Guest Post by Cael Kalbrandt
Today, all across the globe we herald Valentine’s Day in a splash of crass commercialism. A perfect opportunity to share some little-known details about the origin of romantic love stories.
Prepare to have your pink bubble burst.
The Roots of Love
Our trip into history takes us back to Europe in the 12th and 13th century AD. This is the time in which the stories of King Arthur appeared: the heydays of noble knights, fair ladies, minstrels, and the celebration of platonic devotion to one’s One True Love. The time of courtly love at its purest.
Or so we like to believe. A closer study of aforementioned minstrels crashes that party but good.
Minstrels, also known as troubadours (French) and Minnesänger (German), sang epic songs about heroes and their almost divine ladies. These love stories entertained a wide audience, but they also harboured a profound knowledge, locked away in symbolism.
Certain renowned minstrels, among them famous names like Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide, lathered their tales with so much symbolism that these stories became magical and surreal. The best surviving example is Von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the story of the Grail Knight. But there were many such stories in endless variations.
A good deal of those minstrels’ stories went on to become the fairy tales we know today. Much to our detriment.
A good deal of those stories went on to become the fairy tales we know today. Much to our detriment.
The oral retelling of stories to pass them on from one generation to the next is a noble one, but not without significant risk. In the case of the minstrel’s love stories, ignorant rehashing of half-understood tales cause corruption that has done untold damage to half of the human race.
The minstrels’ love stories were a kind of medieval format fiction: a valiant hero happens on a damsel in distress, comes to her rescue, and is rewarded for his good deeds. This summary doesn’t do justice to their tales, but it is what they boiled down to.
Most notable in any minstrel’s work was his devotion to a particular lady. In their songs, they would sing her praise and liken her to a goddess. She was the damsel in the stories, and the object of the hero’s quest.
It’s often believed that those ladies were actual noble women to whom the minstrels dedicated their work. It might be the wife of their patron, or another lady they admired for some laudable reason. And the hero, of course, was the minstrel himself.
Unless symbolism has blinded us, and the minstrels didn’t sing about love in the first place…
Lost In Translation
Both ‘minstrel’ and ‘Minnesänger’ are derived from the German word ‘Minne’, which means ‘(courtly) love’. With this in mind and taking the stories at face value, it is easy to assume that minstrels celebrated the chaste, romantic love of a gallant knight for his near-divine lady.
Except that the science of etymology isn’t quite on our side here: the German ‘Minne’ finds it origin in the Gothic ‘munni’, which in turn can be traced to the Latin ‘memini’, the still older Greek word ‘mimneskein’ and the Sanskrit ‘man’.
Those four older words have nothing to do with love. They translate as ‘memory’ or ‘remembrance’.
So if the minstrels didn’t simply sing some noble lady a love song, what were they on about?
Once upon a time, in a faraway land – okay, in Europe of the 12th and 13th century AD – Christianity ruled. Literally. Kings and princes were beholden to the Pope, and were expected to uphold the rules of Catholicism.
At this point in history, however, there were plenty of people who worshipped different ideals than those dictated by the Bible. Not immoral or evil ideals. Just different ones, with a goddess at the centre of its faith. This faith wasn’t new, but the growing influence of the Vatican made life exceedingly difficult for these heretics.
And I do mean heretics in the most literal sense: in several Germanic languages, the word for ‘heretic’ is directly derived from the name ‘Cathar’. The Cathars were just one of many religious orders that deviated from Catholic lore, but due to their thorough and violent eradication by the Vatican, the Cathars went down in history as the best-known example of heretics.
Their crime? That they worshipped a goddess – an ancient personification of wisdom – and valued knowledge and enlightenment higher than servitude to the Pope. Which was, in the eyes of the Vatican, a capital crime indeed. No surprise there.
Memories of Paradise
Facing persecution, those who worshipped wisdom instead of the Bible went underground. They hid their devotion and passed on their knowledge through stories and songs laden with symbolism that only other believers would understand.
Passing on that knowledge was the true purpose of minstrels, and also the reason why the best of them were held in high esteem. But what was this knowledge? What did Wolfram von Eschenbach and his fellow minstrels sing about that we remember their love stories to this day?
Evidently, the lady they sang to was not some random noble lady. Rather the lady was symbol of the hidden wisdom. She is prostate, as symbol that humanity has forgotten the insights and knowledge she represents. The hero is either searching for her or discovers her whereabouts by accident. To reach her – to gain that knowledge – he must best the obstacles in his way. When the hero does reach the lady, he is rewarded with access to a bountiful kingdom is the realm of the goddess of love and wisdom.
In short, the hero is granted entry into Paradise. While not Heaven in the Christian sense, this heretics’ Paradise is spiritually on the same level.
That is what the minstrels’ love stories were: reminders of how one might find enlightenment and enter into paradise. Yet somehow this intention became corrupted beyond recognition.
Corrupted Fairy Tales
Many of these old stories have common elements. The obstacles the hero had to overcome would often be depicted as dragons or immense rose bushes with long thorns. The hero might fight his way past those with the help of dwarves – then still considered magical and knowledgeable instead of cartoons. And when the hero found his way to the secret castle to find the coveted prize – the Holy Grail or the prone lady, usually – the hero would be rewarded with insights, Paradise, and even immortality.
Cue the corrosion of ignorance.
The Cathars were destroyed, the minstrels died. In time, humanity forgot what their stories were supposed to remind them of. The goddess of wisdom became a random princess, waiting helplessly for some faceless prince to save her and claim her hand in marriage and half her father’s kingdom as his reward. How romantic! Because these tales were all love stories, right?
Thus Sleeping Beauty slept for a hundred years behind walls of thorny rose bushes without anyone remembering what those thorns meant. Snow White was poisoned and left for dead, guarded by diminished dwarves until the prince kisses her back to life. Rapunzel was locked in a secret tower with no entrance, and her prince was blinded by more randomized rose thorns in his attempts to reach her.
Minne… Love… It isn’t difficult to see where things got mixed up. But that doesn’t negate the fact that these corrupted versions of the minstrels’ love stories destroyed the rights of women for centuries to come.
Romance Killed Women’s Rights
Minstrels sang about knowledge and bravery, celebrated the figure of a woman as a source of knowledge and love. Something so pure and divine that but few men deserved to reach her. Women were the key to Paradise, if not Paradise itself!
But while society didn’t forget the stories, they did forget their symbols and their true meaning. To this day, girls grow up believing the fairy tales. That ‘True Love’ means waiting for Prince Charming to ‘liberate’ them and tell them who to be. That they should wait, demure and servile, like the ladies in the tales of old.
Don’t believe it. The fairy tale princesses were never real people to begin with. Today’s girls and women are, and should be treated with all due respect.
So there we are: how true love stories have nothing to do with love, and how ignorance and the road map to Paradise reduced women to passive objects. At least now you know why those roses you bought for your Valentine are a symbol of love. Of Minne…