Courtly love
Courtly love

During the Middle Ages chivalry (derived from Latin caballus, “nag,” and closely related to French chevalier, Spanish caballero, and English cavalier) denoted the class of knighthood and the ideals associated with it. The noble knight was distinguished from the peasant infantryman by several attributes: his horse, weapons (sword and lance), banner, and attendants.

Medieval chivalry became closely associated with the church and the Crusades. Whereas the early church believed Christianity and the profession of arms to be incompatible, medieval church leaders encouraged the development of a new, Christian order of knighthood. Bernard of Clairvaux’s treatise In Praise of the New Knighthood (c. 1128–31) commends the Knights Templar, a crusading order of soldiers who drew their strength in battle from their fervent faith.

Christian knights continued to swear allegiance to a liege-lord but also received a blessing from the church. This was known as the Benedictio novi militis (benediction for new soldiers). Before participating in the ritual a candidate typically confessed his sins, fasted, and prayed during a night-long vigil.

His sword was placed on the altar and blessed. Kneeling and dressed in white, he swore the oath of chivalry and at the same time renewed his baptismal vow. Echoes of St. Bernard’s exhortation to fight and live for Christ made their way into 12th century literature, as evidenced by Chrétien de Troyes’s last Arthurian romance, The Quest for the Grail (Perceval) (c. 1190).

Chivalry was not only associated, however, with religion and the crusades. Certain 12th century vernacular poets—like Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France— praised the virtues and courtesy of knightly society, thereby contributing to the rise of courtly romance, a genre that exalts the refined or pure love (fin’ amors) between a knight and his lady.

The audiences of these early vernacular works were largely feminine, and throughout the stories, women play an important role. This contrasts sharply with the relative absence of female characters from the French chansons de geste (such as the Song of Roland) and Germanic epics (such as Beowulf).

The cult of fin’ amors (or courtly love, as the 19th-century philologist Gaston Paris named it) originated in the 11th century with the lyric poetry of the troubadours and trouvères. (Troubadours wrote in the Provençal langue d’oc of southern France; trouvères composed their works in the langue d’oil of the north.) These poets were typically noblemen, like William IX of Aquitaine, who is often described as the first troubadour. The works of several female troubadours—or trobairitz—have also survived (such as the countess of Dia).

Under the influence of powerful patrons of the arts—such as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (granddaughter of William IX) and her daughter, Marie, countess of Champagne—the cult of courtly love spread throughout medieval Europe. At the end of the 12th century Andreas Capellanus, writing for the countess Marie, composed a Latin treatise commonly referred to as the Art of Courtly Love (c. 1184–86).

Andreas draws upon the writings of Ovid and the conventions of Provencal poetry in order to outline the proper behavior and attitudes of courtly lovers. According to Andreas, love is an “inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex,” which ennobles the lover’s character and drives him to great accomplishments.

Chrétien de Troyes’s Knight of the Cart (c. 1180)—also dedicated to Marie of Champagne—provides a good case in point: Lancelot accomplishes great feats because his faithful (yet adulterous) love for Guinevere pushes him to surpass all other knights at King Arthur’s court.

Courtly love relationships existed mainly outside marriage. Andreas insists that the man must initiate the love affair by declaring his devotion. He fully submits to the will of the lady, who has the power to accept or to deny her suitor. In either case, the knight will continue to serve her. The courtly love relationship thus mirrors the feudal bond between the knight and his liege-lord.

At the end of his book, Andreas rejects love. For this reason, some scholars believe that his whole work constitutes a parody of courtly love and must not be taken seriously. Indeed later authors, like Alain Chartier in the Belle dame sans merci, do not hesitate to expose the excesses associated with courtly love, such as the unfair treatment of men by merciless and fickle women.

Much vernacular literature of the 13th and 14th centuries also celebrates the paradigms of courtly love. The Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun describes the efforts of the narrator to attain the love of “she who is worthy to be called Rose.” Geoffrey Chaucer (who translated the Romance of the Rose) makes the courtly love tradition the central theme of his Troilus and Criseyde. “The Knight’s Tale” (from the Canterbury Tales) warns of the dangers of falling prey to the “amor de lonh.” Two male cousins, Arcite and Palamon, fall in love with a beautiful young woman they have spied from afar.


This infatuation for the fair Emelye ultimately leads to the death of Arcite. Through the “Knight’s Tale,” Chaucer mocks the place of the lady within the courtly relationship: Emelye is reduced to a passive bystander, forced to marry against her will. Although she is idealized and even worshipped by Arcite and Palamon, she has no control over her own destiny.

Chaucer’s false idolatry provides a sharp contrast to Dante Alighieri’s love for Beatrice, whom he woos in La Vita Nuova, and whose grace and beauty eventually lead him to the contemplation of God in the third book of the Divine Comedy.

For Dante, who draws on St. Bernard’s treatise On Loving God, the courtly relationship guides the lover not only to accomplish great feats but also to grow close to God through his chaste and pure love for a lady. (Meanwhile lustful lovers who do not repent of their sins—like Paolo and Francesca—are condemned to eternal suffering in the Inferno.)

The influence of medieval chivalry and courtly love on western Europe was lasting and profound. In the 16th-century Book of the Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione models his advice for male and female courtiers in Renaissance Italy on knightly etiquette. Famous poets like Petrarch, Ronsard, Donne, and Shakespeare continued to woo ladies in the fashion of the troubadours for centuries.

In the 19th century Walter Scott and Tennyson contributed to a veritable rebirth of chivalric—and highly romanticized—literature; throughout the 20th century, stories of medieval knights fighting for the love of their ladies (such as White’s Once and Future King) flourished.