Courtly Love

views updated May 29 2018

Courtly Love

The term courtly love (amour courtois, amore cortese, fin' amor) was coined by the literary critic and philologist Gaston Paris in 1883 in an essay on Chretien de Troyes's Conte de la Charrette to define the chivalric love bond between Lancelot and Guinevere. Paris described it as an illicit and adulterous form of love accompanied by an almost sacred and obsessive devotion to the lady (domna) or lord (midons, from meus dominus). The socially inferior lover aspires to obtain the favor of the loved one to whom he or she pledges obedience, humility, and faithfulness and become worthy of that person through virtuous deeds, courtesy, and noble acts. The lover-troubadour is at the mercy of the lady and must comply with whatever she demands; the verb servir comes to be defined as "to love." Feudalism, kingship, and religious fervor, especially in the form of the Marian cult, were major contributors to the genesis and practice of courtly love, and the lady would be not only a sovereign but a typus Mariae, a type of the Virgin Mary.


Courtly love is a religion of love that contradicts Christian theology and its social conventions, for it transgresses the boundaries of Christian marriage and proposes a love relationship between socially unequal persons. Elements such as the lady's married status, jealousy, the suspense of waiting, physical distance, clandestine meetings, the excitement of the possible encounter, the envy of others, and the role of nature in arousing expectations were contributing factors to the cult. Courtly love would become the inspiration and practice of male poets, or trobadours, from troubars (from the late Latin tropare, meaning to compose music in tropes) and female poets (troubatriz) in the courts of Provence in southern France and nearby territories, using the langue d'oc in contrast to the langue d'oïl of the north, where poets were called trouvères. The poems were to be transmitted orally with musical accompaniment, as in the tradition of the Galician-Portuguese Cantigas.

Gaston Paris defined the major components of this idealistic, passionate, and spiritual love that was influenced by Ovid's Ars Amatoria, the sociopolitical conditions of twelfth-century courts, and the flourishing of Provencal love lyrics. It consisted of a code or set of rules of love that could be practiced in the refined and sophisticated courts of southern France, northern and southern Italy, Catalonia, and northern Spain. That part of Spain had absorbed an Arabic civilization that might have contributed poetic forms such as the pastourelle and a code of behavior, the senhal, that prohibited the identification of the loved one, as demanded by social etiquette.

Paris located amour courtois at the court of Marie de Champagne, the daughter of Eleanore of Aquitaine, where the poet Chretiens de Troyes and the theorist Chaplain Andreas Capellanus, who codified the rules of courtly love in the treatise De arte honeste amandi, were active. Capellanus's treatise prescribed the rules for courts frequented by wandering minstrels, ladies, and suitors engaged in contests of amorous entertainment that included questions galantes questioni d'amore, a sort of riddle game resolved by the mistress or the midons. Some of the prescriptions advocated by Capellanus are that marriage should not be an impediment to true love; that a lover cannot be bound by one love; that no one who is loved can refuse anything to love and nobody can love if he or she is not driven by the power of love ("Amor ch'a nullo amato amar perdona," says Francesca da Rimini [Dante's Inferno, canto 5, line 103]); and that the literary convention of fole amor (mad love) obscures the lover's reason.

The idea of a hidden love whose revelation can be damaging and fateful is contained in the senhal, the hidden identity. The midon's love enhances the nobility, dignity, and valor of the lover. The assumed social position of the loved one and the lover in these poems, akin to that of the feudal lady or lord and vassal, and the obsessive idolatry of the loved one became a poetic practice that spread quickly to other regions and countries and persists today. It had a particular influence on vernacular love poetry in Italy, on the Sicilian School at the court of Frederick II in Palermo, and later on the poets of Tuscany and Bologna, including Guido Guinizelli, the founder of the Sweet New Style (Dolce stil novo).


The first critical exposition of this form of poetry is recorded by Dante in Vita Nuova, where he gives a concise chronology of the development of vernacular lyric poetry in the countries of Romania and states that poets wanted to make their verse intelligible to ladies. In Purgatorio, canto 26, Dante attributes to Guinizelli the highest achievement of the Italian vernacular, but Guinizelli gives that honor to Arnaut Daniel, the Provençal love lyricist and craftsman of the most audacious techniques, such as the sestina. To honor the poet Dante makes him speak in Provençal in Purgatorio, stressing how the learned Tuscan poet wrote in that expressive and refined language of love. Dante might have been influenced by the troubadours, but primarily in terms of language and technique; in his conception, gentilezza and cortesia, as expressed in the fourth book of the Convivio, are innate virtues that are not related to the courts. Although he states that the word cortese derives from corte, he believes that virtu' (virtue) and good manners or customs bei costumi are no longer present in the courts. Thus, his canzone and philosophical exposi-tion in Convivio IV challenge the belief that nobility is derived from inheritance and champion the presence of individual virtue and merit at every social level. The audience for the Convivio is in fact diverse and democratic and includes women.


The historical existence of courtly love and the issue of whether it was the product of critics' imagination have been subject to debate. However, this form of poetry has a concrete textual reality with rules and governing poetic images in which nature and society play a leading role, especially in terms of language, prosody, and rhetoric. Subsequent poets found these poems worthy of imitation, from Dante and Petrarch, to the poets of the late Italian Renaissance, to those of the Pleiade, to Spenser, to the European romantics and postromantics, and to modern poets such as Eliot and Pound, Adrienne Rich, and Muriel Rukeyser, among others.


C. S. Lewis (1958) wrote that this form of poetry was revolutionary and everlasting: "Even our code of etiquette, with its rule that women always have precedence, is a legacy from courtly love, and is felt to be far from natural in modern India or Japan…. French poets, in the eleventh century, discovered or invented, or were the first to express, that romantic species of passion which English poets were still writing about in the nineteenth. They affected a change which left no corner of our ethics, our imagination, or our daily life untouched, and they erected impassable barriers between us and the classical past or the Oriental presence. Compared with this revolution the renaissance is a mere ripple on the surface of literature" (pp. 3-4). In contrast to that statement, Peter Dronke (1968) attempts to demonstrate that amour courtois is not necessarily a new conception of love: "For I would like to suggest that the feelings and conceptions of amour courtois are universally possible, possible in any time or place and on any level of society. They occur in popular a well as in learned or aristocratic love poetry…. The unity of popular and courtly love poetry is manifest in the courtly experience, which finds expression in both" (pp. 2-3).

Martin de Riqueur (1948) proposes a fourfold thesis of origins: folkloric, Arabic, Medio-Latin, and liturgical. Modern criticism holds to the view that structural and stylistic elements of Provencal poetry were derived from Arabic predecessors in El Andalus, the center of Arab civilization in Spain, such as the Book of Flowers by Ibn Dawoud and the Dove Neck's Ring of Ibn Hazam, as well as Avicenna's Treatise on Love, which deals with human and divine love. The Mozarabic Khardjas and the lyricism found in the muwwashah or canso definitely were assimilated into the chanson de toile, the canso, and the pastourelle. The Arabic influence also may be present in the Sicilian School because of the Arab presence in that island for more than one hundred fifty years.


Some of the exponents of courtly love operated in the castles and courts of Occitania, which became the target of the Albigensian crusade initiated by Innocent III in 1209 against the Cathars, who professed a mixture of Gnosticism and Manichaeism. The fall of the fortress of Montsegur in 1244 resulted in the de facto eradication of the practice of courtly love that had begun with William of Aquitane (d. 1127), who wrote eleven canzos (songs) in the language of Limousin that were filled with desire and verdant backgrounds and who was influenced by Robert D'Abrissel (1050–1117), who founded the monastery of Fons Ebraus, which attracted many aristocratic ladies, and soon was to be an enemy of the Church.

Those who honored this poetry and its tradition include Bernard de Ventadour (1148–1194), Marcabru (c. 1135–1158), Jaufré Rudel (who set the theme of enamourment from afar), Peire Vidal (1180–1210), Peire Cardenal, Bertrand de Born (died 1210), Girault de Borneilh (1165–1200), and Arnaut Daniel (1180–1210). Among the many women troubairitz, the Countess of Dia from Die, born circa 1140 and married to the Lord of Die, who explicitly said, "Ben volria mon cavalier tener un ser en mos bratz nut" [How I wish just one night I could caress/that chevalier with my bare arms] was the first and most renowned (Bogin 1980, p. 88). Others include Almuc de Castelnau and Iseut de Capio (c. 1140); Azalais de Poicarrages (c. 1140); Maria de Ventadorn (born circa 1165), who in a tenson with Guy d'Ussel said that she should never honor the lover as a lord, but as a friend; Alamanda whose vida Giraut wrote and who exchanged a tenson with him (a discussion on courtly behaviour between two people or an exchange through verbal invective); Garsenda (born circa 1170); Isabella (c. 1180), who says: "Elias Cairel, I want to know/the truth about the love we once had; so tell me, please/why you have given it to someone else" (Bogin 1980, p. 111); Lombarda, who writes in trobar clus, (dfficult or hermetic style, in contrast to trobar leu, easy style) Clara D' Anduza; Castelloza, perhaps the finest woman troubatriz; and Guillelma de Rosers, whose vida was authored by Lanfranc Cigala, a Genoese lawyer and poet (Bogin 1980). Those poets used forms such as the canso, tenso, sirvente, alba, and pastourelle, and their stanzas were called coblas and the envoi and tornada.

These women and men created a conception of love poetry that inaugurated a new era in Western European literature that was characterized by the aspiration to gain access to a loved one in body or in spirit. In this system every married lord or lady had an admirer who understood true love; this explains the travails, jealousies, laments, planhs, waiting, and disappointments that make up these erotic experiences. The desired midons of the troubadours and troubatriz become the subject of psychological and poetic turbulence, of hallucinations, fantasy games, and phantasms. The ultimate goal is partial fulfillment or partial joy, for total satisfaction is prohibited by the inequality of the lovers' status. Fin' amor is present in the courts of Occitania and its civilization, where the reality of love oscillates between the platonic, the religious, the spiritual, the erotic, and the adulterous.

The condition of women in the lower classes was that of a domestic servant exposed to the caprices of the lord or that of a femna or molher in the middle strata subject to the husband or the father. A lady (domna) in the higher class was subject to her lord; thus, the troubadour and troubatriz found the solution in the poetic practice of fin' amor, breaking the social barrier through adulterous love, even if only in spirit

The peculiarity of fin'amor is that the concept of the lady is paradoxically opposed to the traditional portrayal by moralists, theologians, and Church Fathers: that she is subject to the weakness of the flesh. In fin'amor she in effect uses her intellect and superior position, her distance and coldness, to entice her lover.

Arnaut Daniel would say: "Tot iorn meilleur et esmeri/Car la gensor serve e coli/Del mon, dic en apert" [Every day I am a better man and purer/for I serve the noblest lady in the world,/ and I worship her,/ I tell you this in the open]. Giraut de Borneihl (1165–1200) wrote: "Si la belle cui sui profers me vol onrar D'aitan que m denhe soufertar/ qu'eu sia sos fis entendens/ sobre totz sui rics e manens" [If the beautiful lady I want to belong to/ wants to honor me just so much that she agrees to let/ me be her faithful lover/ I am might and rich above all men]. The Countess of Dia advocates openness, frankness, and sincerity regarding her loved one: "Dompna que en bon pretz s'enten deu ben pausars'entendensas/ en un pro cavalier valen/ pois qu'ill conois sa valenssa, que l'aus amar a presenssa;/que dompna, pois am'a presen,/ ja pois li pro ni li valen/ no.n dirant mas avinenssa." [The lady who knows about valor/should place her affection/ in a corteous and worthy knight/ as soon as she has seen his worth,/ and she should dare to love him face to face; for corteous and worthy men/ can only speak with great esteem/ of a lady who loves openly]. In the poem "A chantar m'er de so qu'ieu non volria," [Of things I'd rather keep in silence I mus sing:] the envoy states: "Mas aitan plus vuoill li digas, messatges,/ qu'en trop d'orguoill ant gran dan maintans gens."But above all, messenger/ make him comprehend, that too much pride has undone many men." Tibors (born circa 1130), perhaps the earliest of the troubaritzs, says with spontaneity: "bel dous amics, ben vos posc on ver dir/ que anc non fo qu'ieu estes sin desir" [Sweet handsome friend, I can tell you truly/ that I have never been without desire] (Bogin, 1980, p. 80). Bleiris de Romans, about whom very little is known, wrote a chanson addressed to another woman, Lady Maria. Scholars have denied that this might be an amorous song to another woman, but its sincere tone and content betray such erotic love. The poems of Alais, Iselda, and Carenza surely contain allegorical elements (Bogin 1980).


Women troubadours have traits distinctive from those of their male counterparts, and as Bogin (1980) points out, they were not slaves to tradition but were "free of formulas" and genuine in revealing their feelings. The key is that they were "writing for personal not professional reasons" (p. 68). This can be seen in all their poems, and they use a much more concrete language that reveals the true individual in a form of "feminine writing" (écriture feminine).

Male troubadours appear to employ much more artificial, conventional language and use constructed images as if they were part of a system. The women, though well versed in courtly rhetoric, seem to employ a language of the soul and of the heart, not necessarily advocating a physical relationship but instead the recognition of their individuality and worth, the nobility of their feelings and frustrations. Although the women troubadours may not surpass the men in their technique, they improve the poetry in terms of themes and realism, sincere sentiments and language.


Bogin, Meg. 1980. The Women Troubadours. New York and London: Norton.

De Rougement, Denis. 1983. Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery Belgion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dronke Peter. 1968. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love Lyric. 2nd edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Goldin, Frederick. 1963. Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères: An Anthology and a History. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Goldin, Frederick, comp. 1967. The Mirror of Narcissus in the Courtly Love Lyric. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Huizinga, Johan. 1954. The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought, and Art in the XIVth and XVth Centuries. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Lewis, C. S. 1958. Allegory of Love: A Study of Medieval Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Newman, F. X., ed. 1969. The Meaning of Courtly Love. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Paris, Gaston. 1883. "Le Conte de la Charrette." Romania XII.: 459 ff.

Riqueur, Martin de. 1948. Resumen de Literatura Provenzal Trobadoresca. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Seix Barral.

Zumthor, Paul. 1992. Toward a Medieval Poetics, trans. Philip Bennet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

                                       Giuseppe Di Scipio

Courtly Love

views updated Jun 27 2018


The term "courtly love" was invented in the late 19th century by Gaston Paris to designate the stylized attitudes of romantic love that appeared suddenly in the poetry of the troubadours in southern France at the beginning of the 12th century. The celebration of sexual love between men and women, and the poetic conventions developed to express it, became important elements in the literature of the West during the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance; indeed, the pervasive literary and social manifestations of this cultural innovation continue to play an important part in the sexual attitudes of modern times. The term "courtly love" is vague and complex because the kinds of behavior it is used to specify developed in different ways in many kinds of literature over a long

period. It is, nevertheless, useful because we need a name for the whole complex phenomenon of romantic sexual behavior in all the variety of its literary manifestations.


The original form of courtly love and the point of departure for its later developments are found in the chanson of the troubadours. The following description of the phenomenon is a composite of the "true love" of the troubadours and the standard features of its later development in the literature of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Lover. The courtly lover is characteristically a knight, though the poet himself is more often than not a man of more humble origin. The knight-lover sings the praises and seeks the favor of a lady according to a well-defined ritual. The lady is ordinarily his superior socially and is nearly always presented as a paragon of beauty and virtue. The knight offers his song and his service in the hope of winning his lady's regard, her "grace," and perhaps ultimately her love. The mood of the lover begins in the melancholy of self-pity as he considers the difficulty of the enterprise and his own unworthiness. As the game progresses, he oscillates between hope and despair, as his suit is either encouraged or repelled by the lady. Final success (or the promise of it) produces the perfect joy that the lover seeks. For the most part, however, the troubadour concentrates on this joy as a goal, not as an accomplished fact; it generates the excitement of the chase, the alternating hope and despair that are the psychological burden of the song.

The Beloved. The lady to whom the song, or suit, is addressed is a stereotype. Physically she is blond and fair, with stylized features and figure that vary little within the tradition. She may be addressed with the masculine midons (my lord); and the relation, in many of its formal aspects, between lover and lady is a highly conventional sexual version of the feudal relation between lord and vassal. The lady is almost invariably someone else's wife; and, if she is not, the love proposed by the knight is rarely directed explicitly toward marriage. In medieval religious terms, therefore, courtly love is nearly always illicit and usually adulterous. A major source of excitement in the songs is the threat of discovery by a jealous husband. Variations of this form, however, appear early in the tradition, and the nature of fin amor from this point of view is one of the most important aspects of its literary history.

The Suit. The process of love is also rigidly conventional. The lover is struck at first sight by the physical beauty of the lady. His passion is aroused at once and is further stimulated by dreams and fantasies in which she appears to him. He eventually declares his love, offers his service, and tries to prove his worthiness by his virtues, not the least of which is fortitude in dangerous ventures. He may or may not achieve the physical favors that are the ostensible object of his exertions. But, although his love is always sexual in origin, and sustained by desire for possession, it is rarely represented as lustful in a physical sense. The lover is restrained in his behavior, chaste in the sense that, for the time being at least, he loves no one else, and discreet in the conduct of his suit. Indeed, the highest form of courtly passion is so refined that it refuses ultimate physical fulfillment; the lover aspires to the joy of perpetual longing, a continuing erotic passion that is never satisfied and therefore can be sustained without the risks of dishonor, exhaustion, or the potential absurdities of retrospection.

The Rewards. Since courtly love is an imitation, as its imagery and ritual show, of both divine love and its social manifestations in the feudal ideals of honor and friendship, it is assumed to produce virtue in those who practice it. The cardinal virtues of justice, wisdom, temperance, and fortitude are all increased by love and service, as are the social virtues of liberality, courtesy, and obedience.

Finally, the literature of true love and the later poetry that was influenced by its central theme employ a relatively constant pattern of images. The affair normally begins in April or May, and the stirrings in the lover are associated with the powers and demands of nature in springtime. Trees come to life, flowers bud, birds (especially nightingales, cuckoos, and larks) begin to sing and seek their mates, the whole Earth is warmed by breezes and quickened by rain. The lover is at once hunter and hunted, wounded by Love's arrows, stricken by the disease of love, driven to madness and despair, regarded as a slave, a prisoner, an exile, but always in hope of mercy, grace, and reward, which will compensate for his miseries and crown his service with unspeakable joy.


Efforts to understand the poets' idealization of woman and their celebration of a rationalized and refined form of sexual desire have led to a careful examination of the points of similarity and difference between courtly love and the medieval doctrine of charity, especially in the contemporary mysticism of divine love developed by St. bernard of clairvaux. From most points of view, the cult of courtly love is the antithesis of the religious doctrine of the love of God for His own sake and the love of all other creatures, including love between men and women, for the sake of God. Courtly love, in Father Denomy's lucid description, is neither Christian nor Platonic, neither mystical nor lustful; it is desire for sexual possession in which desire is its own goal and the source of virtue in those who practice it. The beloved object of this desire becomes a substitute for God; the love itself is an indulgence of passion at the expense of reason; the virtues sought are social and natural rather than religious and supernatural. We must observe, of course, that the social virtues of the lovers were directed toward antisocial ends, as far as the norms of society were concerned; and the natural virtues of sexual desire were, in terms of ancient and medieval doctrines of the ordered supremacy of reason over the passions, "unnatural," as Alan of Lille made clear in his De planctu Naturae.

Amor and Caritas. Nevertheless, as Kenelm Foster, OP, has shown, there were affinities between amor and caritas that, in their recognition of potential moral and spiritual values in sexual love, made possible the mystical grandeur of Dante's love for Beatrice and point to recent developments in the theology of marriage. In addition to the general principle that amor is the source of all good in the world, in much the way that caritas was traditionally regarded as the principle of good, Foster notes the fidelity and restraint that courtly love ideally imposed on those who practiced it, the embodiment of the idea of love in a human person, love as a yearning that is never satisfied, a gift spontaneously given, by an act of grace, by the beloved; all of these suggest analogies with divine charity, or rather the transposition of a religious to a human ideal. Such similarities have led scholars to compare the rise of courtly love with the concurrent development of St. Bernard's theology of love in which the language of human passion drawn from the Song of Songs was made the appropriate means of expressing man's love for God. Others have pointed to the increase of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary expressed in the amatory language of human love, though the popularity of this devotion and the excesses that sometimes substituted Mary for her Son as the object of veneration belong more to the 13th and 14th centuries than to the 12th. If there is a relationship, literature of devotion to the Blessed Virgin, which freely and often daringly employs the language of human love, is more likely to have been influenced by the literature of courtly love than to have been among the causes of the secular phenomenon.

Status of Women. Courtly love may also be seen as a reaction against the generally humiliating position of women in medieval society and a theology of marriage that reflected the historical development of this social situation. Men were thought to be superior to women, not only socially and juridically, but even philosophically and theologically. Men regarded themselves as more rational, and therefore more human, than women. Interpretations of Genesis made woman's creation an indication of inferiority, and centuries of commentary on the Fall of man associated Eve and all subsequent women with sensuality, temptation, and the ruin of man. Monastic and sacerdotal celibacy encouraged a tradition of antifeminist attitudes and a literature that made women subhuman objects to be feared and scorned. Such distortions of woman's nature and role in society were balanced in some degree by Christian doctrines of the dignity of the human person, the creation of man and woman in the image of God, the honor paid to heroic women in Sacred Scripture, the veneration of female saints, and most of all the recognition of the unique prerogatives of the Mother of God. (see woman.)

The consequences of the generally low view of women in the Middle Ages for the theology of marriage are in striking contrast to the exaltation of women and of sexual desire in the literature of courtly love. Father Foster writes: "A haunting fear of letting concupiscence into marriage was undoubtedly a powerful element in traditional marriage theology, and one backed by the greatest names, St. Augustine's, above all, and St. Jerome's. And with this fear went an implicit refusal to consider sex in any other than one of two ways: either as pleasant and procreativeand from this point of view the use of sex was justified, in marriage, by the intention to procreate; or as merely pleasant, and from this point of view its use was never justified whether in marriage or not." Foster therefore sees the possibility that the celebration of love freely sought and given between two autonomous personalities (and so necessarily outside the institution of marriage) may have arisen from a certain dissatisfaction with the restrictive, impersonal conditions of medieval marriage.

Philosophy of Nature. If the "true love" of the chanson and the romance may be regarded as an assertion of the rights and dignity of a universally felt natural appetite, which might, if properly governed and directed toward a worthy object, result in an increase in natural virtue, its rise in the 12th century may have some connection with a parallel phenomenon in the history of philosophy. Corresponding with the spread of the literary doctrines of courtly love are the rise of interest in the natural universe and the adoption of rational modes of inquiry in the pursuit of truth. It would be false to exaggerate the novelty of this attitude and to assume that it constituted a movement away from orthodoxy. The masters of Chartres, Bernard, william of conches, thierry, ber nard silvestris, and others associated with this movement, subordinated philosophical truth to the revealed truth of Scripture. Their Neoplatonic philosophy of nature proceeded on the assumption that the created universe could be studied rationally as a reality distinct from, but dependent on, its Creator. (see scholasticism.)

In this natural theology and philosophy, nature was the instrument or servant of the Divine Maker, the sustaining and reproductive power inherent in created things. It was the principle by which divine love operated in the world, the pulcherrimum involucrum of the Holy Spirit. This operative principle of God's love found its most authoritative statement in Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy (2.8), where the harmonious order of the universe is said to be maintained by divine love. In addition to governing the macrocosm, "Love binds together people joined by a sacred bond; love binds sacred marriages by chaste affections; love makes the laws which join true friends. O how happy the human race would be, if that love which rules the heavens ruled also your souls!" But in the view of the 12th-century philosopher and theologian love did not preserve its original rule over the souls of men. In the disastrous exercise of freedom to rebel, man had, in original sin, wounded his nature. But this was the domain of biblical theology. The Platonism of Chartres and Poitiers, relying heavily on classical moral philosophy, particularly that of Cicero, took a more optimistic view of man's natural possibilities. Although this naturalism did not specifically encourage the view that sexual desire could be virtuous apart from its role in procreation, its general approach to ethical problems tended to broaden the medieval view of human love. At least it can be said that the stress on the naturalness of love in courtly literature is much closer to the moral philosophy developed in the 12th century than to the theologians' preoccupation with carnal concupiscence as the corrupting effect of original sin.

Bibliography: Best general introductions, with full bibliographies: r. r. bezzola, Les Origines de la Formation de la littérature courtoise en Occident, 5001200 (Paris 1944). m. j. valency, In Praise of Love (New York 1958). f. schlÖsser, Andreas Capellanus: Seine Minnelehre und das christliche Weltbild um 1200 (Bonn 1960). Still useful for its extensive treatment and stimulating, if often unreliable, criticism is c. s. lewis, The Allegory of Love (Oxford 1936). For differing and influential points of view see a. jeanroy, La Poésie lyrique des troubadours, 2 v. (Paris 1934). g. errante, Marcabru e le fonti sacre dell'antica lirica romanza (Florence 1948). a. j. denomy, The Heresy of Courtly Love (New York 1947). c. h. dawson, Medieval Essays (New York 1954). andrÉ le chapelain, The Art of Courtly Love, tr. j. j. parry (New York 1941). With the exceptions listed above, most scholarship concerned with the general problem of courtly love has appeared in periodicals. Some of the most important in English are: t. silverstein, "Andreas, Plato, and the Arabs," Modern Philology 47 (194950) 117126. a. j. denomy, "Fin' Amors: The Pure Love of the Troubadors, Its Amorality, and Possible Sources," Mediaeval Studies 7 (1945) 139207; "Courtly Love and Courtliness," Speculum. A Journal of Mediaeval Studies 28 (1953) 4463. k. foster, Courtly Love and Christianity (Aquinas Papers 39; London 1963). d. w. robertson, "The Subject of the 'De Amore' of Andreas Capellanus," Modern Philology 50 (195253) 145161. For an excellent introduction to the philosophy and theology of the 12th century, see m. d. chenu, La Théologie au XIIe siècle (Paris 1957).

[r. h. green]

Courtly Love

views updated Jun 08 2018

Courtly Love

"Courtly Love" or Fin'amors.

One of the most commonly held, and perhaps most misunderstood, modern notions about the Middle Ages is the type of romantic or erotic love believed to have been practiced in the period, popularly referred to as "courtly love." Courtly love is a cluster of related ideas and sensibilities characterizing an extreme expression of romantic passion that was demonstrated frequently by characters in medieval literature, especially in courtly romances and the love lyrics of the French troubadours and the German minnesingers. The term "courtly love" was never used in medieval texts, although medieval authors and poets did use the term fin'amors (refined love) to describe the extremes of emotion experienced, often suffered, by male protagonists in romances and by the lover singing love songs to his beloved in the lyric tradition. After observing the phenomenon depicted in various romances, the French literary historian Gaston Paris coined the term "courtly love" at the end of the nineteenth century to describe the devotion of knights for their ladies in medieval romances and love poetry, and the term took on a life of its own. Many general discussions of medieval literature now treat the "courtly love" experienced by various romance heroes—Chrétien's Lancelot, Chaucer's Troilus, or Dante's narrative persona in his ostensibly autobiographical lyric collection La Vita Nuova—as if the authors themselves used the term. In fact, although medieval authors never call what they are describing "courtly love," this particular construction of heterosexual love has a long literary history. It is not surprising that the Middle Ages would embrace a variety of love discourse that has such antique, and therefore authoritative, origins.

The Origins of Courtly Love.

The origins of this form of extreme love can be traced to the Roman poet Ovid, one of the most highly regarded "authorities" in the Middle Ages, whose Ars Amatoria (Art of Love; 1 b.c.e.) contributed many of the tropes now familiar as "courtly love." These include the idea of love as a kind of warfare between the sexes, in which every lover is a soldier in the army of love over which Cupid is the commander-in-chief, and the notion of the absolute power of women over men, who are afflicted by a form of madness because of which they undergo various hardships and physical sufferings and practice absurdly exaggerated behavior. Another likely literary source of more contemporary vintage was The Dove's Neck Ring, produced in Muslim Spain (1022) by Ibn Hazm, who was influenced by Platonic ideals about love. Hazm's contributions to the discourse of courtly love include the notion that man reveals and improves his character or good breeding by practicing a chaste (rather than sensual) love. This rarefied love produces an ennobling effect on the male lover, changing a man of humble birth to the equal of the noble lady to whom he aspires. According to Hazm's version of neo-Platonism, true love is a reunion of parts of souls that were separated in the creation.

Characteristics of Courtly Love.

But what exactly was the late medieval European phenomenon known popularly as "courtly love"? This medieval pattern of erotic behavior was really a cult of frustrated longing. It involved the male lover's unfulfilled sexual desire for a female love object—an unattainable, extremely beautiful and perfect courtly lady, whose very inaccessibility (because she is married to someone else, often the lover's lord) makes her more attractive to the lover. Thus, for the male lover, the essence of the experience of love is a paradoxical combination of pleasure and pain. He experiences joy at the sight of the beloved whose proximity brings delight; at the same time he endures intense mental and physical suffering—a host of disorders including chills, fevers, aches, insomnia—experienced simultaneously with the pleasure. This paradoxical combination of pleasure and pain is caused illogically by the fact that despite her very nearness, the lover cannot have her. In this topsy-turvy situation, the courtly lady is the "physician" who is both the cause and the potential cure of the courtly lover's painful frustration. Because they often involved marital infidelity on the part of at least one of the pair, courtly love relationships had to be conducted with the utmost secrecy. This necessitated clandestine meetings between the lovers, which ended at dawn, thus giving rise to the lyric genre of the aubade or "dawn song." Secrecy and physical separation inspired acute bouts of jealousy in both parties, all part of the phenomenon's allure. Because the attainment and practice of courtoisie (courtesy) was limited to the aristocracy, courtly love was only to be practiced by the most elite classes of medieval society, the knights and ladies at the aristocratic courts. Indeed, when a knight was attracted to the beauty of a peasant woman, he was instructed simply to take her by force if she did not immediately succumb to his flatteries, a plot situation illustrated in the lyric genre of the pastourelle.

Real and Imagined Courtly Love.

Although no concrete evidence exists that the fantastic courtship known as courtly love was actually practiced during the medieval period, this erotic fantasy or game nevertheless had much literary currency from the twelfth century onwards, when the wife of King Louis VII of France, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their daughter Marie reputedly set up "courts of love" respectively at their estates in Aquitaine and Champagne. Both Eleanor and Marie were literary patronesses of troubadour poets and romance writers, and, through their encouragement, the discourse of courtly love as we know it took shape. At Marie's request, Chrétien de Troyes wrote the unfinished romance, The Knight of the Cart, about Lancelot's courtly desire for Guinevere, and at her court another cleric, Andreas Capellanus, wrote his Ovid-influenced treatise De Amore (About Love) also titled De Arte Honeste Amandi (About the Art of Frank Loving; 1180s), a three-part "guide" to conducting courtly love addressed to a young man named Walter. Andreas's first two books present the rules of the game—what rank the lovers must be and how they must conduct themselves. Ironically, his third book, containing a vehement repudiation of secular love and a misogynistic attack on the vices of women, retracts all the advice offered previously. Placed on the proverbial "pedestal" above the reach of the courtly lover by his frustrated yearning for her, the courtly lady of the first two books enjoyed a position of power that few actual medieval women (except for queens and countesses


introduction: In Book Two of De arte honeste amandi [The Art of Courtly Love], written in France under the patronage of Marie de Champagne in the late twelfth century, Andreas Capellanus (Andrew the Chaplin) enumerates rules for love that mix the cynicism of Ovid's Art of Love with the elevated or idealized love of the type called "courtly." This love is manifested by certain conditions such as the married state of the lady, and physical symptoms, such as fainting, palpitations of the heart, or changes of color on the part of the lover. How often these rules were applied in real life is uncertain, but they were highly influential in the development of medieval literature.

Book Two: On the Rules of Love

  1. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
  2. He who is not jealous cannot love.
  3. No one can be bound by a double love.
  4. It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing.
  5. That which a lover takes against the will of his beloved has no relish.
  6. Boys do not love until they arrive at the age of maturity.
  7. When one lover dies, a widowhood of two years is required of the survivor.
  8. No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.
  9. No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love.
  10. Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice.
  11. It is not proper to love any woman whom one should be ashamed to seek to marry.
  12. A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.
  13. When made public, love rarely endures.
  14. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.
  15. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
  16. When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved, his heart palpitates.
  17. A new love puts to flight an old one.
  18. Good character alone makes any man worthy of love.
  19. If love diminishes, it quickly fails and rarely revives.
  20. A man in love is always apprehensive.
  21. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
  22. Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.
  23. He whom the thought of love vexes, eats and sleeps very little.
  24. Every act of a lover ends with the thought of his beloved.
  25. A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved.
  26. Love can deny nothing to love.
  27. A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved.
  28. A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved.
  29. A man who is vexed by too much passion usually does not love.
  30. A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.
  31. Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women.

source: Andreas Capellanus, de arte honeste amandi [The Art of Courtly Love]. Trans. J. J. Parry (New York: Norton, 1969): 184–186.

like Eleanor and Marie) ever experienced. And even queens, subject to the temporal power of their husbands, could be locked in towers, which happened to Eleanor herself when her second husband, Henry II grew tired of her meddling in his political affairs. Knocked off the "pedestal" of adulation, the courtly lady instead returned to being the object of medieval antifeminism more typical of the period's attitudes toward women.


A. J. Denomy, "Courtly Love and Courtliness," Speculum 28 (1953): 44–63.

E. T. Donaldson, "The Myth of Courtly Love," Ventures 5 (1965): 16–23.

W. T. H. Jackson, "The De Amore of Andreas Capellanus and the Practice of Love at Court," Romanic Review 49 (1958): 243–251.

J. J. Parry, trans., The Art of Courtly Love (New York: Norton, 1969).

Mary Frances Wack, Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: The Viaticum and Its Commentaries (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990).

courtly love

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courtly love a highly conventionalized medieval tradition of love between a knight and a married noblewoman, first developed by the troubadours of Southern France and extensively employed in European literature of the time. The love of the knight for his lady was regarded as an ennobling passion and the relationship was typically unconsummated.

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