Ovid Misunderstood

The conduct which Ovid recommends [in Ars Amatoria] is felt to be shameful and absurd, and that is precisely why he recommends it—partly as a comic confession of the depths to which this ridiculous appetite may bring a man, and partly as a lesson in the art of fooling to the top of her bent the last baggage who has caught your fancy. The whole passage should be taken in conjunction with his other piece of advice—‘Don’t visit her on her birthday: it costs too much.’ But it will also be noticed—and this is a pretty instance of the vast change which occurred during the Middle Ages—that the very same conduct which Ovid ironically recommends could be recommended seriously by the courtly tradition. To leap up on errands, to go through heat or cold, at the bidding of one’s lady, or even of any lady, would seem but honourable and natural to a gentleman of the thirteenth or even of the seventeenth century; and most of us have gone shopping ... with ladies who showed no sign of regarding the tradition as a dead letter. The contrast inevitably raises in our minds a question as to how far the whole tone of medieval love poetry can be explained by the formula, ‘Ovid misunderstood’; and though we see at once that this is no solution – for it it were granted, we should still have to ask why the Middle Ages misunderstood him so consistently – yet the thought is a good one to keep in mind as we proceed.

[C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. London: Oxford University Press, 1936. 7-8.]

No comments: