On the Violence of Love

“ ‘I have been wounded by love.’ [Song of Songs 2:5 Old Latin] Love urges me to speak about love, and I willingly devote myself to its service.  Indeed, it is sweet and altogether enjoyable to speak about love (dilectione)—a pleasant matter and quite rich, and one that cannot in any way produce tedium in the writer and disgust in the reader.  For that which is seasoned with love is flavorful beyond measure on the palate of the heart.  ‘If a man were to give the entire wealth of his house for his love (dilectione), he would think it nothing.’ [Song of Songs 8:7 Vulg.] ” Richard of St Victor, On the Four Degrees of Violent Love I.1. in On Love: Victorine Texts in Translation, p. 275.

Richard lived and taught at the abbey of St Victor in Paris from about 1150 to 1173.  He followed the tradition of the master teacher, Hugh of St Victor, in this focus on the force of love.  Additionally, he connects to the significant fascination that celibate clergy had with reading and commenting on an ancient Hebrew love poem and a part of Holy Scripture.  Notice the text begins with a quote from that text.  Hugh defined love in the follow manner:

“Love seems to be—and love is—the delight of somebody’s heart toward something on account of something.  It is desire in seeking, and delight in thoroughly enjoying; it runs by means of (per) desire, it rests by means of delight.” Hugh of St Victor, On the Substance of Love II.5 in On Love: Victorine Texts in Translation, p. 144. {emphasis added}

This definition could apply to a loving marriage or even a favorite food.  In his work, Richard compares love to a violent force that compels one to act.  While often associated with the Cistercians, Victorine masters also sought to understand how human love mirrored or explained divine love.  Cistercians transferred the literal understanding of a love poem (the Song of Songs) into a mystical relationship of the soul with God.  Richard, a mystical theologian, explained this power in what certainly seems like the purpose of romance:     

“Do you not think that the heart appears to be pierced when that fiery sting of love (amoris) penetrates one’s mind to the core of his being and transfixes his feelings, so much so that he is completely incapable of containing or concealing the boiling of his desire?  He is ablaze  with desire; he seethes with feeling.  He boils and pants, groaning deeply and drawing long, deep breaths.” Richard, Four Degrees in On Love, pp.276-77 

It really seems to me that Richard understood what it meant to be ‘in love’ with someone.  When we read the medieval theologians, we should always move from the literal to the allegorical.  Richard wants his reader to understand that he or she could feel within the soul a divine love that sweetens the affections and controls the body in the same way a lover bends his own will for his beloved. 

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