Rise of Courtly Love Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

At the end of the eleventh century, courtly love appeared suddenly and unexpectedly in the south of France, a region historically and culturally distinct from the north. The sentiments that it fostered began a new concept of romantic love that remains embedded in the modern psyche.

Summary of Event

The first known record of the sentiment now known as courtly love is in the form of eleven poems left by Guillaume Guillaume de Poitiers IX, count of Poitiers and duke of Aquitaine, who died in 1127. Many important troubadour love poems were written in the “classic” period of the art, from about 1140 to about 1250. Guiraut Riquier Guiraut Riquier of Narbonne, who died in 1294, saw himself appropriately as the last of the troubadours. In his verse, he deplored the passing of his noble public’s interest in his art. He wrote, “In noble courts no vocation is now less appreciated than the fine art of poetry; for men prefer to see and hear frivolities.” [kw]Rise of Courtly Love (c. 1100) [kw]Courtly Love, Rise of (c. 1100) Courly love France;c. 1100: Rise of Courtly Love[1760] Literature;c. 1100: Rise of Courtly Love[1760] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1100: Rise of Courtly Love[1760] Guillaume de Poitiers Guiraut Riquier

Courtly love was, however, far from dead. Though abandoned in the Midi, the theme was carried throughout Europe by courtly singers to become a powerful influence on the Western mind. According to scholar C. S. Lewis, the troubadours

effected a change which left no corner of our ethics, our imagination, or our daily life untouched, and they erected impassable barriers between us and the classical past or the Oriental present. Compared with this revolution the Renaissance is a mere ripple on the surface of literature.

It is as an aristocratic, aesthetic ideal, a strictly literary phenomenon divorced from visible, observable forms of life, that courtly love first spread throughout Europe. A lofty sentiment, it was refined still further in Italy, to which it was borne by the Provençal troubadours. Guido Cavalcanti Cavalcanti, Guido and the Florentine writers of the “sweet new style,” the dolce stil nuovo Dolce stil nuovo , underwent its influence and themselves modified it. Dante Dante swelled the chorus of voices raised in praise of love, celebrating the beauty and wisdom of Beatrice in his sonnets and his canzoni, La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life), and finally in La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802).

Eleanor Eleanor of Aquitaine , daughter of the last duke of Aquitaine, helped to popularize courtly love in the north when she married first Louis VII, king of France, and later Henry Plantagenet, who became King Henry II of England. Her daughters, in turn, made the courts of Blois and Reims important centers for courtly poetry. The notion of total service in the name of socially illicit love was assimilated into the romances of Chrétien de Troyes Chrétien de Troyes and given its most complete expression in his Lancelot (c. 1168; English translation, 1913). The rules of courtship and love, codified by Andreas Capellanus Capellanus, Andreas in the early thirteenth century, form the center around which the first part of the Romance of the Rose, the most celebrated allegorical poem of the Middle Ages, revolves. It is out of this tradition that the modern prose novel, with love as its theme, developed.

In the fourteenth century, courtly love was given new life by Petrarch Petrarch , the first great Renaissance Humanist. As the major theme of lyrical poetry Poetry;France France;poetry , love spread by way of his sonnets throughout Europe, including England. It now seems “natural” that romantic or passionate love should be one of the two or three principal preoccupations of individuals in their lives and of poets in their work. However, until the appearance of the troubadours, nothing was less likely.

Lancelot and Guinevere, in a miniature from an eleventh century manuscript at the Bibliothèque National de Paris.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The emergence of true love, or in Provençal fin amor, is enveloped in mystery. There seems little precedent for a cult that enshrines a woman at the center of her lover’s gaze as the object of his complete and rapt attention. The prototypical cast of characters who acted out the drama of true love remained relatively unchanged in the troubadour love songs. A typical representation is that of a proud lady before whom a noble lover kneels. He pledges his life in service to her. She is for him the supreme embodiment of wisdom and beauty, and his hopes of earthly happiness rest on her. He longs for some reward, some token of recognition or acceptance: a smile, a glance, a touch of the hand, and eventually a kiss. He offers himself, his life and his valor, in complete, perpetual submission to her will and whimsy.

In contrast to the traditional epic knight, with his boastful, fiery ardor in love and war, the courtly knight lives and languishes with suffering as a constant companion, withdrawn and secretive. Melancholy is the predominant tone of the Provençal canso, for, if the martial courage of the noble lover was no more to be doubted than that of one of Charlemagne’s paladins, such bravery was no more than a necessary but secondary accessory.

Since the lady was set so high—the most noble, the most exalted, the fairest and wisest of all—there was no guarantee that the domnei, or courtship, would be a success. The knight was called on to possess several remarkable qualities in order to be nearly worthy of his loved one. Above all, he had to display a rare degree of self-discipline and inner restraint, or mezura in Provençal. Finally, as if these temperamental obstacles were not enough, the lover was confronted by other, outside threats. There was, never far away, the jealous husband, the gilos, an uncouth, doltish lout, perhaps, but a dangerous one, necessitating strict silence and secrecy on the part of the lover. In the background, flitting to and fro, an indistinct but real peril, were the losengiers, the bearers of tales, or gossipmongers, ready to flatter insincerely, eager to exercise their hypocrisy, waiting for the chance to endanger and defeat the lady and her lover.

The myth of true love clashes curiously with the real situation of woman throughout the Middle Ages and into the time of the Renaissance. It appears alien to the principal traditions concerning woman that have been handed down from Greece and Rome. The epic tradition completely ignores women. For the philosophers of classical antiquity, love was a form of madness leading the way to crime and ignominy. The patristic writers expressed reservations about both love and marriage. Clement of Alexandria saw in woman the agent of Satan, holding open the gates to Hell. He wrote, “Every woman ought to be overwhelmed with shame at the thought that she is a woman.” Most of the Humanist writers of the Middle Ages agreed that woman’s proper place was comparable to that of a troublesome, albeit valuable, animal. Even Petrarch, his adoration of Laura notwithstanding, presented woman as a source of strife and wickedness, a devil: “Femina verus est diabolus, hostis pacis, fons impatientiae.” (Woman is a true devil, the enemy of peace, the source of impatience).

A trouvère, or troubadour, accompanying himself on an early violin (based on a sculpture on the portico of the Abbey of Saint Denis in France).

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Even if one takes into account a strong sensual component that runs through the troubadours’s songs, courtly love remains, in its essence, an enigma. Certainly the picture of love as sacred rite and solemn ceremony, a lifelong dance of courtship in which the partners scarcely, if ever, touch, is incomplete. Some of the best known troubadours, such as Guillaume of Poitiers, Bernart de Ventadorn, Bertran de Born, Cercamon, and Marcabrun, were explicit in their anticipation of the sexual delights their ladies could provide. Nonetheless, love was not seen as essentially carnal. Even sexual intercourse, when it took place, was portrayed as no more than the outer sign of spiritual symbiosis, or total acceptance. The pleasures of the flesh were fused into the larger ones of the spirit.

The apparent incompatibility between courtly love, with its adoration of woman, and historical practice, with the denigration of woman Women;France , has to be recognized. Such a contradiction is not without parallel in the Middle Ages. Chivalry, for example, with its emphasis on valor, generosity, and courtesy, was held up as an ideal to be imitated. Chivalry Yet the chronicles of Jean Froissart (1337-c. 1404) and Jean Molinet (1435-1507) leave it aside and speak of acts of greed, self-interest, and cruelty. Rather than being a reflection of a historical situation, courtly love was probably a compensatory image, an ideal fantasy arising in response to a spiritual, social, or psychological inadequacy. It was a reordering of reality after an image of perfection, an ideal of aristocracy based not on the harsh law of the father as expressed in the patriarchal feudal system, but on that of the ability to love, the law of the gentle heart.

Feudal Feudalism;France society was the mold or form into which the content of courtly love could be poured. The strength, courage, piety, and loyalty that bound a liegeman to his lord, his church, and his class were the same qualities that the courtly knight was required to present to his lady. Indeed, he often addressed her as midons, “my lord.” However, as Maurice Valency has suggested, the very substitution of a lady for a man as sovereign lord indicates a fundamental dissatisfaction with or repudiation of the patriarchal structure. In adopting the form and rejecting the substance of the feudal mode, courtly love appears to be an outgrowth of the decline of the feudal system. It is perhaps significant that the female archetype was asserting itself in another form at about the same time. After 1100, the cult of the Virgin Mary established itself alongside that of love. It was, moreover, during this period in the north that Louis VI, king of France from 1108 to 1137, was initiating a struggle against the feudal system by undertaking a merciless campaign to break the power of his barons.


The apostles, the discoverers, or perhaps even the inventors, of true love were the troubadours Troubadours . Their name, from the verb trobar, “to find” or “to invent,” reveals their identity as poet-composers. Their art was essentially aural. Unfortunately, the music Music;troubadours they composed for their chansons has been handed down in a transcription that is no more than schematic or rudimentary and gives little idea of the true effect achieved. However, the incredible verbal and metric dexterity of the troubadours, admired and translated by Ezra Pound, gives some idea of the technical mastery and inventiveness of these poets. It is especially suggestive of a high degree of sophistication on the part of their audiences, sensitive to the beauty and intricacy of prodigious feats of rhyming skill. They were initiates writing for initiates. In their frequent cult of difficulty-for-its-own-sake, they were elitists writing for an elite, aristocrats (at least by adoption if not always by birth) performing before aristocrats. By comparison, the modern folksinger, to whom the troubadour is often likened, seems positively unlettered.

The troubadours—artists wandering in the south of France from castle to castle, currying favor, singing of an esoteric doctrine—may seem remote and merely picturesque. Yet it is from them that the notion of love as ideal passion, source of joy and suffering, derives. Their recondite songs, in Provençal, a language difficult of access, form the background to some eight and a half centuries of literature in the West.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Rougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1956. A convincing examination of the fundamental conflict between passion and marriage in Western life and literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duby, Georges. Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages. Translated by Jane Dunnett. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Written by a scholar of everyday life, this text discusses courtly love and the state and history of love in twelfth century France.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huizinga, Johan. The Waning of the Middle Ages. London: Edward Arnold, 1937. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1999. Although concerned with a later period than that in which courtly love arose, this classic work provides a brilliant insight into the mental landscape that made the idea of courtly love possible.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. London: Oxford University Press, 1936. Traces the growth of the noble sentiment of noble love and the development of the literary form, allegory, and the marriage of the two. One of the greatest merits of this work is its vigorous attempt to escape from the limits of a strictly twentieth century view, in order to look at medieval literature with greater accuracy and justice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Markale, Jean. Courtly Love: The Path of Sexual Initiation. Translated by Jon Graham. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2000. Looks at the tradition of courtly love in the literature of the time, at the theme of adultery, and at the roles of women, goddess figures, and the troubadours.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pound, Ezra. The Spirit of Romance. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions Books, 1958. The author’s temperamental sympathy for the Romance poets and his joyful appreciation of their daring make him a stimulating interpreter and a magnificent translator. He re-creates the poems with an awareness of their essentially aural quality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Press, Alan R., ed. and trans. Anthology of Troubadour Lyric Poetry. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971. To correct the frequently distorted image of the troubadour and his song, this anthology is extremely useful. Provides facing-page translations of the Provençal poems that are accurate and unadorned. There is a brief, cogent introduction to the life and work of each of the troubadours.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rousselot, Pierre. The Problem of Love in the Middle Ages: A Historical Contribution. Translated by Alan Vincelette. Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Press, 2001. Presents a philosophical and religious history of love in the time of courtly love in Europe. Chapters include discussion of the themes of love as violent and as irrational.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Valency, Maurice. In Praise of Love: An Introduction to the Love-Poetry of the Renaissance. New York: Macmillan, 1958. Stresses courtly love as an aesthetic principle and a reflection of an inner psychological or spiritual need.

Categories: History