The courtly love ethos developed in southern France in the area called Languedoc around the year 1100. It coincided therefore with what has been called the Renaissance of the twelfth century and with the development of high Gothic architecture and the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary.
It is sometimes thought, wrongly, that the courtly love ethos was influenced by or was even a direct reflection of the development of the cult of the Virgin Mary. That was not the case. The two were parallel, independent developments in ways of thinking about and representing the image and the status of women. If anything, it was the poetry of the courtly love tradition that influenced ways of representing the Virgin Mary rather than the reverse.
If one can quantify or measure such events, it would have to be said that the rise of the courtly love ethos was and remains the far more important event in the history of human consciousness. Why?
A generally shared view of human psychology and culture is that while ways of thinking about and representing human feelings change, the feelings themselves do not. The assumption is that feelings like love in all its forms, from the love of friendship to the love of home and region to passionate sexual love, are universal and constant. What happened in Languedoc in the twelfth century, though, gives us some reason to believe that that may not be the case. As the scholar and author C.S. Lewis wrote, revolutions in sentiment and feeling are very rare, but one may have taken place with the rise of the courtly love ethos.
What is courtly love, what was its social background, and what preceded it?
We know the courtly love tradition chiefly through the testimony of poets. Collectively their work is known as Provençal poetry and the poets as troubadours and trouvères. Troubadours were active in the south of France, trouvères were active somewhat later in the north of France. The world of this poetry has two fundamental features, both of which are new. First, in this poetry the speaker of the poem addresses another man’s wife. The speaker’s rival is not the woman’s husband but rather another man, or men. Second, paying court to the woman requires of the man a “politeness,” or courtesy (French: courtoisie) that was new. It is this new element of courtesy that defines the courtly love tradition andf to which it owes its name, courtly love. Courtly love requires that one be polite: only the courteous can truly love, but then only love, or the ability to love, makes one courteous. In modern times we tend to think of courtesy, or politeness, in mainly exterior social terms. Courtesy has to do with forms and conventions of conduct. This was certainly true in the Middle Ages as well, except that their courtesy presupposed an interior courtesy, the right kind of interior disposition. But before we go into this further, let us look at what preceded it and at the social context.
First of all, there is little or no evidence that the idea of courtship or anything like it existed either in ancient times or before the twelfth century. As far as the language of love and sexual relationships was concerned, it was a bare affective landscape. Certainly our idea of personal happiness as something centered in relationship to another person did not exist. Prior to Provençal poetry the only love stories told about women were stories that involved the women’s shame or disgrace (Helen, Phaedra, Medea, and Dido are the most famous. As we have seen with Plato, to the extent the ancient Greeks honored sexual love, it was sexual love between two men. But what both Plato and Aristotle chiefly honored was not sexual love at all but rather the love of friendship, and for them the model of friendship was love between two men, which is may be philia and not eros. Plato does place his highest praise of love in the mouth of a woman, the priestess Diotima, but Diotima praises love of the soul, or the intellect, and not specifically the affective love of another person.
In the excerpt that we discussed from the Roman poet Ovid’s Art of Love we do hear and see a different kind of sentiment. Ovid depicts the foolishness to which love drives people, or rather to which it drives young men: the poem is addressed to men. Ovid, though, is not holding love up to ridicule. If he mocks the ways of love and lovers he is doing so that lovers can also laugh at themselves. For Ovid the art of love is a game, but a game to be enjoyed and not taken too seriously. As we will see, that is the difference between Ovid and courtly love: in the latter love is still a game, but a game to be taken very seriously. As far as marriage was concerned, though, little changed between antiquity and the twelfth century. The spread of Christianity may have served to soften some sentiments and practices, but it did not fundamentally change the texture of marriage and love relationships. On the contrary, relationships between men remained the most important social relationships. In the Middle Ages these were the bonds between vassal and lord and the bonds between knights who fought together in battle.
So how did the revolution in feeling that is courtly love come about? There is still no answer to that and none may ever emerge. However, we can imagine how it may have come about by recalling the nature of medieval society.
The most important form of wealth in the Middle Ages was land. This did not change until the rise of towns and cities in the later Middle Ages (the fourteenth century) and the accelerated development of the commercial, as distinct from agrarian, economy. The owners of land, large and small, were called lords. (Not every lord, though, was necessarily a landowner; he might be serving a wealthier, landholding lord.) To protect and defend their holdings lords required men sworn to serve them by an oath of loyalty. These men were the lord’s vassals. These vassals were also often knights, men possessed of a horse and armor and trained to fight in battle but not possessed of other wealth.
So we can imagine a provincial estate and court in the French countryside populated by a lord and landless knights and by a few ladies. Medieval society being what it was, the male members of the court outnumber the women. There was, and would have been, nothing new about this social formation until the element of courtesy [courtoisie] was introduced as a social and affective ideal. But the element of courtesy could only be introduced though a subtle change in the status of the women at court, which is not to say of women in general. With the ideal of courtesy, the vassal/lord relationship became the vassal/lady relationship and was infused with a romantic element, though with one all-important qualification: the romantic relation was never between lord and lady as husband and wife but rather between the lady and vassal, or vassals. In marriage the lady remained little more than the property of her husband, but outside of marriage courtly love gave the lady the status of a superior. The most famous instance of courtly love, the story of Guinevere and Lancelot, is a good example. If Queen Guinevere is King Arthur’s spouse and property, she is also Lancelot’s queen and superior, the one to whom he sacrifices everything.
Why did the romantic element not inform marriage itself?
First, Marriage had nothing to do with love; it was a social arrangement. This does not mean that married couple could not or did not develop bonds of affection and loyalty, but the point is precisely that. Those things developed from the relationship, they were not its basis.
The idealization of love in a society where marriage was a utilitarian practice for the generation of offspring and the preservation or increase of property could only emerge as an idealization of adultery.
Second, medieval attitudes toward sex and marriage were not our own but were also not simple. For example, it was long thought that medieval culture had an allergic view of sex as something evil or sinful. Things were more complex. The theological view of sex was not that desire or pleasure as such were evil but that they could lead to the loss of reason and self-control and that that was an evil. For the medieval mind there is innocent sexuality but not innocent passionate sexuality. That is because the medieval mind only knew passion as an animal appetite. Medieval society did not have the later romantic sense of passion as something purifying and transformative.
Third, the courtly love ethos did not so much question this point of view as set up a rival point of view. In saying that true love is only possible outside of marriage, the courtly love ethos inaugurates a religion of love, a new cult of eros that had no precedent in antiquity. This erotic religion became the rival and parody of real religion. It is a rival religion because from the beginning Provençal poetry turned the pursuit of love into an elaborate ritual with a language and rules of conduct that duplicated the language of religious practice: honor, humility, sacrifice, loyalty, and service. In other words, the courtly love ethos appropriates the language and ritual of religion for its own ends. The more religiously the lady is addressed and honored, the more irreligious a figure she is.
But if this sounds like masquerade or mere hypocrisy, it was not. Genuinely new in the courtly love ethos was the sentiment that because love was a noble sentiment, it only enslaved the noblest hearts.
The rule and ethos of courtly love can be summed up by reference to a text by Andreas Capellanus written in the late twelfth century (1170—80) and called On the Art of Loving Honestly [De arte honeste amandi]. He uses the word honest in the old sense of honorable, or right. In that text Andreas, as he was known, lays down the following guidelines and rules.
- Love is not purely sensual but it is also not “Platonic.” Although love is sensual in nature, love does not consist in sexual union nor in the pleasure of sexual union but rather in the yearning for sexual union.
- The lover must be dedicated to one constant object. Love is the source and origin of other kinds of goodness.
- The lady who choses love does so with a sense of probity, or integrity.
- Courtesy demands that a lover serve all ladies but not all women. A common woman does not merit the same care and respect as a lady.
- Love is both a state of mind and an art.
- The most important ingredient of love as an art is rhetoric, or the use of language. Rhetoric is more important than conduct, appearance, or personal attractiveness.
- Love is kept secret.
- Love is not a part of the marriage relation.
- If a man and woman who are lovers enter into marriage, the terms of their earlier relationship cease.
- Conjugal affection is not love because tied to duty and necessity.
- . The love a lady bestows must be freely given and given only to noble men.
- In the rule of courtly love, a lady cannot refuse the attention and favor of a suitor. A suitor who is refused is unjustly refused, for the purpose of courtly love is to call forth excellence from its followers.
- Expressing contempt for religion does not recommend a suitor and is a ground for refusing him. That the cult of courtly love was a kind of rival religion does not mean that it replaced the religion of the Church.
- Marriage not being a contract freely chosen, any view of love as something noble and ennobling must be a theory of adultery.
- At the end of his text Andreas writes to Walter, its dedicatee, that he has composed it so as to inform “how to provoke the minds of women to love” and then adds that Walter should refrain from employing the information. This advice appears contradictory and is. But in this respect it is indicative of much of medieval culture, and of cultures in general.