courtly love

courtly love
   The term courtly love, generally used to describe a group of literary conventions common in western Europe in the later medieval period, was in fact never used in the Middle Ages. It was coined by the scholar Gaston Paris in 1883 to denote an attitude toward love called fin amors by the Provençal TROUBADOUR poets, among whom it originated at the end of the 11th century. It is likely that the new treatment of love owed something to the poetry of Muslim Spain, as well as to Ovid’s Ars amatoria. Its elevation of women may have been influenced, as well, by the Cult of the Virgin (the new veneration of the Virgin Mary in the high Middle Ages), and its refinement of love to a spiritual rather than merely a physical ideal may also owe something to the Catharist movement in southern France.
   From Provence, the new convention spread through Europe. French poets adapted the lyric expression of love to the new narrative ROMANCE genre. The German poets called the new notion of refined love minne. The Italian poets of the DOLCE STIL NOVO school elevated the lady to angelic status, while the English love poets downplayed the adulterous aspects of their French sources. In short, the concept of a refined love and its effects on the one who loves spread through Europe, with a great variety of manifestations, and became a dominant theme in late medieval vernacular literature for hundreds of years.
   C. S. Lewis wrote the first truly significant study of the idea of courtly love, and while his book The Allegory of Love, has been superseded it still provides a good starting point for discussion. Lewis considers four aspects of courtly love: humility, nobility, adultery, and the Religion of Love. The lover (nearly always assumed to be the male in courtly love poetry) must be humble and must serve the lady. In an adaptation of feudal imagery that becomes conventional, his mistress is described as his sovereign and he her vassal. He is unworthy of her and can only win her love through long service and faithful adherence to her wishes and commands, even if they are unreasonable: In CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES’ LANCELOT, for example, the queen tells the protagonist to “do his worst” at a tournament, at which he immediately begins losing deliberately.
   In fact, though, this humility is an outward show. One of the chief conventions of courtly love is that only the truly noble can love. Thus GOTTFRIED VON STRASSBURG dedicates his romance of TRISTAN to the “noble hearts” in his audience, since only they can understand true love. Conversely, love is also ennobling—the lover becomes more noble as a consequence of his love, and as a result of serving his lady. In order to become worthy of her, he must refine his courtly virtues:He must become more generous, more courteous to all ladies, and a finer practitioner of knightly arms. The lady herself is the image of these qualities, the mirror of those perfections that the lover wants to see in himself—the ideal that will refine his character. Thus in CHAUCER’s TROILUS AND CRISEYDE, for example, the hero becomes Troy’s “Hector the Second” in the war with the Greeks in order to impress his lady, Criseyde.
   Third, the early courtly love lyric, as practiced in Provençal, does indeed glorify adultery.Most likely this is a reaction to the nature of medieval marriage among the nobility: If a woman had virtually no voice in choosing her husband, she had complete freedom in choosing her lover. And although in practice her actions were probably closely guarded to ensure the legitimacy of her lord’s offspring, her fantasies might find an outlet in courtly love poetry. Thus according to the conventions of the genre, love must always be kept secret. The lovers may have a go-between, but must always be on guard against the “talebearers” who are constantly watching, and must beware of the “jealous one”— the husband. This is the typical situation in the erotic ALBA or “dawn song,” where the lovers must part in the morning after a night of love, so that they are not found together by the “jealous one.” In the great romances that appeared later, the most popular lovers—TRISTAN AND ISOLDE, LANCELOT and GUENEVERE—all engage in adulterous affairs. Lewis’s fourth aspect, the “Religion of Love,” refers to the metaphorical treatment of the powerful force of love as a deity in courtly love poetry. With love defined as Venus, or Cupid, or more typically the “God of Love,” a sort of playful parody of orthodox religion becomes common in some courtly love literature. The emphasis of medieval clerical writers on the extreme importance of virginity, and their prevailing attitude about the evils of the sex act itself (an attitude to be expected from a class of males sworn to celibacy), certainly encouraged secular love poets to burlesque the church with a burlesque “religion” that made sexual love its focus. Thus John GOWER, for example, in his CONFESSIO AMANTIS, writes of a lover confessing his sins against the God of Love to Love’s priest, Genius. Or in the prologue to Chaucer’s LEGEND OF GOOD WOMEN, the God of Love chastises the poet for writing of Criseyde’s betrayal of her lover, and assigns him the penance of writing a series of lives of women who were “Love’s martyrs,” in parody of the popular GOLDEN LEGEND and other collections of SAINTS’ LIVES.
   Scholars after Lewis did much to refine, modify, and challenge his notions. Maurice Valency made it clear that to assume, as Lewis apparently had, that courtly love was a real social phenomenon was unreasonable, and that courtly love conventions must be assumed to apply only to literary texts. However, it does appear that the courtly audience of love poetry and romances saw those texts as relating in some ways to their own lives. Certainly the singers of the early love lyrics saw themselves as addressing various perspectives of their courtly audiences through the expression of different attitudes in their lyrics (see Goldin 1975).More recent critics have challenged the notion that the idea of courtly love has any practical value at all in discussions of literature. Certainly it is true that a text like Andreas CAPELLANUS’s Art of Courtly Love, with its numerous “rules” about how a love affair must be conducted, cannot be taken seriously. But it is also obvious that widespread literary conventions concerning the nature of love and the characteristics of the true lover did indeed exist in medieval Europe. Images like the lover suffering from a malady that can only be cured by the medicine of the lady’s love, or the lover in prison from which only the lady’s love can release him, abound in late medieval texts. Illustrations of the psychology of love through the interaction of personified abstractions like Reason and Pity, or Beauty,Wealth, and Generosity in love ALLEGORIES also became popular after GUILLAUME DE LORRIS’s influential first part of the extremely popular 13th-century poem the ROMAN DE LA ROSE. Perhaps the best way to consider courtly love as a tradition is to think about it as a rather elaborate and stylized game of flirtation that was played in the noble courts of later medieval Europe. Such playful behavior was apparently encouraged at courts like those of ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE and her daughter, the Countess MARIE DE CHAMPAGNE, who may have set the fashion for the rest of Europe. Courtly love literature is best appreciated as one aspect of that game—the production of texts that provided food for discussion among the lovers in the court, and those who fancied themselves so.
   ■ Boase, Roger. The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love: A Critical Study of European Scholarship. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1977.
   ■ Burns, E. Jane. Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
   ■ Goldin, Frederick. “The Array of Perspectives in the Courtly Love Lyric,” In In Pursuit of Perfection: Courtly Love in Medieval Literature, edited by Joan M. Ferrante and George D. Economou, 51–100. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1975.
   ■ ———. The Mirror of Narcissus in the Courtly Love Lyric. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967.
   ■ Kelly, Douglas. Medieval Imagination: Rhetoric and the Poetry of Courtly Love. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
   ■ Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. New York:Oxford University Press, 1936.
   ■ Newman, F. X., ed. The Meaning of Courtly Love. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1968.
   ■ O’Donaghue, Bernard. The Courtly Love Tradition. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1982.
   ■ Shaw, J. E.Guido Cavalcanti’s Theory of Love. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1949.
   ■ Valency, Maurice. In Praise of Love: An Introduction to the Love-Poetry of the Renaissance. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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