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Medieval Venuses and Cupids: Sexuality, Hermeneutics, and English Poetry

Medieval Venuses and Cupids: Sexuality, Hermeneutics, and English Poetry

by Theresa Tinkle

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Medieval Venuses and Cupids analyses the transformations of the love deities in later Middle English Chaucerian poetry, academic Latin discourses on classical myth (including astrology, natural philosophy, and commentaries on classical Roman literature), and French conventions that associate Venus and Cupid with Ovidian arts of love. Whereas existing studies of Venus


Medieval Venuses and Cupids analyses the transformations of the love deities in later Middle English Chaucerian poetry, academic Latin discourses on classical myth (including astrology, natural philosophy, and commentaries on classical Roman literature), and French conventions that associate Venus and Cupid with Ovidian arts of love. Whereas existing studies of Venus and Cupid contend that they always and everywhere represent two loves (good and evil), the author argues that medieval discourses actually promulgate diverse, multiple, and often contradictory meanings for the deities. The book establishes the range of meanings bestowed on the deities through the later Middle Ages, and draws on feminist and cultural theories to offer new models for interpreting both academic Latin discourses and vernacular poetry.

Editorial Reviews

South Atlantic Review
"This handsome work provides impetus for further thought concerning these two deities as they appear throughout the Middle English canon and should become a major component of Medieval literary criticism."
"By using feminist and cultural theories, this revisionist approach attempts to correct the previous studies that contend that Venus and Cupid 'always and everywhere represent two loves (good and evil).' . . . This book is more accessible than one might suppose. . . . A readable book with helpful (as opposed to overwhelming) notes."
From the Publisher
"By using feminist and cultural theories, this revisionist approach attempts to correct the previous studies that contend that Venus and Cupid 'always and everywhere represent two loves (good and evil).' . . . This book is more accessible than one might suppose. . . . A readable book with helpful (as opposed to overwhelming) notes."—Choice

"This handsome work provides impetus for further thought concerning these two deities as they appear throughout the Middle English canon and should become a major component of Medieval literary criticism."—South Atlantic Review

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Stanford University Press
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Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)
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Medieval Venuses and Cupids

Sexuality, Hermeneutics, & English Poetry

By Theresa Tinkle


Copyright © 1996 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-2515-6


Beyond Binary Thinking

The Two, Three, or Ten Loves

She is all there.
She was melted carefully down for you
and cast up from your childhood,
cast up from your one hundred favorite aggies.

She is so naked and singular.
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.

As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.

Anne Sexton,
"For My Lover, Returning to His Wife"

As the antients agree, brother Toby, said my father, that there are two different and distinct kinds of love, according to the different parts which are affected by it—the Brain or Liver—I think when a man is in love, it behoves him a little to consider which of the two he is fallen into.

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

* * *

Because Venus and Cupid so often change form and role in the Middle Ages, they challenge literary critics trying to decipher the nuances and implications of any particular representation. In response to this challenge, readings of Venus and Cupid have for the most part settled into two schools: the deities have for decades been almost universally explicated as symbols of "courtly love" or of "two loves" ("good" and "evil," either one of which may also be "courtly"). There are other valuable interpretive paths laid down, but few American or British scholars travel them. Indeed, ideas about "courtly love" and "two loves" have come so routinely to guide interpretation that literary criticism often seems mechanical or routine when touching on Venus and Cupid. The problem lies less in the interpretive models—for even the best of models eventually turn into mechanical systems that preclude rather than provoke thought—than in their perhaps inevitable simplification over the years. I therefore propose in this chapter first to review the dominant interpretive models in order to recover their lost subtleties and to reassess their advantages and disadvantages. I will then concentrate on the theoretical and other consequences of "two loves" as an interpretive model, before projecting a model more in keeping with both current understandings of medieval sexuality and recent theoretical developments in literary studies.

"Courtly Love"

Over the years numerous literary critics have serenely declared—sometimes as if doing so straightaway clarified all obscurities—that Venus and Cupid symbolize courtly love. This fashion, still current, skirts the fact that "courtly love" can itself mean almost anything. The term has at various times in its history identified behavior that is infantile, sophisticated, narcissistic, chivalrous, playful, genuine, fictional, carnal, spiritual, Ovidian, Arabist, Catharist, "Fontevraultian," blasphemous, natural, unnatural, adulterous, and chaste. That "courtly love" opens a semiotic abyss has been well documented and frequently remarked upon. When literary critics do not offer a stipulative definition (a routine oversight) to clarify which meaning is intended, they tend to recall Humpty Dumpty with his capricious linguistic habits: "When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." Humpty Dumpty by and by tells Alice what he means. Given that critics usually avoid the complete emulation that would supply such a gloss, their designating Venus and Cupid symbols of courtly love adds little to our understanding of the deities or of medieval sexual love. Indeed, we end with an enlargement of the confusion brought about in the first place by the perplexingly varied Venuses and Cupids of medieval literature.

At present, "courtly love" serves as a critical shorthand to designate an amorphous set of social attitudes, literary conventions, and behaviors; as long as it remains a shorthand sign of an undefined and undefinable code, the term and the interpretive model will open few if any new insights on sexual love in medieval culture. That the Venuses and Cupids in Guillaume de Lorris's Romance of the Rose, Juan Ruiz's Book of Good Love (Libro de Buen Amor), and Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls may all be designated symbols of courtly love finally tells us nothing about the representations themselves, or about why they differ so radically from one another. In other words, applying the universalizing label "courtly love" erases the marked conceptual and representational differences among these figures. An apparent homogeneity replaces particular differences, perhaps the most remarkable of which are the diversities in attitudes toward sexual love among national literatures. Treatments of love by French, English, and German writers evidence marked disparities. Viewing Venus and Cupid as ambassadors of courtly love, therefore, at worst obfuscates literary meaning and elides cultural differences, and at best yields critical clichés. In order better to understand the love deities, we need something other than a repetition of what we think we already know.

Two Loves: The Modern Origins

Much recent literary criticism on Venus and Cupid steers around the well-posted courtly-love quagmire, only to slip into the rut of two loves. This interpretive model derives from the hypothesis that in the Middle Ages love was widely understood in terms of a dichotomy—good/evil, spiritual/carnal. According to this model, Venus or Cupid in any literary appearance incarnates a good or an evil love. (Actually, duality may characterize any ancient deity, just as it may be absent from treatments of the love deities.) Thus far the idea of two loves, if unsubtle and unexciting, sets up no insuperable obstacles. Certainly, we can all generate examples of antithetical loves. Augustine of Hippo wrote of love being directed in two ways, toward God or toward the world. Walter Shandy distinguishes two loves according to the body part affected, brain or liver. Anne Sexton divides women into permanent monumental wives and ephemeral watercolor lovers, and so on. Bipolar opposition is demonstrably commonplace, in ideas about love as in all other human phenomena.

The modern scholarship that concentrates on sketching out how medieval Venuses and Cupids embody two loves confirms that dichotomy is a widespread conceptual norm, in recent years as in the far distant past. Erwin Panofsky, D. W Robertson, Jr., George D. Economou, and Robert Hollander give us the seminal analyses. Although modern critical notice of two loves (usually as a rhetorical topos) predates this scholarship, these scholars give form and substance to the idea, as well as research support for later literary criticism. Most of their attention centers on Venus; Cupid attracts little sustained inquiry and is typically mentioned only in passing, often as interchangeable with Venus. Thus models of two loves tend to suppress gender difference in favor of polarized feminine stereotypes—Eve and Mary.

Basing his analysis on poetry, mythography, and visual arts, Panofsky explicates celestial and natural Neoplatonic Venuses; the exception among the founders of two-love paradigms, he also distinguishes two Cupids, one (a mythographic figure) signifying an illicit love and the other (a poetic figure) a divine love. Panofsky organizes images into these general prototypes and then examines how artists appropriate and modify them. One sixteenth-century Neoplatonist pictures a battle between love and reason; since Venus appears only in her lesser, "earthly" guise, the division between a putative two Venuses seems absolute. Titian, on the other hand, depicts two very like Venuses, stressing the similarity between eternal and transitory pleasures. Panofsky discovers considerable variation even within his targeted circle of Italian Neoplatonists, who may choose to highlight the discrepancy or the similitude between the two loves (and who may, when two figures seem inadequately nuanced, add a third).

Robertson does not, as far as I can discern, refer to Panofsky's argument in devising another two Venuses, these representing an always identical Augustinian love (caritas) and lust, passion, or desire (cupiditas). Robertson takes Cupid and Venus to be interchangeable. For Robertson, what matters in any literary representation is less how an artist employs or adapts the tradition than the single truth hidden by the fictive veil: the unchanging, hierarchical relation of flesh and spirit, and thus of the two loves, carnal and spiritual. Robertson bases his conclusions on several textual traditions, but mythographies seem particularly prominent. Although he discusses two Venuses in mythographic and other traditions, he tends to discern just one in poetry—a Venus signifying idolatrous concupiscence, everywhere and always condemned in medieval literature. This model has been much criticized, but the extensive original research apparently validating it has had a powerful influence on later studies. Indeed, Robertson synthesizes an enormous range of literary traditions, including Latin and vernacular commentaries and poetry, as well as pictorial traditions; and even those who disagree with his general interpretive model tend to take for granted his research on the two Venuses, which now constitutes the unchallenged (in some cases, likely unrecognized) basis of nearly all critical commentary. In this vein, critics have failed to perceive how his theoretical model biases his selection of evidence and shapes his conclusions. As we will find, his research may yield far different conclusions than those he draws from it.

The influence of Robertson's research is apparent in the subsequent work of Economou and Hollander, both of whom accept as authoritative the idea of two Venuses, with one illustrating concupiscence. Economou and Hollander, however, modify Robertson's model by inserting a licit (third) goddess of "earthly" but virtuous love between Robertson's extremes. Economou in fact defines two earthly Venuses: "the one, legitimate, sacramental, natural, and in harmony with cosmic law; the other, illegitimate, perverted, selfish, and sinful." Economou follows Robertson in contending that mythography provides a definitive medieval model for the two Venuses (though Economou shows an unsure command of the texts, which renders his assertion less than persuasive). Economou's point is that these dualistic literary images of Venus encode positive and negative judgments about "courtly love." This constitutes nothing if not a significant departure from Robertson's Augustinian model.

Hollander concentrates on tracing Boccaccio's portrayal of two Venuses in his opere minori in volgare: a "celestial" Venus of marriage, and an "earthly" Venus of lasciviousness. According to Hollander, Boccaccio creates two distinct Venuses by means of iconography and by stating his intention (in a gloss on the Teseida). The persuasiveness of Hollander's argument rests on our willingness to agree that Boccaccio's gloss on the Teseida accurately and fully explains his many representations of Venus, and on our ability to read his texts ironically. That is, if Boccaccio seems to praise carnal love, he must be referring us to a rigid system of religious values that reveal this praise to be an error. I have reservations about this reading of Boccaccio's Venuses, for I do not perceive two distinctly opposed Venuses in the gloss, let alone in the Teseida as a whole (or in all of Boccaccio's works considered together); I will shortly deal with the gloss in some detail. Also, I fail to detect the irony (as I do with many of Robertson's analyses). My failure does not, of course, invalidate this line of interpretation. It does point up the fact that such discoveries of irony depend on readers' assuming that medieval texts refer us to unchanging moral constants. This is, I think, precisely what we cannot assume about a period as long and full of change as the Middle Ages. Instead of debating the irony—likely an irresolvable and futile point of contention—I would have us reconsider our assumptions about medieval moral codes and sexual mores.

This body of scholarship and criticism supports the conclusion that various types of antithetical love persist throughout the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance. This scholarship also argues adamantly against any idea that a single dichotomy of two loves prevailed. Each study advances two or three Venuses or Cupids—but not the same two (or three). The two loves are variously referred to Neoplatonism, to Augustine's caritas and cupiditas, to codes of courtly love, and to Boccaccio's attempt to separate lasciviousness from marriage. We should further mark that some of these scholars' conclusions specify unique historical contexts and do not lend themselves to period generalization: Panofsky's Italian Renaissance Neoplatonic Venuses are no more universal types than are the two Venuses Boccaccio attempts to distinguish in his gloss on the Teseida. All the modern scholars obviously share the organizing principle of antithesis, but their emphatic disagreements about precisely what this antithesis consists of fully establish that a single, unified medieval tradition of two loves never existed.

In pursuing binary loves, scholars necessarily minimize what does not cohere with the model. Panofsky stresses the model of two Venuses and outlines Pico della Mirandola's three Venuses in a note. Although such a subordination of alternatives is necessary to logical exposition, a prepossession for dichotomy can also inevitably bias the collection and interpretation of textual evidence. Robertson's exposition at times shows this tendency. For example, he refers to John Scotus Eriugena linking the concupiscent Venus with original sin. As given, the citation appears to justify a scheme of two loves:

The expressions "concupiscence of the flesh" and "mother of all fornication" suggest the Augustinian conception of the malady of original sin, and, indeed, John the Scot had explicitly identified the shameful Venus with that malady. Like her celestial sister, she was frequently associated with music in medieval iconography. Thus there are, in effect, two very different kinds of "metodye"—one the music of the spirit and the flesh in harmony with created nature, and the other the music of the flesh as it seeks inferior satisfactions as a result of its own concupiscence.

Robertson slides easily from John on original sin to conclusions about two melodies and the dichotomy of flesh and spirit, all of which ostensibly reinforces his model of two loves. If we turn to the cited passage from John's text, however, we actually find much that argues against Robertson's idea of two loves, of a simple opposition between flesh and spirit. John begins this passage by interpreting Venus as a natural force, the seed of all living things. This idea of origins leads him to contemplate the source of virtue, and to note that original sin produces a mixture of vice and virtue in human lives, passed on by the pleasures of Venus. This interpretation develops swiftly from natural to spiritual meaning, and the connection between Venus and original sin is the same as that discovered by Augustine—pleasure in sexual intercourse passes essential sin to the progeny. Yet this does not exhaust Venus's possibilities. Directly before this passage, John identifies her as Vulcan's wife, their marriage teaching us that sexual desire depends on physiological heat (Vulcan's forge). Later, John describes two Venuses, pleasure and chastity—since the latter is again Vulcan's spouse, we are presumably now to ignore Vulcan's metaphorical fires, which would dispute the alleged chastity. And still later, John offers that Dione, or sense, brings forth Venus because "all desire is born of the delight in carnal senses."

Although the evidence of this commentary points to ambiguity and to multiple, unreconciled traditions, Robertson uses it only to affirm dichotomy. His erudite model has deservedly had a tremendous influence, even over critics who may disagree with his larger argument. We could multiply examples of his influence, but one should suffice for the moment. Richard Hamilton Green endorses Robertson's hypothesis about two Venuses—even though Green demonstrates that John's Venuses establish "the flexibility of the mediaeval writer's handling of his mythological material," and even though Green shows a keen interpretive sensitivity to literary multivalence. The interpretive model forces an awkward leap from a discussion of multivalence to a conclusion about two Venuses. Like almost any interpretive model, this one determines what we perceive and what we repress in our readings.


Excerpted from Medieval Venuses and Cupids by Theresa Tinkle. Copyright © 1996 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Terry Tinkle is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Michigan.

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