Courtly Love


I write romance novels set in the fourteenth century. My characters, being usually of noble birth, don’t expect to marry for love, nor do they expect to find love within marriage. In the Middle Ages, marriages of nobles were arranged by their parents for political or territorial reasons. If the couple concerned were fortunate, they might develop respect for one another or fondness. In a few, rare, cases they might come to love one another, but this was not to be hoped for. Courtly love was, in some ways, an antidote to this. As its name implies, it was something associated with a court. It might be a royal court or a ducal court, but this wasn’t something for ordinary people. We’ll  see later, though, that this wasn’t always the case.

In courtly love the woman was idealised by the knight who loved her. She became his inspiration to virtuous, chivalrous and courageous behaviour, and it was important that she be deserving of his love. Their love should be mutual and secret.  They should never be alone and no one else should be able to tell that they were in love. I’m not sure how they were supposed to preserve the secret, since the knight should be brave in tournaments, be gentle when he was with his beloved, defend his lady’s honour and sing songs about her. I think that the last one, at least, would arose the suspicions of any husband or father.

In The Allegory of Love, an examination of love in medieval literature, C. S. Lewis wrote that courtly love was an idealisation of adultery. It’s easy to see how he could come to that conclusion when the main role of a noblewoman was to give her husband legitimate heirs. The love of a man with whom she could never be alone and whose motivation was to serve her rather than possess her sexually might be very attractive.

Christine de Pizan has a warning on this front, however. In The Treasure of the City of Ladies, written in 1405, she says that it’s just another form of seduction. A woman might find that she has been put on a pedestal, but she won’t be there forever. As soon as the man has succeeded in seducing the woman, he starts telling people and she is ruined.

Associated with the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the concept of courtly love was developed in the twelfth century. It’s possible that it came originally from the love poetry of Moorish Spain. The idea inspired the troubadours of southern France. These were noblemen who wrote songs to be sung by jongleurs in the courts where the langue d’oc was spoken. It was around the same time that there was a marked increase in devotion to the Virgin Mary. The two ideas probably fed off one another and there was a fair amount of religious imagery in courtly love, much to the horror of the church. It didn’t take long for the idea of courtly love to spread across Europe.

Apart from the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, where there were competitions to decide on who were the most worthy recipients of love, courtly love was mostly confined to stories, poems and songs. There were, however, two Italians who were poets rather than knights who embodied the principals of courtly love. Both Dante and Petrarch were inspired to write great poetry by their love for Beatrice and Laura respectively. They had to be content to love from a distance,using, like the troubadours, religious language to describe the beloved.


The Medieval World Complete by Robert Bartlett

Inside the Medieval World by James Harpur

Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages by Conor McCarthy


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Life, Medieval Marriage

10 responses to “Courtly Love

  1. Poems,stories and songs sound much less messy than adultery.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Oh, this post brings back memories of studying medieval literature at university over 50 years ago. Our tutors (mostly grumpy middle-aged men) were dismissive of the cult of courtly love, coming up with prosaic explanations like, “There were very few women in castles, and they were completely out of reach, so the young men couldn’t do much else but get crushes on them.”
    We young things (of a similar age to many of courtly love’s practitioners, I guess) were fascinated by it, male and female alike.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your lecturers were correct about the scarcity of women and their unattainability. Courtly love would definitely be a way of dealing with it. I don’t remember such discussions when I was struggling through medieval French texts. In those days I was more interested in Arthur and his court, which is where many of the stories were set, than in the historical context.


      • While our lecturers were correct, they were also trying to shut us up so they could get onto topics more interesting to them. At that time we weren’t supposed to be discussing historical context at all. (I think that scholarly approach is referred to as the New Criticism, and it led to some weird interpretations of literature and history alike.)
        Anyway, back in the 1960s courtly love still had its champions: I remember reading a poem by Robert Graves in Life magazine called “Son Altesse” which he claimed was a translation of a medieval work. I wasn’t fooled, but I did enjoy the poem.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The idea of forbidden love remains appealing throughout time!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Medieval Musical Instruments Part Six | A Writer's Perspective

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