Dating and the Duenna

The Romance of the Rose is one of the masterpieces of medieval literature. Written in two stages, the first part is an earnest allegory by Guillaume de Lorris on what it is like to fall in love. Lorris was unable to finish his work, so it was picked up several decades later by Jean de Meun. He transformed the allegory into an exploration of medieval klearning. His sermonizing ranges in tone from the serious and religiousness to bawdy and satirical. Perhaps one of his most satirical characters is Duenna.

In medieval Europe, a duenna was an older woman who chaperoned a young woman on dates in order to guard her chastity and reputation. One can imagine how young couples schemed to avoid the watchful eyes of their doddering duenna. A duenna also functioned as a gatekeeper. Any man desiring access to the young woman needed not only to earn her favor, but that of the duenna. Meun’s duenna takes full advantage of this position.

She considers herself not only to be the guardian of the youth in her care, but also a tutor in the game of love. Duenna recounts with longing the days when young men fought each other to break down her door; yet their abandonment of her when she lost her youthly beauty has filled her with bitterness towards men. Furthermore, Duenna laments the fact that she only mastered the game at the point that she could no longer play. Her goal in teaching young woman is to allow them to play on an equal footing with men and to revenge herself on the male species, which so faithlessly abandoned her. I think she also longs to vicariously get back in the game. Her wisdom includes the advice that lacrymation is womankind’s best weapon to control and manipulate men. (Know now female readers that I am immune to all your tricks!)

A Girl and her Duenna by Bartolome Esteban Murillo 1670

At first I considered a duenna to be a silly attempt to protect sexual purity; something that only a Fundamentalist could love. Yet I tried, in the words of a friend of mine, “to draw the poison out” of the concept of a duenna. Could a duenna play a healthy role in the dating process? I think the answer is yes.

The process of dating is like navigating an untraveled river. Dangers exist everywhere; rapids, sandbars, and snags can make the experience both exhilarating and terrifying. We often send young people down the river with nothing more than a boat, paddles, and a life jacket. We expect them to learn as they go along because falling in love is natural. However, it is natural in the same way that water flowing over a waterfall is natural. Reading books on rafting and studying maps is all helpful, but all that preparation is likely to go up like mist when one encounters their first rapid. Learning to raft down a river is best done with an experienced river guide who is in the boat with you. In critical moments they can shout out directions and warnings. Just as no two rivers are exactly the same, so no two relationships are exactly the alike. And yet they are likely to have many things in common.

A duenna could chaperon younger couples on dates, acting as the river guide, shouting out directions, “Don’t wear Axe,” “Stop chattering nervously and listen more to the other person.” They could serve as confidants for each person in the relationship, helping them to vocalize the feelings and emotions they don’t understand. In this role, a duenna would be a kind of dating midwife, making sure the relationship progresses healthy. This may lead to the natural end of the relationship or to a more serious continuation. Even older and more mature couples could benefit from a duenna. Not that they would need a chaperon, but it would still be beneficial to have a person seasoned in the art of love to shepherd the couple.

Some dating couples have an older mentor couple which they meet with. While this is a good idea, I think that a duenna could provide additional benefits. First, only a mature woman is going to be able to understand the mind of a young woman and advise her. Second, as a male, I have found that on average woman are more perceptive in the art of romance than men. Though I have had men who have helped me greatly in relationship issues, I would rather talk to a woman in most cases because of their natural empathy and insight.

One downside of using a married couple as mentors is that it can make the dating relationship more serious than it needs to be. There is an idea, which I have long believed, that considers the primary purpose of dating to be to find a spouse. However, I have begun to wonder if that expectation is not like the one I had going into college. I expected to enter college, pick a major immediately, study it for four years, and then go on to a career related to that major. When I reached college, I discovered this to be the experience of a slim minority of students. Most of us changed majors a couple times and went on to a career that wasn’t directly related to the one we graduated with. What we learned outside our formal studies was probably the most important knowledge we gained from college.

Perhaps dating is the same. With younger people especially, what they learn about themselves and the way they mature through a dating relationship is going to be of more lasting value than the possibility of finding a spouse. There seems to be an unconsciousness need to justify the apparent frivolity and playfulness of dating by giving it a serious purpose, finding a spouse. It is a little like the view the church held for a time which made the enjoyment of sex permissible because sex was necessary for reproduction. Writing this, I recognize that the pendulum can always swing in the other direction. Dating should not become an end in itself. There is a point when a romantic relationship needs commitment if it is to continue growing into maturity.

What do you think reader?



  1. chelseabvdm · January 15, 2013

    That’s a really interesting point. Not that one should date aimlessly, but I think putting a large focus on marriage can add a lot of unnecessary pressure, especially on a young relationship with young people. When it does take a more committed turn, an older couple could be a really awesome tool for premarital counseling.

  2. Matthew Bible · February 15, 2013

    I know that from a single’s point of view my perspective is tainted by the fact that I’m already happily married, but I still strongly believe that marriage should be firmly held in mind as the end goal for dating. Now, I’m not saying that if you date someone, and don’t end up marrying them that’s somehow wrong or a sin. I wouldn’t even say that exploring and expanding your understanding of yourself and others via dating is wrong. My wife and I both have limited dating experience from before we came together. I think, however, that reminding yourself that marriage is the purpose of dating performs a few useful functions:
    1. It keeps you from starting to date people you know you shouldn’t. If you have that tendency to date someone you’re attracted to but know it could never really work out with, keeping marriage in mind can help. Don’t be that person who’s dating someone with a horrible personality because they’re physically attractive, or rich, or whatever other superficial reason.
    2. It helps to keep you pure. If you’re thinking of the future, it’s easier to not do things you’ll regret in general than if you’re thinking, “I’ll do whatever I want, future me can worry about marriage.” This relates to more than just sexual purity. If you have no goals or boundaries for a relationship, you could end up with spiritual or emotional baggage from that relationship easily.
    3. It gives dating a purpose beyond just “having fun.” Not that there’s anything wrong with “having fun,” but I don’t think that should be the only reason for dating. If all you want to do is have fun with a friend, you don’t need to be dating. I digress. If you’re thinking of marriage, you can at least be analytical and aware and use what you’re learning to understand yourself better and what you’re looking for in a more permanent relationship. I know I definitely learned about what was important to me from previous relationships.
    4. It helps you know when to end the relationship. You probably won’t know on the first date or the second date (unless you’re into dating completely random people that are obviously awful) whether a person is someone you’re interested in long-term or not. That’s fine, no need to pressure yourself. On the other hand, we’ve all seen or heard of that couple who’s been dating for like 6 years and one or the other or both isn’t really interested in getting married, but they can’t bring themselves to let it go, either and it’s just generally a bad situation.

    So those are some of the reasons I think focusing on marriage during dating is good. Now you’ll notice that I’m not in any way endorsing putting pressure on the relationship right from the start. You’re right that having a more experience married couple mentor you would be too much for a couple that are still figuring out whether they like each other or not and discussing the idea of marriage too early is also a quick route to Stressville. My father, who is infinitely wiser than I am, allowed and even encouraged me to date as early as young teen-hood. Obviously, he had no expectation that I would seriously think of marrying anyone at the age of 14 or 15. He wanted me to explore and expand myself socially and understand and enjoy relationships with girls. I never did date much, because I took myself a little too seriously as a teen and knew I was too young to think of serious relationships, but it was good to know that, within the protection of his authority and supervision, I was allowed to explore relationships.

    This brings me to my second point, which I will make brief since my previous points were so verbose. I think that in our current culture parents, if you have a close and healthy relationship with them, can perform many of the functions you mention a duenna as performing, such as giving advice and holding you accountable. Nowadays parents are much more involved in the lives of their children than the type of medieval parents who hired duennas were. It’s less pressure on the relationship as well (depending on the parents) since asking them for advice is less formal than asking a “third party.”

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