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 XXVII

From Ovid’s Ars Amatorica to Andreas’ De amore…

 The Imagery of Horse and Rider…

The Myth of Mars and Venus…

And the Allegory of the Fall…

     Let’s now fast-forward twelve centuries from Ovid’s Art of Love to the De amore of Andreas Capellanus (the chaplain to the countess Marie at the court of Champagne), who is thought to have codified the rules of “courtly love” as they were being promulgated in the “courts of love” supposedly presided over by his patroness.

Here are a few examples of the same as Andreas has summarized them at the end of book II:

Marriage is no real excuse for not loving [i.e., outside of it].
He who is not jealous cannot love.
When made public love rarely endures.
The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of it makes it prized.
Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved, his heart palpitates.
A man in love is always apprehensive.
Real jealously always increases the feeling of love.
Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.
He whom the thought of love vexes, eats and sleeps very little.
Every act of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved.
A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved.
A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.
Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women.

(Andreas’ prescriptions should sound familiar enough from Ovid, and the question begs whether they—having by medieval readers been taken to be ironic in the Roman poet–should suddenly now be taken in earnest when they come from a Christian cleric who is paradoxically credited with having codified a wholly new and un-Christian doctrine extolling adulterous lust.)

Andreas tells us that he is writing his advice on love at the request of a friend named “Walter” (who may be a literary fiction or a real person).  There is no doubt, in any case, about Walter’s condition.  In his preface, Andreas says that he has been recently wounded by an arrow of Cupid and “cannot manage his horse’s reins”:  that is, he cannot control his flesh with the reins of temperance as he should.  The image of the human soul as a man riding a horse, that is, as reason controlling and restraining the bodily appetites or passions, has been a commonplace since it was first used by Plato.  Not being able to control one’s horse is a serious moral problem, as Andreas observes, because the servant of Venus can think of nothing except how to “enmesh himself further in her chains”.


Once again, the imagery of the passions as the chains that keep the reason in bondage to the flesh is, like the cognate image of the body as the prison of the soul, a Platonic commonplace.  In classical mythology, the most notorious exemplum of this ethical calamity was the fable of Mars caught with Venus in flagrante delicto in the net fabricated by Venus’ metallurgist husband Vulcan, and displayed for the uproarious amusement of the assembled Olympians.

As interpreted allegorically, the fable of Mars and Venus conventionally illustrates the idea that the chains of Vulcan are really forged by the unrestrained desires of the lover himself, who as Andreas suggests, having become enslaved to Venus (that is, to lust), tends to stoke the flames of his own passion.  Mars, the great warrior, is an object of sport precisely because he has made himself into one of Ovid’s soldiers of love.  He has exchanged the manly hardships of the battlefield for the plush comforts of Venus’ bedroom; in the language of moral allegory, he has made masculine virtue a slave to feminine sensuality.

The myth of Mars and Venus, in other words, was interpreted in precisely the same terms as the biblical Fall.  Like Adam and Eve, Mars and Venus were conventionally regarded as symbols of universal psychological or moral tendencies.

Not being able to control one’s horse—to subject one’s reason to one’s carnal appetites– is clearly an unfortunate position for a man to be in; thus Andreas reminds Walter that it is not proper for a prudent man to engage in this kind of “hunting” on horseback.  Even though as a friend, Andreas cannot refuse Walter’s request, he assures him that after he has learned all about love, he will certainly be more “cautious”.

The task that Andreas sets for himself, therefore, is to furnish instructions for the young man that will seem to advance him toward his goal, but at the same time encourage him to be sensible about his condition.  This was a condition that, of course, had already been thoroughly diagnosed by Plato, the Stoics, Ovid, Boethius, not to mention St. Paul, who wrote that in his fallen state, man’s flesh forever lusteth against his spirit.  The moral problem of lust did not therefore suddenly arise in the twelfth century, having been completely overlooked by ancient or Christian philosophy.

At the end of his work, Andreas seems to think that he has successfully carried out the purpose he sets out in his preface.  He tells Walter that if he follows his instructions, he will find in them a double lesson:  Walter will obtain the delights of the flesh; but, at the same time, he will lose the grace of God, the companionship of his true friends, and his good name and honour. He adds, unambiguously, “If you will study carefully this little treatise of ours, and understand it completely and put into practice what it teaches, you will see clearly that no man ought to misspend his days in the pleasures of love.”