Chivalry and courtly love



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Boucquey, Thierry, gen. ed. "chivalry and courtly love." Encyclopedia of World Writers, Beginnings through the 13th Century. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005. Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 16 Dec. 2014 spacer


Chivalry and courtly love are social concepts that strongly influenced the literature of western Europe during the later Middle Ages. Both concepts attempted to describe the rules for polite behavior for the aristocrats of a feudal society. Feudalism bound all classes of society in mutual oaths of loyalty in exchange for patronage or service.

The code of chivalry dictated a knight's behavior in battle and in relationships with his overlord and his own servants, while the code of courtly love dictated how the knight should behave at court, particularly in his amorous addresses to the court's ladies. Portrayals of chivalry and courtly love in the literature, however, suggest that these artificial modes of behavior were difficult to actually practice, and even in their fictionalized versions, characters adhering to the standards of chivalry and courtly love do not find them free of contradictions.



Chivalry required knights and nobles to swear loyalty to their superiors and show compassion and mercy to the weak and socially inferior. The ideal chivalric knight was brave, loyal, and determined as well as compassionate, just, and helpful to those in distress—an exemplar of Christian virtue. As the Crusades into the Holy Land began, many knights took vows of chastity and poverty to give their exploits a more spiritual dimension.

The beginnings of the code of chivalry in the medieval romance can be traced to the French Le Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland), which dates to the late 10th century. The narrative retells the story of an actual battle in 778 when a group of Basques attacked the rearguard of Charlemagne's army as he withdrew from Spain. The Roland poet, composing near the end of the 11th century, turns the attacking party into Saracens (Moors, who were Muslims from the Moroccan coast), making a central issue of the poem a defense of Christianity. He also turns Charlemagne's army into a set of feudal nobles governed by feudal attitudes and bonds of loyalty. Roland and his warriors refuse to abandon one another even though it appears they will all likely die. In addition, Roland hesitates to blow the horn that will summon reinforcements, since this act, suggesting that he is not heroic enough, would shame his and his family's honor. Roland's tragic death and the vengeance of Charlemagne valorize the behavior of the hero in war, a theme that would continue into other French chansons de geste, or songs of adventure. In addition, as literature elaborated on the conduct of the hero in war, it also elaborated on the conduct of the hero in love. In love, poetically imagined as a type of polite warfare, hearts were at stake instead of lives. Thus, the concepts of chivalry and courtly love develop simultaneously in the romantic literature.

The practice of courtly love developed around the 11th century. C. S. Lewis, in his classic study The Allegory of Love, claimed that courtly love developed suddenly and spontaneously in the lyrics of the Provençal troubadours of southern France. Other scholars, like Denis de Rougemont, suspect that the troubadours drew inspiration from the Arabic and Hebrew lyric poems circulating in the courts of Muslim Spain. For example, the system of love described in the Arabic work The Dove's Necklace by Ibn Hazm (1022) closely resembles Andreas Capellanus's The Art of Courtly Love (1174), a Latin text that codifies the practice of courtly love along the lines of Ovid's first-century Art of Love. Thus, courtly love as a literary device had its roots in both a Latin and a vernacular poetic tradition.

The elements of courtly love, according to Lewis, are humility, courtesy, adultery, and the religion of love. In this religion, Cupid, or Amor, and Venuspreside as god and goddess. Courtly convention requires that the lover be hopelessly devoted to a lady who is his social superior; most often, she is married to his overlord, and he refers to himself, in feudal terms, as her servant and she his master. She is universally described as beautiful, graceful, and refined. The lover puts himself through grueling tests to prove the extent of his devotion. He suffers torments of the heart and spirit; often, he has a rival for the lady's love (never her husband), and just as often, the lady is cold or indifferent to him. The lover describes himself as wounded by love's arrows, near death with despair. Frequent plot devices include a springtime setting, an image of the court and all the ladies dancing, and a debate wherein the lover must defend himself.

Using the elements established by the troubadours and by Capellanus, the French romances of the 12th century refined the concept of courtly love in such works as the Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Courtly conventions also appear in the Lais of Marie de France and the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes. The characters from the Arthurian legends, called "the matter of Britain," were popularly recast as feudal heroes and made models of chivalric conduct. Later incorporated with the story Tristan and Iseultand legends of the Holy Grail, Arthurian tales by Gottfried von Strassburg, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and others repeatedly returned to the themes ofchivalry and courtly love. Chrétien's Erec and Enide shows the hero experiencing a crisis of reputation when his absorption in love makes him neglect deeds ofchivalry, and he is thus thought to be losing his touch. The English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight explores the demands of the chivalric code as it governs behavior at court, behavior at love-play, and the necessity of keeping one's promises and preserving one's honor.

Love as a noble and ennobling concept reached its finest expression in the poetry of Dante Aligheiri and his contemporaries in Italy. Dante, along with Petrarch, elevated the worship of a distant lady to its highest degree. Later authors working in this tradition, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles d'Orléans, and Jean Froissart, borrowed images from Dante and Petrarch to describe their own adventures in love.

Almost as soon as the literature of courtly love developed, it began to satirizeitself. The concept contained inherent contradictions, not least being that a hero was required to be a ferocious killer as well as a courteous lover. In actual practice the application of chivalric codes could be dangerous as well as absurd, as demonstrated by the conflicted hero of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. Arguably, Ovid and Capellanus were writing tongue-in-cheek, suggesting that that taking love seriously was, itself, a joke. Capellanus's insistence that courtly love could only exist between an adulterous couple, and that marriage prohibited romance, was certainly a morally troubling stance for a cleric to take. Chrétien's romances, while articulating the concepts of fine love or fin amor, also made gentle fun of them, as in the episode from The Knight of the Cartwhere Guinevere shuns Lancelot for hesitating to use a criminal's cart as a means to come to her rescue.

Also, the practice of courtly love, while appearing to elevate women to near-sacred status, did very little to ameliorate the positions of actual medieval women. Critics have argued that the code of chivalry more correctly governed male social relations than it described or governed male-female romantic relations. Moreover, courtly literature frequently objectified or even maligned women, as Christine de Pisan pointed out in her querulous response to theRomance of the Rose.



Nevertheless, the concepts of chivalry and courtly love persisted into literature of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in the Arthurian romances of Thomas Malory, the poetry of Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney, and the sonnets of William Shakespeare and Pierre de Ronsard. The idea of suffering for love marks romantic literature from Abbe Prévost's Manon Lescaut to Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. C. S. Lewis observes that the code of chivalry and courtly love "have made the background of European literature for eight hundred years…They effected a change which has left no corner of our ethics, or imagination, or our daily life untouched."


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