The modern concept of love owes a great deal to the Humanist tradition of the Renaissance. The humanists focused on perfection and exaltation of this life as opposed to the afterlife. In Tristan and Iseult the seeds of Renaissance love are present in the Middle Ages. To the modern eye, it is a mystery how the period of the Middle Ages produced the seeds of the diametrically opposite Renaissance. Yet it is necessary to understand this transformation if one is to fully comprehend the forces that helped produce the modern consciousness. Courtly Love is a transitional concept that emerged in the Middle Ages. It is transitional because it emerged early and acknowledges God as the creator of love, yet it concentrates on the lovers themselves. The tale of Tristan and Iseult is one of the oldest tales that exhibits courtly love. The Love of Tristan and Iseult, as a metaphor for courtly love, is pivotal to the transition from the Middle Ages' focus on community and afterlife to the Renaissance focus on the individual and earthly happiness.
Tristan's life before he falls in love is a perfect example of the feudal devotion to lord and community. He avenges his father's death, restoring his fathers honor (11). After he has earned to right to be the King of Lyonesse, he prefers to give his body "up to King Mark...and in Cornwall...serve King Mark as [his] Lord" (10). The feudal system of the Middle Ages is based on the importance of forming a coherent and orderly society. Thus, although his personal interests would be better served ruling as a king in his own right, he prefers to stay with King Mark who needs him. Tristan further exhibits his loyalty by risking his life to kill the Morholt; illu...
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...the focus changes from pride in a land, or in a group of people, to pride in the beloved. Tristan and Iseult are individuals.
The love between Tristan and Iseult is like a bridge from the Feudalism of the Middle Ages to the Humanism of the Renaissance. In Feudal times a man was part of a greater hierarchy, and no matter what his place, he ultimately served God. Tristan starts his life following this principle. However, Tristan's love for Iseult makes him into the prototype Renaissance man. He defiantly proclaims: "I live and do no penance" (91). The greatest gift man has is life, and he does not feel the need to beg forgiveness for it. As Pico della Mirandola states, with the true humanist spirit, in his Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486): "O highest and most marvelous felicity of man! To him it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills."
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