One of the best thing about medieval romances is the liberal interpretations of Holy Writ found therein. What did Jesus love? Battle and don’t worry about it. What does the Bible say about Solomon the Wise? Mostly how one of his wives hated him so much that she faked her own death, which is why all present empresses of Constantinople are kept in cages.
Would you like to hear Chrétien de Troyes’ exegesis of 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, wherein St. Paul famously counsels widowed and unmarried women to prefer chastity to marriage, but advises them to marry if the alternative is adultery?
Here, for comparison, is the original text:
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.
But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
And here is what medieval readers took away from Paul’s words:
Cliges speaks first and says what he had thought of in the night: “My lady,” says he, “I think, and am of the opinion, that we could not do better than go to Britain; I thought I might take you there; now do not refuse, for never was Helen so joyfully received at Troy when Paris took her thither but that still greater joy would be felt over you and me in the land of the King, my uncle. And if this plan does not meet with your favour, tell me what you think, for I am ready, whatever may happen, to abide by your decision.”
And she replies: “This is my answer: I will never go off with you thus; for after we had gone away, every one would speak of us as they do of Iseult the Blond and of Tristan. And everywhere all men and women would speak evil of our love. No one would believe, nor is it natural that they should do so, the truth of the matter. Who would believe that I have thus, all to no purpose, evaded and escaped from your uncle still a maid? I should be regarded simply as wanton and dissolute, and you would be thought mad. It is well to remember and observe the injunction of St. Paul: if any one is unwilling to live chastely, St. Paul counsels him to act so that he shall receive no criticism, or blame, or reproach. It is well to stop evil mouths, and therefore, if you agree, I have a proposal to make: it seems best to me to consent to feign that I am dead. I shall fall sick in a little while. And you in the meantime may plan some preparations for a place of burial. Put all your wits to work to the end that a sepulchre and bier be so constructed that I shall not die in it, or be stifled, and that no one shall mount guard over it at night when you come to take me out.
Oh, I love this so much. “What was it Paul said about abstinence again?”
“If you can’t keep yourself from having sex, make sure no one finds out who you’re having sex with. Fake your own death if you have to. Just keep things quiet, and that counts as chastity, pretty much.”
“Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure that’s the gist, yes.” And that’s how folk Christianity got started in medieval France, and I love it more than anything.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.