From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Courtly love was a medieval European conception of ennobling love which found its genesis in the ducal and princely courts in regions of present-day southern France at the end of the 11th century. In essence, courtly love was a contradictory experience between erotic desire and spiritual attainment.
The term "courtly love" was first popularized by Gaston Paris in 1883 (in the journal Romania). The terms that appear in the actual medieval period are "Amour Honestus" (Honest Love) and "Fin Amor" (Refined Love).
The term has since come under a wide variety of definitions and uses, even being dismissed as nineteenth-century romantic fiction. Its interpretation, origins and influences continue to be a matter of discourse.
Courtly love had its origins in the castle life of four regions: Aquitaine, Provence, Champagne and ducal Burgundy beginning about the time of the First Crusade (1099). Courtly love found its expression in the lyric poems written by troubadours, such as William IX, Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1126), one of the first troubadour poets.
Poets adopted the terminology of feudalism, declaring themselves the vassal of the lady and addressing her as midons (my lord), a sort of code name so that the poet did not have to reveal the lady's name, but which was flattering by addressing her as his lord. The troubadour's model of the ideal lady was the wife of his employer or lord, a lady of higher status, usually the rich and powerful female head of the castle. When her husband was away on Crusade or other business she dominated the household and cultural affairs; sometimes this was the case even when the husband was at home. The lady was rich and powerful and the poet gave voice to the aspirations of the courtier class, for only those who were noble could engage in courtly love. This new kind of love saw nobility not based on wealth and family history, but on character and actions; thus appealing to poorer knights who saw an avenue for advancement.
Eleanor of Aquitaine brought ideals of courtly love from Aquitaine first to the court of France, then to England, where she was queen to two kings. Her daughter Marie, Countess of Champagne brought courtly behavior to the Count of Champagne's court. The rules of courtly love were codified by the late 12th century in Andreas Capellanus' highly influential work De Amore ("Concerning Love").
Courtly love saw a woman as an ennobling spiritual and moral force, a view that was in opposition to ecclesiastical sexual attitudes. Rather than being critical of romantic and sexual love as sinful, the poets praised it as the highest good. Marriage had been declared a sacrament of the Church, at the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215, and within Christian marriage, the only purpose was procreation with any sex beyond that purpose seen as non-pious. The ideal state of a Christian was celibacy, even in marriage. By the beginning of the 13th century the ideas of courtly tradition were condemned by the church as being heretical. The church channeled many of these energies into the cult of the Virgin; it is not a coincidence that the cult of the Virgin Mary began in the 12th century as a counter to the secular, courtly and lustful views of women. Francis of Assisi called poverty "his Lady".
Courtly love had a civilizing effect on knightly behavior, beginning in the late 11th century; it has been suggested that the prevalence of arranged marriages required other outlets for the expression of more personal occurrences of romantic love. New expressions of highly personal private piety in the 11th century were at the origins of what a modern observer would recognize as a personality, and the vocabulary of piety was also transferred to the conventions of courtly love.
At times, the lady could be a princesse lointaine, a far-away princess, and some tales told of men who had fallen in love with women whom they had never seen, merely on hearing their perfection described, but normally she was not so distant. As the etiquette of courtly love became more complicated, the knight might wear the colors of his lady: blue or black were the colors of faithfulness; green was a sign of unfaithfulness. Salvation, previously found in the hands of the priesthood, now came from the hands of one's lady. In some cases, there were also women troubadours who expressed the same sentiment for men.
The literary convention of courtly love can be found in most of the major authors of the Middle Ages such as Geoffery Chaucer, John Gower, Dante, Marie de France, Chretien de Troyes, Gottfried von Strassburg and Malory.
Courtly love was born in the lyric, first appearing with Provençal poets in the 11th century, including itinerant and courtly minstrels such as the French troubadours and trouveres. This French tradition spread later to the German Minnesänger, such as Walther von der Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach.
The vernacular court poetry of the romans courtois, or Romances, saw many examples of courtly love. Some of them are set within the cycle of poems celebrating King Arthur's court. This was a literature of leisure, directed to a largely female audience for the first time in European history.
Perhaps the most important and popular work was that of Andreas Capellanus's De Amore which described the ars amandi ("the art of loving") in twelfth century Provence. His work followed in the tradition of the Roman work Ars amatoria ("Art of Love") by Ovid and the Muslim work Tawq al-hamamah (The turtle-dove's necklace) by Ibn Hazm.
The themes of courtly love were not confined to the medieval, but seen both in serious and comic forms in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, for example, shows Romeo attempting to love Rosaline in an almost contrived courtly fashion while Mercutio mocks him for it.
Points of controversy
A point of ongoing controversy about courtly love is to what extent it was sexual. All courtly love was erotic to some degree—the troubadours speak of the physical beauty of their ladies and the feelings and desires the ladies rouse in them—and not purely platonic; however, it is unclear what a poet should do—live a life of perpetual desire channeling his energies to higher ends, or physically consummate. Scholars have seen it both ways.
Denis de Rougemont said that the troubadours were influenced by Cathar doctrines which rejected the pleasures of the flesh and that they were metaphorically addressing the spirit and soul of their ladies. Edmund Reiss claimed it was also a spiritual love, but a love that had more in common with Christian love, or caritas. On the other hand, scholars such as Mosché Lazar claim it was adulterous sexual love with physical possession of the lady the desired end.
- "It is the pure love which binds together the hearts of two lovers with every feeling of delight. This kind consists in the contemplation of the mind and the affection of the heart; it goes as far as the kiss and the embrace and the modest contact with the nude lover, omitting the final solace, for that is not permitted for those who wish to love purely.... That is called mixed love which gets its effect from every delight of the flesh and culminates in the final act of Venus."
Within the corpus of troubadour poems there is a wide range of attitudes, even across the works of individual poets. Some poems are physically sensual, even bawdily imagining nude embraces, while others are highly spiritual and border on the platonic.
Andalusian and Islamic influence
Many of the conventions of courtly love can be traced to Ovid, through Andreas Capellanus, but it is doubtful that they are all traceable to this origin. Accounts of courtly love often overlook the Arabist hypothesis, which has been posed in some form almost from the beginnings of the term "courtly love" in the modern period. A proposed source for the differences is the Arabic poets and poetry of Muslim Spain and the broader European contact with the Islamic world.
Given that practices similar to courtly love were already prevalent in Al-Andalus and elsewhere in the Islamic world, it is very likely that Islamic practices influenced the Christian Europeans. William of Aquitane, for example, was involved in the First Crusade, and in the ongoing Reconquista in Spain, so that he would have come into contact with Muslim culture a great deal.
According to G. E. von Grunebaum, there were several elements which developed in Arabic literature. The notions of "love for love's sake" and "exaltation of the beloved lady" have been traced back to Arabic literature of the 9th and 10th centuries. The notion of the "ennobling power" of love was developed in the early 11th century by the Persian psychologist and philosopher, Ibn Sina (known as "Avicenna" in Europe), in his treatise Risala fi'l-Ishq (Treatise on Love). The final element of courtly love, the concept of "love as desire never to be fulfilled", was at times implicit in Arabic poetry, but was first developed into a doctrine in European literature, in which all four elements of courtly love were present.
According to an argument outlined by Maria Rosa Menocal in The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History, in 11th-century Spain, a group of wandering poets appeared who would go from court to court, and sometimes travel to Christian courts in southern France, a situation closely mirroring what would happen in southern France about a century later. Contacts between these Spanish poets and the French troubadours were frequent. The metrical forms used by the Spanish poets were similar to those later used by the troubadours.
A continued point of controversy is whether courtly love was purely literary or was actually practiced in real life. There are no historical records that offer evidence of its presence in reality. Historian John Benton found no documentary evidence in law codes, court cases, chronicles or other historical documents. However, the existence of the non-fiction genre of courtesy books is perhaps evidence for its practice. For example, according to the courtesy book by Christine de Pizan called Book of the Three Virtues (ca. 1405), which expresses disapproval of courtly love, the convention was being used to justify and cover-up illicit love affairs. Courtly love probably found expression in the real world in customs such as the crowning of Queens of Love and Beauty at tournaments. Philip le Bon, in his Feast of the Pheasant in 1454, relied on parables drawn from courtly love to incite his nobles to swear to participate in an anticipated crusade, while well into the 15th century numerous actual political and social conventions were largely based on the formulas dictated by the "rules" of courtly love.
Courts of love
A point of controversy was the existence of "courts of love", first mentioned by Andreas Capellanus. These were supposed courts made up of tribunals staffed by 10 to 70 women who would hear a case of love and rule on it based on the rules of love. 19th century historians took the existence of these courts as fact, however later historians such as John F. Benton noted "none of the abundant letters, chronicles, songs and pious dedications" suggest they ever existed outside of the poetic literature. According to Diane Bornstein, one way to reconcile the differences between the references to courts of love in the literature, and the lack of documentary evidence in real life, is that they were like literary salons or social gatherings, where people read poems, debated questions of love, and played word games of flirtation.
Stages of courtly love
(Adapted from Barbara Tuchman A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Knopf, 1978. ISBN 0-394-40026-7.)
- 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 lovesickness)
- Heroic deeds of valor which win the lady's heart
- Consummation of the secret love
- Endless adventures and subterfuges avoiding detection
- Romance (genre)
- Book of the Civilized Man
- Sicilian School
- Dolce Stil Novo