Courtly love is, in general form, a structured form of male / female interaction which was infused with a poetic, heroic, romantic idealism about the virtue of both the man and the woman. The core idea of Courtly Love, as defined by Capellanus, is that the woman (or Lady) should be worshipped, ardently pursued, and intensely desired. She is to receive this attention and devotion not because of an intrinsic beauty and nobility (read: only the members of the upper class were capable of Courtly love), but because she capable of endowing the male with virtue and honor because of and through her acceptance and faith in him. The Lady, then, is to judge her suitor upon the basis of his character, his noble deeds of gentleness and courtesy, his degree of chivalry, not his incidental qualities. In this dynamic, the Lady is obligated through her social responsibility, to accept the suitor if he can exhibit his worthiness.
While Capellanus wrote his Treatise on Love in the 12th century, the fact that few major advances in social structure, politics, or religion had occurred in the three centuries previous or would for the next two centuries, it stands as a relatively accurate guideline of courtly love that persisted over those years. When the standards of Courtly love are applied to an interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Night, it is clear that this legend and the rather heroic requirements of Courtly love are indeed overlapped. Gawain is both a man and a Christ-figure, he is the ultimately honorable chivalrous man worth of the love of any Lady. It is my assertion, that Courtly love is an idealized and hardly realized fantasy play of a misguided and inaccurate morality, quite opposed to the deep idealism of Sir Gawain. Throughout this essay, it will be demonstrated that Capellanus' Treatise and Gawain's unfaltering nature are conflicts of human behavior and human ideals - the concept of the 'perfect' for which to aim in one's own life, and rarely achieve.
In the continuing effort to forge a perfect society, European history is rife with references to social rules accepted and abandoned, of political structures tuned and retuned and destroyed, and of religious forms in constant change. While most of the rest of the world has remained constant in its core cultural beliefs and social structures, the Europeans have never stopped changing who they are and were. One of the constants of European change is that it has been borne on the shoulders of a very powerful force - enforced conformity. While all cultures promote the rules of their society through stories and cautionary tales, Europe, perhaps, has gone through the largest number of polar changes in this arena. During the 12th century, Andreas Capellanus took to an observation and a sincere attempt to catalog the characteristics of a very peculiar and Euro-centric form of behavior, that which has been called "Courtly Love." In his Treatise on Love, Capellanus outlines thirty-one 'rules' which dictate how men and women of the Court may court each other (circular reference clearly intended) and how they will feel (if they don't feel it, they must not be in love). The religious atmosphere of the time was exceptionally dominant and all art, stories, and performances centered, in one way or another, on allegorical themes and acted, in many aspects, as moral guides.
The characteristic forms of the medieval period - the knightly jousts, the poetry and romances of courtly love, the ostentatious display of the princely circles - had lost their relevance for the age and their ability to inspire. But rather titan abandoning these forms as redundant, the age sought to maintain them: The romances became more flowery, the fashions grew more extreme, the code of chivalry more elaborately antique, and life at the court more gilded and stilted, as if the trappings of beauty and piety would adequately engage the hearts and minds of an age in search of inspiration, justice, and a better life (Bennets, "Knightly prowess and courtly love revealed," B1).
If, perhaps, Capellanus had been a psychologist, his work would have read more as a text of observations of specific classes of behaviors and not as a primer or as a ruler to measure one's worth in love.
Instead, it reads as a guide for life; the pursuit of Love, and the adoration of the Lady, are represented as the sole means by which happiness may be achieved, and as worthy, therefore, of a man's [and woman's] total commitment (Koenigsberg, "Culture and Unconscious Fantasy: Observations on Courtly Love," 41). This, then, is a manual and not, what might be supposed to be, an accurate depiction of actual courtly behaviors.
To step away from Capellanus, for a moment, a look at one of the enduring examples of ultimate devotion, loyalty, and incorruptibleness in English literature can help solidify this argument about courtly love being an ideal rather than a reality. The parable, the allegory, and the moral play all have one thing in common - they are designed to teach a specific type of expected behavior through the structure of their words and images. Sir Gawain is, perhaps, the epitome of this story form. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as is the case in Gawain's search for the Holy Grail, is a depiction of a very human man who cannot be corrupted by fear, uncertainty, or induced in any way to betray the rules of humanity. In this, Gawain is certainly recognized as a Christ-figure. Christ-figures, though, generally represent God in some symbolic, but fallible form. Gawain, however, is the spirit of Christ in shining armor - the Anglicanization of Jesus. Gawain, then, just as Treatise on Love, is an idealization of perfection - a quality which humans can never achieve because true perfection in the Euro/Christian view can only be achieved by God.
But, Capellanus' Treatise takes a rather sinister turn on perfection. In it, one can read that this perfection of love, this intensity of euphoria, this "palpitation" of the heart "when a lover catches sight of his beloved (Capellanus, "The Art of Courtly Love" Handout, XVI), is actually something of a very fleeting nature. The overall irreverence of the book, however (there is a section, for example, on the seduction of nuns), and the lack of tact in any form, suggest that Capellanus was concerned neither with propriety nor appeasement, and that the rejection of women reflected a hostility which was inherent in the author's mind. The author's ambivalence is handled by the compartmentalization of affect, love and hatred being represented in the dichotomous structure of the book (Koenigsberg, 36).
Love, this amazing thing, appears to be as fragile as the bones of a bird, and the intensity of emotion and devotion we are admonished to give to the Lady and return to the man is easily substituted by similar feelings for another. What is also very disturbing, by a Freudian analysis, is the obsessive and addictive, co-dependency that seems to be dictated by a majority of the 'rules'.
The hypothetical process, if Courtly Love may be taken as prototypical, is not difficult to formulate: The ego, in attempting to come to terms with an infantile trauma or conflict, seeks a revival of the pathogenic stimuli. The ego scans the external world, hoping to discover patterns of events which resemble the structure of the situation in which the original traumata or conflict-generating experience occurred. Once an adequate situation has been discovered or invented, the individual participates in it, hoping the repetition of the experience under less threatening conditions will lead to a mastery of it. The ego seeks, in short, to achieve a transference relation with the elements of culture, both human and material, and to come to terms with the original experience by acting it out on the level of reality (Koenigsberg, 37)
In short, courtly love seems to be an encouragement of adultery, of infidelity, of self-destructive behavior, and of a resistance to any form of extended relationship because, as Capellanus asserts in rule thirteen "When made public love rarely endures (Capellanus, Handout)." Even so, anyone who has experienced the rush of attraction, the thrill of the new relationship, can immediately recognize that all of the elements of the Treatise are depictions of those first few days and weeks of a budding love - which cannot be truly love at all and is would be better labeled as a 'crush' or 'infatuation'. Courtly love, then, cannot be seen as a constancy of virtue, but one of passing flames.
Gawain, on the other hand, is the perfect constancy. He is constantly tested, not just once, and not just for a period of time through the problems of jealousy (which seems in the Treatise to be the worst that can happen, and the best), but for his entire service to the King.
Sir Gawain is a man of renown, for his knightly and chivalric virtues. By definition, chivalry is not something that…