by Joyce DiPastena
The theme of medieval love tokens, or small gifts sent between would-be lovers, runs throughout the story of Courting Cassandry. In reality, as romantic as such gifts might seem, they would have been frowned upon during the Middle Ages. “Courtship” was not a luxury that the medieval upper class could afford to indulge in. Marriages, for the most part, were straightforward business arrangements between two families. The criteria for choosing a spouse usually boiled down to two things: will this union bring our family more land (the medieval equivalent of wealth) or more political power? Parents chose spouses for their children and the children were expected to obediently marry one another when the time came.
(Parents decided who their children would marry)
However, during the 12th century, a concept developed in medieval France known as “courtly love.” This became a highly structured game between men and women, usually with adulterous overtones, in theory if not often in practice. A man, usually a knight of lower birth or wealth, falls in love with a married lady and courts her with poetry and gifts. It is unlikely that the majority of such “courtships” ever passed the bounds into full infidelity, for infidelity was a serious matter during the Middle Ages and was met with heavy consequences. But that does not mean the game was not still sometimes surreptitiously, and carefully, played.
These were some of the gifts, or tokens, that were acceptable to be sent to a lady, according to Andreas Capellanus in his 12th century treatise, The Art of Courtly Love:
“A handkerchief, a fillet, a wreath of gold or silver, a brooch, a mirror, a purse, a girdle (belt), a tassel, a comb, sleeves, gloves, a ring, a powder box, little dishes, or any small object useful for the toilet or serving to remind of the lover, if it be certain that, in receiving the token, the lady is without a touch of avarice.” (Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, by Amy Kelly.)
(A comb was considered an appropriate token to send to a lady)
One event at which a lady might quite openly give a token to a man with few repercussions was at a tournament. These tokens were usually called “favors” and when worn by the knight, indicated that all his successes on the tournament field would be won on behalf of the lady whose token he wore. These tokens could include such things as ribbons, the woman’s girdle or belt, a ring, the veil she wore over her hair, or even a removable sleeve from her dress. The knight would tuck the token into his helmet or tie it around his arm so that it could be clearly seen while he fought in the tournament.
(Lady tying a favor around a knight’s arm before a tournament ~ painting by Edmund Leighton)
As mentioned above, this game of love tokens plays a significant role in Courting Cassandry and it is a game taken very seriously by the heroine and hero, Cassandry and Gerolt, who believe someone is illicitly courting Cassandry’s daughter after she becomes betrothed to Gerolt’s son. In true medieval fashion, the parents are determined to put a stop to the game. But are the tokens truly intended for Cassandry’s daughter, or might they be intended for Cassandry herself?