro is a Mafia boss and killer, so his familial tenderness is rank sentimentality; Arcite’s weeping is similarly based on no genuine feeling of love, since he still has not uttered a word to its object.  It is merely the ludicrous behaviour of one who has been driven insane by a maniacal fixation on the image of the physical beauty of his beloved, which has become lodged in his “celle fantastik”.


In due course, the jealous rivalry between Palamon and Arcite destroys their ancient friendship and sets them on a path of mutual distrust and hatred that inevitably leads to a joust in which one dies by the hand of the other.  Lest there be any doubt about the cause of this tragedy, Chaucer has them both first make pilgrimages to the temple of Venus in supplication of the goddess’ help in the prosecution of their rival suits.  The poet’s description makes it clear enough that this is definitively not the Venus invoked by Theseus in his hymn on the “fair chain of love”.

Notably, the immediate source of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale is Boccaccio’s Teseide (i.e., “story of Theseus”), in a commentary whereon Boccaccio himself writes:

To make these things clear it is necessary to know first of all that just as Mars is said above to represent the irascible appetite, so Venus represents the concupiscible appetite.  And this Venus is double.  The first one should be understood as the one through whom arises every honest and legitimate desire, like the desire to have a wife in order to have children, and other desires like this one.  This Venus is not relevant here.  The second Venus is the one through whom every lascivious thing is desired, and who is commonly called the goddess of love.  And it is this one for whom the author [i.e., Boccaccio himself] describes the temple and the things connected with it, as the text shows.  (My italics)

Painted on the walls of Chaucer’s Temple of Venus, the reader confronts images of the natural results of the “concupiscible appetite” that Boccaccio’s vulgar Venus inspires:  broken sleeps, sighs, tears, lamenting, fiery flushes of desire—all the unfortunate symptoms of the lover’s malady.  Thereafter follow

Festes, instrumenz, caroles, daunces,
Lust and array, and all the circumstaunces
Of love.

As Boccaccio explains, feasts, music, and dance incite the lascivious appetite and are fitting occasions for the act of Venus.

But Chaucer goes beyond Boccaccio by placing the Temple in a garden whose porter, he says, is Idleness, and one of whose inhabitants is the unfortunate Narcissus.  Venus’ temple garden is, in other words, the same Garden of Delights as that described by Guillaume de Lorris in his Roman de la Rose.

     Idleness (Oiseuse) is the porter of that garden, as she is of the garden of Venus, because, as Ovid had written in his Ars Amatorica, “if you take away idleness, you take away the arrows from Cupid’s bow”.  According to the moral commentators, idleness, along with drunkenness,  is one of those perilous moral conditions that is especially conducive to the act of Venus.  Finally, in medieval mythographyNarcissus is the signal victim of the lover’s malady, having died for a “love”, so called, that amounted to nothing more than a maniacal fixation upon a visual image indeed.