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Courtly Love


Anyone with an interest in the Middle Ages has heard of "Chivalric" or "Courtly Love." Best known in the stories of Sir Lancelot's forbidden love for Queen Guinevere,l'amour courtois refers to a highly idealized, romanticized and usually adulterous relationship, both one part erotic fantasy and one part quest for spiritual perfection.

Built around the notion of a forbidden and passionate affair of the heart, this idealized affair then intertwined with the ideas of chivalry to become a path of ennoblement through the knight's idolization of his Love. By accepting the independence and sovereignty of his mistress, the lover's deeds of bravery and honor elevate him as he seeks to make himself worthy of her. In turn, the lady must make herself worthy of such attention, and should be neither capricious nor frivolous in the tasks she sets her lover. Although the affair was forged out of sexual attraction, actual sexual satisfaction was neither the goal, nor often the end result; the tragic conclusion of the affairs of Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Isolde served as powerful reminders of the destruction Love's consummation could wreak.

Origin: Provençal and the Troubadours

The actual term "Courtly Love" is not a medieval one, but is rather a product of the late Gothic Revival. Gaston Paris coined the term in 1883, in an article that analyzed Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart(1177). The term and its definition as "a path of ennoblement through the idolization of an unavailable lover" was soon widely accepted and adopted. In 1936 C.S. Lewis wrote the influential The Allegory of Love further solidifying the concept of courtly love as "love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love".

Chivalric or Courtly Love had its origins in the late 11th century amongst the nobility of the four most artistically inclined regions of France: Aquitaine, Provence, Champagne and Burgundy. Its arose as a direct outgrowth of the lyric poems of the troubadours, such as those of William IX, Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1126), one of the first troubadour poets. Southern France was a wealthy, refined, cultural melting-pot, and the new poetic form reflected this. Welding together a mixture of the old chanson de geste (epic poem), Andalusian Arabic love poetry, and older, Classical pagan and Gnostic Christian, poetic elements, the troubadours promoted a philosophy known as Gai Saber("the happy wisdom"), that redefined traditional Christian ideals of love, marriage and the role and interrelation of the sexes. Although the Church would not formally recognize marriage as a sacrament until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, it had long since established that celibacy was the preferred, "pure" state of all people. Sex served one purpose - procreation. Consequently, relations between the sexes should be fraternal, restrained and carefully controlled.

The troubadour's philosophy turned these ideas on their ear. Women were seen as an ennobling spiritual and moral force, a divine muse rather than a "daughter of Eve". Romantic and sexual love became emblems of the greatest good; the union of the inspired with his inspirer.

Under the sponsorship of powerful nobles the troubadours influence gradually spread throughout France and eventually into England and Germany. By the middle of the 13th century, the troubadour philosophy had become interwoven with the evolving notions of chivalry and the growing corpus of Arthurian romances, creating an idealized model for a new, exciting and refined model of court life.

The Qualities of Courtly Love

David Simpson of DePaul University School of New Learning shows that this movement had five main characteristics:

  • Aristocratic: As its name implies,courtly love was practiced by noble lords and ladies; its proper milieu was the royal palace or court.
  • Ritualistic: Couples engaged in a courtly relationship conventionally exchanged gifts and tokens of their affair. The lady was wooed according to elaborate conventions of etiquette (cf. "courtship" and "courtesy") and was the constant recipient of songs, poems, bouquets, sweet favors, and ceremonial gestures. For all these gentle and painstaking attentions on the part of her lover, she need only return a short hint of approval, a mere shadow of affection. After all, she was the exalted domina--the commanding "mistress" of the affair; he was but her servus--a lowly but faithful servant.
  • Secret: Courtly lovers were pledged to strict secrecy. The foundation for their affair--indeed the source of its special aura and electricity--was that the rest of the world (except for a few confidantes or go-betweens) was excluded. In effect, the lovers composed a universe unto themselves--a special world with its own places (e.g., the secret rendezvous), rules, codes, and commandments.
  • Adulterous: "Fine love"--almost by definition--was extramarital. Indeed one of its principle attractions was that it offered an escape from the dull routines and boring confinements of noble marriage (which was typically little more than a political or economic alliance for the purpose of producing royal offspring). The troubadours themselves scoffed at marriage, regarding it as a glorified religious swindle. In its place they exalted their own ideal of a disciplined and decorous carnal relationship whose ultimate objective was not crude physical satisfaction, but a sublime and sensual intimacy.
  • Literary: Before it established itself as a popular real-life activity, courtly love first gained attention as a subject and theme in imaginative literature. Ardent knights, that is to say, and their passionately adored ladies were already popular figures in song and fable before they began spawning a host of real-life imitators in the palace halls and boudoirs of medieval Europe. (Note: Even the word  "romance"--from Old Frenchromanz--began life as the name for a narrative poem about chivalric heroes. Only later was the term applied to the distinctive love relationship commonly featured in such poems.) "


The Language of Love

First and foremost, courtly love was a literary invention. The form of courtly love with which we are most familiar is that associated with the famed Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was the daughter of the troubadour-knight, Duke William IX of Aquitaine, and brought these new ideas with her to first the French, and then the English courts. These ideas were continued and refined at the courts of her daughter, Countess Marie de Champagne, and her granddaughter, Queen Blanche of Castile.

Poets cleverly adopted the language of feudalism and many of the devices of the old heroic epic and recast them in a new form. In this recasting, the hero, now known as the Lover, performs deeds not for his own glory, but to make himself worthy for his True Love. In turn, that True Love, embodied by the Lady, usurped the role that would have formally been resolved for the hero's king as the focus of the Lover's loyalties and devotion. Instead, the Lover now declared himself the vassal of "his" lady, often addressing her as "my Lord"; in this way he might publicly declare his allegiance and servitude without revealing the lady's identity, or even her gender. The Lady was in complete control of the relationship, while the Lover owes her obedience and submission (and here, the most cursory contrast of real medieval life vs. the depictions of the romances shows why Courtly Love was first and foremost a literary movement!). The anonymity of the Lady was particularly important, since, just as with that ultimate example of Love, Guinevere, the troubadour's ideal lady was a lady of higher status, usually his lord's wife.

In her monumental A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, Barbara Tuchman gives the process by which the Art of Love was supposed to progress:

  • Attraction to the lady, usually via eyes/glance
  • Worship of the lady from afar
  • Declaration of passionate devotion
  • Virtuous rejection by the lady
  • Renewed wooing with oaths of virtue and eternal fealty
  • Moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire (and other physical manifestations of love sickness)
  • Heroic deeds of valor which win the lady's heart
  • Consummation of the secret love
  • Endless adventures and subterfuges avoiding detection

This erotic desire for a rich, powerful and dangerously unattainable lady served as both a muse and a counterpoint to the sterile, politically and dynastically motivated, marriages approved of by the Church. It also served the political agenda of the growing "knightly" or courtier class. The Art of Love was only for those who were noble, but this new kind of love based that nobility not on wealth and family lineage but on the high deeds and character performed by the lover. Thus, through the grace of Love, a lowly knight or troubadour might make himself the equal of any count, duke or prince.

The corpus of troubadour poems displays a wide range of attitudes towards infidelity and actual consummation of the affair. Some are overtly sensual, even sexually explicit, while others clearly view Love as a spiritual, nearly Platonic relationship. But nearly all share this idea of ennoblement and self-perfection, which becomes the central tenet of l'amour courtois; the adulterous love-affairs that often shock modern readers were somewhat irrelevant. True Love did not typically exist between husband and wife simply because the realities of aristocratic marriages made it impractical, not because the audiences were immoral. In the 12th century, the idea that a marriage could be based on love would have been considered idealistically fanciful, if not radical.

The Literature of Love

The rules of courtly love were allegedly codified in the late 12th century in a highly influential treatise, De Amore, written by Adreas Capellanus, a cleric in the service of Marie de Champagne, to whom his work is dedicated. In this work, Andreas addresses a young protégé, Walter, instructing him in how to woo a lady, while winding through the complex laws required to allow Love to flourish, particularly in the mixed society of a great lady and her courtier.

De Amore is broken into three books, each discussing a particular aspect of Love, the rules of behavior required of the lover and the punishments to be meted out to transgressors. Within the second book, he details twelve virtues for a good lover, and in the third, we sets out a further thirty-two laws to which these virtues give rise. Capellanus also affirms that, because a lover learns modesty, discretion, generosity, bravery, fidelity, and honesty, Love is not only praiseworthy, but is an ideal path to moral refinement.

While the book focuses on instructing Walter in the pursuit of women, Capellanus is also clear that a woman who abuses her Lover, or indeed, simply fails to take a lover, destroys Love, and become a cruel, cold creature, unworthy of praise. Yet, after carefully building his case for the virtue of Love, and the particular worthiness of women who inspire men to greater endeavor, Capellanus reverses himself in the final chapter with a denouncement of women as sinful, wicked creatures who spur men to madness, and of those men foolish enough to allow these women to tempt and demean them. This sudden reversal of opinion is one of the key reasons that Capellanus is now often viewed by modern scholars as a satirist condemning courtly love, rather than a champion of it.

The Courts of Love

Another point of controversy is the existence of the "Courts of Love" first mentioned by Capellanus. Supposedly, these courts arose as an idle entertainment, but grew into formal tribunals in which the noble ladies of a particular court would hear a case, publicly debate it, and then hand down a judgment based on the Rules of Love. However, the entangling complications of these extramarital "affairs" meant that the cases were to be presented anonymously, with each side bringing forth an advocate to represent them. The lovers would not be named, and fictitious names were applied to both locales and third parties, often drawn from the romances, to further disguise the identities of those involved.

According to Capellanus, Marie de Champagne presided over a number of these courts and he cites the judgments handed-down a several of the cases. Almost universally, the ladies sided in favor of the affair, and encouraged the lover to purse it to its conclusion, so long as the (male) lover was becoming ennobled and refined in the process. The judgments for failure in love were varied, usually trivial "quests", but the most extreme penalty was for the offender to be exiled from the court and all of polite society. Of course, in an anonymous court case, this means that the offenders would have to exile themselves, which, even where they so inclined, would immediately reveal their identities.

The truth is that, while the Court of Love creates a beautiful image, there is not a shred of evidence that one ever occurred. Certainly, women as worldly as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne knew how a cuckolded baron or duke would respond, should he learn his wife had taken a young lover. Outside of the romances themselves, the only "authority" to verify the existence of the Courts is Capellanus himself, and as his work is generally regarded as a satire (see our related article here), anything within De Amore must be regarded with at least a raised eyebrow.

Courtly Love in Real Practice

If the Courts of Love did exist in any real form, they may in reality have been little more than an amusing diversion for noble ladies, much like a drawing-room social-circle for idle ladies of the 18th and 19th centuries, in which male courtiers may have played little, if any, role.

Indeed, it remains unclear if Courtly Love itself ever truly moved beyond the barriers of the literary world. In a complete absence of court cases, law codes or historians chronicles, the evidence is scant. There are only two points of real proof that the Cult of Love was slowly moving off the page and song-sheet and into real courts. The first are tournaments, specifically the carefully scripted, "round table" tournaments of the 13th century, were participants took on the roles of Arthurian characters, and the better known, elaborate 15th century feats of arms, where "Courts of Love", "Queens of Love and Beauty" and complex story-lines often figured prominently. The second piece of evidence comes in the form of criticism, but ecclesiastical and courtly. The best example of the latter comes from the poet and authoress of books of courtesy and chivalry, Christine de Pizan, who claimed that courtly love had become degenerate and was being used as a means to justify affairs driven by nothing more refined than simple lust.

While there must certainly have been those swept up and carried away by the romances, by and large, the troubadours' audiences were quite aware that these romances were just that - fiction. Nevertheless, through the new ideas promoted by the troubadours the rough and tumble knight of the early Middle Ages began his social education towards "le parfait gentile chevalier" of the 15th century and the courtier of the Renaissance.



  • Duby, Georges. The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest: the Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
  • Gaunt, Simon. "Marginal Men, Marcabru, and Orthodoxy: The Early Troubadours and Adultery." Medium Aevum 59 (1990): 55-71.
  • Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1936.
  • Newman, Francis X. The Meaning of Courtly Love. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1968.
  • Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.
  • Schultz, James A. Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality'. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  • The Medieval Sourcebook
  • Simpson, David, Courtly Love
  • Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim. A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Knopf, 1978.
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