In this paper, we shall study the tradition of Courtly love in the Middle Ages as reflected by literary works produced in that period. The paper will first focus on what the exact nature of Courtly Love, then proceed to briefly discuss its development and finally take into account the literary works of Middle Ages that contained elements of this tradition.
Courtly love refers to romance in chivalric tradition that emerged during the first Millennium and endured throughout the medieval period. Andreas Capellanus, in his book, The Art of Courtly Love, defines courtly loved as ". . . A certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love's precepts in the other's embrace." This love had some distinct features as it usually involved a pure, intense feeling of devotion for some unattainable beloved. Women played the dominant role in courtly love equation as men were supposed to remain steadfastly devoted to the woman regardless of her own involvement and with little regard for consequences. This form of love dominated the medieval literature especially from 1100 to 1300. One of the most enduring texts on the subject is Andreas Capellanus' work The Art of Courtly Love and the fact that it has been translated many times, indicates that the concept of courtly love was popular in middle ages and has generated deep interest in modern times as well for students and critics of literature. Barbara Tuchman discusses Courtly Love in her A Distant Mirror. The author captures the very essence of the tradition or feeling when she writes:
Courtly love was understood by its contemporaries to be love for its own sake, romantic love, true love, physical love, unassociated with property or family . . . focused on another man's wife, since only such an illicit liaison could have no other aim but love alone. . . . courtly love was considered to ennoble a man, to improve him in every way. It would make him concerned to show an example of goodness, to do his utmost to preserve honor, never letting dishonor touch himself or the lady he loved. On a lower scale, it would lead him to keep his teeth and nails clean, his clothes rich and well groomed, his conversation witty and amusing, his manners courteous to all, curbing arrogance and coarseness, never brawling in a lady's presence ....The chivalric love affair moved from worship through declaration of passionate devotion, virtuous rejection by the lady, renewed wooing with oaths of eternal fealty, moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire, heroic deeds of valor which won the lady's heart by prowess, [very rarely] consummation of the secret love, followed by endless adventures and subterfuges to a tragic denouement. . . . It remained artificial, a literary convention, a fantasy . . . more for purposes of discussion than for every day practice." (66-68)
Not much is known about the exact origin of the tradition of courtly love. It has often been cited as result of Arabian influence while some claim it had purely European roots. Regardless of its roots, courtly love has sparked great interest and many critics and historians have tried to trace the reasons for its emergence in the medieval period. In the introduction The Art of Courtly Love, Parry explains: "Even if we accept the theory that courtly love is a fusion of Latin and Moorish elements . . . still we have not solved the problem of how and why it developed." (p. 12-13) The image of female as the icon of purity and object of man's intense devotion originated much before the medieval period. Stories of men's extreme devotion were found in works that originated between 9000 and 7000 B.C. As one historian puts it: "[I]n the countless millennia before Christianity, [woman] had been the glory of the world, an object of worship among her people. . .." (Davis: 210)
However it was in the 11th century that concept of courtly love found expression in literature. Celts from Cornwall brought with them a large number of folklore that was readily accepted by the French who later translated them into medieval poetry. The first and probably the oldest reference to courtly love can be seen in the poetry of Duke William of Aquitaine. His work, it is believed, talked about courtly love in great detail and this was further carried ahead by his granddaughter who married Prince Henry of England and then introduced the tradition in literature of this area.
Under the patronage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de France, courtly love found its place in literature and woman gained its place on the high pedestal of romance. The reason why courtly love became popular was the freedom attached to expression of man's innermost sorrow and pining. Instead of old patriarchic traditions when men were supposed to remain stoic in expression of their feelings, courtly love traditions allowed them freedom to express their pain in the language which was as intense as the emotion itself. For example in Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, we see the idea of courtly love finding expression in an unbridled fashion:
"They are right who say that 'Love is hounded to the ends of the earth'. All that we have is the bare word, only the name remains to us: and this we have so hackneyed, so abused, and so debased, that the poor, tired thing is ashamed of her own name and is disgusted with the word. She heartily loathes and despises herself. Shorn of all honour and dignity she sneaks begging from house to house, shamefully lugging a patchwork sack in which she keeps what she can grab or steal and denying it to her own mouth, hawks it in the streets. For shame! It is we who are the cause of this traffic. We do such things to her and yet protest our innocence. Love, mistress of all hearts, the noble, the incomparable, is for sale in the open market."
The author goes on to add:
"Yet we are heartened . . . when there is a good love-story, when we tell in poetry of those who lived once upon a time, may hundreds of years ago, our hearts are warmed within us and we are so full of this happy chance that there can be none who is loyal and true and free of guile towards his love that would not wish to create such bliss in his own year from himself. (O'Donoughue, pp. 250-251)
In courtly love, woman was venerated. She was not only an object of affection but also object of obsession and intense devotion that completely altered the balance in her favor. On top of that courtly love didn't expect women to be demure and timid. Praises were sang, nobility and boldness eulogized and women were allowed to exercise their rights of expression without regard for tradition. In short, they were to be loved regardless of their behavior as we see in the drama of Diana where troubadours declared:
"She who wishes to please me, I shall please her. . . Being free, I repeatedly boast myself free, as being like chaste Hippolytus. . . The woman who seduces with eyes and finger does not overcome me that suddenly. . . . Boldness in a woman of this kind pleases me. . . . I am the prisoner of your charm, my lady. . . Because I have strayed in this way I am worthy of heavy punishment. Seize upon me, a penitent, if it pleases you in your own chambers." (O'Donoughue, p. 61)
Similarly Raimbaut d'Aurenga eulogized his beloved in these words, "I do not sing because of bird or flower or snow or frost, nor even because of cold or heat or because of the field growing green again. . . Of my beloved I make lady and lord, whatever may be my destiny." (O'Donoughue, p. 121)
While Blondel de Nesle declared:
"Neither her indifference nor her idleness saved me from being wounded deeply by a sweet look the injury from which pierces me, which she gave me. . . Love disposes of me fittingly at his own whim, and Hope and my lady equally torment me much between them in a sweet way. I do not know if they intend ever to make me an ill reward. . . . She for whom I have abandoned myself and everything else, may she wish to keep me for her use! For no sorrow from Love, nor envy of anyone else, could turn my desire from her. If devotion can avail more than treachery, and Love wishes to dispense his good with justice, I may yet be able to come to a great good." (O'Donoughue, 178-181)