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Courtly Love

Barbara Tuchman offers a fairly concise discussion of courtly love in her book A Distant Mirror. While much of the book should be used with caution as a guide to the fourteenth century, her words below do capture the essence of courtly love quite nicely:

"If tournaments were an acting-out of chivalry, courtly love was its dreamland. Courtly love was understood by its contemporaries to be love for its own sake, romantic love, true love, physical love, unassociated with property or family . . . focused on another man's wife, since only such an illicit liaison could have no other aim but love alone. . . . As formulated by chivalry, romance was pictured as extra-marital because love was considered irrelevant to marriage, was indeed discouraged in order not to get in the way of dynastic arrangements.

"As its justification, courtly love was considered to ennoble a man, to improve him in every way. It would make him concerned to show an example of goodness, to do his utmost to preserve honor, never letting dishonor touch himself or the lady he loved. On a lower scale, it would lead him to keep his teeth and nails clean, his clothes rich and well groomed, his conversation witty and amusing, his manners courteous to all, curbing arrogance and coarseness, never brawling in a lady's presence. Above all, it would make him more valiant, more preux; that was the basic premise. He would be inspired to greater prowess, would win more victories in tournaments, rise above himself in courage and daring, become, as Froissart said, 'worth two men.' Guided by this theory, woman's status improved, less for her own sake than as the inspirer of male glory, a higher function than being merely a sexual object, a breeder of children, or a conveyor of property.

"The chivalric love affair moved from worship through declaration of passionate devotion, virtuous rejection by the lady, renewed wooing with oaths of eternal fealty, moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire, heroic deeds of valor which won the lady's heart by prowess, [very rarely] consummation of the secret love, followed by endless adventures and subterfuges to a tragic denouement. . . . It remained artificial, a literary convention, a fantasy . . . more for purposes of discussion than for every day practice." (66-68)

The phrase "courtly love" is a modern scholarly term to refer to the idea espoused in medieval French as "Fin Amour." This phenomenon is a cultural trope in the late twelfth-century, or possibly a literary convention that captured popular imagination. Courtly love refers to a code of behavior that gave rise to modern ideas of chivalrous romance. The term itself was popularized by C. S. Lewis' and Gaston Paris' scholarly studies, but its historical existence remains contested in critical circles. The conventions of courtly love are that a knight of noble blood would adore and worship a young noble-woman from afar, seeking to protect her honor and win her favor by valorous deeds. He typically falls ill with love-sickness, while the woman chastely or scornfully rejects or refuses his advances in public, but privately encourages him. Courtly love was associated with (A) nobility, since no peasants can engage in "fine love"; (B) secrecy; (C) adultery, since often the one or both participants were married to another noble or trapped in an unloving marriage; and (D) paradoxically with chastity, since the passion could never be consummated due to social circumstances, thus it was a "higher love" unsullied by selfish carnal desires.

An example of this attitude is found in Castiglione's The Courtier, which presents a Renaissance outlook on this medieval ideal:

I hold that a gentleman of worth, who is in love, ought to be sincere and truthful in this [labor] as in all other things; and it if it is true that to betray an enemy is baseness and a most abominable wrong, think how much more grave the offense ought to be considered when done to one whom we love. And I believe that every gentle lover endures so many toils, so many vigils, exposes himself to so many dangers, sheds so many tears, uses so many ways and means to please his lady love--not chiefly in order to possess her body, but to take the fortress of her mind and to break those hardest diamonds and melt that cold ice, which are often found in the tender breasts of women And this I believe is the true and sound pleasure and the goal aimed at by every noble heart. Certainly, if I were in love, I should wish rather to be sure that she whom I served returned my love from her heart and had given me her inner self--if I had no other satisfaction from her--than to take all pleasure with her against her will; for in such a case I should consider myself master merely of a lifeless body. Hence, those who pursue their desires by these tricks, which might perhaps rather be called treacheries than tricks, do wrong to others, nor do they gain that satisfaction withal which is sought in love if they possess the body without the will. I say the same of certain others who in their love make use of enchantments, charms, sometimes force, sometimes sleeping potions, and such things. And you must know that gifts do much to lessen the pleasures of love; for a man can suspect that he is not loved but that his lady makes a show of loving him in order to gain something by it. Hence, you see that the love of some great lady is prized because it seems that it cannot arise from any other source save that of real and true affection, nor is it to be thought that so great a lady would ever pretend to love an inferior if she did not really love him.

--The Book of the Courtier, Book 2, Paragraph 94.

Castiglione's writings originate in the early sixteenth and late fifteenth centuries, but they very much embody earlier ideals. In the late twelfth-century and early thirteenth-century, Andreas Capellanus' Rules of Courtly Love provides a satirical guide to the endeavor by offering a set of hyperbolic and self-contradictory "rules" to this courtly game. Chretien de Troyes satirizes the conventions in his courtly literature as well. Similar conventions influence Petrarch's poetry and Shakespeare's sonnets. These sonnets often emphasize in particular the idea of "love from afar" and "unrequited love," and make use of imagery and wording common to the earlier French tradition.

Good sources might be C. S. Lewis' Allegory of Love, or a historical text such as Andreas Cappellanus' "Rules of Courtly Love," Ruiz's Libro de Buen Amor, or Castiglione's Book of the Courtier.


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