Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Courtly Love

I said I'd post this here. It's about a five page paper. Not the best I've written, by far, but it made a good grade.


Courtly love, or fin amor, “fine love,” a literary tradition began in the Middle Ages, has had a lasting impact on Western thought.

The poetry of courtly love sprang up in the songs of the troubadours, often characterized as poor wandering minstrels, though in reality troubadours were often celebrated members of court. They entertained their fellow court members, in large part ladies and unmarried men, with songs of gallant knights elegantly seducing the beautiful ladies who drew their desire. Though the concept of courtly love originated in song, eventually young aristocrats imitated the stories in the troubadours’ ballads, and an elaborate set of rules sprang up to govern their affairs. Though the most “official” set was written down by Andreas Capellanus for Marie of Champagne, and consists of 31 rules, subsequent scholars have boiled down the concept of courtly love into more general elements (Halsall).

According to C.S. Lewis in The Allegory of Love, the three main elements of courtly love were humility, courtesy, and adultery (Delahoyde). The affairs of courtly love were usually extra-marital, with the lady in question a married woman being pursued by a younger, unmarried knight. Hence, the relationship between the two could be considered adulterous, especially if fully consummated, though there is disagreement about the level of physicality in the affairs of courtly love. Humility is exemplified in such relationships by the abject posturing of the knight and his raising the lady onto a pedestal, honoring her every wish as more important than his own desires. Lewis’s notion of courtesy stems from the idea that the feudalism of the times was reflected in the hierarchy of courtly love; the lady was in effect the liege lord, accepting the devotion of her vassal, the knight, but required to give reward in return.

The songs of courtly love had a very significant impact on the literature of Europe during the Middle Ages, an impact which can still be felt today. They established the tropes of love in Western literature; the anguish of the lover over the coldness of the beloved, the wan sickness of one wasting away with unrequited affection. These “ailments” had been recording much earlier by Ovid, but the troubadour tradition cemented them in Western thinking. Previously, the ballads of the Middle Ages were solely concerned with the daring exploits of male warriors like Beowulf; with the invention of courtly love, the gallant deeds of derring-do were not abandoned (the lady sets difficult tasks for the knight, in order to prove his love), but the points of view of the women in the stories were included, and room was made for romantic love. Though love poetry had existed for a long time in Arabic and Hebrew (as in the Song of Solomon), this was the first instance of it in Western literature. In fact, some scholars believe that romantic love itself was invented by the troubadours. C.S. Lewis was of the notion that romantic love was a literary invention, a lie, so to speak; however, it is of interest to note that his work relating to such matters was written well before he met the woman with whom he fell in love.

In Medieval times, women were given two role models, Mary and Eve. In the tradition of courtly love, women played both parts; beautiful, saintly Mary, passionately loved but inviolately chaste; and seductive Eve, giving in to temptation and desire. While previously, as evidenced in epics such as Beowulf, women were thought of as servants or as a way to cement political alliances through marriage, courtly love supposedly elevated the lady to a point where she commanded the lives and wills of the men pursuing her (Delahoyde). The knight obeys the every whim of the lady he loves. However, the eventual submission of the beloved to the lover is always included in such stories; while women are given a place in art and a modicum of power over their love lives, their freedom is still tightly circumscribed within the rules of courtly love. In fact, the lasting impact of the ideals of courtly love on literature has encouraged a continuation of the Medieval view of womanhood; the strong, handsome lover, the yielding beloved ultimately helpless to the lover’s desires. In the end, the lady is always subjected to the wills of men; her lover demanding payment for his adoration, her husband taking his property from the lover.

Whether or not romantic love was invented per se by Medieval poets, the work of such poets profoundly affected the meanings of the word “love.” While originally, the two types of love were sharply delineated—caritas, or charity, being Godly love, and amor, a term mainly designating carnal desire—the “religion of love” inspired by the practice of courtly love blurred the distinction. Amor became the more common word; the inscription on Dante’s medallion reads “amor vincit omnia,” love conquers all, but uses the term for romantic love instead of religious charity. The linguistic replacement of amor for caritas reflects the shift in importance between religiosity and secularism. Redemption and sublimation were formerly sought through the church; now, the acts and feelings of being in love were expected to raise men to a higher plane of being. The move from a religious society to a secular one in Europe was not solely due to the traditions of courtly love, but the ideology of courtly love (which one commenter calls “a suave new kind of paganism”) began to offer alternatives to the strict regulation of the Catholic Church; a very attractive alternative that made room for sexual pleasure (Simpson).

These ideas about the nature and function of love have had very interesting affects on life in the modern West. Christian preachers across America decry the state of the modern family, in particular the high rate of failed marriages. Such preachers often attribute the weakening of the traditional marriage structure to the immorality of our society (notable, homosexuality and pornography), but it can also be explained by a belief in a modified form of courtly love. Young lovers today still experience the symptoms of passion as described by Andreas Capellanus—the feverish desire, the loss of appetite, the preoccupation with the beauty of their beloved—Sex in the City’s “cant-live-without-you love”. However, the conventions of courtly love have an expiration date; love can be lost through discovery of the affair, or by bad conduct of the lovers, or even by spending too much time together. The modern Disneyfied version of romantic love, on the other hand, believes that this state of passion can last forever, and is a suitable basis for marriage. When the fervor of the newlyweds begins to die, however, they have none of the duty and companionship of medieval marriage to fall back on. As one story of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Court of Love explains, once a lady marries her lover, he is no longer her lover but her husband, and the system of courtly love breaks down.

The concept of the lady herself is also consequence of courtly love, and possibly one of the more odious ones. Though the precepts of courtly love supposedly raised women to a better place in society, it kept women down for longer than it elevated them. In the (probably fictitious) Court of Love held by Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor supposedly sat by the side of her husband, ruling over questions of love as the king made decisions about matters of law. While Eleanor herself was doubtless a very powerful woman, this Court of Love cemented the idea that matters of law and logic were masculine domains, while romance was for women. Echoes of this idea are heard in the voice of everyone today who tells a smart, career-driven woman that she should be finding a husband. The ideal lady in the tales of courtly love—a lady like Queen Guinevere, for instance—while originally cold toward her suitor, invariably turns into a damsel in distress, waiting to be rescued by her gallant knight. This image, so familiar as to seem innocuous, has cemented itself into the Western psyche, and with it the implication that, no matter how strong she seems, a woman still needs a man to protect and complete her, an idea that chafes any strong woman seeking to make her own way in the world. Both the image and the idea behind it are attacked in works considered feminist. For instance, Ani Difranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl” proudly proclaims “I am no damsel in distress, and I don’t need to be rescued.”

In short, the stories of courtly love and the lessons they taught had major impacts on society, both in the times of their conception and today. Though the modern world attempts to distance itself from Medieval ways of thinking, decrying them as primitive, even barbaric, the ideals of the age—including courtly love—are inextricably woven into the fabric of Western society.


Works Cited

Delahoyde, Michael. "Courtly Love." Michael Delahoyde Homeplanet. Washington State University. 08 Mar 2007 http://www.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/medieval/love.html

Halsall, Paul. "Andreas Capellanus: The Art of Courtly Love." Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Oct 1997. Fordham University. 7 Mar 2007 http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/capellanus.html

Simpson, David L. "Chivalry and Courtly Love." DePaul University. 1998. DePaul University. 8 Mar 2007 http://condor.depaul.edu/~dsimpson/tlove/courtlylove.html

3 comments:

BJ said...
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prof said...
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Anna said...

I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading this essay of yours. I'm quite fascinated by history, especially that of the chivalric tradition.

Thank you!