As one interested in helping to bring about a revival of Christian Chivalry, I have thought fondly of the image of the “damsel in distress” as being both iconic and inspiring of the chivalric ideals. I was horrified, then, to see such an honorable term being disparaged by those otherwise promoting the ideals of chivalry. Call me naive or nostalgic (or worse), but I cannot for the life of me see anything wrong with it.
I will admit, if we understand “damsel in distress” as it is caricatured, for example, by the film image of the pretty woman being tied screaming to the train tracks by Dastardly Dan and then being rescued by Agent Jim West, then there is much to be disparaged. The poor helpless thing is abused by one womanizer only to be rescued by another, and all the while is oblivious to everything but the attention she is getting. The ideals of chivalry have always been partially obscured by the cult of “courtly love.” There is nothing new under the sun.
Television and film have that curious ability of turning unalloyed gold into lead, and contrariwise, of cultivating a fondness for the most obvious absurdities. We have learned to despise feminine vulnerability and celebrate the wonders of the Bionic Woman.
So what is the “damsel in distress,” and why should her place in the venerable history of womanhood be preserved and honored? To answer this question we must first examine the contemporary feminist trend to idolize the Amazon.
TV and movies are rife with tough, violent women nowadays. And it’s a scary thing. The movie tough girl look likes a starlet but fights like Rambo.
I am reminded of the Greeks who invented the Amazon myth as a kind of horror story. No men resided in Amazon territory. Once a year the Amazons would travel to a neighboring tribe where they would allow themselves to be impregnated. All the male children were either put to death, sent back to their fathers or left in the wilderness. Nice.
The modern version is not just a horror story; it is feminists' vicarious revenge, although, as usual, women are the losers in this gender horseplay. Misandry just ends in the frustration that women aren’t really men.
Not only are feminists in the mood to caricature men as jerks and buffoons, now they are literally kicking men’s rear ends–but only in Hollywood. No, in reality the Amazon myth is just a myth. The day all-women teams compete on a par with men in the NFL is the day I will believe otherwise. I am well aware that there are individual exceptions to this, but that just proves the rule, doesn’t it?
The Ms. Rambo fantasy is a sub-created world where women have their complete independence and men get payback from way back. I suppose it expresses the modern mood of male guilt over the past, when men and women believed that they were really different from each other. Women get their revenge all right, but at the expense of their femininity.
Women have, in fact, achieved a great deal of independence, some of it particularly critical in the light of divorce, abandonment and fatherlessness. Both single and married women have asserted their prowess in the public square and shown themselves formidable competition for men. In particular, many single moms have managed to create functioning families without a father.
But radical feminists have asserted women’s prowess most of all through divorce, abortion and birth control. After all, traditional childbearing has to go if women are to really be free of the dominance of men. Radical feminists have not yet figured out how to create a “woman only” utopia, so until they do, men are not quite as expendable as they would like to think.
In fact, in this charade men still win, don’t they? Now men have sex with women without consequences, and even when the woman keeps the baby, men feel more entitled than ever to opt out. It’s still a man’s world.
The Weaker Sex
Yes, women, like it are not, are the weaker sex, and while to say this is anathema in the public square, in my experience most women do not deny it, or are even inclined to deny it. Many will assume that by saying “weaker sex,” I mean “inferior sex,” which is not at all the case, nor does it even logically follow.
It is a women’s capacity to bear a child more than anything else that makes her the weaker sex. Physique and hormonal instability are secondary when compared to the immense vulnerability of female fertility. Men don’t get pregnant and have no fear of being abandoned by the mother of their child. The potential for motherhood is a woman’s greatest gift, but by its very nature it is something she is not capable of safeguarding by herself. She needs to be protected.
If anything, the ability to bear a child makes a woman superior to men, not inferior, but it certainly does not make her stronger. Alice Von Hildebrand, in her little book, The Privilege of Being a Woman, points out very clearly that the “weakness” of a woman does not mean that she is “less intelligent, less talented, less reliable, less moral, etc.” (35). She says that a woman’s weakness has both its cons and pros. (I paraphrase.) On the con side there is emotional vulnerability, greater sensitivity and openness to being wounded, emotional impressionability and sentimentality and emotional vulnerability to less than sincere men. On the pro side there is the fineness of womanhood in which her fragility and beauty are inherently connected; a woman’s weakness is one of the main motives for the promotion of chivalrous and courteous behavior; it is the fineness and beauty of vulnerability which tends to humanize men and promote the primacy charity (cf. 36-47).
Now, I know I will get arguments from women that point to certain facets of human life where women generally manifest themselves as stronger than men—for example, in the ability to suffer and in the ability to persevere in the rigors of parenthood. However, full-fledged feminists would not count these examples as strength; quite the opposite.
All this being said, it is the vulnerability of feminine fertility, more than in any other way, that leaves the feminists ambivalent over the woman’s capacity for motherhood. They know motherhood is a great good, but it is also one that puts them at a very real disadvantage.
Babies as Parasites
According to pro-life feminist Mary Krane Derr, feminists have alternately defended a woman’s distinctive capacity to bear children and then capitulated to the tendency to self-devaluation resulting from the changes that take place in a woman’s body during pregnancy. Most feminists, however, whether defending or attacking motherhood, have advocated for abortion. This ambivalence concerning motherhood, together with the gut reaction support of abortion, quite naturally has manifested itself in the regard of pregnancy as a disease and the fetus as an aggressor or parasite.
Derr quotes from a 1969 play by Myrna Lamb, But What Have You Done for Me Lately? It is another version of the Ms. Rambo myth in which the endgame always finds women still inferior and still the losers. The only consolation here is in sharing the misery:
. . . The drama depicts the reactions of a man in whom a pregnant uterus was forcibly implanted, clarifying for him the anger, desperation, and anguish of a woman when she faces the same dilemma:
“Why should I give this . . . this thing representation?” he cries. “It is nothing to me. I am not responsible for it or where it is nor do I wish to be. I have a life, an important life. I have work, important work . . . and this mushroom which you have visited upon me in your madness has no rights, no life, no importance to anyone, certainly not to the world. It has nothing. It has no existence . . . A tumor. A parasite. This has been foisted upon me? and then I am told that I owe it primary rights to life? My rights are subsidiary! This insanity! I do not want this thing in my body! It does not belong there. I want it removed. Immediately. Safely.”
The pregnant uterus he finds in him was implanted by a woman he once impregnated and abandoned. She remembers what it was like to have that unwanted disease and speaks for all women like her who are deprived of the surgery that would cure the unwanted pregnancy:
“Our work suffered. Our futures hung from a gallows. Guilt and humiliation and ridicule and shame assailed us. Our bodies. Our individual unique familiar bodies, suddenly invaded by strange unwelcome parasites, and we were denied the right to rid our own bodies of these invaders by a society dominated by righteous male chauvinists of both sexes who identified with the little clumps of cells and gave them precedence over the former owners of the host bodies.”
Wouldn’t that be the ultimate revenge, to force men, against their will to bear children? Do these women really hate themselves that much? It seems so.
Derr also points to the same self-devaluating root when considering the cause of anorexia. Studies have shown that the cult of thinness (which now seems even vogue in fashion and has resulted in the death of high profile models) is connected to many women’s discomfort with their own bodies, which they consider inferior, and that drives them to shed their feminine curves and appear more like a man.
No, women are not inferior and pregnancy is not a disease. Women need to rediscover their own dignity in that which is at the same time their vulnerability. Derr concludes her article:
Such a transformed understanding of gestation can give women the confidence to demand proper recognition of pregnancy as a truly indispensable contribution that they, and only they, can make to human life. Indeed, women must make this demand if they wish to achieve full liberation. If feminists are to heal women’s estrangement from their bodies, they must not think of pregnancy as disease, even when it occurs in tremendously unsupportive contexts. When they accept this construction of pregnancy, they only perpetuate the female tendency to lash out at the self rather than challenge societal conditions that deny the worthiness of the self.
The “societal conditions” to which Derr refers are many, but clearly one of those conditions is the devaluating of femininity by men, and the consequent acceptance and assimilation of that devaluation by women themselves. For some feminists, achieving “full liberation” means to reject all gender differences beyond biology as oppressive social constructs. It means gaining the strength not to be dependent on men at all. If this is what full liberation means, it is hard to imagine its achievement apart from birth control, abortion and divorce. The only other avenue, it seems would be lesbianism, a path, which logic based on false premises, has led some feminists to take. As Charlotte Bunch explains in Lesbians in Revolt:
Lesbianism is a threat to the ideological, political, personal, and economic basis of male supremacy. The Lesbian threatens the ideology of male supremacy by destroying the lie about female inferiority, weakness, passivity, and by denying women’s ‘innate’ need for men (even for pro-creation if the science of cloning is developed).
It’s a brave new world.
The Emancipation of Domesticity
It seems that modern feminists are more afraid and jealous of men than they care to admit. The feminist cry for emancipation from men is a misfiring femininity, a woman’s natural grace, an exhortation to men to be fair and humane, turned shrill and ugly. Emancipation has come to mean “free” to become like a man, which is to say, something not at all like a woman.
The absurdity of this strikes me in the gut (pun intended), as when popular culture play acts and allows Ms. Rambo to stand on the top of her heap of conquered and broken boys. As much as I pity the poor deluded girl, I pity the rest of us as well. The Amazon myth has trampled us all.
Feminists admonish men to give them quarter, but not to respect them. And men don’t. Abortion and birth control have not raised the status of women one iota. Abandonment and fatherlessness are a plague upon family and civil life. No one is better for it, certainly not women, but neither are men nor children. Feminists are manlier and less feminine, and for that reason they are less humane, and therefore, so is everyone else.
Just as men in film and television pretend to be beat up by women, so real-world men comply with the demands of the feminists and meanwhile snicker privately at the foolish girls who have guaranteed a man’s right to be a perpetually irresponsible, puerile, post-pubescent, and juvenile. Ladies, I hope you are happy.
Unfortunately, I think many women are quite happy. Gone are the days when they were regarded as the guardians of chastity and domestic life. One may no longer assume that the bimbo is dumb. The real feminine prowess has been cultivated and refined into a college educated, hyper-sexualized form of manipulation. The women’s clothing section of the local Wal-Mart now looks like some out of the way, sleazy sex shop. It’s the new, smart, emancipated look. The war of the sexes goes on, and everyone is losing.
Women are, in fact, inherently the weaker sex; however, the whole world is at the mercy of this weakness. Unless women once again become the guardians of chastity and domestic life, we are all doomed. The dignity and power of a woman lies in her prerogative to say yes or no. She becomes a queen or a plaything with the well-placed whisper of one little word.
The whole world turns on this power, and it must be defended unto the death. It is both the stuff of adventure and a primordial, domestic thing. But isn’t domestic life the real adventure, the place where every day is perilous and uncertain, where the whole world hangs in the balance? Yes, the power of a woman’s consent is a domestic reality, one pertaining to marriage and procreation before anything else, but it extends to the whole of civilized life. G.K. Chesterton, perhaps the most chivalrous man of the twentieth century, had this to say about the “emancipation of domesticity”:
But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean.
To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets cakes, and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene: I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness (What’s Wrong with the World).
I can hear the groans. No, I am not saying that a woman’s place is only in the home, but I am saying that it is primarily there. A woman is not accidentally maternal; she is essentially so. Edith Stein, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, put it succinctly: a woman’s vocation is “empathy.”
On the face of it, empathy is a weakness. It is openness to experience and participate in what others experience, especially pain. It makes a woman vulnerable.
But without it, we all die.
Damsels in Distress
That brings me more directly to the question of the “damsel in distress.” It is a chivalric image of vulnerability and innocence. Of course, such an image is not complete without the “knight in shining armor,” who conveys the sense of courage and heroism. The image, completed with the damsel in distress being saved by the knight in shining armor, is the picture of courtesy and contains as happy an ending as anyone could hope for. Perhaps the word that best describes it is one coined by Tolkien: eucatastrophe, meaning the complete reversal of catastrophe, idealized as the triumph of the Cross made available to all of us in the Eucharist.
Historically one of the earliest and most important examples of the image as it entered the West is the legend of St. George and the Dragon. The story is by no means an exclusively Western treasure (I think of Russia and Lebanon, for example), but it is particularly important for an understanding of Western chivalry (especially in England).
As the legend goes, or at least one version of it, a dragon took up its abode at the spring from which the locals drew their water. The dragon thus took custody of the spring and demanded a price for its use. The only way the townsfolk could draw their water was by the offering of someone to the dragon as a human sacrifice. Each day a new victim was selected by common agreement through the drawing of lots. One fateful day, the lot fell to the princess of the kingdom, and even the intervention of her father, the king, was not enough to save her from the dragon; the people insisted that the arrangement be respected. At this point, St. George providentially rode up on his steed and volunteered his services to face the dragon, which he did to great effect, the dragon being slain and the damsel rescued. The awestruck townspeople as a result abandoned the ways of paganism and became Christians.
Crusaders, it is said, brought the story back from the East and transformed it to fit the times. Christian tradition and hagiography was transformed into quasi-secular romance. Certainly, for courtiers who heard this story, the “art of courtly love,” could easily serve as the hermeneutic for the understanding of the story, in which case, it would not be any different from the story of the rescue of a damsel in the Arthurian cycle. However, the Christian symbolism, even in the most embellished version of the legend, is unmistakable: the Christ figure enters into combat with the Demon and rescues the Virgin Church from his clutches. This is paradise regained. In some versions of the legend, there is even a tree (Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) to which the maiden is tied and from which she is rescued.
The damsel in distress is the bride of Ephesians 5. This passage of St. Paul on marriage is a holy incantation and exorcism that scatters the feminist demons to their dark and gloomy pits. St. Paul, the “misogynist,” is actually the guardian of feminine weakness and the promoter of chivalry. He admonishes the coward Adam and kneels at the feet of the hero Christ. Both men and women are better for it, if by casting off the modern prejudice they can just for a moment wave away the wafting mist of the Ms. Rambo deception and see the Bridegroom and Bride for who they truly are.
Damsels Not So in Distress
We live in an unreal age, when we have “pregnant men,” surgically enhanced beauty queens and the Hollywood myth of the female soldier. I don’t say this lightly, or in any way to disparage the brave women who serve in our armed forces, but take the example of PFC Jessica Lynch, who was lionized by the Pentagon as the Rambo-like heroine of the Iraq war, but as it turns out, had never fired her weapon. This story is not only symptomatic of Pentagon propaganda, but of the general acceptance of the Ms. Rambo myth. That myth is putting women in harms way in a manner that goes far beyond the ordinary dangers of military life. Sexual abuse of military women by military men is of “jaw-dropping proportions.
But what about the valiant women of history and literature: Judith, Esther, Jael, St. Joan of Arc, Luthien, Eowyn, ect.? Examine each of their stories and you will find a woman driven by love and a prophetic spirit, not someone preoccupied with the worldly ways of domination and prowess. In each case, more importantly you will find a woman who picks up the sword that a man, derelict of his duty, has dropped and from which he has walked away. In each case you will find a victress who conquers not so much by force of arms, but by her beauty, virtue and charm.
Judith, that type of Our Lady, for example, is the ultimate femme fatale, beautiful and virtuous, who lulls her enemy by her charms and then decapitates him in his lustful sleep. Being the proper lady that she is, she is accompanied to and from her encounter by one of her maids who carries back to the city the head of the enemy in her purse. The men of Judith’s city who were too afraid and desperate to solve the problem themselves are left with no other resource than to sing her praises:
Thou art the glory of Jerusalem, thou art the joy of Israel, thou art the honor of our people: For thou hast done manfully, and thy heart has been strengthened, because thou hast loved chastity, and after thy husband hast not known any other: therefore also the hand of the Lord hath strengthened thee, and therefore thou shalt be blessed for ever (Judith 15:10, 11).
In regard to the dangerous character of virtuous femininity, which character is perfectly harmonious with a woman’s character as damsel in distress, Chesterton said it best:
I have little doubt that when St. George had killed the dragon he was heartily afraid of the princess.
The Valiant Woman
Who shall find a valiant woman? Far, and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her.
St. Bonaventure writes that this verse from the Book of Proverbs (31:10) is prophetic of the Blessed Virgin’s fortitude, especially at the foot of the Cross. The “price of her,” that is, her worth, is the fruit of Her womb, which fruit she bore, offered and possesses. Thus she bore the price in joy at Bethlehem; She paid the price in sorrow on Calvary; and now She possesses the price as Mediatrix in heaven.
Far off and from the last ends is her price; and who is she? This woman, the Blessed Virgin, is the price, through which we prevail to obtain the Kingdom of Heaven; or it is Hers, that is, taken from Her, paid by Her and possessed by Her: taken from Her in the Incarnation of the Word; paid by Her in the redemption of the human race; and possessed by Her in the gaining of the glory of paradise. She brought forth, paid and possessed that price; therefore it is Hers as the one originating, as the one paying and as the one possessing. That woman brought forth that price as one strong and holy; paid it as one strong and pious; possessed it as one strong and vigorous (Conferences on the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, Conference 6).
Mary is the ideal woman and the iconic Damsel in Distress. St. Bonventure chooses to speak in reference to Her when discussing thd Gift of Fortitude. He makes a distinction between the courage of action, which he attributes properly to man, and that of suffering, which he attributes to the woman: “Men are they that do; women are they that suffer” (pati). The root here of the word suffer is passio (literally, “that which is undergone”), so in the first place it indicates receptivity, an openness to what it is real; secondarily, but most importantly, it is openness to suffering willed out of love. Mary is the Queen of Martyrs and the Sorrowful Mother. She is the Queen of the Seven Swords.
In the friars chapel in Griswold, Connecticut, the rood beam spans the width of the Church and separates the sanctuary from the nave. On it a summary of St. Bonaventure’s doctrine are carved and gilded:
Pretium Redemptionis Nostrae Maria Protulit, Persolvit Possidet,that is, “Mary bore, offered (paid) and possesses the price of our redemption.”
Taken out of the context of Christian revelation the idea of men acting and women suffering could and has been interpreted to mean: “Men are those who do unto; women are those who are done unto.” But one must recognize that the context for this relationship in the mind of saints like Bonaventure is John 19 and Ephesians 5. The Ms. Rambo myth and the accoutrements that go along with it, like contraception and abortion, are the paraphernalia of a world that has rejected the cross, where mutual manipulation is the rule, where persons are used, not loved.
Historical chivalry from the point of view of Christian ethics was about channeling the courage of action in such a way that it respected the high dignity of the courage of suffering. Women were venerated precisely for the fine delicacy of their beauty, which is exemplary of everything that is worth dying for, namely, the true, good and beautiful.
Unfortunately, the ethical ideal in historical chivalry was all too often just that, an ideal. The courtiers and troubadours too often idealized woman in a pagan sense, that is, they made her a goddess, who was to be served and flattered in the hope that she might shed the dew of her grace upon the poor suitor. So reads one of the rules of courtly love: “Being obedient in all things to the commands of ladies, thou shalt ever strive to ally thyself to the service of Love.”
I can never take this kind of thing seriously. Dan Brown tried to resurrect this nonsense in his unbearable Da Vinci Code. Poor little Sophie, so the backstory goes, misinterpreted the sex-rite in which she had discovered her grandfather engaged and refused to speak to him for the rest of his life. Only after his death, when she is fully enlightened by the much smarter men around her, is she able to realize that what had horrified her in reality it is the most respectable form of goddess worship. And guess what? Sophie also eventually learns that, descending as she does from the bloodline of Christ, she has a special title to the cult of the goddess. The culminating passage where this tripe is fully revealed to Sophie reads like a pious exposition of the most holy mysteries, when in fact it is the diabolic mutterings of the demon of lust. And of course, Sophie takes it all in as the enlightened little sex object she was meant to be.
This is also a reason why I fear what I think has rightly been termed the pansexualism of Christopher West. I do not wish to connect him with the paganism of Dan Brown, but I am always suspicious of pious male veneration of the female body. I am not talking about an ordinary red-blooded attraction. I am talking about the refined, studied and sophisticated trappings of sexual obsession cloaked in euphemisms. Do I think this is what West is engaged in? No, but the penchant for unveiling the mystery in explicit language is dangerous.
Chesterton points to the contrast of worldly and other-worldly regard for femininity in his poem “The Ballad of King Arthur.” The historical information we have regarding Arthur is very slim. All we know are the bits and pieces salvaged by monks from the Dark Ages, mostly about what battles he fought in, especially, the Battle of Mount Badon and concerning the fact that he “carried the image of Mary, Ever-virgin, on his shoulder, through whose virtue and that of Jesus Christ,” he was victorious. Chesterton writes:
King Arthur on Mount Badon
Bore Our Lady on his shield
High on that human altar held
Above the howling field,
High on that living altar heaved
As a giant heaves a tower
She saw all heathenry appalled
And the turning of the hour.
But the woman that the world remembers, when the story of Arthur is retold and embellished, is not the Queen of Virgin’s but the queen that betrayed the king:
The Queen that wronged King Arthur’s house
Had lovers in all lands
And many a poet praised her pride
At many a queen’s commands:
And the King shrank to a shadow
Watching behind a screen
And the Queen walked with Lancelot
And the world walked with the Queen.
But, as we might expect, Chesterton does not walk with the world or with the Queen “that wronged King Arthur’s house, but with the Queen of the Seven Swords:
Stillness like lightning strike the street
And doubt and deep amaze
And many a courtly bard be dumb
Beside his butt and bays
And many a patron prince turned pale—
If one such flash made plain
The Queen that stands at his right hand
If Arthur comes again.
Guinevere was not so much a damsel in distress, even as she was rescued from the flames by Lancelot, because she was a manipulator just like Lancelot. On the other hand, Our Lady is the true Damsel in Distress and Christ, the true Knight in Shining Armor, because they are one in the mutual freedom of self-giving. Arthur, the “once and future king” will find the honor of his kingdom regained, when the lesson of the Quest of the Holy Grail is learned by the mass of men. Chivalry cannot be a sham and we cannot live without the real thing.
Yes, women need to be protected. They are damsels in distress. The man should stand guard in front of the veil. The courage of action should be put into the service of the courage of suffering. Christ on the Cross did what the first Adam was afraid to do: He protected his Bride. He entered into battle with the dragon and freed the Virgin tied to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He was slain in the process, but in the power of His paschal mystery has presented her to himself, a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5: 27).
Hail Victress, standing fast,
The banner is lifted.
Unfurl the sign of salvation,
And storm with Thy Lord
the lair of the Dragon.
Holy Lily of our knighthood,
Draw us to Thy side
To die with Thee,
con-crucified in Him.
The Chivalrous Woman
The idea of damsels in distress implies that women need men. But men also need women. And this is not only a matter of marriage and family, or of matrimonial complementarity. It is also a matter of chivalry. Men need women to be chivalrous.
There is a grain of truth in the chivalrous ideal of the service of women. But it has nothing to do with the mutual manipulation that has continued through the ages, even after the presumed death of chivalry. Even among those who hate chivalry, the mutual manipulation of the sexes is a sacred doctrine. Ms. Rambo is tolerated by her brothers in arms because now she is one of the boys. She can use her sexuality on her own terms, but the game is on. Let us see whether she succeeds. She no longer has any claim to protection.
Mutual manipulation can never end unless men are protective and women want to be protected. Motherhood is worthy of the highest veneration. Vulnerability is the delicacy of a flower. If men do not love this, they are not worthy to be loved.
Women need to hold men to the highest standards. They need to be choosy in regard to the men to whom they say yes. This is the real power of a woman: her fiat. On it the whole of history depends. What John Paul II reminds us, and Christopher West stresses, is that the “freedom of the gift” with respect to man and woman in the mystery of marriage is absolutely inviolable, and that the preservation of that gift belongs to the man (the male) in a special way (TOB 15; 33.1-2). A woman’s yes is sacred and it needs to be protected. But if woman does not value her fiat properly, if she sells it off cheaply, she has no real escape. It is either subjugation in the classical sense or the Ms. Rambo myth.
Geoffroi de Charny was a fourteenth century French knight and bearer of the Oriflamme, who wrote a well known manual for knights called The Book of Chivalry. In that work he writes of the duty of courtly women to hold their men to the highest standards. For the most part that meant that they were only to give their love to knights who had won worldly honor, and who could safely be named a lover of some man without their own loss of worldly honor:
And if one of the other ladies loves the miserable wretch who, for no good reason, is unwilling to bear arms, she will see him come into that very hall and perceive and understand that no one pays him any attention or shows him honor or notices him, and few know who he is, and those who do think nothing of him, and he remains hidden behind everyone else, for no one brings him forward. Indeed, if there is such a lady, she must feel very uneasy and disconsolate when she sees that she has devoted time and thought to loving and admiring a man who no one admires or honors, and that they never hear a word said of any great deed that he ever achieved. Ah, God! What small comfort and solace is there for those ladies who see their lovers held in such little honor, with no excuse except lack of will! (20.14-25).
The worldly standard of pride was somewhat necessary in the training of men of arms, and still is. The warrior must be ferocious, in some measure, and so the warrior culture encourages bold, decisive behavior that is bent upon domination and victory. That women would hold out for the bravest and most honored men was understandable and promoted the warrior culture. But even so, while this may have also promoted the ideals of courtly love, it did not necessarily safeguard the true dignity of women or the good of marriage and family life.
Too many women sell their fiat too cheaply to knaves who are not worthy of them. Sometimes those knaves are knights in the making, whose honor a woman’s cheap yes does not serve. Men need to be both warriors and true gentlemen. Only women can help them find that balance. Women need to humanize men, without stifling their urge to take risks and to fight. Men need to protect and defend the honor of women.
The Playboy philosophy of Hugh Hefner is not only puerile, but effeminate. The playboy is a prurient Peter Pan, who has never learned how to be a man, perhaps because he has never sufficiently identified with a father figure. His preference is to play indoors where he can’t get hurt and where he will never by deprived of the soft touch of a woman.
There are also the men who are just plainly brutal, how have natural bravado, aggression and a libido to match. A woman’s cheap yes, in this regard, and other men’s silence in the face of it, are the stuff out of which tragedies are made. The damsel in distress has one weapon only: her judicious consent over which she is the sole mistress.
Chesterton was inspired by the nursery rhyme “Pears or Pairs” to write a poem on the subject of true courtly love, which he entitled “An Old Riddle.” I will conclude with it, since it so aptly summarizes the battle of the sexes and the formula for mutual victory. That formula does not provide for the possibility of the damsel in distress being rescued from Dastardly Dan only to be wooed by a more suave womanizer, nor does it provide for the baptism of the Ms. Rambo myth. The real solution is more difficult and more complex, but as with everything else that is worth living for, it is worth dying for:
Seven Knights of the Court of Love
Each has her for a star above
Seven smite in a single name
Seven hearts are hearts of flame
Round where she doth sit
But a maid’s choice is as God’s choice
And who shall challenge it. . .
Seven titans, huge and starred
Seven giants of God’s own guard
These may merit all years’ renown,
Fit for these be the robe and crown,
Heaven’s fields befit
But a maid’s grace is as God’s grace
And who shall merit it.
Father Angelo Mary Geiger, a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, blogs at MaryVictrix.com, where this post originally appeared.