Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A Celebration of Courtly Love

It’s St Valentine’s Day and what better way to celebrate than to explore the medieval phenomenon which spawned many a romantic tale: courtly love.

Courtly love was a means of expressing love and admiration between two members of the nobility who were not married to one another. A perfect recipe, then, for repressed desire, intrigue and subterfuge. You can see, too, how these elements inspired troubadour songs and many of the top writers of the Middle Ages: Geoffrey Chaucer, Dante and Sir Thomas Malory, for example.
Although the phrase “courtly love” was not coined until 1883, its origins can be traced to the courts of Aquitaine, Provence, Champagne and Burgundy towards the end of the eleventh century, and is believed to have been brought to England by Eleanor of Aquitaine. In a parallel strand, practices similar to courtly love went on in Arab-occupied Spain and throughout the Islamic world. “Love as desire never to be fulfilled” was one description, and this was an implicit theme of Arabic poetry at the time. (It has to be said, though, that some scholars disagree that the practice of courtly love did really exist. They argue that it was purely a cover for adultery and there was nothing courtly about it.)
La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee

So how did it go on? Typically, a “courtly lover” would declare his admiration for some higher-ranking female, for example the wife of his employer, or some female who held office in the life of the castle. Remember, in those days marriages would often be arranged for political rather than romantic reasons, so you can see why this phenomenon provided a delicious bubble of escapism from a loveless existence. The lady could even be a faraway princess, with whom the lover had no contact, only the most fleeting detail igniting his passion. Courtly love was subject to a number of stages, from initial attraction, a passionate declaration of devotion, virtuous rejection by the lady and sometimes (but not always) consummation of a mutual passion (though whether the love remains chaste or not is a matter of debate).

You can imagine the scene—the knight, a skilled and handsome horseman, and the object of his devotion, pale-faced and bright-eyed, arrange a tryst. The knight, careful to appear devoted, waits for his lady to dismount. (Secretly, he is admiring her svelte figure.) There is much holding of hands and whispering of sweet nothings, while the knight, a slick communicator, charms his lady as much with his words as his good looks. As etiquette commands, the lady at first rejects his advances. The more enthusiastic the knight appears, the more she withdraws (though not through lack of desire). And so it goes on…you can see how this exquisite game of cat-and-mouse was readily turned into popular fiction.
God Speed! by Edmund Blair Leighton
The most famous example of a courtly love affair in literature (and some would say, in history) is that between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, first described in Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart, a poem composed in the 1170s.  The story was related by many poets and writers since then, including Sir Thomas Malory (Le Morte d’Arthur) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere). There’s no happy ending for this pair, though. The discovery of their affair led to the downfall of the Arthurian kingdom, and Lancelot ended his days as a hermit on hearing that Guinevere had become a nun.
Arthur's Tomb: The Last Meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Courtly love is also described in The Knight’s Tale, part of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from the fourteenth century. Here, cousins Arcite and Palamon are rivals for noble Emily, and a tournament is arranged to decide who should take her hand. While Arcite prays to Mars for victory and Palamon to Venus that he should marry Emily, Emily prays to Diana to remain unmarried, but if this can’t be arranged, that the one who truly loves her should win. Although Arcite wins the battle, divine intervention (thanks to Saturn) means that he is wounded by his horse and Palamon claims Emily as his bride. (Incidentally, the earliest association of St Valentine’s Day with love and romance can be traced to Chaucer’s poem The Parliament of Fowls in which birds set up an assembly to find their mates.)

And then, of course, there were the troubadours—composers and performers of lyrical poetry, originally from Occitania in southern Europe. The themes of many of these works were related to chivalry and courtly love, and the classification of verse forms was as intricate as the Occitan language in which they were composed. The “pastourelle” would be a song about a romance between a knight and a shepherdess, the “alba” a song to describe the approach of dawn as a warning to lovers, the “serena” would be the song of a lover impatient for the arrival of the evening and his lover. As the troubadour tradition spread throughout Europe, so their tales travelled with them, and they helped to perpetuate the concept of courtly love and romance.
So, a quick tour through the world of courtly love tells us that while it could easily end in bitterness, disappointment or tragedy, it at least provided a distraction—chaste or unchaste—from what could be the bleakness of married life.

And so I would like to wish lovers everywhere—especially those who love gallantly and from afar–a very happy Valentine’s Day…


  1. There is of course also the comic aspect of courtly love, as hilariously expressed in Don Quixote's pursuit of adventure for the sake of his (entirely imagined) lady love, Dulcinea del Toboso.

    Another excellent post, Emma. Thanks.

  2. Yes, David, that's a great example! Lovely to hear from you, as always.

  3. The song names are fascinating. And I love the way the medieval figures in those paintings always remain so resolutely Victorian :-)

  4. You're right, Penny, they're delightful. And I'll use any old excuse to publish a load of romantic old Pre-Raphaelite pictures - love them! x