Courtly Love: fact or fiction?


The term l’amour courtois was coined by Gaston Paris in 1883 in the journal Romania but the practice is believed to have developed around 1099 in France. Scholars disagree about its origins (and even its existence).

Did it emerge as a humanist reaction to the puritannical Catholic Church of the early Middle Ages, an era dominated by prudishness, patriarchy and theocracy? As such, did it exalt the feminine as a force for good in contrast to the chauvinistic first and second estates? And therefore were the Church’s early C13th attempts to suppress it as heresy a move to quash this “sexual revolution”? Or was courtly love part of the Church’s effort to civilize late C11th Germanic feudal codes? Or did the practice of arranged marriages leave people desirous of expressing romantic love in another form? (In the C12th, literature in French was referred to as “romance” to differentiate it from “real” literature in Latin).

Courtly love  certainly existed as a literary convention in the majority of Middle Age authors (e.g. Chaucer, Sir Thomas Malory, Dante, Chretien de Troyes, Marie de France…) Typical courtly love motifs included: love for a married person seemingly unattainable; exquisite behaviour by all lovers; an emphasis not on the sexual conquest but on the love conquest; the total self-sacrifice of the wife.

“The “courtly love” relationship is modelled on the feudal relationship between a knight and his liege lord. The knight serves his courtly lady (love service) with the same obedience and loyalty which he owes to his liege lord. She is in complete control of the love relationship, while he owes her obedience and submission (a literary convention that did not correspond to actual practice!) The knight’s love for the lady inspires him to do great deeds, in order to be worthy of her love or to win her favor. Thus “courtly love” was originally construed as an ennobling force whether or not it was consummated, and even whether or not the lady knew about the knight’s love or loved him in return.

“The “courtly love” relationship typically was not between husband and wife, not because the poets and the audience were inherently immoral, but because it was an idealized sort of relationship that could not exist within the context of “real life” medieval marriages. In the middle ages, marriages amongst the nobility were typically based on practical and dynastic concerns rather than on love. The idea that a marriage could be based on love (as in the “Franklin’s Tale“) was a radical notion. But the audience for romance was perfectly aware that these romances were fictions, not models for actual behavior. The adulterous aspect that bothers many 20th-century readers was somewhat beside the point, which was to explore the potential influence of love on human behavior.

Social historians such as Eric Köhler and Georges Duby have hypothesized that “courtly love” may have served a useful social purpose: providing a model of behavior for a class of unmarried young men that might otherwise have threatened social stability. Knights were typically younger brothers without land of their own (hence unable to support a wife) who became members of the household of the feudal lords whom they served. One reason why the lady in the courtly love relationship is typically older, married and of higher social status than the knight may be because she was modelled on the wife of the feudal lord, who might naturally become the focus of the young, unmarried knights’ desire. Köhler and Duby posit that the literary model of the courtly love relationship may have been invented in part to provide these young men with a model for appropriate behavior, teaching them to sublimate their desires and to channel their energy into socially useful behavior (love service rather than wandering around the countryside, stealing or raping women like the knight in the “Wife of Bath’s” tale).” (courtesy Dr. Debora B. Schwartz, 1998-2002)

Whether or not courtly love existed beyond fiction, it was certainly mocked in the satirical late C12th Latin text The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus. It cites The Twelve Rules of Love:

1. Thou shalt avoid avarice like the deadly pestilence and shalt embrace its opposite.

2. Thou shalt keep thyself chaste for the sake of her whom thou lovest.

3. Thou shalt not knowingly strive to break up a correct love affair that someone else is engaged in.

4. Thou shalt not chose for thy love anyone whom a natural sense of shame forbids thee to marry.

5. Be mindful completely to avoid falsehood.

6. Thou shalt not have many who know of thy love affair.

7. Being obedient in all things to the commands of ladies, thou shalt ever strive to ally thyself to the service of Love.

8. In giving and receiving love’s solaces let modesty be ever present.

9. Thou shalt speak no evil.

10. Thou shalt not be a revealer of love affairs.

11. Thou shalt be in all things polite and courteous.

12. In practicing the solaces of love thou shalt not exceed the desires of thy lover.

The notion of courtly love was embraced by many artists, not least the Pre-Raphaelites, currently on display at Tate Britain until Jan 13th.


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