Mythological romanticism is woven throughout the tales, legends, and songs of the middle ages, from courtly knights and fair maidens to love spells and other magical enchantments intended to remove free will. These themes carried on into later years, and heavily influenced the thinking of the reigning monarchs. King Henry VIII continued to show an obsession for the themes of courtly love and romanticism, for Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and the idea of rescuing fair maidens in the tower, up until the 1500s. It was not uncommon for kings of the middle ages and later periods to adopt these legends as their own, in an attempt to connect to the mythology of the past.
Two stories in particular capture the gritty romanticism of the period and reveal the overall mindset of the middle ages: King Arthur and the Knights of Camelot, which has a love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, and Tristan and Isolde, a similar tale about a potion that causes two souls to fall in love with one another, despite her intended marriage to King Mark.
Though the interpretations of the myth vary, they all follow the same basic plot: after defeating an Irish knight, Tristan goes to Ireland to bring back Isolde for his uncle King Mark to marry. Along the way, the two ingest a love potion that causes them to fall in love. Here is where the interpretations diverge: either their love is for life or it wanes after several years; both innocently drink the potion or Isolde gives it to him. Both lose their free will and have no choice but to become lovers, thus freeing them from the responsibility of their destructive actions, which either leads to war, their deaths, their suicide, their banishment, or Tristan being forced to leave. No matter the means or the ending, the theme of forbidden love beyond either of their control remains the same. The affair has consequences but is still heavily romanticized and often seen as a “tragic” love story.
History can often be understood through its emphasis on mythology and the themes of its literature, and the middle ages is no exception. It was a period in which Roman Catholicism was rampant, but also heavily diluted with paganism. Rather than liberate the pagans of their goddesses and legends, the Church adopted many of the feast days and beliefs, leading to a period known as the “dark ages” for its evil superstitions and ignorance.
Themes of adultery, lust, chivalry, knights, and so on reveal a struggle between what the common folk of the period wanted to admire (goodness, nobility, heroism, sacrifice, and courtly love) and its awareness of reality and the grit of life in its heavily flawed legendary characters. Many of these stories are sanitized for modern audiences, since we do not tend to look kindly on “magical rape,” incest, etc, but the magical elements, honor, and romanticism linger.
One heavy theme in the middle ages revolved around honor. That Lancelot would betray King Arthur with his wife violated that honor, and was seen as shocking—Tristan, too, would not be able to live with his honor in being with Isolde, if he had a choice over the matter, so that choice is removed from him. He loses his free will and thus the affair becomes tragic, instead of treacherous. The punishment for it is harsh, with no leniency toward the betrayal.
This, I think, largely reveals the period’s understanding of evil and good, but also reveals the cruelty of the times. It is both a rigid moralistic view (that evil actions must be punished, even if those involved have no authority over their actions) and one reflective of the pagan and middle ages view of God. When we cast our thoughts back on this time in history, we are reminded of… knights, crusades, dark magic, witch burnings, the plague, and the Catholic Church. The latter had a heavy influence among the common folk; it was a dark, ruthless moralizing power that constantly reinforced the themes of hell and damnation. If you had not the Church, you had not salvation; you would burn in the flames of hell, lorded over by a goat-headed red demon identified as Satan. In a sense, then, morality was enforced not through love and devotion to God, but out of terror.
Human nature is by its very nature rebellious; our inclination is not to strive for purity and goodness, but to see how close we can come to sin without sinning. Our innermost desire is not for holiness, but for sin… so we consider tales that both teach moral lessons (thus justifying our enjoyment) and make sin… not sin. And, I think this has a great deal to do with both the popularity of Tristan & Isolde, and other such stories of adultery. You see, if they have no choice but to conduct a love affair, if they are not cogent of their actions, then their actions are less sinful in our eyes. If it is true that neither can choose to resist the potion, then Lord Mark becomes the villain in their story for punishing them for something they cannot help! … and thus, we find the middle ages view of God.
Bereft of the scriptures, and any teachings about Christ not heavily filtered through local priests (who may or may not have studied, who may or may not have been godly, and who may or may not have had a personal agenda), the view of God to the common man (and the nobles) of the middle ages was a tyrant ready to cast them into hell for the sin of being human… for things they could not help.
In drinking the potion through a deception, it is reflective of the original sin that damned Adam and Eve. They continue to sin because they cannot help it, while Lord Mark waits to judge them for their actions. And thus we find the terrible true tragedy of the middle ages: it is not the superstition, nor the abuses of the Church, or even the black plague, but a great and terrible misunderstanding of God and His mercy. For when you cannot comprehend God, when you have no true sense of Him, when you serve out of fear rather than devotion you wind up with exactly what unfolded in this period, which was a time of great brutality, ignorance, superstition, and the crusades… the idea that a soul can be liberated from hell through persecuting the “infidels.”
Interestingly, the most recent adaptation of Tristan and Isolde involved no love potion; the pair fall in love in Ireland, but Isolde is married to the kind and good Lord Mark. Her fierce passion for Tristan is so strong that they conduct an affair behind his back. In placing the moral responsibility of their actions back into their own hands, and in making Lord Mark a kind and benevolent man, the film paints the forbidden lovers as intensely foolish and selfish. Their guilt eats away at them but cannot save the kingdom when the truth comes to light.
Which, I wonder, is the truer version to life, and ultimately, to our view of God?