Good evening, gentlefolk of New Babbage, and thank you for inviting me to speak tonight. My subject is the medieval tradition of “Courtly Love”, which seems a suitable topic for the sixty-ninth Aether Salon, falling as it does a week after Valentine’s Day.
I think it is true to say that when we imagine the medieval period, the first three images that come to mind are the Knight, the Castle and the Lady Fair. These three have starred in a thousand thousand tales told over the last eight centuries or so, and have an enduring appeal to incurable romantics like myself. But have you ever wondered how those tales started?
The first knights arose in the service of the Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th Century, initially simply heavily armoured warriors who could fight effectively on horseback, thanks to the invention of the stirrup.
From that time up until the days of pike and gunpowder, they were the unstoppable tanks of their day, totally dominating the battlefield with ever improving arms and armour.
These knights and their lords soon became a distinct class with their own chivalric culture, often speaking a different language to the people they ruled, and in any case having a totally different way of life from the common folk. They were trained from childhood to war, enjoyed leisure time when not fighting and possessed wealth from taxation and plunder which allowed them to indulge in luxury. Bravery and loyalty were the virtues most encouraged in this martial culture.
Castles arose soon after knights. In England, both knights and castles were introduced by William the Conqueror. As a (rather strange) child, I remember looking at a translation of the Domesday Book, the great tax register which William commissioned after the conquest. For each settlement, it shows the value of the land before, during, and after the invasion. With a fascinated horror, I saw that many thriving communities had become “wasteland” following the conquest, and I imagined what that had meant for the poor people living in them.
Any war is brutal to the poor, but in medieval Europe warfare was constant, a way of life, as warlord vied with warlord, continually testing each other and punishing any weakness they found – for they had to keep a band of blooded professional warriors happy, or face revolt.
Bertran de Born, one of Richard the Lionheart’s companions, later summed it up in verse:
“Peace delights me not
War – be thou my lot
Law – I do not know
Save a right good blow”
It is against this background of brutal violence and turmoil that something strange happened around the middle of the twelfth century. A warm wind blew from the south, scented with the wild herbs of the Pyrenees, bringing with it a new ideal of Love, and this is what brought the Lady into our medieval trio.
Scholars have thought long and hard, and quarrelled often about where it came from. Some point to the subtle and elegant Arabic love poetry of the time. Some point to the influence of the heretic Cathars of southern France, who believed that immortal souls had no gender, and scandalously allowed women to be priests. Others point to the rediscovery of classical Latin love poems, in particular those of Ovid.
Yet others give a more prosaic explanation, reasoning that because so many men were frequently away at war, or died young in battle, women gained more authority as regents governing a domain, and were courted as a result.
Whatever the reasons, a tradition of poetry in praise of the lady grew up. It started in the Occitan speaking regions of the south with the troubadours, but soon spread throughout western Europe with the trouveres of northern France and the minnesingers of Germany. This became what is now known as Courtly Love, Amor Courtois, though in the original Occitan it was known as Fin’amor (Pure Love).
The poems and songs were concerned with the love of a knight for a usually un-named lady, who is unattainable because she is married and of higher status. She is beautiful and talented, and the knight aches for her. Various obstacles lie in the way of their love, such as the jealousy of others, or tests that the lady imposes to prove his worthiness. There are sometimes hints that the illicit love is consummated, but that usually ends in tragedy if it happens. The love itself brings out the best in both knight and lady, and inspires them to noble deeds.
The cynic in me suspects these were privileged people with too much time on their hands indulging in high school crushes (they were mostly younger than you might expect) … but the romantic in me still swoons.
One of the earliest examples where both words and music are known is the Kalenda Maia of Raimbaut de Vaqueiras. You can listen to a version of it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAL4n4aSLuw
A free translation of the first verse might be as follows, (bearing in mind that, like the Japanese haiku, the original has a very strong rhythm and rhyme)
“I have no delight in the First of May,
Nor in fresh leaves of beech,
Nor in the songs of bird, nor lily flowers,
Oh noble and merry lady
Until I have a fleet message
From your beautiful person to tell me
Of new pleasures love and joy will bring
And I come to you, true lady.”
Many such songs and poems were made by rival troubadours (and their female equivalent, the trobairitz), in praise of many ladies, but it was taken to new heights by one of the most famous women of medieval times, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her daughter, Marie, Countess of Champagne.
Eleanor (or Aliénor in her native Occitan) lived from around 1123 to 1204 and was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women of her time. She was also one of the most beautiful and cultured. She was extraordinary, heiress to the powerful Duchy of Aquitaine, (a kingdom in all but name), who had tempestuous marriages with two rival Kings and was mother to another three kings and two queens. There is no time to do justice to her life, but I will note two things which perhaps give you an idea of her strong character: she personally led her band of Aquitanian knights during the Second Crusade, and she was responsible for the introduction of maritime law in Aquitaine and England. (Which, centuries later, provided a fig leaf of respectability for the rampant piracies of Sir Francis Drake).
The other thing she is reputed to have done is raise the Occitan tradition of fin’amor to a high art by creating a “Court of Love” when she resided in Poitiers between 1168 and 1173. Actually very little is known about this time, apart from a study that found that the price of furs and fine fabrics escalated in Poitiers during the period.
All that we know about the Court of Love comes from a treatise “De Amore” ( usually translated in English as “the Art of Courtly Love”) by Andreas Capellanus and written at the request of Marie of Champagne (Eleanor’s daughter)around 1186-90. This work explores the nature of love, and describes a Court of Love, where Eleanor, Marie, Ermengarde Viscountess of Narbonne, and Isabelle of Flanders would listen to the quarrels of lovers and act as a jury to questions concerning romantic love. One of the decisions of this court was that love was possible within marriage, but highly unlikely!
The Court probably never existed quite as Andreas described, but you can be sure that Eleanor presided over many playful debates about love during her time at Poitiers, and many knights cast longing glances at her. I must confess that, even over such a great divide of time, I am myself a little in love with Eleanor.
Marie de Champagne was also patroness to Chretien de Troyes, a poet whose works on Arthurian subjects are some of the greatest pieces of medieval literature, and are considered by some to be the beginnings of the novel. No-one quite knows the sources for Chretien’s stories, but though the original tales might be older, he imbedded new notions of chivalry and courtly love within them to make something that can be recognised as being about our medieval trio, the Knight, the Castle and the Lady Fair.
In his work “Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart” he made the first known mention of Sir Lancelot and his illicit love for Queen Guinevere. In it, Queen Guinevere is abducted, and Lancelot, though a number of trials and encounters with beautiful women and tricky dwarfs, eventually fights in a tournament where, to test his love, Guinevere at first orders him to lose, which he begins to do, but then changes her mind and orders him to win, which he of course does. This plot twist was stolen to rather delightful comic and romantic effect in a popular moving magic lantern show, A Knight’s Tale, which some of you may have seen.
Many other Romance tales were written in medieval times, most of which fall into established groups – The Matter of France (Tales of Charlemagne and Roland), The Matter of England (Tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round table) and the Matter of Rome (Mythological tales and Tales of the Trojan War and classical history). They all accept the notion of courtly love and chivalry, and show the knight not simply as a brutal warrior, but as someone in service, fighting for his lord, for his love, and for justice. Quite a change from the beginning of the period.
It is hard to say how much it was a literary convention and how much it was actually practiced, but courtly love did bring about a change in attitudes to women and has formed the basis for polite manners of our time, where doors are opened for women and a hand (or a cape) offered to help a lady step across a puddle. This is acting as an attentive servant to a lady. The notion that a woman has to be wooed becomes expected from this time as well.
Courtly Love developed throughout the medieval period, and has influenced culture and literature ever since. It became mixed with the worship of the Virgin Mary, and later versions, no doubt influenced by the Church, emphasised the love as being more spiritual and less playful (or so it seems to me), though it still retained a keen eye for the charms of the beloved.
Guillaume de Machaut’s virelai, “Douce Dame Jolie”, is a later example from the 14th Century of a song of courtly love. It can be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZbQQaMuatE
This is the a translation, which encapsulates much of the flavour of fin’amor:
Sweet, beautiful lady
For God’s sake, do not think
That anyone rules over me
But you alone
For endlessly, and without falsehood
I have cherished you
All the days of my life
I have served you
With no unworthy thought
Alas! and I beg
For hope and aid
For my joy is ended
If you do not take pity
But your sweet mastery
My heart so harshly
That it torments
And binds it
So much in love
That it desires nothing
But to be in your service
And yet your heart
Grants it no relief
And since my sickness
Will never be healed
Without you, sweet enemy
Who is glad
At my torment
I join my hands and pray
To your heart, since it forgets me
That it should kill me quickly
For I languish too long
Reading that, as a denizen of Second Life where pretty much anything you desire can be simulated (and often is), it is hard not to agree with some scholars who connect Courtly Love with the sexuality of dominance and submission, making it a precursor to some of the more unusual by-ways of pleasure that exist in the contemporary world. But that is not the mainstream view of scholars.
So what, you might be asking, is the relevance of all this to the modern world of 188x?
Well, the more eagle eyed of you might have noticed that all the illustrations for this talk are contemporary paintings from the Victorian age. It may surprise some here (as I believe you are mostly stalwart supporters of Progress and Science), but there are many who hearken back to an older, more romantic time, where the air was not so sooty and men worked with their hands and not machines. It is really a very popular thing, reflected in new tales – such as Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, Gothick architecture and paintings and poems by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, amongst others.
But that has always been the nature of the tales of courtly love – they are forever set in the imaginary past and yet, somehow, they resonate with the present.
Is it because the beloved always wants to be the centre of their lover’s world, and wants them to show their worth? I don’t really know.
But what I do know is that even in a work such as Manuel Cervantes’ book, Don Quixote, which (quite rightly) lampoons the foolishness and vanity of chivalry, there is something that lifts my heart when the ancient Knight lowers his lance to tilt at windmills, and risks all to prove his love for the damsel Dulcinea, despite all.
That concludes my talk for the evening, thank you for listening. If you can, please contribute to the running costs of this excellent institution using the tip-jars around the salon.
For those of you interested in further reading, I recommend the following (as well as Wikipedia, which I have shamelessly plundered):
“Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart”
Courtly Love: the Literary and Societal Meaning
Extract from “Rulers and their times: Eleanor of Aquitaine”
Study Guide for Medieval Love Songs
Womens History: Marie de Champagne
Would the knights normally expect to marry, or would they spend their lives in service to the lord?
Well, they would hope to marry, but that would mean finding favour with their lord and being granted a fief. Many landless knights existed, Knights Errant who traveled from war to war and touranment to tournament, hoping to strike it rich enough to settle down
美奈子 :: Minako:
If you are interested in still more courtly love songs, I highly recommend Sting’s album “Songs from the Labyrinth.” It’s full of songs and letters by Sir Edward Dwyer. They’re all played very simply with one or two lutes or guitars. October 1543 – May 1607, so just a lovely time for writing these songs.