Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Prison of Love - Diego de San Pedro

This past Christmas Matthew gave me a stack of medieval literature, all of which looks terrifying and unpronounceable. After a cursory glance, it was obvious that The Prison of Love was by far the shortest, so it seemed like a good place to start. 

In short, this epistolary novella, is a treatise on exactly what not to do when trying to woo a beautiful princess or to be a bit more generalized: a female. 

As the book opens the narrator stumbles upon a furry beast of a man dragging a captive, who is emitting piteous cries. Not cries for help, but rather cries of anguish; an anguish which stems from the knowledge that he has laid eyes on a treasure which will henceforth consume him. While the beast of a man holds a thick shield in one hand, in the other, almost like the proverbial carrot, he dangles before the prisoner the figure of a woman carved into such a brilliant stone that it almost seems to flicker. Periodically a bit of flame leaps out of the effigy and singes the captive’s flesh.

Our narrator, being the inquisitive type, stops to inquire of the unruly henchmen what task he has been given: 

"Traveler, naturally I have not the least wish to converse with you; my office is rather to execute evil than to conciliate with good. But being of noble stock, I will treat you with the grace of my rearing and not with the malice of my character. Know then, since it pleases you, that I am chief officer in the House of Love; my name is Desire; and with this shield I smite all hope, with this icon I kindle longings and with them I burn lives to cinders, as you can see with my captive, whom I am escorting to the Prison of Love, from which death is the sole means of escape.” (1)

All of this seems a bit steeped in histrionics. But our narrator, having just returned home from war, and with little else to occupy his time, decides that this just might be the campaign he has been destined to champion. As he approaches their final destination, which can only be described as allegorical, he disconcertedly makes his way through the prison until he is face to face with the captive. The room is dark and bleak, being illuminated only by the light emanating from the captive’s heart. Despite being continuously gored and prodded, the captive has the fortitude to introduce himself and describe his plight: 

"I am Leriano, son of Duke Gueriso and Duchess Coleria. I am of this kingdom, which is called Macedonia. Fate decreed that I should fall in love with Laureola, daughter of King Gaulo, our present sovereign. I should have fled this affliction rather than seeking it out; but man cannot elude the stirrings of sensuality, as Thomas Aquinas has explained, and rather than routing them with reason, I embraced them with my will. In this way Love defeated me and dragged me to this house, which is called the Prison of Love. Pitiless, watching the sails of my desire unfurl, he condemned me to the state you find me in. And that you should better understand what lies behind it all and the meaning of what you have seen here, you should know that the stone on which the prison is founded is my hope, which steels me against my torments for the sake of the benefits they harbor. The four pillars that rise above it are my Understanding, my Reason, my Memory, and my Will. Love ordered them to his presence before he sentenced me, and that justice should be served, he asked each in its turn whether it consented to his taking me; for if any had not, he would have chosen mercy.” (1)

In a nutshell, our captive has fallen prey to a morganatic infatuation, and while this might bode well for such literary characters like Cinderella, for Leriano the situation is dire. 

Our narrator agrees to be the courier for the “star-crossed lovers”. First he goes to court and after a character assessment of our Princess, decides to approach her and make her privy to Leriano’s plight. Laureola  is initially enraged that our narrator would be so bold, she is the heir to the Macedonian throne, what is she supposed to do? Be courted and wooed by every peeping Tom that comes her way? The outrage! 

But as our narrator watches Laureola’s behavior, he seems to interpret a disingenuity. She sighs often and frequently makes excuses to be alone, ergo she must be in love! And with none other than our Leriano!  Our narrator returns to the prison and persuades Leriano to write a note to his fair lady and quickly Leriano sends off a missive that surely would melt even a heart of stone. With bated breath and amidst much duress, he waits in agony for the response. 

Disclaimer 1: I know virtually nothing about Medieval courtship rituals…so what follows is a very unenlightened interpretation of what went wrong. Perhaps this relationship was always destined to fail, but I see some definite “red flags” that could have been avoided and made his fated outcome a bit less tragic. 

Number one: Don’t lock yourself in a prison made entirely of your emotions and torture yourself on the rack of your desire/ will to live/ hope etc.

Number two: In the unfortunate scenario, where you find yourself in the above mentioned predicament, if you feel the urge to write your unrequited lover a missive, perhaps refrain from calling her a murderer more than you absolutely have to. (Which would equal zero times…)

Disclaimer 2: In a very sad twist of fate, I lost my heavily annotated copy of Prison of Love and had to instead ferret around the internet to find some of the quotes that I wanted to include. (Sources are listed below.) Because of this travesty I will not be able to include all the wonderful quotes about murder or the 35 reasons why women should be esteemed, except from my faulty memory. 

As one would expect, when Laureola receives her love note filled with various histrionic threats and accusations, she is about as enthusiastic as one would imagine. Since Leriano’s genre of wooing is akin to blackmail, she has little choice but to respond to his letter, unless she wants to be known as an infamous murderer of love. She hesitatingly responds with a very cautious letter, which in summary is as follows: Listen guy, since you say you will kill yourself in your hopeless despondency unless I agree to be penpals…I agree. But this in no way means that I love you or even know you. We are strangers. This is not a relationship. 

Her response is interpreted as: My dearest Leriano, I can only imagine what our future babies will look like. Will they have your dimples? (Do you have dimples, I just realized I actually don’t know what you look like, since it is only you that has seen me from afar.) Alas, whatever you look like I imagine to be perfection. I await with bated breath for you to get here and begin the arduous process of courtly wooing which will in no time result in our happy union and by default, your acquisition of the Macedonian throne. 

The letter is the antidote Leriano needed. Within seconds he has thrown off the weight of his chains, the Prison of Love comes crashing to his feet and within a thrice he is hero once more. 
He arrives at court and it is not long before his surreptitious glances and heartfelt looks of mutual understanding find him a jealous rival. This rival accuses the couple of infidelity, and the King quickly throws his daughter in prison and demands that the gentleman fight a duel. The situation disintegrates and Laureola finds herself just days away from being executed. Leriano concocts a brilliant rescue plan and saves her life, and while she races away with her Uncle, his band of essentially merry men face the Kings army with dignity and valor. Eventually, Leriano and his men manage to drag one of the reprobates that was paid to besmirch Laureola’s good name and when he is summarily executed…one would think we were on the cusp of a happy ending. 

One would be wrong. 

Despite Leriano’s bravery and valor, despite his brilliant calculations and commendable leading, instead of receiving medals of honor and the hand of the woman he loves, the plot repeats itself. 

Leriano sends his sweetheart a letter and is again rejected. Despite his bravery, this is still a morganatic relationship. He is still a commoner and she is still the heir to the Macedonian throne. 

As soon as he realizes he is destined to play the unrequited lover in perpetuity, he contracts “lovesickness” and his health slowly deteriorates. While to the modern observer this may seem a bit attention seeking, for the Medieval chivalrous lover this is the honorable thing to do. He will be devoted in sickness and in health and if his presence upon this earth causes his fair mistress discomfort, then he will delicately remove himself from it. 

At one point a friend appears to defame women, hoping to rouse a bit of healthy resentment in our hero. Instead, he does just the opposite, and Leriano devotes his last iota of strength to defending the virtues of women. 

I wish I had my book because out of his 35 reasons that women are to be esteemed there are some real gems. 

Ultimately, as he realizes the end is near, he asks for his correspondence between himself and Laureola to be brought to him. Not once has he mentioned her name, choosing to honor her anonymity; with his last reserve of strength he rips her letters into tiny shreds and swallows them. Having concluded his business of honoring her to his last breath, he succumbs to his sickness of love.

At first I thought there was a similarity between the Prison of Love and the Phaedra plays and novels, whether by Racine, Euripides or Jeffers. The protagonist, usually a woman, falls in love with a man she cannot marry, ultimately committing suicide either out of desire or to preserve her honor. Granted the Phaedra type is always married, so there is a legitimate/ murky incestuous reason that she cannot have the man she desires, who always happens to be her new stepson. 

In these examples there is a clear delineation of where mortals can and cannot tread, and a world of assigned rules and laws governing the behavior of the classes. When the rules are defied, for example when Hippolytus refuses to worship at the shine of Aphrodite, the arrogance toward the gods is met with just vindication. The collateral damage and carnage that is left in the wake of this lesson is almost besides the point, making the suicides less of a plot culmination and more of an aside. 

For the medieval protagonist, lovesickness was a death sentence, an illness of mind and body ignited at the sight of beauty. From the first second we see Leriano, gazing at the face of the woman cast in stone, he is in the process of dying; the malady creeping its tendrils about the unlucky heart. For lovesickness the only antidote is requited love and since he has been destined to fall in love with a woman far above his station, he is destined to die. 

What I initially took as histrionics, may have actually been a fundamental medieval interpretation of science and medicine. He really was being murdered. And in this situation the only option for a man of virtue is to do die gracefully and with honor. 

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