The courtly love ethic

Romance and courtship

We still speak of ‘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 our 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 nineteenth 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 twelfth 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. The battles were the result of that huge movement of peoples in Western Europe that saw Celts, Saxons, Vikings, Normans and others driving each other out and imposing their languages and culture in new areas. Women do not feature strongly, apart from being encouraged to depict the deeds in tapestry form. One of the earliest epics in Old English was Beowulf. The French Chanson de Roland was another narrative poem in the epic tradition.

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 amour 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 such as Beowulf or Roland, fighting with his comrades to defend their version of civilization. The typical hero was now 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 twelfth 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.

Chaucer and courtly love

By the time of Chaucer, in the late fourteenth 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.

Love poems

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.

This tradition, which incorporated such important verse forms as the sonnet, continued well into the seventeenth century – but it was essentially a convention.

The poets themselves often pretended to be a love-sick shepherd, such as Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel pouring out his heart to a shepherdess in the sonnet sequence known as Astrophel and Stella (1582).

Some poets were not beyond sending up the convention: Thomas Hoccleve, in the early fifteenth century, wrote a short poem about his ugly lady, with her ‘bowgy chekes' and ‘body shape as a footbal' – almost 200 years before Shakespeare did something similar in his famous Sonnet 130.

Shakespeare and the courtly love convention

Shakespeare knew of the code of courtly love, and gently mocks it.

In Romeo and Juliet, we first see Romeo consumed with an infatuation for a certain Rosaline – which is soon replaced by the real thing when he meets Juliet. Shakespeare shows true lovers as being mutually in love – in Romeo and Juliet, the reality of their love is contrasted not only with parental ideas of an arranged marriage and the crude sexuality of Mercutio and the Nurse, but also with the juvenile ‘romantic love' that Romeo initially claims to have.

Other ‘courtly lovers' at whom we laugh include the love of Silvius for Phebe, in As You Like It, or Orsino for Olivia in Twelfth Night. In the latter play, Sir Andrew Aguecheek is presented as a comic parody of the courtly lover (as, in a different way, is Malvolio). Roderigo, in Othello, is another such foolish lover, the dupe of a money-grabbing ‘friend'.

Courtly love in later literature

Western society never threw off the courtly love ethic entirely. ‘Courting' entered the vocabulary as the way a young man was expected to find a marriage partner. Even in nursery rhymes, frogs go courting and ladies are wooed.

  • The historical novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) revived an interest in romantic love as the basis of a good story.
  • Nineteenth century novels, at least those that deal with the wealthier ranks of society, assumed a code of behaviour that was related, however loosely, to the medieval convention.
  • Tennyson (1809-1892) portrays courtly love in his narrative poems based on the Arthurian legends, Idylls of the King.
  • The novels of D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), particularly the iconic Lady Chatterly's Lover, show the persistence of the convention in his portrayal of adulterous relationships.
  • Even in contemporary journalism, one still finds references to men in public life ‘having a mistress' as a way of describing an adulterous relationship (echoing the superior social status of the courtly lady).
  • ‘Romance' and ‘marriage' continue to be distinct, albeit related, experiences in life and in literature.
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