Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Courtly Love

"Courtly love" is the phrase used to describe a set of "rules" expressed in medieval literature about the relationship of a man (usually a knight) with a woman (usually a noblewoman). First appearing in continental French stories, it became (for some) a way to conduct oneself in a relationship, especially one outside of marriage.

First, a few facts. The phrase "courtly love," the English translation of the French amour courtois, was not routinely used until the late 19th century (introduced by a French philologist). (To be fair, the phrase cortez amors appears in a single Provençal poem in the 12th century.) C.S.Lewis in The Allegory of Love defined it as "love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love."

Also, the focus of the practice was not so much about the behavior of the knight as the privilege of the woman. Eleanor of Aquitaine is credited with bringing the courtly love ideals from her home to England when she married Henry II. Eleanor's daughter Marie, Countess of Champagne (by Eleanor's first husband, Louis VII), spread it to the court of Champagne. Troubadours popularized the ideas in their poems and songs.

Courtly love was expressed as a form of feudalism, where the man acts as a vassal of the lady. Addressing her in poetry as his "lord" served two purposes: it showed his willingness to serve, and it hid the lady's name. Courtly love was often a secret love, because it was adulterous: the lover pined for the love of a highborn lady who was often married to his real feudal lord. This "forbidden love" did not stop him from expressing g the utmost courtesy and humility toward her.

Many noble marriages were political arrangements rather than loving unions, and given the daily lives of many noble couples, who hardly spent time together, there were opportunities to see the lady without her husband present, although the presence of ladies-in-waiting precluded consummating physical love.

Andreas Capellanus in the late 12th century wrote De amore ("Concerning Love"), also known as De arte honeste amandi ("The Art of Loving Virtuously"). In it he lists several rules that became entwined with the courtly love idea:

1. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
6. Boys do not love until they arrive at the age of maturity.
8. No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.
13. When made public love rarely endures.
14. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.
20. A man in love is always apprehensive.
30. A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.

Was this a real practice in anyone's life? Did real people engage in these "poetic" affairs (sexuality rarely comes into the subject of courtly love)? Hard to say, although it seems entwined with some of the very real chivalric ideals that were expected behavior on the part of the knight.

That single instance of cortez amors I mentioned was by a poet named Peire d'Alvernhe, who was prolific enough in his time and obscure enough in ours that he is a perfect subject for this blog...next time.

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