Courtly Love – The Way to a Woman’s Heart – Part One
With the arrival of February I cannot ignore the approach of Saint Valentine’s Day. I mean romance and knights on horseback just go completely hand-in-hand, do they not? And, as last year (a whole year of Lions and Lilies blogging …yay…) I wrote about the special day itself, this year I decided to dedicate February’s blogs directly to love, or more specifically …
Delve into the Middle Ages and quite quickly magnificent images of knights on horseback wearing shining armour, swooning ladies draped in finery and all the blazoned colours of a tourney field spring to mind. These warriors of a new age lived and fought by strict codes of conduct known as chivalry. Honour was fought for and often, died for, and there was none so despicable as those who broke these codes. But, as there existed a code for fighting and a way of living, so too, there developed a code for loving which became known as ‘Courtly Love.’
In an age where marriage existed as a contract between two families rather than just a contract between two people, often to join lands, wealth and titles, the feeling of the two individuals were not heeded nor expected. In this society the feelings of one’s heart did not enter into marriage. Often the wife and husband did quite successfully ‘love’ one another but it was built upon a basis of respect and duty. There lay open the door for a new code of conduct – that of Courtly Love – a love from the heart filled with passion and romance that was neither expected nor yielded from a marriage partner. Such popularity did this new found ‘Courtly Love’ enjoy that it set the founding for a whole new behaviour code with its own rules and restrictions, both welcomed and rejected by the Church and society.
Described by J F Rowbotham in ‘The Troubadours and Courts of Love’ as ‘a dramatic change in the Western attitude towards women became possible with the appearance of a new concept of romantic love in the early twelfth century France. A concept embraced by the chivalrous notables in Southern France, served not only to elevate the lowly status of women but to generate a sense of courtesy.’
The new concept of a non-sexual spiritual love between a nobleman and a noble woman excluded one’s own spouse, since marriage did not require love but it also had the effect of minimising feminine sexuality and transforming women into honourable and esteemed objects. This new perception of women contrasted starkly with views of early Christian writers, yet the courtly idea that love is not sensuality suitably agreed with the Church’s ideal of love as sexless passion. After all, sex was only for the begetting of heirs within the confines of marriage!
Courtly Love and Courts of Love
Evolving at the courts of the Counts of Champagne, the art of courtly love incorporated its own set of rules and code of etiquette and provided special courts that adjudicated disputes in order to provide a binding judgement. So, you had ‘courtly love’ (the act of loving according to the ‘Courtly Love’ rules’) and ‘courts of love’ – a courtroom-like setting where disputes of love were heard and settled.
The group of judges were almost entirely women (surprised? So was I!) yet it is interesting to note most of the decisions given went in favour of the men. In one example which involved a precedent where Eleanor of Aquitaine decided that since ‘marriage was a commitment and since one of the ‘Laws of Love’ stated that love could not be given out of necessity, it was impossible to love your spouse.’ The case itself involved a man who loved a woman who was already spoken for. She felt sorry for this man and promised him that if she ever left her lover, he could be her replacement. She then married her original suitor. Her admirer took her to court claiming that since she had married the man, she must no longer love him and could therefore keep her promise of love to him. Eleanor ruled that the lady was indeed, bound to the plaintiff.
So, what exactly was Courtly Love and its rules? Who were the greatest followers and how, by its own definitions, did it leave the lover frustrated in its own paradox?
Courtly Love is best described as ‘the sophisticated and elaborate code devised by the 12thCentury troubadours which made a virtue of love outside the bonds of marriage and raised the service of lover to beloved to an almost religious ritual.’ (The Arthurian Tradition – John Matthews)
The Shaping of the Knight and Courts
Knighthood gave the warrior an honoured place in society, acknowledged by the Church despite its distaste for all things warlike. The meeting place of the knight and cleric was the royal court, where both had their place in the Prince’s service. In the 10th century certain ideals of courtly life and courtly behaviour are seen emerging. The courtesy of the clerics began to invade the world of the warriors. As the Church began to mould the spiritual attitudes of the warriors, so the secular culture (which derived from the Church) began to shape his social life as well. From the time of the first romances, chivalry and the worship of fair ladies are so intimately bound as to become almost indistinguishable. The knight who aspires to chivalric glory does not yearn to lead armies or dream of the gold or power but longs to shine for his prowess that he may earn his lady’s love. Once her love was won, he would be sure against his opponent’s spears in tournament and battle and, from her, all spiritual wealth would flow.
*Book Two spoiler alert
In ‘The Order of the Lily’ Margot’s suggestion that Cécile accept Gillet’s upcoming marriage and instead remain in his life as his mistress was not so outrageous. From this position, Gillet would be able to honour and adore her in true courtly love fashion. (As you will see in next instalment, there were levels of courtly love, one of which allowed physical love.)
Next week – Courtly Love – Part Two
The ideals of Courtly Love (What and what not to do!)
By Cathy T