Courtly Love

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the April 1984, A.S. XVIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia. Republished in the January 2003, A.S. XXXVII issue of the Dragonflyre.

The following is an expanded version of my first article written three years ago. I return to this topic for two reasons. First, there are few around who have seen the original, and the subject remains of current interest. Secondly, continuing research has revealed more information and I have revised my opinions. Thus, once again, I step into the large and complex theme of courtly love.

The rise of courtly love can be seen as the cultural counterpart of the twelfth century explosion of learning and art which preceded the Italian Renaissance. It was a rebellious break with tradition, and the legacy of the culture of southern France, which was to be destroyed by the Albigensian Crusade of the next century.

Courtly love was no ordinary love, or love based on physical desires. Lust was still lust. But there was a higher love, a spiritual love, fin armour, as it was known. From this love flowed all virtues, and through this love a man could ennoble himself and be made perfect. It was viewed and spoken of in much the same tones as an alchemist would speak of the work to change lead into gold, or to achieve the philosopher’s stone. It consisted of much suffering with few rewards, with desire for a love out of reach.

The origins of courtly love can be traced to many sources, and many of its elements existed before 1100. But it is under Eleanor of Aquitaine that it blossomed. The poets sang of Eleanor:

God save Lady Eleanor
Queen who art the arbiter
Of Honour, wit, and beauty
Of Largesse and loyalty         (Philippe de Thaun)

It was this tireless lady, who had been both Queen of France and England, who was the patron of the most famous names in courtly love: Marie de France, Gautier d’Arras, and perhaps the greatest of them all, Chieties de Troyes.

The first courtly love poets, under the name of troubadours or trouveres, appeared the previous century. Eleanor’s own grandfather, Guillaume Duke of Aquitaine, was the first troubadour whose work survives. The troubadour’s main art form, the chanson d’amour, had its prototype in the chanson of Andalusia, a Spanish province then under Arab control. But it is in Provence in France where the true chanson d’amour was born

The chanson d’amour should be distinguished from the older chanson de geste. The chanson d’amour were about the love of the lover to a lady forbidden to him for any number of taboos, all in a very poetic and stylistic form. The chanson de geste was an epic about the noble Franks in their war against the “heathen” which was often anyone who challenged the glory of France. The chanson de geste was an expression of the mores and ideals of the older culture with its emphasis on war, centered around Paris and the French king.

As the old culture had Charlemagne and his paladins as patron and subject of its chansons, the new culture adopted Arthur and his knights. The monks were the custodians of man’s soul and Rome the spiritual center for the old culture, but in the new, both roles were taken over by the lover’s lady. Forms of adoration that were reserved for God were now applied to the lady.

There is considerable doubt that the best known aspect of courtly love, the courts of love, actually took place. They certainly weren’t taken seriously. Never-the-less, it was against the literary background of these courts of love that the new mores and social standards were worked out. It is along the lines of a court of love that the most famous medieval book of manners war written: The Book of the Courtier, by Castiglione.

While The Book of the Courtier is the best known, it was but one in a line of such books written in the courtly love tradition. The first such book was De Amore Libi Tres, by Andreas Capellanus, a chaplain in the employ of Marie de Champagne, the daughter of Eleanor. In it are the thirty-one rules by which the game of courtly love was to be played. Most modern readers would be bored by these books, as they were written by the intellectuals of their day. Thus, their styles range from the pedant scholasticism of Capellanus to the flowery verbosity of Castiglione, and are filled with now obscure allusions and allegories.

What has better stood the test of time have been the romances. While the source of the Arthur legends was Celtic, it is through the eyes of the French poets that we now view them. Lancelot is a purely French invention, and his affair with Guinevere is in the best of courtly love tradition. Percival is an invention of the Minnesingers, the German successors to the French troubadours. While not part of the Arthurian legend, the tale of Troilus and Criseyde is deeply imbued with the idea of courtly love, particularly in Chaucer’s version.

It is in the Arthurian tales where courtly love meets chivalry. This juxtaposition has blurred the two together, obscuring the original tenets of chivalry. Originally, chivalry was a thoroughly masculine war code. Women had no part in it, other than being the bearers of fiefs and heirs. An individual’s worth was judged by his standing among his peers, which in turn, was based on his martial prowess. Courtly love, on the other hand, centered on women, and had no place for war. It was also highly individualistic, as the rest of the court and world served as a backdrop to the lovers’ actions. The basis off merit was the skilled use of the Arts.

Coinciding with and mutually enforcing courtly love was the Cult of the Virgin Mary. While the cult had little to do with courtly love, the emergence of a woman as an object of worship did much to enhance the prestige of all women. It added a religious flavor to this most secular of pastimes.

The concepts of courtly love irrevocably changed western civilization. While the specific forms (courts of love, troubadours and Minnesingers) quickly passed away, there was no turning back. Women, as a class, were raised above mere chattel and placed on a pedestal where they were not to step down from until this century. It broke all conventions and boundaries, for love knew none. It formed the basis of what we now call “civilized behavior.”



Barber, Richard. The Reign of Chivalry. New York: St. Martins Press, 1980.

Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier. Trans. Charles S. Singleton. New York: Anchor Books, 1959.

Coffin, Tristram Potter. The Female Hero in Folklore and Legend. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

Heer, Friedrich. The Medieval World. New York: New American Library, 1961.

Ross, James Bruce, and Mary Martin McLauglin, ed. The Portable Medieval Reader. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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