The origins of romance: courtly (‘chivalric’) love

(and, no, Courtly Love was not married to Curt Cobain… )

Modern romance (and modern romance readers) owe a debt of gratitude to the dark ages for the development of the practise of ‘courtly love’ (or ‘chivalric love’ with which it was closely allied).

Marriage, back then, was a dry affair, usually connected to strategic increase in power, wealth, territories or favour which meant women across the country living in marriages that, at best, would have held affection and respect for their partners but very unlikely to have been great, passionate love matches.

All that passion had to go somewhere.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Arthur's Tomb: The last meeting of Lancelot & Guinevere (aka "No I mustn't because I'm virtuous and my denial of you will only make you stronger")

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Arthur’s Tomb: The last meeting of Lancelot & Guinevere (aka “No I mustn’t because I’m virtuous and my denial of you will only make you stronger”)

But whether the principles of Courtly Love were literal or purely fictional is a point of disagreement between experts. Like critics of modern-day romance there appears to be a presumption that the consumers of the medieval literary convention were either morally deficient or lonely enough to act out the desires and taboos set out in the tales or intellectually incapable of recognising that it was just pure, escapist fantasy. It took place primarily in the minds and imaginations of the medieval well-to-do.

True ‘courtly’ love—the admiration between knights and ladies or queens and their courtiers or other high born nobles—was primarily glorified flirting in which the woman’s virtue in rebuffing escalation is both desirable and a curse for the worthy man who cannot contain his ardour. He has no choice but to undertake great deeds to demonstrate his worth. It was restrained and forbidden and private-yet-not and exactly as angst-filled and breath-stealing as a lady (or a knight) could wish.

Some historians believe that these stories role-modelled positive social behaviour for young knights by showcasing great acts of valour for the unattainable woman, a pure, admirable, respectful love. The right kind of qualities and the right kind of woman.

Yep, you tell yourselves that historians. I’m not sure you can have it both ways. If these stories didn’t influence the women and men of the time in terms of romantic illusions then why would they modify the social behaviour of young men with too much money and too little obligation?

Courtly love was being consumed en masse by the ladies of the court. Dramatic and poetic narratives, poems and songs glorified and publicised both chivalric code and courtly love and grew in the breasts of upper-class women across the kingdom a desire to be so worshipped by a good and brave man. Travelling troubadours could recite entire hours-long tales of honour and bravery much to the delight of the knights listening. But they liked to eat, too, and so it served them best to weave in elements for the delight of the high-born women in their audience.

Thus courtly tales and chivalric tales began to merge and turned into long, drama-filled tales of passion-denied, the love unspoken between a brave, honourable knight and the woman that could bring him to his knees. The knights and the ladies in the audience listened, wrapt, to these breath-stealing, beautiful stories of lives so much more exciting than theirs, and acts so much more virtuous and romantic than they ever saw, and they did it amongst each other. Which only escalated the rush.

Are ya sensing a theme here…?

Courtly love disempowered men in the service of their lady the way it disempowered knights in fealty to their liege. But the beloved is his inspiration for extraordinary deeds and so it was construed (and thus tolerated) by men as an ‘ennobling force’ and the loyalty and love as highly virtuous. As for the women, given that this convention was entirely contrary to the relationships between males and females of the time it is not hard to see what they found appealing about an artform in which men were obedient and submissive and seeking only the pleasure of their beloved.

Isn’t that what we still love about a great romance? A man—capable or powerful or loyal desirable for other fine qualities—who puts the heroine ahead of all else and who protects and worships her long before he declares it. And our heroines (much like the ladies in the tales of courtly love) are good and virtuous and brave and stoic and they don’t need him to be whole themselves but oh-my-goodness they want him. And the entire plot revolves around why (it seems) she can’t have him. Until she can.


Andreas Capellanus  (French but tell me he’s not Roman) captured some of the principles of courtly love in the twelfth century. Capellanus was a learned and religious man and, thus, opinion seems to lean towards this being a satricial work, poking fun at the conventions of the popular form of the time and the minds that enjoyed them.

So romance has been a target for that since the middle ages. Awesome.

Certainly Capellanus has done a bang-up job of belittling the popular ideology of the time. And in contributing to the portrayal of the women of the middle ages as vain, empty-headed ninnies. I hope my editorial additions make it clear why these stories must have been such fun—and such adventurous fantasy—for women who were primarily valued for the depth of their gene pool, the size of their purse and the girth of their hips.

Lord knows they needed something to smile about.

 Cappellanus’s Courtly Guidelines for Her…

  • Marriage is no real excuse for not loving –Marriage suck? Get out there and find someone worthy of you. Settling is discouraged.
  • He who is not jealous, cannot love If he doesn’t burst into a ball of fury when you flutter your eyelashes at someone else he doesn’t love you
  • No one can be bound by a double love Is this like double jeopardy? You can’t be tried twice for the same crime? (It’s okay not to love your husband while you’re busy loving your TRUE beloved)
  • It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing – it waxes, it wanes, it’s all good. Static love is doomed love. Bosom heaving encouraged.
  • That which a lover takes against the will of his beloved has no relish – It’s not good if it’s easy. Nanna was right about playing hard to get…
  • Boys do not love until they arrive at the age of maturity – That squire you’ve always got hot and heavy over is not a patch on the knight who’s horse he tends. Real love = real man.
  • When one lover dies, a widowhood of two years is required of the survivor – At least maintain the illusion that it was meaningful.
  • No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons – and you should require those reasons before letting him go
  • No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love – All those secret voices telling you not to do it? Yeah, ignore those.
  • Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice – it’s okay to shop around, your husband doesn’t love you. You’re just a thing to him.
  • It is not proper to love any woman whom one would be ashamed to seek to marry – The mere act of being loved is validation of your own worth
  • A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved – Why would he when he has you?
  • When made public love rarely endures – it’s just not exciting if others know about it. Hold it to your chest…tight…until it can’t breathe…

Cappelanus’s Courtly Guidelines for Him…

  • The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized –the thrill is in the hunt
  • Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved – All the world’s a stage…and every man on it a big, fat fake.
  • When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved, his heart palpitates – that’s going to be hard to demonstrate, maybe stagger and grab a table edge for support
  • A new love puts to flight an old one – move on and move up
  • Good character alone makes any man worthy of love – yep, you fellas keep telling yourselves this
  • If love diminishes, it quickly fails and rarely revives – Run, don’t walk
  • A man in love is always apprehensive – and he should be considering what he’s doing
  • Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love – Or at least the dopamine rush that goes with it will make it seem so
  • Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved – oh, the brooding, hypocritical angst…
  • He whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little – who has the time with all that angsting and raging going on?
  • Every act of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved – if it doesn’t you’re not doing it right
  • A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved – now we’re getting somewhere (p.s. a woman wrote these, right?)
  • Love can deny nothing to love – Medieval England is a small place. You WILL get found out. Best to just come clean up front.
  • A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved – or her opinions. or stories of her day. (yeah, a woman definitely wrote these)
  • A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved But we love a man who is jealous enough to care if we’re looking askance at another so the welcome mat is out for slight presumptions
  • A man who is vexed by too much passion usually does not love – You mean the sight of my heaving, breathless bosom is not a turn-on?
  • A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved – god, it’s exhausting being a medieval knight…
  • Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women –Whoa, go twelfth century babes. You’d be so welcome in the twenty-first century.