The courtly love ethic

Romance and courtship

There is still reference today to ‘courting couples', and it is an assumption of Western societies that ‘falling in love' is the normal way to start a relationship. ‘Romance' plays a huge part in western culture, and it is easily assumed that it was always thus. But it may well only go back to the ‘courtly love' ethic, a literary convention from the Middle Ages.

Strictly speaking, the term ‘courtly love' or ‘amour courtois' was probably invented in the 19th century. Medieval writers referred to fin amour, to give it its Provencal name. But ‘courtly love' is a useful reminder that what is being described was an upper class attitude. ‘Courtship' began in the courts of palaces and castles.

Courtly love stereotypes

The typical lover

  • He would be a young male, who loved a lady (probably of higher rank than himself) from a distance
  • He would lie awake at nights, pining in despair
  • He would write verses about the pain of his unrequited love for his ‘mistress'
  • If he could approach her dwelling, he would serenade her with love songs or try and impress her with deeds of great daring.

The typical lady

  • She, meanwhile, from the security of her bower, would cultivate an attitude of total disdain
  • She would sew or walk in her gardens
  • If bored, she might deign to notice her ‘lover' and send him a small token (a glove, a scarf or a handkerchief) in return for him fulfilling some almost impossible task.

Was courtly love just a literary convention?

Perhaps such behaviour occurred sometimes in real life. One can imagine the situation:

  • Powerful lords went away on wars, such as the Crusades
  • Their wives were left in charge of the castle
  • Young squires who were supposed to be at their service of their ‘ladies' became infatuated with them. 

But it is more likely than not that fin amour was largely to be found in stories.

Developments in story telling

There is no doubt that story telling changed round about the end of the 12th century. The epics and chansons de geste that had been popular until then were classic tales of male bonding in times of battles between warring tribes. Things had settled down more by the time Henry II became king of England in 1154. His wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, encouraged the ethic of fin amour. She dominated the movement that saw codes being drawn up, for instance Andreas Capellanus's rules on how true lovers should conduct themselves, De Arte Honesti Amandi.

More on the origins of the code: The origins of fin amor are quite complex. Absentee husbands are only part of the explanation. The passion of the lover has elements of religious devotion, as in the cult of the Virgin Mary (‘Our Lady'). Arabic writers had earlier employed religious terminology in writings on love. The Latin poet Ovid had written on ‘the art of love'. But it is fair to say that the veneration of a lady, with the lover regarded as her social inferior, does not really begin before ‘courtly love' was established as a convention.     


TroubadourThe most popular stories became the romances, so called because they were first told by troubadors in the Romance languages of south west Europe, especially French and Provencal. The hero was no longer a warrior but a solitary knight, carrying out deeds of chivalry for the sake of a lady. The wandering knight, or ‘knight errant', would be seeking an aventure in which to prove himself.

The Arthurian tales

The stories of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table are typical tales of chivalry.

Earlier Arthurian tales were typical male-centred epics, but by the time Chretien de Troyes wrote his French romances, such as Lancelot and Yvain, towards the end of the 12th century, the hero had to be a single knight on a chivalric quest. 

Significantly, the greatest knights were also tragic lovers – consumed with adulterous passion for the wife of someone of higher rank: 

  • Lancelot's love for Queen Guinevere divides him from his lord and master, Arthur, and leads to the dissolution of the Round Table
  • Tristan's love for Isolde, the wife of King Mark of Cornwall, results in their deaths.

There are many examples of love poems from the time of the troubadours onwards, that seem to follow the courtly love code. The poets claim to be filled with a passion that reaches religious fervour for a lady who is spurning them. They often speak of being about to die for love. 

Chaucer and courtly love

  • By the time of Chaucer, in the late 14th century, the ethic of courtly love was not taken too seriously – if it ever was
  • Amongst The Canterbury Tales, whilst The Knight's Tale employs elements of the courtly tradition, those told by the Miller and the Merchant are parodies of courtly love situations, in middle class settings
  • The Tale of Sir Thopas is a witty parody of romances involving a knight errant in search of an ‘aventure'
  • The Franklin's Tale comes closest to a tale of courtly love, indeed Chaucer claims it is based on an old Breton ‘lay', but it differs from the typical romance in that the lady and her husband are deeply in love with each other – which is the basis of the Tale's ingenious plot.
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