One in a series of blogs about confluences between The Avengers and random medieval stuff.
Guillaume de Machaut’s “Douce Dame Jolie”
In the song “Douce Dame Jolie” (Sweet, Lovely Lady) by Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377), a lover complains about his lady’s hard-heartedness towards him, and asks her to relieve him of his “malady,” in this case his lovesickness and desire to have sex with his lady. The lover in the poem has a red-blooded dynamic just like Steed, and his lady isn’t giving in. The lover’s protestations become more and more frantic, until finally he stops calling his lady his “douce dame jolie” and names her his “douce ennemie”:
Et quant ma maladie
Ne sera annullement
Sans vous, dous anemie
Estes mon tourment.
A jointes mains deprie
Puis qu’il m’oublie
Que temprement m’ocie
Car trop langui longuement.
(And since my malady will not be annulled without you, Sweet Enemy who takes delight in my torment, with clasped hands I beseech your heart that forgets me, that it mercifully kill me, for too long have I languished.)
The caption (in blue ink, top) reads: “How the lover made a lay about his feelings.” Image from Guillaume de Machaut, Remede de Fortune (Fortune’s Remedy). (Paris, BNF Fr. 1586, f. 26r)
Cathy Gale as the “Douce Ennemie”
In many ways, Cathy Gale is the Sweet Enemy of medieval lyric. It is important to note that “enemy” in this context does not refer to someone who wishes or perpetrates harm upon another. Rather it refers to someone who is constantly blocking another’s path and preventing them from getting what they want. Steed loves Cathy and wants her, but she just won’t give in to him. They bicker and snark at each other, and although she loves him, she holds him at arm’s length more often than not, sometimes quite literally. (Gif credit: celluloidbroomcloset.tumblr.com)
In “Propellant 23,” Steed drops a (non-verbal) hint that maybe they might while away the time with a little hanky-panky as they wait for the opportunity for him to break into the police office at the airport. Cathy shuts that down, too, with “a glance forged in Milan.”* (Gif credit: celluloidbroomcloset.tumblr.com)
In “Esprit de Corps,” Cathy teases Steed about wanting her by asking “Anything you want to draw from stores?” His reply (“Yes, but I doubt you’d issue it”) indicates that he knows he’s not going to get any. This is all done very light-heartedly, but it is yet another example of how Cathy refuses Steed’s desire, making her the “Sweet Enemy” of courtly lyric.
I agree that it’s likely that Cathy and Steed have a sexual relationship, but more often than not she seems to be telling Steed to get lost. This lady keeps herself apart from her knight, and does not always welcome his advances, at least not on screen, notwithstanding how much she cares for him or how attractive she finds him.
Although the lover in “Douce Dame Jolie” seems to think that his lady is refusing him because she wants to torture him, I don’t think that is what is happening between Steed and Cathy. She is not being a tease, and she’s not refusing Steed just so that she can watch him squirm.
Disclaimer about cultural practices: It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of medieval poetry was written with a particular set of tropes in mind, and didn’t necessarily reflect actual relationships among the people who produced and consumed that poetry. (Machaut himself was a cleric, and therefore wasn’t supposed to have amorous relationships with women, courtly or otherwise.) In courtly lyric (which didn’t necessarily reflect real life), the lover’s traditional role is to languish for his lady, and the lady’s traditional role is to withhold her favors, which makes the lover go off and write poetry about how lovesick he is and how intensely he wishes his lady would give in to him.
The thing that I find an interesting confluence between Machaut’s song and the Steed/Gale relationship is that Steed most definitely wants to take their relationship to the next level, but Cathy doesn’t (or feels she can’t or shouldn’t), and it creates a lot of interesting tension between the characters that is in some ways similar to the tensions in courtly lyric.
*”D’ung regard forgie a Milan” is a line from “L’autre d’antan,” a 15th-century song by Jean d’Ockeghem. Milan was known for the superior quality of its swords at the time.
Emma Peel as the “Douce Ennemie” in “Town of No Return”
This concept of the “Sweet Enemy” is vital in the transition from the Gale era to the Peel one, in what is probably the most brilliant character introduction of all time. The first meeting we witness between Mrs. Peel and Steed is largely taken up with a fencing match, in which Mrs. Peel sets herself up as Steed’s opponent. When Steed tries to get Emma’s “cream,” she blocks him. Emma understands both the literal and subtextual meanings of Steed’s request. She tells him that cream (of any sort) is not currently available. It’s locked away, although she tells him where, indicating that he might be able to get some eventually. But when Steed moves to get into the kitchen (an opening that he must penetrate with his body), Emma blocks his way. Not only does she stand in front of the door, she menaces him with her sword.
Steed isn’t getting Emma’s cream just for the asking. She’s going to defend it until he proves himself worthy. And although we can see her supressing a smile behind a very straight face, we can also tell that she’s not messing around. The challenge is a very real one.
Steed offers to stand down (”I could always take it black”), but Emma isn’t trying to warn Steed off permanently: she tosses him a foil and they begin a duel. She’s making him earn her favors, here, as a medieval knight was required to earn the favors of his lady, often especially through victory in armed combat.
If Cathy Gale is the Sweet Enemy for a good deal of her tenure with Steed, Emma’s temporary function in this role at the beginning of “Town of No Return” creates an important overlap in character that effects the transition to the Peel era. Not only does this crucial first scene introduce Emma Peel to the audience: it also acts as the axis on which Steed’s partner turns from “Douce Ennemie” to “Douce Dame Jolie.” This transition is cemented by the later scene in Steed’s room in Little Bazeley, where an amorous encounter is heavily implied, as tumblr blogger celluloidbroomcloset has pointed out elsewhere. Although there will be times when Mrs. Peel and Steed spar with one another, Emma Peel, unlike Cathy Gale, will accept Steed completely and unreservedly as her parfait gentil knight and her lover.
In fact, the completion of Machaut’s song (which is in a form called the virelai) requires a repetition of the opening stanza, once again naming the beloved as the Sweet, Lovely Lady immediately after the stanza that names her as the Sweet Enemy:
Douce dame jolie
Par dieu ne penses mie
Que nulle ait signorie
Seur moy fors vous seulement.
(Sweet lovely lady, for God’s sake do not think that anyone rules over me save yourself alone.)
Isabel de Conches was an eleventh-century woman who rode to battle and fought alongside the knights. The medieval English historian Orderic Vitalis described her as “generous, daring, and gay.” Sound like anyone we know? (I’m afraid I don’t have a source for this image; apologies.)
Riffin’ on Knights and Ladies and Courtly Stuff in “Town of No Return”
A very important difference between the medieval literary concept of the fair lady and Emma Peel is that Mrs. Peel is significantly more active. In medieval literature, the lady is largely passive: she can make her knight squirm and sigh and beg for her favors, she can send him on quests to prove his love for her, and she can make him write bad poetry. The more active partner in medieval literature is in most cases the man.
In the opening of “Town of No Return,” Emma, like the courtly lady of medieval romance, is rebuffing Steed’s (the knight’s) advances, and she is forcing Steed to perform a knightly task to earn her favor. Except here Steed’s opponent is not another (male) knight: it is Emma herself. Emma thus occupies two roles. She is the lady whose favors are sought, and she is also the knight who fights to defend those favors. (I find it a most happy coincidence that Emma’s maiden name is, in fact, “Knight.”)
The blade placed between Steed and Emma that initially prevents the consummation of Steed’s desire in the fencing scene also plays into another supposed practice in the art of courtly love. From time to time, a knight and his lady might sleep together without having sex, in order to prove the purity of their love for one another, and their self-control. As a barrier to any carnal shenanigans, a naked sword was placed in the bed between the lovers, as a reminder of the knight’s respect for and faithfulness to his lady, who lies chastely beside him.
In “Town of No Return,” though, Steed eventually does win the fencing match (after having been overmatched himself by Emma earlier), and he gets the literal cream, which he puts in his coffee. The metaphorical “cream” is also referred to by the placement of his fencing mask over the point of his the foil. (Thanks to celluloidbroomcloset.tumblr.com for pointing this out in comments about an earlier version of this post.)
And a Knightly Coda
And then there’s the fact that Emma owns something that looks suspiciously like a 15th-century statue of Saint James the Greater who, as it turns out, is a patron saint of … wait for it … knights. Along with Saint George, patron saint of England. Huh.