Courtly Love [Amour courtois]

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

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Courtly love is the name given to a set of conventions which are expressed in the poetic literature which appeared in Aquitaine, in south-west France, in the early twelfth century and then became pervasive in Europe for nearly two hundred years. Generally such poetry expressed the admiration of an aristocratic lover for a chaste but unobtainable lady.

Troubadour poetry

[See also Troubadours.] Vernacular courtly love poetry appeared without any apparent precedent in the works of Guilhelm de Peitieu (le Neuf), or Duke William IX of Aquitaine (1071-1127), the first Occitan troubadour poet. The earliest of his verses that survives is a rather obscene love poem, “Companho, faray un vers [tot] covinen”, describing his dilemma in choosing between two ladies, Lady Agnes and Lady Arsen, whom he represents as two horses which he would both like to ride, though he knows that he can have only one. Although scholarship has not found any literary models prior to Guilhelm’s work, he was apparently fully aware of a rich tradition of courtly love poetry and knew how to utilize its stock themes and devices to the fullest extent, even satirizing the entire genre with a poem on nothing, “Farai un vers de dreyt nien”, in which the poet claims that he has a mistress, yet does not know who she is. Guilhelm’s ability to parody this genre is also most comically evident in his “Farai un vers, pos mi sonelh” where the poet pretends to be a mute fool so that two ladies will feel safe in choosing him as their sex object. First the ladies check out whether he really cannot speak by torturing him with a cat’s claws. Knowing full well what is at stake, the man says nothing but “barbariol, barbariol, / babarian”, which convinces the ladies that he will be a safe sex-toy; they then take him in for orgies that last more than a week. In most of his other songs, however, Guilhelm obeys the conventional demands of the courtly-love genre, discussing “romantic” aspects of love, once singing a song of praise of his beloved’s beauty and lamenting his suffering in her service (“Farai chansoneta nueva”), then rejoicing over the happiness that he received from his lady’s love (“Ab la dolchor del temps novel”).

Immediately following Guilhelm, many other troubadour poets came forward and offered a rich repertoire of courtly love poetry, varying in genre, style, imagery, and language, but all sharing the same ideal of love as a pastime for court members who, once having subscribed to love, experienced a profound change in their ideals, manners, activities, language, and interaction with other members of the court.

The troubadours were, as scholarship now agrees, not so much itinerant minstrels as high-ranking noblemen who entertained themselves and their courts with compositions of love songs in the period from ca. 1100 to ca. 1300 and later. The name troubadour derives from the Old Occitan verb trobar = to find (a composition, i.e., words and music), and is applied to a wide range of Provençal love poets. These included monarchs, such as Alfonso II of Aragon and Richard the Lion-Heart (son of Eleanor of Aquitaine, later King of England); powerful lords, such as Guilhelm le Neuf, Guilhelm de Cabestanh, Rigaut de Berbezilh, Pons de Capduelh, Jaufre Rudel, and Savaric de Mauleon; ecclesiastics, such as Folquet de Marselha, bishop of Toulouse, and the monk Montaudó. But we also come across members of the middle and lower class among the troubadours, such as the tailor Guilhem Figueira, the merchant Salh d’Escola, the painter Bernart Martí, not to forget such poets as Cercamon, Bernart de Ventadorn, and Marcabru whose background seems to be rather uncertain. The higher their social rank, the more we know about the troubadours, especially when their poems are accompanied by brief, more or less trustworthy biographies (vidas) and short explanations of their texts (razos).

The vast majority of courtly-love poetry consists of songs (cansós) in which the knightly lover woos his courtly lady, reflecting upon his own emotional state; but in a number of cases different settings create the framework for varying generic conditions. Marcabru, for instance, in his “L’autrier jost’ una sebissa”, created a pastourela (pastoral), a love song in which a knight tries to convince a shepherdess to grant him her love, but she deftly rejects him and makes a fool of him with the help of her superior rhetorical skills. Although he tries to talk her into compliance by flattering her, she refuses to give up her virginity. Cercamon introduces his song “Quant l’aura doussa s’amarzis” with the image of the coming winter when the lover suffers badly because of the physical distance from his lady. Rigaut de Berbezilh implies that his song truly has to serve as the interpreter of his love to his lady (“Atressi con l’orifanz”), but he also espouses, following Ovid, the theory of suffering without which no true love can be experienced (“Tuit demandon qu’es devengud’ Amors”). Peire d’Alvernhe utilizes the nightingale as the ideal messenger of love (“Rossinhol, el seu repaire”), but he also offers the first critical remarks chastising his troubadour colleagues for their shortcomings and failures in their singing (“Cantarai d’aquestz trobadors”). Bernart de Ventadorn seems to despair over his failed attempts to reach out to his beloved (“Lo tems vai e ven e vire”), but he also insists that singing about love must come from the heart and that the poet must really believe in the power of love (“Chantars no pot gaire valer”). Insofar as he knows that he himself is filled with love, he claims to be the best singer of all troubadour poets and asks from his lady nothing but to accept him as her servant (Non es meravelha sieu chan). Bernart also introduces the motif of spring as the time when love begins to bud (Can lerba fresch e lh folha par).

The physical aspect of love is first addressed by Arnaut Daniel who insists that he wants to be bodily united with his lady and mocks those poets who only dream of a spiritual union (“Lo ferm voler qu’el cor m’intra”). Highly sarcastic proves to be Bertran de Born in his contrasting of old and young lovers (“Belh m’es, quan vey camjar lo senhoratge”), whereas Raimbaut de Vaqueiras plays on the linguistic differences between courtly Provencal, spoken by the narrative male voice, and a broad Genoese dialect, spoken by his unsophisticated and hostile lady in the debate poem (tenso) “Domna, tant vos ai preiada”. Peirol gives expression to the absolutely esoteric concept of love in a man who does not even dare to reveal his feelings to his lady (“Atressi col signes fai”), and he also has the lover debate with Love itself about how to approach his lady (“Quant Amors trobet partit”).

Only one genre of courtly love poetry made room for the two lovers actually to be together: the “dawn song”, or alba (tageliet in Middle High German), such as in Bertran d’Alamanon’s “Us cavaliers si jazia” which relates of a man and woman who have spent the night together until the arrival of dawn, when the watchman alerts them. The man laments the imminent separation, implores his beloved not to forget him, and promises her to return as soon as possible. Both the alba and the pastourela are today categorized as a genre objectif because of their narrative nature and seemingly factual account. The alba also found favor with Raimbaut de Vaqueira (“Gaita be, gaiteta del chastel”), then with an anonymous poet (“En un vergier sotz fuella d’albespi”), Giraut de Bornelh (“Reis glorios, verais lums e clartatz”), Folquet de Marseilla (“Vers Dieus, el vostre nom e de sancta Maria” - a religious alba), Gaucelm Faidit (“Us cavaliers si iazia”), Uc de la Bacalaria (“Per grazir la bona estrena”), and Guillem d’Autpol (“Esperansa de totz ferms esperans”). In fact, the basic concept of two lovers who have to separate after a night together and for whom this is a bitter-sweet experience became popular in all of medieval and early-modern love poetry (see A. E. Hatto 1965).

Other poetic genres were the crusade song (conflict between the call by God to the courtly lover to join a crusading army and fight the infidels versus staying home with the beloved), the dansa, the descort (conflict between a sad and anguished text and its rather happy music to reflect the poet’s inner turmoils), the escondich (poem of protestation), the estampida (dance song), the sestina (determined purely by formal criteria, lacking internal rhyme), the sirventés (accusatory poem, expresses blame or reprehension), the planh (lament of the death of a famous person), the partimen (philosophical debate between two friends), and the tenso (erotic debate poem between man and woman). In other words, troubadour poetry quickly developed into a highly complex, playful, but also spiritual literary enterprise, allowing male members of the Provencal courts to explore the relationship of the two genders.

By the same token, a fairly small, though remarkably outspoken group of women poets, troubairitz, also made their voices heard through love poetry (ca. 1180 to ca. 1260), though the women expressed more complaints about their unfaithful lovers than happiness. They include Alamanda, the Contessa de Proensa, Na Felipa, Na Guillelma de Rosers, Na Lombarda, Na Maria de Ventadorn, N’Azalais de Porcairagues, Na Bieris de Romans, Na Castelloza, Na Clara d’Anduza and, above all, La Comtessa de Dia. Altogether, we know of about twenty women poets by name, whose corpus comprises some thirty-two songs, but there could have been many more female poets, hidden behind anonymous songs or behind female masks in debate poems (tenso). The female poets tend to address their lovers more directly, often in an accusatory tone, and insist on their equality, or at least on their inherited rights (Lombarda in dialogue with Bernart Arnaut d’Armagnac, “Lombards volgr’ eu eser per Na Lonbarda”). Remarkably, these troubairitz openly speak their mind, formulate their love for a knight, express their desire to be united with him at night, or contemptuously reject the courtly spies (“lauzengier”) who threaten their happiness (Comtessa de Dia, “Fin ioi me don’alegransa”). The emergence of these women poets correlates with the unique conditions for twelfth-century aristocratic women in the south of France who were entitled again to inherit their fathers’ estates and seem to have enjoyed more political freedom than elsewhere during that period-perhaps as a result of the crusades and the subsequent death of many lords. Once Roman law was reinstated all over France and the Provence from ca. 1230, this situation radically changed again, which might explain the disappearance of troubairitz poetry thereafter. Only recently did we also discover a number of women poets among the Northern French trouvères (ed. Eglal Doss-Quinby et al., 2001), and now we also know of late-medieval German women poets (ed. A. Classen, 2004).

Nevertheless, all courtly love poetry suggests that the two genders were involved in public literary debates, especially since the topics, irrespective of the specific genres, always involved men and women in an amatory game, best expressed by the term fin’amor, translated by Gaston Paris in his 1883 study of Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot du Lac as “amour courtois”, or courtly love. The troubadour Peire d’Alvernhe, however, had already spoken of “cortez’ amor” but we also have to realize that by no means all troubadour poetry projects a scene of courtly love (e.g., the pastourela). Yet in the majority of cases the poems were predicated on the notion of unrequited love and the lover’s constant struggle to win his lady’s heart. Even though most love poetry seems to be the result of personal experiences, we should never forget the performative quality of all of courtly love poetry, making the assumption of a biographical background, despite the vidas, highly questionable.

Troubadour poetry was characterized by a number of key terms of a profound ethical value, such as mezura (moderation), largueza (generosity), joven (youth), and joi (joy), which all contributed to the realization of cortesia (courtliness). As Frede Jensen concludes, “Cortesia refers to the knight’s behavior at the social level, a behavior marked by moderation (mezura) and generosity (largueza). It may also designate all the virtues of the fin’amant: discretion, generosity, humility. Other qualities are ensenhamen, ‘good education, culture, good manners, discretion’, and pretz, ‘merit, value, esteem’” (19). The troubadours were most prolific in their poetic output, as we know of ca. 2,500 songs (only ca. 10% with melodies) by ca. 460 poets.

The concepts and ideals of courtly love quickly spread throughout medieval Europe, first reaching northern France where the trouvères poets continued and expanded the Provencal tradition, such as Gace Brulé, Le Châtelain de Coucy, Rutebeuf, Guiot de Provins, Adam de la Halle, and Guillaume de Machaut, who were followed, in the late Middle Ages, by Eustache Deschamps, Christine de Pizan, Charles d’Orléans, and François Villon.

German Developments: the Minnesang

[See also Minnesang.] At the same time, autochthonous (indigenous) Middle High German love poetry (Minnesang) emerged along the Danube, and then found enthusiasts especially at the Hohenstaufen courts in southern and western Germany from at least 1170, who also closely copied Occitan and French love poetry, both in terms of the words and music (contrafacta), and in terms of the values expressed in them. The minnesingers explored such ideals as mâze (moderation, self-discipline), êre (honor, public reputation), dienst (love service), stæte (constancy), hohe muot (high spirits, courtly idealism), and hohe minne versus niedere minne (high, esoteric love versus low, physical love-this mostly in Walther von der Vogelweide’s songs, see below). Minnesang is historically divided into two major phases, the first consisting of those poems composed prior to 1200 (today collected in the famous anthology Des Minnesangs Frühling [Spring of Minnesong, first edited by Karl Lachmann [d. 1851] and completed by Moriz Haupt in 1857]), and of thirteenth-century poets (ed. by Carl von Kraus,1952/1958, sec. ed. by Gisela Kornrumpf 1978). Some of the leading twelfth-century poets were Der von Kürenberg, Spervogel, Dietmar von Eist, Friedrich von Hausen, Heinrich von Veldeke, Albrecht von Johansdorf, Bligger von Steinach, Heinrich von Morungen, Reinmar der Alte, Gottfried von Straßburg, and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

A major innovator proved to be Walther von der Vogelweide (ca. 1170-ca. 1230) who not only probed the nature of courtly love more deeply than anyone before him, but who also entered into an intriguing debate with his colleagues about the conflict between purely esoteric, unrequited love and fulfilled, physical love. His “Under the Linden”, composed somewhat in the vein of a pastourel, is among the most beautiful love poems ever composed. Walther is also famous for his large corpus of political and didactic songs. Subsequent poets, such as Neidhart von Reuental (fl. 1220-1230/40), introduced satirical elements where the knightly wooer is suddenly transposed into a rural world. In the summer-songs, the peasant girls, and even their old mothers, pursue the knightly figure von Reuental (whose name translates as “Vale of Sorrow”), but in the winter-songs his poverty suddenly makes him very unattractive, hence he loses out in the competition for the country lasses who prefer the young, wealthy, and boisterous peasants over Neidhart. Increasingly, contemporary and subsequent poets, such as Burkart von Hohenvels, Ulrich von Singenberg, Walther von Klingen, Gottfried von Neifen, Ulrich von Winterstetten, Friedrich der Knecht, Kol von Niunzen, Geltar/Gedrut, Steinmar, Hadloub, Konrad von Würzburg, Johann von Brabant, Wizlaw von Rügen, Heinrich Frauenlob, Heinrich von Mügeln and Der Zwinger either imitated Neidhart, or attempted to create new artistic variations of the traditional theme of courtly love. The famous “Strawberry-Song” by the Wild Alexander (“Hie vor dô wir kinder wâren”) combines the traditional idea of love-experience with the biblical theme of the loss of innocence in Paradise, here expressed by the bite of a snake.

The history of Middle High German minnesong eventually peters out in the fifteenth century, but not without experiencing an amazing sudden flowering and innovation through the poetry by the South-Tyrolean poet Oswald von Wolkenstein (1376 or 77-1445). He continued with the old tradition but also succeeded in transforming it in a most idiosyncratic fashion, adding strong autobiographical, erotic, political, satirical and religious elements. Other late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century poets such as the Monk of Salzburg, Hugo von Montfort, Michel Beheim, and to some extent also Hans Rosenplüt, experimented with the concept of courtly and conjugal love as well, but they were neither as bold nor as innovative and creative as Oswald.

Italian Developments

The tradition of courtly love spread to Italy and Sicily in the thirteenth century, where the school of the dolce stil nuovo emerged, represented by poets such as Pier della Vigna, Re Enzo, Iacopone da Todi, Guittone d’Arezzo, Guido Cavalcanti, Dante Alighieri, Cecco Angiolieri (with a strong parodistic orientation), Folgore of San Gimignano, Cino da Pistoia and Petrarch. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was the first to coin the phrase dolce stil nuovo in his Divina Commedia (Purgatorio 24.57). The court of the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) was the centre of a “Sicilian school” of poets, best represented by Jacopo Mostacci and Giacomo da Lentini, who later deeply influenced the rise of courtly love poetry in Tuscany and elsewhere in northern Italy. These poets, primarily following their Occitan and French forerunners, composed love songs in which the admiration of their lady assumes religious overtones, and where the nobility of the heart (cor gentil) and admiration of a god-like lady (donna) play a major role. Some of the stilnovisti were deeply influenced by the new theology developed by St. Francis of Assisi, emphasizing the unity with nature in the adoration of God. In the subsequent centuries courtly love poetry was practiced all over medieval Europe. But Petrarch’s (1304-74) sonnets, deeply influencing early modern Europe, rang in a new age, often identified, also on the basis of many different factors and sources, as the beginning of the Renaissance. One of the major successors to Petrach was Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-92), primarily responsible for the development of early-modern love poetry in the style of Petrarch, today called Petrarchism.

Origins of the Courtly Love Tradition

The origin of courtly love poetry has been debated ever since its rediscovery in the late nineteenth century. Many theories have been more or less successfully proposed to explain the sudden emergence of the troubadour poetry, and most likely all of them played some role in this development. Although it seems highly improbable that people did not love each other prior to the twelfth century, heterosexual love was not rediscovered as a truly attractive topic for public discourse until then. Whereas ancient literature of Rome and Greece is filled with the theme of love (especially Ovid), the topic of heterosexual love obviously did not play any significant role during the early Middle Ages, if we disregard the culture of the Catholic church and the world of latinitas where the ideals of charismatic friendship, especially among men, were never abandoned. Clearly erotic poems, written in Latin, can already be found in the collection of the Cambridge Songs (early eleventh century). But we also discover early examples of erotic love in the Hildesheim Letter Collection (1076-85) and in the Regensburg Love Songs (ca. 1106). Most famous were the two lovers Abelard (1079-1142) and Heloise (1101-64) and their correspondence with each other in Latin, which they exchanged long after the tumultuous development of their affair. After he had been her teacher, then her lover, they married and had a child, but Abelard was then castrated by men hired by Heloise’s uncle Fulbert as a punishment for trying to keep the marriage a secret, and subsequently both entered convents. Abelard wrote glowing love songs for his mistress, which quickly gained great popularity. The tradition of erotic poetry in Latin continued throughout the following centuries, especially because students preparing themselves for their service in the church and administration had to know Latin and so studied classical Roman literature. The famous collection of the Carmina Burana (early thirteenth century, probably copied in Neustift near Brixen, Tyrol), which also contains some songs and individual stanzas in Middle High German, demonstrates that the theme of love knew no bounds and was well established at the church schools as well because it was deeply rooted in classical learning.

It has, however, remained difficult to explain the transfer of medieval Latin love poetry to vernacular, Occitan troubadour songs, especially since Guilhelm le Neuf, who had little to do with the church, proves to be already a highly sophisticated poet well attuned to the basic concepts of fin’amor, and was thoroughly familiar with a variety of poetic genres. One theory to explain the emergence of courtly love poetry claims that the Hispano-Arabic culture on the Iberian Peninsula, which had a strong tradition of erotic love poetry, might have provided the decisive influence on the Provençal poets, their immediate neighbours. When scholars discovered in 1948 that a number of Mozarabic poems (muwashshah at), written in classical Arabic, concluded with stanzas written in a Romance dialect, so-called kharjas (jaryas), hopes rose that this represented the decisive clue. Unfortunately, the kharjas are too short and there are too few to provide sufficient evidence, especially because the Mozarabic poets composed love songs in a tone and style very different from those of their Christian counterparts, which makes it problematic to establish a direct link.

Another possibility might have been the personal contacts between Christian crusaders and Arabic poets in the Holy Land during the age of the crusades (begun in 1096), but it seems unlikely that the French or German knights knew any Arabic or would have adopted love songs common in their enemies’ culture. We can also not entirely reject the theory that autochthonous, or indigenous, popular, or folk, poetry inspired the members of the courts to create their own love songs, which might explain especially the origin of the pastourela, the alba, or the bailada (dance poem). This seems to have been very much the case with early Middle High German minnesang which formally still shares many elements with the heroic tradition (such as the Nibelungenlied, ca. 1200).

The liturgical theory claims that basic elements of courtly love poetry were borrowed from dramatic elements included in the liturgy; others have proposed that the renewed interest in the Virgin Mary since the twelfth century might have contributed to the discovery of courtly love. Finally, Erich Köhler (1962) offered the idea that the early twelfth century witnessed the rise of the new social class of ministeriales (court officers and administrators) who vied for their lord’s favour and presented him in their songs through the substitute of a high-ranking, always anonymous and removed lady. This allowed them to discuss their vassalage openly and to demonstrate that they had internalized the required ethical ideals of courtiers, and thus helped them to rise up the social ladder.

Since the medieval poets never say where they learned their art, and only rarely mention what sources they used, all these theories will remain speculative, yet we can hope that they will all shed more light on the important changes that characterized the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. We can also be certain that the emergence of the idea of courtly love had a tremendous cultivating influence on the medieval aristocracy and deeply contributed to the refinement and sophistication of their manners and attitudes. This observation constitutes a key component of Norbert Elias’s seminal theory of the process of civilization ultimately transforming medieval society, leading to the rise of the Renaissance and subsequently the Baroque; that is, a process in which the concept of courtliness replaced traditional martial heroic values and introduced new ideals of courtly refinement, manners, and sophisticated speech (1939).

Courtly Romance

[For further discussion of this topic, see German Courtly Romance.] Courtly love also found its expression in romances, which were first composed by Chrétien de Troyes (ca. 1165-1191). He authored Erec et Enide, Cligés, Le chevalier de la charette (Lancelot), Yvain, and Le conte du graal (Perceval), as well as several others that seem to be lost. Insofar as Marie de Champagne, daughter of the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France, commissioned Chrétien to write the Charrete, we can identify here the cross-fertilization of the Occitan culture (Aquitaine) with that of northern France. Whereas most of Chrétien’s romances focus on chivalric accomplishments and conflicts within marriage, his Lancelot treats the concept of courtly love between Lancelot and Queen Guenevere, wife of King Arthur. The broad range of Chrétien’s works indicates that the concept of courtly love was not necessarily limited to adultery, as in the case of Lancelot and Guenevere, but could also be applied to happily married knights, though these, such as Erec and Yvain, are in danger of losing their wives and their position as honored members of the Round Table because of their personal shortcomings. The romances reach a happy end, however, because the male protagonists learn to fulfill their role within courtly society and accept their wives as more-or-less equal partners.

Chrétien enjoyed a considerable popularity in France and also deeply influenced German poets, such as Hartmann von Aue (Erec and Iwein) and Wolfram von Eschenbach (Parzival). Chrétien also claims to have written a version of the Tristan romance (see the prologue to his Cligés), but this has not survived. Instead, there are many other versions extant, from fragmentary pieces to fully-fledged romances, the first narratives originating in seventh- and eighth-century Britain (of Celtic origin), which then spread all over Europe. The basic story is of the love between Tristan and his uncle King Mark’s wife Isolde. Tristan had been sent to win the Irish princess Isolde for Mark, but the two young people inadvertently drank the love potion concocted by Isolde’s mother, the Irish Queen Isolde. Numerous medieval poets explored the motif of their desperate love which can never be translated into marriage, though the lovers regularly meet in secret until they are finally forced to separate for good. In some versions Tristan then marries another woman, also called Isolde, and when he is mortally wounded and requests help from the Irish princess, who has, like her mother, special medical knowledge, she comes with a ship. However, Tristan’s wife, out of jealousy, claims that the ship displays a black sail, signaling that Isolde refused to come to his rescue. In his despair, Tristan dies, and when his true beloved arrives, she throws herself on his body and dies as well. Some of the most famous versions were Béroul’s Old French Roman de Tristan, Thomas de Bretagne’s Tristran, the Middle High German romances by Eilhart von Oberg (Tristrant) and Gottfried von Strasbourg (Tristan), and the late-medieval French Prose Tristan (there is also a late-medieval German Tristan in prose). The idea of the Tristan love-story stayed alive far into the sixteenth century and made its way not only into verse and prose narratives, but also into a wide variety of art objects (tapestry, ivory chests, tiles, wood carvings, etc.). A particularly female perspective on courtly love can be found in the lais by Marie de France (ca. 1200) who mostly explored the relationship between husband and wife or discusses the destinies of young lovers who marry at the end, unless tragedy strikes them.

Courtly love was also the topic of many theoretical investigations, best represented by Andreas Capellanus’s De amore (The Art of Courtly Love), written ca. 1185-90 in Latin. Today we believe that Andreas did not live at the court of Marie de Champagne, though he includes her several times in his text as an authority on love. Instead, the best guess seems to be that he served at the royal court of Paris and worked as a tutor for the son of a high-ranking nobleman. His treatise has given rise to much debate over the last eighty years, especially because the text is riddled with (deliberate?) contradictions and highly ambivalent teachings. Older scholarship mainly focused on the first two books in which Andreas provides concrete advice on how to win a lady’s love. This section seems to have been the bedrock of medieval courtly love poetry, as C. S. Lewis argued in his seminal Allegory of Love (1936). But the third book makes a total turn-around and suddenly vehemently attacks love outside of wedlock as immoral, blasphemous, and sinful. Moreover, here Andreas unleashes a extremely biting tirade against women and strongly encourages his student to stay away from love. Based on the realization that Andreas’s treatise seems to reject courtly love altogether, subsequent scholarship was then fixated on this negative perspective in his work and ignored the first two books. Since then, however, major reinterpretations have been offered, and today De amore is considered a masterpiece of intellectual dialectics, rhetorical operations, playful balancing of many different genres, and a powerful employment of satire, irony, and at times even sarcasm. Andreas Capellanus intriguingly demonstrates the performative and discursive nature of courtly love, a phenomenon that is not directly linked to actual emotional experiences, but instead provides a highly effective framework for the playful experimentation with an emotion that is teasingly close to normal human life, yet also proves to be an intricate element of theology, mysticism, ethics (friendship), philosophy, eroticism, and aesthetics (literature and music). In Catherine Brown’s words, “The doctrina of Andreas’s duplex sententia thus creates not a hierarchical, ‘typological’ relationship between its propositions but rather a lateral, mutually relativizing, dialogical one” (114-15).

We could also argue that courtly love was a crucial literary and philosophical topic for courtly society to develop and practice a new communicative community, which was less concerned with the actual erotic elements of love than with the question of discourse as the basis for culture and civilization both in the classical Roman and medieval sense. Late-medieval poets, such as Dante Alighieri (Vita nuova), Juan Ruiz (Libro de buen amor), Giovanni Boccaccio (Decameron), Geoffrey Chaucer (Canterbury Tales), Christine de Pizan (Le livre du duc des vrais amans), and Marguerite de Navarre (Heptaméron) rigorously pursued this perspective, adding many new philosophical and narrative layers to the issue of courtly love, which proves to be the central icon of an entire age (Classen 2004).

English Courtly Poetry and Romance

In England, thirteenth- and fourteenth-century courtly poets adapted many courtly romances originally composed in French for their English speaking audiences, such as Sir Ysumbras, King Horn, Emaré, Le Bone Florence of Rome, Sir Tristrem, Sir Perceval of Gales. In the most original of these, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late fourteenth century), courtly love is only instrumentalized as a tool to check how much Sir Gawain, and by the same token the entire Arthurian court, still maintain the traditional values of chivalry and courtliness. Significantly, here it is Bercilak de Hautdesert’s own wife who serves as Gawain’s temptress and uses all registers of courtly love to seduce the protagonist, though she fails at the end, except for convincing him to accept a green belt which allegedly would save his life under any circumstances. In other words, the theme of courtly love is here transformed into a theme of courtly honor. John Gower’s (ca. 1327-1408) Confessio Amantis (ca. 1390-1393) explores the nature and effects of love both in the tradition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the French Roman de la Rose. Geoffrey Chaucer ’s many works do not need to be introduced here, but we can be certain that he played magisterially with the courtly tradition when he composed the Canterbury Tales close to his death in ca. 1400. His previous works, such as Troilus and Criseyde and Legend of Good Women shed different, often sarcastic, light on the notion of courtly love. His successors, among them Thomas Hoccleve (ca. 1368-1426, La Male Regle, Regiment of Princes) and John Lydgate (ca. 1370-ca. 1450, Fall of Princes), pursued different goals and cannot be counted directly among traditional courtly love poets. Surprisingly, Charles d’Orléans (1394), who was kept as a prisoner of war in England after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 until 1440, used his time there to create some of the best Middle English courtly love poetry.

The last, but enormously vigorous, flowering of courtly love and chivalry can be observed in Sir Thomas Malory’s (ca. 1410-1471) Morte Darthur, composed in 1469-70, while he spent time in prison. Here the entire history of King Arthur is retold, including many divergent narratives, all of them focusing increasingly on knighthood only, and ultimately turning a blind eye to courtly women and courtly love. Just as in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century French, German, Italian, and Spanish literature (such as the chapbook and prose novel), late-medieval English literature witnessed the translation of pan-European narratives focusing on love and marriage, such as King Ponthus and the Fair Sidone, Havelok the Dane, Sir Orfeo, and Sir Launfal.


Classen, Albrecht, “Late Middle High German, Renaissance, and Reformation,” A Concise History of German Literature to 1900, ed. Kim Vivian (Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1992), 58-90.
-, “Courtly Love Lyric,” A Companion to Middle High German Literature to 1400, ed. Francis G. Gentry (Leiden, Boston, and Cologne: Brill, 2002), 117-50.
-, Verzweiflung und Hoffnung: Die Suche nach der kommunikativen Gemeinschaft in der deutschen Literatur des Mittelalters (Frankfurt a.M., Berlin, et al.: Peter Lang, 2002).
-, ed., Discourses on Love, Marriage, and Transgression in Medieval and Early Modern Literature (Tempe, AZ: MRTS, 2004).
-, trans., Late-Medieval German Women’s Poetry: Secular and Religious Songs (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004).
Doss-Quinby, Eglal, Joan Tasker Grimbert, Wendy Pfeffer, Elizabeth Aubrey, eds. and intro., Songs of the Women Trouvères (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001).
Elias, Norbert, The Civilizing Process, trans. Edmund Jephcott (1937; Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000).
Hatto, A. E., ed., Eos: An Enquiry Into the Theme of Lovers’ Meetings at Partings in Dawn (London: Mouton, 1965).
Jensen, Frede, ed. and trans., Troubadour Lyrics: A Bilingual Anthology (New York, Washington, D.C., et al.: Peter Lang, 1998).
Köhler, Erich, Trobadorlyrik und höfischer Roman: Aufsätze zur franzüsischen und provenzalischen Literatur des Mittelalters (Berlin: Rütten and Loening, 1962).
Lewis, C. S., The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (1936; London, Oxford, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)
Boase,Roger, The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977).

5731 words

Citation: Classen, Albrecht. "Courtly Love [Amour courtois]". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 07 July 2004 [, accessed 25 July 2024.]

1378 Courtly Love [Amour courtois] 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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