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 XXVI

The Allegory of the Fall in the Parson’s Tale…

As the Archetype of the Universal Pattern of Sin…

The Pattern related to “Courtly Love”…

Ovid’s Ars Amatorica…

    That John’s allegory of the Fall is utterly conventional is demonstrated by the fact that it is repeated in every essential detail in Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale, almost five hundred years later.  After paraphrasing the narrative in Genesis, the Parson explains:

There may ye seen that deedly synne hath, first, suggestion of the feend, as sheweth here by the naddre [serpent]; and afterward, the delit of the flessh, as sheweth here by Eve; and after that, the consentynge of the resoun, as sheweth here by Adam.  For trust wel, though so were that the feend tempted Eve, that is to seyn, the flessh, and the flessh had delit in the beautee of the fruyt defended [i.e. French defendu, “forbidden”], yet certes, til that resoun, that is to seyn, Adam, consented to the etynge of the fruyt, yet stood he in th’estat of innocence.

For the Parson, then, the characters in the scriptural narrative of the Fall are pre-eminently symbols of certain universal interior moral processes and realities.  Moreover, it is remarkably similar to that described by John the Scot:  i.e., first the object of beauty is suggested or presented to the senses (the first stage, represented, according to the Parson, by the Satanic serpent); then, in the second stage, Eve, that is the flesh or the senses (or what John calls the woman), sees that the object is “fair to the eyes” and takes delight in its beauty; finally, Adam, that is, the reason (or the Man, as John calls the innermost region of the psychic garden), consents to its enjoyment for its own sake.

Above all, the eventsof the Fall (its inner, allegorical istoria) are recapitulated every time a man commits sin:

For certes, ther is no deedly synne, that it nas first in mannes thought, and after that in his delit, and so forth into consentynge and into dede.

The crucial stage for the Parson, as in John’s allegory of the Fall, is the second one, when the beautiful object becomes fixed in the sensuality as the object of pleasurable contemplation; and it is this “delit of the flesh” that ought to be repented as much as the act of sin itself:

Wherefore I seye that many men are repenten hem nevere of swiche thoughts and delites, ne nevere shriven hem of it, but oonly of the dede of grete synnes outward.  Wherefore I seye that swiche wikked delites and wikked thoughts been subtile bigileres of hem that shullen be dampned.

Naturally, anything of physical beauty can become the object of delightful thought—can be cupidinously abused rather than charitably used, to put it in Augustinian terms–including the beauty of a woman.  It would be odd, indeed, if the philosophical ethos that we have been exploring in these essays, in which the sensible things of this world–regarded as merely transient and mutable goods and pleasures to be distrusted, and at best, to be used as symbols by which the mind can rise to the contemplation of the invisible things of God–should suddenly make an exemption for the beauty of a woman’s form, and the carnal enjoyment of it.

The idea is absurd, of course, and along with it, the modern notion that, in the Middle Ages, Christian knights (miles Christi) were encouraged to become adherents of a new religion of “courtly love”:  to worship and pledge absolute allegiance to their god Cupid, and in his service, to submit to the humiliating antics that qualify them for the blissful enjoyment of the object of their adulterous passions.


The origins of this supposed system of courtly love are usually traced to a poet of love whom Chaucer, amongst others, invokes as his auctour and magister:  Ovid.  In the Art of Love Ovid propounds a formal “set of rules” according which the “game of love” is to be be played.  First, real love cannot exist between a man and his wife; rather, it must be adulterous, whereby Ovid provides elaborate advice on how the husband of the object of one’s illicit ardour may be effectively deluded.  The trouble that arises if the lady’s husband finds out about the affair is good enough reason to keep it secret; besides, secrecy makes the affair even pleasanter.

Other Ovidian ideas anticipate certain so-called “courtly” conventions:  Ovid’s Cupid is the great and jealous God of a religion of love, in whose service the lover must consecrate himself; or Cupid is a great general who demands total obedience from his miles amoris, his “soldier of love”, if he is to successfully prosecute his amatory campaign; in love and war, all is fair:  the lover should be truthful, but if his suit falters, it’s permissible to deceive his lady.

This, however, can be dangerous, since in love the woman’s power is second only to that of Cupid, and the lover must obey her every whim:  he must keep watch day and night outside her door; undergo all sorts of agonizing trials; become pale and sick; sigh and moan; forgo sleep and meat; and generally waste away to a shadow of his former self, if he is to prove the sincerity of his affection.

Now, clearly, Ovid was having a bit of good-natured fun here.  His “manual” of love is a parody, his advice is ironic, and his description of the lover’s ridiculous behaviour is patently satirical and didactic.  As the eminent medievalist E.K. Rand put it, Ovid “left it for those who could detect his satire to find…that ridicule is the most potent enemy of folly.”

No one–certainly, no one in antiquity or the Middle Ages–would have failed to recognize the moral irony behind the Ars Amatorica.  As a fourteenth-century manuscript of the poem explains in its introduction, although the work seems to encourage adulterous passion, the author “detests lecherous love and exhorts us to love virtuously”.  Similarly, a thirteenth-century manuscript of the Remedia Amoris(Ovid’s handbook of cures for the sickness of love, which seems to have been written by him as a sort of antidote to the folly he describes in his earlier work) informs us, the Remedia is “not contrary” to the Art of Love, since “the purpose of both is to remove pernicious love”.