In Book III of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the knightly figure of Britomart may be read as an allegorical representation of Chastity, read as an embodied concept born out of what C. S. Lewis characterised as “the fusion of two kinds, the medieval allegory and the more recent romantic epic of the Italians.” As a virgin, Britomart falls in love with the image of Artegal, a knight whom she has never met. Thereafter, Britomart travels the world, seeking for her as-yet unmet love. Each knight she encounters is defeated with the aid of her enchanted spear until, at the last, she is herself vanquished by a knight who turns out to be Artegal himself. Britomart’s initially unrequited faithfulness to the object of her affection seems at first to place her squarely within the trope of Petrarchan Love; later, as that love seems about to be realised through her encounter with Artegal, a development along the lines of courtly love might seem appropriate in what is ostensibly the setting of a romance. However, Britomart’s representation defies that move for, as Lewis observes when he characterises the third book of The Faerie Queene as embodying “the final defeat of courtly love by the romantic conception of marriage.”
Britomart’s marriage to Artegal is what initially ends her quest: the conclusion of her search is the conclusion of the virgin’s wait for the consummation afforded by, but not virtuously fulfilled until, marriage. In this reading, the knights whom Britomart defeats in combat represent not merely challenges to her knightly prowess (the surface-level reading), but also challenges to the virtue of chastity:
For she was full of amiable grace,
And manly terrour mixed therewithall,
That as the one stird vp affections bace,
So th’other did mens rash desires apall,
And hold them backe, that would in errour fall ;
As he, that hath espide a vermeill Rose,
To which sharpe thornes and breres the way forstall,
Dare not for dread his hardy hand expose,
But wishing it far off, his idle wish doth lose.
Here, as A. C. Hamilton’s gloss notes, Britomart “arouses love in others,” which seems to be the traditional mode of chastity in the trope of courtly love. After all, it is the continued deferment which increases desire until the bulwark of chaste virtue is overcome. But Britomart is never overcome until she encounters her future husband, who—in defeating her—ultimately reaffirms both masculine superiority over the feminine and also the rightwise relationship aspiration of the chaste to marriage, be it either a marriage to one’s sole, earthly lover, or to Jesus Christ, the eternal, spiritual bridegroom.
But this reading still avoids the complexities afforded by passages like those quoted above, where Britomart is described as mixing “amiable grace” with “manly terrour”. Does this “manly virtue” further masculinise Britomart, already masculinised through her knightly habit and action? If something is lost to femininity—some masculine quality being necessary for knightly prowess and unbending chastity—then so also lost is any gendered expectation of chastity, situating it somewhere between the masculine and the feminine: Britomart’s prowess in battle and her “manly terrour” both demonstrate that an individual possessed of these masculine traits cannot only essay upon chastity but serve to represent its untrammelled deployment.
Britomart waits for her enemy and when it appears, the Masks of Cupid are shown in what Lewis describes as “an unforgettable picture not of lust but of love… in all its heartbreaking glitter, its sterility, its suffocating monotony,” raising the question: “what is this but a picture of the deep human suffering which underlies such loves?” This is the moment which, for Lewis, represents the payoff for Chastity and Romantic Marriage over the Courtly Love which has gone before: “When Britomart rescues Amoret from this place of death she is ending some five centuries of human experience, predominantly painful. Painful indeed, for in this reading courtly love comes disguised as:
Unquiet Care, and fond Vnthriftihead,
Lewd Losse of Time, and Sorrow seeming dead,
Inconstant Chaunge, and false Disloyaltie,
Consuming Riotise, and guilty Dread
Of heauenly vengeance, faint Infirmitie,
Vile Pouertie, and lastly Death with infamie.
Lewis reads the rescue of Amoret as the ransoming of love “begotten by heaven… wrongly separate from marriage by the ideals of courtly gallantry, and at last restored to it by Chastity—as Spenser conceives chastity”—that is, “whilst Britomart represents Chastitty attained… Amoret, in isolation, represents the romantic passion which Chastity must so unite.” It is the ravages and masks of these courtly gallantries and passions which are presented as the Masks of Cupid in the twelfth canto of Book III—unpleasant and dreadful; escapable only through the dauntless efforts of chastity: Britomart need not suffer at the hand of Chaunge or Disloyaltie, for the nature of chastity is to hide from these things, whereas the courtly love of the past would embrace and welcome them as Love’s emblems—not evils at all, but her badges of gallantry.