St. George and the Damsel

Here is an excerpt from an old post “Damsels in Distress,” in which I mention St. George whose feast we celebrate today:

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 ride 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 retold it as a courtly romance.  In a way typical of the Middle Ages, 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.

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Damsels in Distress

kill-bill

I started on this post more than a year ago and have come back to it from time to time.  While I am up at Mount St. Francis, hiding in my cave and working on my paper for our Coredemption conference in July, I thought I would finally knock it out.  I shot a video on the same topic  a while back.

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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.

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The Queen of Courtesy

John Saward has an excellent article on courtesy in the ETWN document library.

Courtesy is not strictly distinct from the other virtues, but rather a quality to be found in them all. It has something to do with reverence, humility, and chastity. It is shaped by charity, the form of all the virtues, into the quality of mercy. It is the beauty of a brave and generous life.

So reverence, humility, chastity, charity, mercy and beauty all go into making up a courteous man.  And of course, for all Christian courtesy to exist, namely that courteous quality of mind that is directed ultimately to the worship of God, all of these virtues are motivated by faith in Christ and love for God.

Courtesy is not merely the refusal to step out of the bounds of accepted manners, or even to do unto others as one would wish them to do unto him:

The courteous person has an attitude of “worship” toward his fellows: by small deeds of kindness, he acknowledges their worth, their dignity, as human persons. In the Sarum marriage rite, the husband vows reverence and thus courtesy toward his wife in the very acts of married love. “With my body I thee worship.” Chivalrous respect is of the very essence of husbandly love.

“Worship” here has the archaic connotation of reverence, which is to all those for whom Christ died.  No one should be excluded.  Christ came to serve.  He died for the many.  He wills that all men be saved.  True reverence for other men, especially our enemies is the spirit of Christ which wishes life upon all sinners.

St. Maximilian prayed not only that the Freemasons would be thwarted in their efforts to destroy the Church, not only for their conversion, but that they would become servants of Our Blessed Lady.

Which brings me to the Marian character of courtesy.  Saward says:

When we look at the artistic images of the Annunciation in the 15th century, the great age of courtesy, we find all the tell-tale signs of courtesy. In a painting by Fra Filippo Lippi in the Uffizi, Gabriel bends his knee and bows his head in the presence of the Holy Virgin, and his arm appears to strike his breast as if to say, ‘Madonna, my Lady, I am not worthy to come under thy roof.’ In fact, in all of the iconography of Christendom, the angels of God are courteously content to keep their wings in the wings and leave center-stage to the God-Man and his human saints. In the angels, person and mission are one–the very name “angel” describes an office,
not a nature. Everything in the angelic world is centered on God. Self-effacement and thus courtesy are the secret of the angels.

The Courtesy of our Lady Our Blessed Lady, God’s Mother and ours, is medieval man’s first thought when he hears the word “courtesy.” She is the object of the courtesy of Gabriel and Elizabeth, but among creatures she is also the virtue’s most perfect embodiment. Here is
incandescent purity, sublime humility, the most tender motherly mercy. If courtesy is self-emptying, then no created person is more courteous than she whose every thought, word, and deed is centered on her son. “Do whatever he tells you.” In Pearl, the Gawain poet finds
the soul of his little daughter in the presence and service of the Queen of Courtesy, “Matchless Mother, Merriest Maid, Blessed Beginner of Every Grace.” Our Lady is the Church’s supreme model in courtesy, as she is in everything that is Christian.

Now it would be a crass error to see the devotion of medieval man to heaven’s Queen as a mere transposition of the courtly honor he paid his earthly mistress. On the contrary, the veneration of Mary was a constant source of renewal and purification. It challenged men to love and look upon women in a more than merely erotic way. She who is uniquely both Virgin and Mother somehow cast her radiance upon all those who were separately virgins and mothers. There is a whole genre of writing that sings the spiritual beauty of women for the sake of the Mother of God. According to a 15th- century ballad, this Mary inspired courtesy toward women graced the life of Robin Hood.

Robin loved Our dear Lady;
For fear of deadly sin
Would he never do company harm
‘That any woman was in.

Don’t forget when we say “Our Lady,” (Domina Nostra), it implies both a reverence for her queenship and her femininity.  She is the ideal woman, and the Queen of Courtesy.