Courtly Love

by J. E. Mims

Drawings by J. Mims

Courtly Love is the celebration of sexual love between men and women. According to C. S. Lewis (1936), the poetic conventions developed to express it became important elements in the literature of the west during the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance. 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 of time.

During the 11th century, chivalry arose in France. Later it spread to the other countries of Europe. Young boys of noble birth were trained the manners they would need to know as knights. They were taught to honor the Christian church, to respect women, and to devote their lives to the service of a lady. Such service was supposed to increase their abilities as warriors. Often a knight would worship his lady at a distance, never speaking to her and perhaps never even seeing her. The etiquette of courtly love was included in manuals of conduct even as late as the Renaissance. These manuals are called courtesy books. According to "Etiquette codes in Europe" on America Online (21 April 1997) one the most influential courtesy books was Il Cortegiano (The Courtier, published in 1528) and the first courtesy book was the Book of the Governor(1531).

The courtly lover is characteristically a knight, though the poet himself is more often than not a man of more humble origin. The troubadour (or poet) was the medieval equivalent of a traveling folksinger who played other people's songs as well as his own. If he was talented and lucky, and could find a hospitable lord or lady with money, he performed regularly at a castle.

According to A Natural History of Love (1994), the hero of the poems, 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. Final success (or the promise of it) produces the perfect joy that the lover seeks. The troubadour concentrates on this joy as a goal. It generates the excitement of the chase.

The beloved (the lady) to whom the song is addressed is a stereotype. Physically she is blond and fair, with stylized features and figure that vary little within the tradition. She maybe 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 vassel, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia (1967). The code required a man to fall in love with a married woman of equal or higher rank, and, before consummating this love, to commit daring exploits proving his devotion. The lovers then pledged themselves to secrecy and fidelity, according to Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia (1994). The lady was almost invariably someone else's wife. 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.

The affair of the lover and his lady normally begins in April or May, and the stirrings of the lover are associated with the powers of nature in the 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 first stages of love fascinated the troubadours. According to A Natural History of Love (1967) the "flicking emotions and trembling moments" the lovers shared together were something wonderful. Sexual intercourse was believed to put an end to such happiness and was not of interest to the lovers. They preferred gazing into each other eyes, having secret codes, having the fear of being discovered and the ongoing pain of being separated. It is assumed that the songs of the troubadours were the direct reflection of the social behavior in the courts of France. The troubadours developed a cult of platonic love and sang an impossible passion for an unattainable noblewoman, proclaiming how lovely she was and how, despite her scorn, they would continue to adore her. A troubadour was expected to think himself well regarded for ten years of devotion by the gift of a single rose (Eleanor of Aquitaine, 1979).

Courtly love has its rewards according to The Catholic Encyclopedia (1967). It is assumed to produce virtue in those who practiced it. The virtues of justice, wisdom, temperance, and fortitude are all increased by love and service virtues.

Troubadours play and sing for their king.

Troubadour poetry was of many kinds, only of some of which praised "true love"; and of these, some celebrated a love that seems more divine than human. The Allegory of Love (1936) gives a perfect example of the secret love story of Lancelot and Guinevere. The story turns mainly on the queen's captivity in the mysterious land of Gorre, where those that are native can go both in and out but strangers can only go in, and on her rescue from there by Lancelot. Lancelot sets out to find the queen but encounters many tribulations. When Lancelot finds Guinevere, she is very cruel to him and when she forgives him his trials are not yet over. The tournament at the end of the poem between other knights gives Guinevere another opportunity of exercising her position of power. Guinevere, in disguise, sends a message ordering him to do his poorest. Lancelot obediently lets himself be humiliated, mocked, and laughed at by his fellow peers. Lancelot's submission reveals his religious devotion towards Guinevere. He treats Guinevere with saintly, if not divine, honors. This is a perfect example of courtly love.

The conventions of courtly love continued as important elements in the poetry of the 14th century. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), in The Canterbury Tales and, most of all, in Troilus, Chaucer uses traditional modes of erotic behavior and imagery for effects that reflect the whole range of human love in the Middle ages. The influence of courtly love on literature and manners extended far beyond the Middle Ages. Courtly Love helped raise the status of women and of many knights. It also granted individuals the right to make certain choices about their fate, encouraged mutual affection, urged lovers to feel tenderness and respect for each other, according to A Natural History of Love (1994). In the variety of its forms it has gone beyond the medieval time period and has contributed to the culture, literature, and patterns of human behavior today.


This webpage was written by J. Mims, 5/26/97, for History & Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

Return to Index