Courtly love tradition

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N. Cregan


From: A Handbook to Literature, William Harmon and Hugh Holman.


A philosophy of love and a code of lovemaking that flourished in chivalric times, first in France and later in other countries, especially in England. According to the theory of courtly love, falling in love is accompanied by great emotional disturbances; the bewildered lover exhibits such ‘symptoms’ as pallor, trembling, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, sighing and weeping. He agonises over his condition and indulges in endless self-questioning and reflections on the nature of love and his own wretched state. His condition improves when he is accepted, and he is inspired by his love to do great deeds.


The kind of conceit used by the Italian poet Petrarch in his love sonnets and widely imitated (and ridiculed) by Renaissance English sonneteers. It rests upon the elaborate and exaggerated comparisons expressing the beauty, cruelty, and charm of the beloved and the suffering of the forlorn lover. Hyperbolic analogies to ships at sea, marble tombs, and wars are used; oxymoron is common.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, which begins,

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head –

satirizes the Petrarchan conventions.

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