Saturday, May 13, 2017

Guillaume de Machaut - the acceptable way for a priest to have a love affair

Cheerios, Commies and Heretics!
While doing some research for my latest novel (set in 15th century France and dealing with ecclesiastic music) I went through my notes on Guillaume de Machaut, one of the most prominent and prolific composers of sacred and secular music of the late Middle Ages, who had served as a canon at the Reims Cathedral alongside his brother Jean. I have a number of his albums, including the polyphonic Mass of Our Lady. Guillaume de Machaut can be considered a double menace, being a poet and a composer, equally successful in both areas. Unsurprisingly, his poetry was devoted to the topic of courtly love, the accent being on self-sacrifice versus sexual gratification.

Everyone knows about Pierre Abelard and Heloise, probably because of the gruesome way his reproductive career ended. Not many people know about another love story from medieval France - that of Guillaume de Machaut and a certain young maiden by the name P√©ronne d'Armenti√®res, who allegedly served as his muse and editor in one. She is said to be the inspiration behind his poem Le Voir Dit (A True Tale). The relationship has every right to be called controversial, given the age difference - de Machaut was in his 60s, while the young woman was in her late teens. We are talking 40+ age gap. Oh, and that minor bit about him being a priest and bound by the whole vow of celibacy? Apparently, given the fact that he was in poor health, the romantic relationship was never consummated physically. But it was definitely not a purely Platonic relationship, or a father-daughter, or teacher-pupil type of relationship. It was deeply romantic, minus the carnal component.  Was it not the very idea of courtly love that Guillaume de Machaut praised in his poems?

There also seems to be a misconception regarding the attitude of the Catholic Church towards the physical beauty and sexuality of its canons. Contrary to popular belief, the ideal was not a sexless eunuch but a red-blooded male with full-blow libido. Without those urges, the priest would have nothing to struggle against. It was believed that that very struggle against the natural urges and temptations that led a man to spiritual refinement. In that context, Guillaume was an icon of self-control. Essentially a rock star, sworn into celibacy, he managed to have a romantic affair without breaking the vow or earning a reputation of a licentious, dirty old man. His poem Le Voir Dit, inspired by that love affair, was never regarded as a product of a sinful relationship.

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