Courtly love emerged in Europe during the High Middle Ages (1000 – 1300 CE), marking one of the most enduring cultural legacies of the period. While the goal of courtly love was never marriage, perhaps it was something far nobler: Enduring love.
The most swoon-worthy suitors are willing to sacrifice everything—their livelihood and their honor—to honor their beloved. Larger sacrifices were commensurate with greater love. While marriages of convenience formed political alliances affecting thousands, courtly love emphasized the individuals involved.
The Origins of Courtly Love and Marriage
The word ‘marry’ traces its linguistic roots to the Middle Ages but the concept of marriage existed long before the modern English word. Marriage usually afforded the betrothed practical benefits such as political alliances, economic security, elevated social status, and perhaps even political power. There were a myriad of practical reasons to marry but few of them hinged upon love. Love as a notion is rather unique to humans, and love’s presence remains one of the most widely explored aspects of the human experience.
Marriage as an institution has functioned to unite families and expand empires. The custom of marriage is nearly universal but practices and traditions vary. From the perspectives of many modern cultures, love is a precondition for marriage. This was not always the case, however. It was only around the 18th century that people were encouraged to pursue partners with whom one had a romantic, love-like attraction. However, long before this social shift, we find medieval knights as ardent followers of courtly love’s rulebook.
The Rise of Romance
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Where there’s love, there’s romance. The root of the word romance also originates from the medieval period (hence, Romance languages). Many print books were written in Latin, as this was the language of the church. In contrast, Romance works were those written in a common vernacular of Spanish, Portuguese, French, or Italian. In the nascent stages of courtly love tales, the readership and listenership largely comprised of women. Eleanor of Aquitaine for example — fluent in both Latin and the local Provençal/Occaitan — was a key patron of the arts. It is through her support that courtly love was able to endure.
As traveling minstrels wove their way through the European countryside accompanying royal courts, they regaled listeners with the trials and tribulations of lovers near and far. Some of the most renowned traveling bards, known as troubadours, sang in the great halls of southern France, northern Spain, and northern Italy. Contrary to centuries of literary tradition honoring male achievements, troubadour poetry included women in the narrative. Women characters played an equal role in the story, alongside their male counterparts.
The Feudal Context
Courtly love existed within the larger context of the feudal system. Feudal governments divided society into three clear estates: the nobility, who fought; the clergy, who prayed; and the laborers, who worked. While laborers included a wide range of occupations such as craftspeople, merchants, and farmers, there was little social mobility available to them. The lands where the laborers worked were divided into fiefs, and a monarch ruled many fiefs across Europe. In the Medieval Period, primogeniture ruled, as the firstborn son would inherit the land after his father’s death.
As first-born sons stood to inherit most land, second and third sons were left hanging in the balance. They were left without a suitable niche in society to differentiate them as members of the nobility. Thus, knighthood grew increasingly popular. Knights were tasked with protecting fiefs and serving their lords. For second sons, lords with no other prospects, knighthood offered an opportunity to serve the noble class and maintain their status.
Courtly Love’s Purpose
Busy fighting the battles of their liege, second sons were accustomed to the toils of war. But love’s battlefield also posed problems — second sons were seldom seen as desirable bachelors for marriage. Marriage was viewed as a way to continue dynasties through heirs and grow the strength of an empire through alliances, so brides often entered marriage with a dowry. Bridegrooms provided a dower that allocated funds and property to the wife should she become widowed. These transactional exchanges conferred protection and power on both parties.
Ultimately, what choice did second sons have? Not only were they excluded from any property inheritance but they also lacked any potential prospects in marriage. This is why some scholars suggest that the emergence of courtly love gave knights a larger societal purpose. Courtly love prescribes certain characteristics befitting of a gentleman: seeking dignity, valor, and honor for those he admires. It was a social code that ensured knights behaved and refrained from causing trouble, lest it should compromise the dignity of their lady.
Medieval Marriage and Courtly Love’s Rulebook
The end goal of courtly love was not marriage. Courtly love describes a relationship that centers around pining and longing. Usually, the object of the knight’s affection was an older, married woman residing in a castle. To the medieval mind, courtly love could happily co-exist with a marriage. The incessant, intense longing spurs the knight to behave in a way that honors his beloved, and he’s well aware that he will never be able to marry. According to De Amore, a courtly love handbook by 12th-century chaplain Andreas Capellanus, marriage was not a deterrent to love.
To summarize a few of his key points:
- 4. Love constantly waxes and wanes.
- 14. The value of love is commensurate with its difficulty of attainment.
- 17. A new love brings an old one to a finish.
- 21. Love is reinforced by jealousy.
- 22. Suspicion of the beloved generates jealousy and therefore intensifies love.
The game of cat-and-mouse comes part and parcel with courtly love. One was capable of having many loves, so long as they possessed requisite “good character.” Jealousy and suspicion, viewed by modern audiences as toxic traits of an unhealthy relationship, were seen as vital emotions driving knights. Further, love requires effort. The more effort one exerts, the greater the love is bound to be.
Ready to swoon at the drop of a handkerchief, knights pursued love for love’s sake. Love was a means as well as an end. Courtly love encouraged a knight to do everything within his power to bring honor to his beloved person. Love for his lady spurred a knight forward, toward whatever trials awaited.
One of the most famous courtly love duos were Lancelot and Guinevere. While Arthur is the king of legend, Lancelot’s legacy is that of a lover. One of the first stories detailing the love between these two was told in 1170 by Chrétien de Troyes. His patroness requested this tale, by Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
In the tale, The Knight of the Cart, Lancelot must rescue Queen Guinevere. Throughout his travels, he is faced with no choice but to board a hangman’s cart, viewed as one of the basest acts (akin to “if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas”). His honor is irrevocably damaged and the other knights view him as a pariah. Medieval readers and listeners would shudder at the thought of even sitting in the hangman’s cart. There was nothing more shameful.
This story epitomizes courtly love, as Lancelot sacrifices his reputation in order to rescue Guinevere. For knights, the greatest honor of all is that of their maiden. Guinevere does embrace Lancelot in public, but she is modest. Contrary to the finales of many romance plots today, a chaste and restrained acknowledgment was to be expected between lovers. The readers are left with a deep admiration for Lancelot’s sacrifices.
Last Subheader: The Waning of Courtly Love
Courtly love largely disappeared from France following the Albigensian crusade. The northern part of France imposed greater control over the south, which limited the patronage of the creative arts. Courtly love would survive in Germany with minnesingers, and even Dante would place troubadours in his Divine Comedy.
There are many commonalities between courtly love and our modern romances. We view jealousy, suspicion, and yearning as central themes in so much of our media. When a pair overcomes insurmountable odds and finally confesses their feelings, we view their relationship and status as a couple as justification for love. In courtly love, knights prioritize the act of love, loving widely and openly, knowing that it will never amount to anything. As they pine, we pine with them, cheering as they pursue the noble high road to honor their beloved.