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