The Origin and Development of Courtly Love, and my Bibliography

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The Origin and Development of Courtly Love," and my Bibliography.

Roger J. Steiner


"Courtly love" is a highly stylized love between a high-born Lady and her suitor, and advocates a chaste, sublimated, and idealized illicit love. The "troubadours" speaking the language of 'oc' in Southern France in the eleventh century found inspiration for their courtly love poems in the Mozarabic and Arabic poetry of Muslim Spain. Courtly love was taken up by Dante and other Tuscan poets, by Minnesingers in Germany, by Chaucer in England, and in twelfth century "trouvères" in northern France. There were modifications of theme in these different languages and in succeeding centuries. The fifteenth century English poet Edmund Spenser in his The Faerie Queen and Shakespeare in his Romeo and Juliet validated its transformation into married love. By the seventeenth century Molière could ridicule courtly love in his Les Précieuses ridicules. The result of the centuries of courtly love was the European and American belief that the most important part of marriage was the love between the bride and groom.



"Courtly love" is a highly stylized type of love between a high-born woman and her suitor, and advocates a chaste, sublimated, and idealized but illicit love. In the past half century several American and British scholars have said that courtly love is an illusion of modern criticism and a serious impediment to the understanding of medieval texts, that it is an imprecise and controversial term, and that it properly belongs to the realm of Victorian fiction. If D.W. Robertson, E.T. Donaldson, J.F. Benton, and the several scholars who hold this opinion are correct, my remarks would simply outline a refutation of the reality of courtly love. However, I am backed by a great number of scholars when my response to these critics is that they ought to read the works of the troubadours who appeared quite suddenly in the eleventh century in Languedoc. The French scholar Alfred Jeanroy calls the appearance of their poetry a veritable explosion: "...cette explosion d'esprit pa ï en dans un pays et un siècle si profondément christianisé" [Jeanroy 62]. This was spontaneous change similar in importance to the way that the Renaissance brought ideas of another way of life. After we finish our half a millennium review of courtly love, we will see that the ideas of courtly love ended up with romantic love and an expected love in marriage. But before we get to that point of modern-day love, let us see what the troubadours did.

We can give a label to the sentiment of the troubadours because of its systematic and universal coherence in their poetry. Courtly love is the pattern or framework on which their love poetry is shaped. Courtly love was courtly, for its basic concern was the kind of love that could exist in the court of a king or a count, and that was polite, refined, and elegant. It was aristocratic, although not all of the aristocracy could read and write but depended upon the "clerics," whose education was afforded by the church. Its ideals could not have been derived from the Christian or Cathar religious beliefs surrounding the troubadours nor from Marianism, for the troubadours followed a "religion of love" or, from the standpoint of church critics, an "irreligion of love." Its influence spread quickly to all of the dozen provinces of southern France whose language also had 'oc' as the word for 'yes" as well as to Catalonia, where the language of 'oc' was used. (Languedocian also is called occitan or Provençal.) The poetry spread at once to northern Italy where Dante was able to read the troubadour poems in their original language, which did not differ unduly from Tuscan and other Italian idioms. Indeed some scholars in the Middle Ages believed that the language of 'oc' was the ancestor of all of the European languages.

Ties of the Troubadours with Arabic Poetry

If the troubadours were not ignited by ideas from surrounding influences, where did such possible influences come from? There was communication between southern France and Muslim Spain. Directly to the south were the Spanish kingdoms of Castile, Leon, Navarre, and Aragon--in fact, Aragon had spread northward over the Pyrenees right to the troubadours' doorstep. Before the idiom of Spanish developed, these Christian Spanish kingdoms spoke a kind of language universal in countries descended from Rome, the common, everyday Latin language, just as the speakers of Provençal once did. There was close contact with Muslim Spain. One Spanish king took a Muslim wife. Toledo is located in the central part of the Iberian peninsula, where one found the Mozarabic civilization: Spanish Christians who spoke Arabic and Muslim Arabs lived side by side. Spanish women became wives of Muslims. Spanish women were famous for their beauty and talent for singing. Already in the eleventh century the exis tence of the Spanish language is recorded in the "kharjas." These are Spanish refrains in Muslim poems that both wives and slaves would sing to their masters. For example in 1042 C.E. one refrain was the early Spanish "Tan te amaré" (I will love you so much). Another was "Vais meu corazón de mib" (My heart leaves me). Still another among hundreds of examples was "Non quero, non, jillello" (I will have no companion but my dark lover). The Spanish poets in central Spain composed Arabic poems called 'zadjal' in an Hispanicized dialect. However, the classic Arabic poems were the 'muwachchah' which looked to Baghdad and the East for their inspiration, and it was there that one finds the source of the courtly love poetry. The 'muwachchah' was the poetry of Andalucia in the south of Spain where a solid Arab Muslim civilization was found in Cordova, Sevilla, Cadiz, Malaga, and the al-Hambra of Granada. The troubadours found channels of communication with Mozarabs, Mudejars, Jews, and Chris tian slaves, as well as armed incursions on both sides. It was through these varied channels that came the Arabic influence on science, medicine, and philosophy in the tenth and eleventh century. The proof of this influence is found even in the Arabic decorative aspects of architecture as far north as the Midi of France. The various populations found themselves together many times. Louis VIII of Ile de France in the north married Blanche of Castille. The early troubadours Guillaume IX and Marcabru had both lived for a time in Andalucia or Mozarabia with the opportunity of knowing Ibn Sinâ's (Avicenna's) Risâla fî Mâhîyat al-'ishq, in which 'mahabba' or " 'ishq" was shown as a pervasive principle acting through all creation. Muslim literature was divided into the mystical and profane. It was the profane that was most relevant to the troubadours, such as Ibn Hazm's Tauq al-Hamâma fî 'l-Ulfa wa 'l-Ullâf. Hazm proceeds in a rational manner to describe the essence and natu re of love, its possible causes, symptoms, and accompaniments as well as its checks, frustrations, and perils. He closes with moral and religious observations portraying the tragedies of love.

The concept of mystical and profane love was of intense importance to the Muslims because of their conservative attitude and religion. They coined so many words for the concept of love that Arabic has a greater number of terms for love than any other language in the world. The poems and stories recited by Bedouins in their tents in the desert played an important part in their lives and they needed words to express exceedingly fine nuances of love. Linguists might say that this is the kind of data that supports the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that the character of languages is based on the environmental surroundings and the life style of the peoples forming the languages.

Troubadour Love Following Arab Love

Concerning the similarity of Arab love poetry and troubadour love poetry, Sallefranche [100] says that it would be vain to claim to exhaust the common elements in the two poetries. Just as the Arab lover follows a religion of love ('dîn al-hawâ'). just so the troubadour's love is a religion, and because of the points of correspondence and similarity, the Andalusian Arabic poetry furnishes an incontestable ancestry for the first troubadour, Guillaume IX of Poitiers (1071-1127 C.E.). Let us turn to the first line of one of his poems: "I shall compose a new refrain," and indeed his poetry is new in its immediate surroundings. In the next verse the first line is: "I render myself to her." Here we find the same veneration for women and idolization counted among the most ancient traditions of the Arab people. William says in his poem "For her I shake, for her I tremble." This indeed is a refrain new to the culture in which the troubadours live. Now it is the lady who must say "yes" an d the man must submit if she says "no."

One of the leading characteristics of 'dîn al hawâ', this religion of love, is the same as the troubadour 'joy' (spelled the same in English as it was in Occitan). 'Joy' was important in troubadour poetry and in Arabic poetry with terms such as 'farah', 'suroûr', and 'masarra'. Love is considered a noble and ennobling passion and joy is one of its elements.

The troubadour's whole life is wrapped up in the joy of devotion to his Lady. If he can't have her, he continues to sorrow the rest of his life. He becomes a martyr of love. This martyrdom caused by love is a familiar theme in Arabic literature. Mughultâi's Wâdih al-Mubîn fî Dhikr Man Ustushhida min ab-Muhibbîn, "The Clear and Eloquent in Speaking of Those Lovers Who Became Martyrs," is a dictionary of those writers who died of pure but tragic love. Muhammad b. Dâ'ûd's Kitâb az-Zahra, "The Book of the Flowers," states that 'hawâ', passionate love, is lust to those who condemn 'hawâ', but it is pure love for the privileged who understand it. Both 'hawâ' and "'ishq" represent passionate love to the critics who would condemn such love, but are only two of the half a hundred or more words that portray the nuances of love. Some of the words which are particularly important to courtly love are 'hubb' to love, 'shaghaf' meaning to love passionately, 'sababa' meaning to lo ve ardently, 'ghram' meaning infatuation, 'wallah' meaning to become mad with love, 'allawa'a' meaning lovesickness, 'muttayam' meaning to become enslaved by love, and many more. Ibn Dâ'ûd himself became a "martyr of love" because of the lack of response from one he loved. Shihab ad-Dîn Mahmûd says, "He who loves and remains chaste and keeps it a secret and dies, dies a martyr." [Giffin 20]

Some of Guillaume's poetry may go to the extreme of what seems pornographic:

Alas! what is life worth to me

if I do not see each day

my loyal and natural love in bed,

under the window, white body just like

the Christmas snow, in order that we two together

may measure ourselves to see if we are equal.

One must go to the Muslim sources to find that lying naked with one's lover was a test of one's love. The goal was to keep it chaste. Chastity was paramount not only in Arabic literature but in all of the courtly love poetry. The criticism by Iberian and French conservative critics held that intense and all-consuming and passionate love of the love poets was in every case a vain use of those faculties which ought to be devoted to loving Allah.

Let us discuss this "pure love," the 'fin' amors' of the troubadours. Love that springs from lust is false love and evil, but "pure love" is true and good, pure and constant, and is a means to an end: progress and growth in virtue, merit, and worth. Denomy [205] states that there is an Arabian doctrine of pure love that coincides in every particular with the 'fin' amors'. It is neither the caritas of the Christian church or of Plato nor is it purely carnal love or lust. It is the union of heart and soul. Pure love or 'fin' amors' is a source of progress in virtue and refinement. It is a love concerned with sensual desires, but it is a love of pure desire and not of physical possession. Carnal solace--and solace is an important word here--solace that is short of the consummation is 'fin' amors'. Solace includes not only gazing upon the beloved but kissing, touching and lying naked intertwined with the beloved. After all that, there must be no physical penetration. Our psychiatris ts would decry the emotional damage entailed in such repression. No wonder one meaning of "'ishq" was "madness" or mental breakdown.

The troubadours held "that a love that springs from lust, that consists of the physical possession of women for its own sake, is not love at all, but is false, a counterfeit of true love," [Denomy 143] and is impure. Marcabru (ca. 1130-1148 C.E.) exemplifies this teaching by proclaiming in his poems "that the greatest evil in France " was the "love that had become common, promiscuous, venal, and unstrained [Demony 143]."

Cest' amors sap engan faire,

ab engan ses aigua raire,

Puois, quand l'a ras, se remuda

E quier autrui cui saluda,

A cui es douss' e privada,

tant que'l fols deven musaire.

"This sort of love knows how to deceive, trickily how to shave without water; then when it has shaven someone, off it goes and seeks another whom it greets, to whom it is charming and intimate, with the result that the fools becomes a sot [Denomy 144]."

According to Marcabru, the pure love, the 'fin' amors', is a healthy,

righteous kind of love.

Aicel cui fin' Amors causitz The man whom pure love singles out

Viu letz, cortes e sapiens. lives happy, courteous and wise.

Ai! fin' Amors, fons de bontat, Ah! pure love, fount of goodness,

C'as tot lo mon illuminat. through which the whole world is


Bon' Amors porta meizina Pure love provides medicine

Per garir son compaigno. for healing to its partner.

The most frequent trouble that the troubadours had were the obstacles to their union of pure love with their Lady. She is often inaccessible, perhaps because of the attention she gives to rivals or to a jealous husband. Bernard de Ventadorn was rumored to be the lover of none other than Eleanor of Aquitaine, who ruled Aquitaine in southwest France. She was also married to the king of England. The gossip went that he called her back to England when rumors told him that she was indulging too much in courtly love. Bernard laments in one poem that he has fallen into foul grace and he writes: "And I don't know why it's happened: Did I climb too high on the hill?" Being Eleanor's lover might indeed have been too high a hill to climb for a mere troubadour.

The troubadour venerated his lady and put her on a plane above himself. He addresses her with the masculine 'midons' (mon seigneur, my lord). Arab poetry used the masculine 'Sayyidî' for the same purpose, as well as 'mulâya' (my master). Courtly love insisted that Bernard keep secret his affair with the wife of the king of England. Every troubadour knew that the identities of their loved one must be kept secret. They were careful about the jealous peeping Tom, the 'gardadour' ('raqîb' in Arabic) and the detractor or calmunator, the 'lauzengier' ('wâchi' in Arabic). Ibn Hazm states that out of respect and deference it is not appropriate to give the name of his loved one. Ibn al-Haddad proclaims that the name of his loved one is hidden in his soul and he dares not even pronounce its syllables. He uses instead enigmatic words to name her.

For Jaufré Rudel in one famous and important poem the lady is inac-

cessible because she is "far way":

Ver ditz qui m'apella lechay

Ni deziron d'amor de lonh,

He speaks the truth who says I crave and go on desiring this love far away,

Car nulhs autres joys tan no'm play

Cum jauzimens d'amor de lonh.

for no other joy pleases me more than the rich enjoyment of this love far away.

These courtly love poems were meant to be sung. The troubadour himself might sing them at court because he was one of the few people who knew how to write. However, a large number of jongleurs or minstrels would use his poems and set them to music. We do have copies of some of the music of the period, but it is hard to interpret the notations. Modern music scholars have made an attempt, and one can hear their solutions on recordings.

Often the poem would begin with a description of natural surroundings. This use of nature was also typical in Arab love poetry. We find it here in this poem written and sung by the troubadour, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras:

Kalenda maya

Ni fuelhs de faya

Ni chanz d'auzelh

Ni flors de glaya

Non es que m' playua,

Pros domna guaya.

In Maytime neither beech leaves nor birdsong nor gladioli flowers please me, but rather does the joyous maiden.

There is a legend about this well-known poem, Kalenda Maya. Raimbaut was at a ball also attended by a lady he was currently loving. Her husband was also in the crowd. Friends asked Raimbaut to compose this estampie "Kalenda maya". One can imagine how his friends looked carefully at him when he sang it to see if he was looking at her. It ends:

Per qu'ies us azor, May we adore you, Serene Lady?

Don' eyussernida?

Quar per gensor

Vos ai chauzida,

E peer helhor

De pretz complida For I have chosen you as the most gentle

and the best of accomplished worthiness,


Servida more flattered, more served, more sweet

Genses than Erec to Enide.

Qu'Erecx Enida

You will note the rhyme scheme of his song. It is typical of the love poetry in Arabic.

Just as the Arab women of Muslim Spain became highly educated and wrote works of literature, so over a dozen women wrote poems in the language of 'oc'. The Countess of Dia (1140-1200 C.E.) has these lines in one of her poems: "Lovely lover, gracious, kind, when will I overcome your fight? Oh, if I could lie with you one night! Feel those loving lips on mine!" She is often identified as Beatritz, wife of Count William I of Valentinois. She is said to have descended from seigneurial families of the Viennois and Burgundy. The other women troubadours hail from various provinces in the Midi (the south of France) and were born between 1130 and 1200.

Would you like to write a courtly love poem? Here are guidelines.


1) must be written in the first person.

2) may refer to Nature (trees, flowers, birds, etc.) in the opening lines.

3) must not be a narrative or a story (except possibly for a short anecdote).

4) is meant to be heard by the loved one.

5) expresses adoration of the loved one.

6) laments the inaccessibility of the loved one.

How should one describe courtly love? The most salient characteristic is that it follows a religion of love. It includes an intensepassion that elicits criticism from conservative religious critics.

The next universal description of courtly love is "humility." The lover is always abject and dedicated to the lady's slightest wish. He offers only silent acquiescence to her sometimes furious rebukes. This part of courtly love is expressed so well in the German "Frauendienst"--service to women. It is closely modeled on the service which a feudal vassal owes his lord. No wonder the lover addresses his lady with the masculine "midons" ("my lord)"! The troubadours found themselves in a special situation. Most of them had no means of support other than from the royalty in the castles. And often the king or count or lord was away on a Crusade or a war and left his lady as the most powerful political force in the castle. Thus we see in the south of France the feudalization of love.

Thirdly, this love is "courteous." It is polite, that is, obliging. It distinguishes the "gentle" (a word for noble) from the "vilein" (the commoner).

Lastly, courtly love is adulterous. In the 19th century it was called "dishonorable love." This fault was an historical accident caused by arranged marriages, often when the partners were too young to consummate the marriage. The husband was sometimes much older than the bride. Love was not necessary for such marriages, but the Lady could find love outside of marriage. It must be noted, however, that the troubadours claimed that their adultery was in spirit only. They wanted only companionship and understanding from their lady. Actual physical union would be gross and unacceptable.

Troubadour Concepts Spread Throughout Europe

The language of the peoples using 'oc' for yes was easily understood in the northern Italian provinces, where writers accepted troubadour poetry enthusiastically. There were dozens of Italian poets writing courtly love poems in the language of their province. Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374 C.E.), Italy's most famous medieval lyric poet, and Dante Alighieri (1265-1321 C.E.), whose writings led to making Tuscan the Italian language, both wrote courtly love poems. Dante was able to create a noble fusion of sexual and religious experience. He disapproved of some of the aspects of the troubadours' poems. In fact, in his Divine Comedy, which is a long visit into the depths of Hell, troubadour Bertrand de Born (1140-1214 C.E.) appears in Dante's Hell, the Inferno XXVIII, 113-142 condemned as a sower of discord. Troubadour Guiraut de Bornelh's soul was condemned for artificiality and shows up in the Inferno. Troubadour Arnaut Daniel (1170-1210 C.E.) got somewhat better treatment w hen Dante put him in Purgatorio (XXVI, 115ff). At this time Tuscany and many of the provinces of Italy were going through the famous "Renaissance" hundreds of years before other European countries. The exporting of their culture was particularly important for France but also strong in other countries. This export included architecture, cuisine, gardening, costume, manners, words for many items and ideas first known in Tuscany and other provinces, and certainly the literature of courtly love.

An unmistakable continuity connects the Provençal love with the love poetry of surrounding areas. Marie, Countess of Champagne, was one of the contacts bringing courtly love poetry to northern France. She was the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. who was the granddaughter of the first troubadour, Guillaume the Ninth of Poitiers, and the inheriter of the throne of Aquitaine. Her knowledge of and contact with the troubadours in her territory was intimate.

About 1185 a cleric near Paris by the name of Andreas Capellanus wrote a book commonly called De Amore, and once upon a time it was referred to as the code book of courtly love. Then in 1883 the nineteenth century scholar Gaston Paris rediscovered, used, and popularized the appellation "courtly love" to describe the love espoused by the troubadours. Undoubtedly 20th century scholars such as D.W. Robertson et al. had this book of Andreas in mind when they rejected the idea that there was such a thing as "courtly love" and said that it was an invention of Gaston Paris. However, De Amore can be seen as a highly sophisticated subversion of the accepted discourses of desire, a subversion of the social hierarchy, and, what was worse, subversion of ecclesiastical authority in twelfth-century Europe. On the 7th of March, 1277, Stephen Tempier, Bishop of Paris, condemned 218 philosophical, moral, and theological propositions as erroneous, contrary and dangerous to faith and morals. The first of the works specifically condemned was this De Amore by Andreas Capellanus.

Courtly love poetry underwent a change of spirit when it was written in the language of 'oï l', the Old French word for 'yes.' The courtly love poet, called 'trouvère' in Champagne, Ile de France, Orleans, and Picardy, refined sensual elements common in troubadour poetry into more stylized expressions. The personality of the Lady, her clothes, her demeanor, her manner, her spiritual and moral qualities--these become more important in the love poems.

Some time in the first half of the thirteenth century a poet by the name of Guillaume writing in Lorris, a town located not far from Orleans, wrote an allegory, The Romance of the Rose, which had an influence on all of Europe for centuries. A garden guarded by high walls contained the Lady who was the goal of the Lover's pursuit. Various aspects of the Lady's per- sonality are personified by, on the one hand, Shame, Chastity, Jealousy, Gossip, Fear, and Haughtiness and, on the other hand, Welcome, Graciousness, Frankness, Pity, and the Rose. The Lover succeeded in climbing the walls and actually kissing the Rose, which was the symbol of the Lady's love. But then Welcome was put into prison, and so the Lover cannot get near the Rose. Here the story breaks off because Guillaume of Lorris dies. Forty years later a writer, John, from Meung, another town near Orleans, finishes the story but not until he has added about 18,000 lines most of which have nothing to do with courtly love. The Romance of the Rose has had a germinal effect on courtly literature in all of Western Europe. There are 300 manuscripts of the work. It was translated or imitated in German, English, or Italian. The poems that derive from it constitute the most important literary phenomena of the later Middle Ages.

Courtly love makes an important leap when it is used by novelists. A court poet (ca.1135 - ca.1183 C.E.) by the name of Chrétien in the court of Champagne in the capital city of Troy wrote a narrative poem that we might label as a "novel." It was "Erec and Enide," the story of a married couple with a domestic dispute that requires many dangerous knightly adventures. The story is not "courtly," but in the midst of his strenuous fights he looks not to God or a military chieftain for inspiration and added strength, but to his wife. They end up blissfully happy. This is Chrétien's interpretation of courtly love: it has become romantic love with love in marriage. However, he was asked by his patroness, the Countess Marie, to write a novel on a courtly love subject, the plot of which she sketched for him. You can imagine that the theme was distasteful for him, but he had to please her. The result was Le Chevalier à la Charrette, called in English Lancelot or the Knight of th e Cart. Queen Guinever has been kidnapped and King Arthur appoints Lancelot to find her. Lancelot undertakes many credible battles, but he loses his horse. At that moment a dwarf rides by, driving the cart which was used to take condemned men to the gallows. He tells Lancelot that he can take him to Guinevere. It is shameful to ride in such a cart, and Lancelot pauses several seconds to weigh the situation before getting in. Eventually after many brutal adventures he succeeds in freeing Guinevere, but she is furiously angry with him. He learns that it is because he has paused several seconds before getting in the cart, and a true courtly lover would never hesitate. They make up. His adoration is such that when he comes to her bed, he genuflects and kneels before her as if she is a shrine. Near the end of the novel he is taking part in a tournament and the message comes from Guinevere to act cowardly. He disgraces himself by doing so and receives the jeers of the crowd. In the s econd tournament however the message comes from her at the last minute to act bravely, which he does winning the tournament. Now he has proved to her that he absolutely loves her in a courtly fashion.

Near the end of his life, Chrétien of Troy wrote his masterpiece, Perceval le Gallois ou le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail). Some of the aspects of courtly love, such as passionate love, figure in Perceval's romance with Blanchefleur. But it certainly was not courtly for her the day they met to knock on his bedroom door and spend the night together in his room. She did give him "solace." You remember that solace was a term used by some of the first troubadours, but medieval experts are still not agreed if this particular solace included chastity. The main part of the novel concerns King Arthur and the Round Table in the search for the Holy Graal. We don't hear much about love in the novel, but what love Chrétien tells us about turns out to be romantic love. Chrétien died before he finished this poem, and for centuries after him many authors tried to finish it. This resulted in the extension of the influence of this story into many countries. One of the writers who tried to finish it was Wolfram von Eschenbach, in the first decade of the 13th century at the time of the first great flowering of German literature under the Holy Roman Empire. In his Parzival Eschenbach followed the French poem closely in the sequence of external events but put into it original moral and philosophical content. The 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries in Germany were also a period when the well-known Minnesingers sang of courtly love.

Inasmuch that Old French was the national language of England in the twelfth century, courtly love promptly spread to England in the original Provençal of the troubadour and the original Old French of the trouvère.  Eleanor of Aquitaine certainly had plenty to do with this spread. The only thing we know about one of the ladies at her court, "Marie de France," was that she had studied in Paris, but we know that her short stories or tales became famous and have been widely circulated. Such of her tales as The Honeysuckle, The Nightingale, The Two Lovers, and Lanval contain elements of courtly love. As ties with the French provinces weakened and ruling families intermarried with English women, their children were native English speakers. By the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400 C.E.) assimilation had done its work, and English had become the national language of England. Chaucer made available to the English-speaking public The Romance of the Rose an d translated it into a version that captures much of the spirit and freshness of the original. His master work is The Canterbury Tales, but he was known chiefly in his time as a courtly love poet. In the words of C. S. Lewis [162] he was known to his contemporaries as "the Chaucer of dream and allegory, of love-romance and erotic debate, of high style and profitable doctrine." In the Ballade to Rosemounde he mixes formal Northern French conceits with realistic English detail, such as tubs. Here are the first two verses:

Madame, ye been of alle beautee shrine

As fer as cercled is the map of the world,

For as the crystal glorious ye shine,

And like ruby been your cheekes rounde.

Therwith ye been so merry and so jocounde

That at a revel whan that I see you daunce,

It is an ointment unto my wounde,

Though ye offer me no comfort.

For though I weepe of teres full a tub,

Yet may that wo myn herte nat confounde;

Your delicate vois, that ye so small spin out,

Maketh my thought in joy and bliss abounde.

So curteisly I go, with love bounde

That to myself I say, in my penaunce,

"Suffiseth me to love you, Rosemounde,

Though ye offer me no comfort."

Courtly love continued over the centuries. Let us cross the channel back again to France to find Charles of Orleans (1394-1465 C.E.), a nephew of the king of France and a writer of well-known courtly love poems. His career in France came to an abrupt end when he was captured in 1415 at the disastrous French defeat at Agincourt and was held for ransom in England. Because of his rank he had an elite lifestyle mixing with English royalty. He developed a superb knowledge of English. Here is the first verse of one of his poems.

Alone am y and wille to be alone

Alone withouten plesere or gladnes

Alone in care to sighe and grone

Alone to wayle the deth of my maystres

Alone which sorow wille me neuyr cesse

Alone y curse the lijf y do endure

Alone this fayntith me my gret distres

Alone y lyue an ofcast creature.

Here is a short poem suitable for Valentine's Day.

Fayre valentyne, remembre on yowre hest [promise],

Lete me not fynde yowre word & thougt as twayne.

If I myssay me pardone at the lest [at least],

For evyn giltlese me sleth yowre disdayne.

After he was released in 1441, he spent his final years in the Loire valley at Blois in the rich and famous château some of which is constructed on Italian models of architecture.

Troubadour Love Transformed into Romantic Love

While we are still in France we must mention Alain Chartier, who dominated the 15th century with his poetry. In his La Belle Dame Sans Mercy, his most admired poem, we find basic elements of courtly love.

The narrator overhears a conversation between a Lady and a lover. The lover is enslaved by her love, but she finally rejects him. We learn later that he goes home and commits suicide. The narrator gives very uncourtly advice to women in general: "Et vous dames et damoiselles...Ne soiez mie si cruelles." "And you, matrons and damsels, do not be so cruel." He goes on to tell them not to resemble the lady of this poem, "La belle dame sans mercy." "The Lady without mercy." With that poem we see we have come a long way from the first troubadours.

Crossing the channel again to England, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599 C.E.) was a courtly love poet whose masterpiece is The Faerie Queen, a chivalric, allegorical romance. It is not the lineal descendant of English allegory but rather, stems from the romantic epic of Italy. Spenser is the great mediator between the Middle Ages and the modern poets. He was involved in the final stage of courtly love as one of the founders of the romantic conception of marriage. His poem represents the final struggle between the romance of marriage and courtly adultery, but Spenser's ideal of married love grew out of courtly love. Chastity is personified in the allegory and attained the triumphal union of romantic passion with monogamy. The two lovers become one flesh. You see then that the message of Chrétien of Troy's Erec and Enide in the twelfth century is now being reinforced.

William Shakespeare was a contemporary of Edmund Spenser. When we see Act Two of his Romeo and Juliet we might think at first of the lady in the tower deciding whether to give a sign to the troubadour below. In the play Juliet looks from a balcony and Romeo stands in the garden below. Unlike the courtly lovers both proclaim their undying love and passion to each other. The obstacle is that they belong to different political factions. In the next act they circumvent this fact by their secret marriage performed by a friendly priest. They are faithful unto death, as circumstances arrive in which Romeo poisons himself and Juliet stabs herself so that they lie lifeless together entwined in each others arms. You note that again a courtly love situation has been transformed into idyllic consensual love between two married lovers.

By the seventeenth century courtly love is even ridiculed. One of the vestiges of courtly love was preciosity, which has had a bad name since Molière's play Les Précieuses Ridicules, "The Ridiculous Preciosity of the Damsels." Two young ladies reject a pair of serious suitors on the basis that their request is too abrupt. They would like their suitors to emulate the various stages of courtly love of the early troubadours: first just watching from afar, then succeeding in having her know of his presence, then a small favor he might do for her and his desire for some kind of signal from the lady that she realizes his love, and finally the recompense, perhaps only a kiss. The rejected suitors plan a sting operation. Two of their servants are ordered to dress in fine clothes and be invited in by the ladies to perform the rites of preciosity. Their eloquence includes refining terms, such as calling chairs "commodities of the conversation." They recite elaborate poems and have a marked success with the two young ladies. Then at a dramatic moment their masters arrive on the scene, whip them, and strip them of their clothes in the presence of the ladies. The scandalized ladies are more shocked by the father, who arrives to bawl the ladies out.

Romantic Love in Modern Life

The effect of courtly love was not lost in the nineteenth century with the romantic poets, who used its transformation into romantic love. Courtly love has resulted in modern romance, and the troubadour adultery has become married love. In Europe and America it is usually assumed that couples ready for marriage are in love. If a parent tries to arrange a marriage, their offspring tells them that one must be in love with the prospective bride or groom. If obstacles exist, they have nothing to do with the lovers shared love for each other. In the 20th and 21st centuries, "happiness" is grounded in successful romantic love supported by marriage or, more recently, romantic love sometimes supported by domestic partnership.



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Dr. Roger J. Steiner

Emeritus Professor of Linguistics

University of Delaware


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