From the middle of the fourteenth century, said Professor Marsh, to the beginning of the nineteenth, the Middle Ages were but little studied. A revival of interest in them came only after the Renaissance movement had nearly spent itself and was giving way to the Romantic movement which succeeded it. Though the latter itself waned with the advance of the century, the study of the Middle Ages did not decay. It had a more stable foundation than mere temporary interest in the fantastic and extraordinary; for in the Middle Ages we find the beginnings of ourselves. It is extremely important for us to know how we became what we are; how there arose the social usages, the conceptions of the relations of men, which are now unconsciously accepted among us. For this knowledge, especially as it concerns the particular phase in the growth of our spirit which this lecture is to discuss, we must turn to the Middle Ages. A slight historical introduction is necessary.
In the year 1137, Elinor, grand-daughter of William IX of Aquitaine, married Louis VII of France. The marriage was not a happy one. It was ended by a divorce allowed on the grounds of propinquity, she being his cousin seven times removed. Being freed thus, Elinor was again married, this time to Henry, Count of Anjou. The alliance is significant to us from its social rather than its political effects. By far the most important part of Elinor's dowry was the new conception of society which she brought with her from the south of France to the northern provinces. Her grandfather. already mentioned, had been the first artistic poet of the modern age, and writing in a modern tongue, the Provincial. His work shows the development in Provence of an entirely new type of society, gathered about the numerous courts, and elaborating the theory of courtly life which was to become known in England as courtesy. The resulting social ideals, of which the north of France had hitherto known little and approved less, were first introduced there by Elinor and met with an ever more and more favorable reception.
Elinor was herself a patron of poetry. There is every reason to believe that her court was the resort of all the brilliant men and the poets of the north of France. Fortunately for us it was their delight to take for their theme the novel moral ideals and virtues of the time. The troubadours loved to tell first of all of courtesy as high in the rank of virtues; then of valor, of generosity, of perfect refinement and gentleness. There were other virtues which do not now pass as such. Youth was lauded, age condemned. Without joy, whether active or passive, none could be virtuous; still less without measure, by which was meant method, regularity, decorum. But greater than all these was the virtue most peculiar to their society and destined to have the greatest vogue in Europe: love. As a Christian virtue, love was already sufficiently familiar; but the new notion was different from the old, and even antagonistic to it. It carried with it a rehabilitation of woman, and brought an entire change of sentiment towards her.
For two hundred years woman had been falling lower and lower in social estimation. Even the attitude of the church towards her was extremely unfavorable, so much so that St. Jerome commended as "golden" the work in which Theocrastus stated that a good woman was rarer than a white blackbird, and complained that a man had nevertheless to marry without such a trial as would be expected if he bought even a beast of burden. The question whether woman was a human being was also soberly discussed at church council. It was finally decided that she was; but with so much favor as that, her situation was still most unhappy.
In Provence, woman was restored not only to equality with man, but to a vast superiority. The ideals of Provence were carried north by Elinor. They were spread further through France by the influence of her daughter Marie, who married Count Henry of Champagne and set up her court at Trois. She gave great encouragement to poetry and developed a school in the north of France whose ideals and forms were essentially those of the troubadors of Provence. From Trois came the poet Chretien, whose works, written with much skill, became universally popular. Through them he gave expression in extenso to the social ideals of the court of Marie, where women were the leaders and moulders of society. He elaborated the theory of courtly love and love's utter obedience, which had been originally developed in Provence, and with his contemporaries of note spread on all sides from Trois the powerful influence of the Provencal moral ideals. Trois became the centre of that social discussion and imaginative production, which brought about the transition to the modern ideals of society standing in such sharp contrast to those in vogue before the period of the Middle Ages.