Poetry Courtly Love romanticized the concept of Love

Welcome to my page on poetry courtly love. It is fascinating exploring the world of love poetry. I hope you are just as delighted as I am, taking this journey.

In poetry courtly love we will enter a world that gave birth to romantic ideals and for about two hundred years (1100 - 1300) created a literature based on song, poetry and chivalry in Europe in the 12th century. At this time medieval Europe was just emerging from the dark ages, centuries of transition following the upheavals that came in the aftermath of the disintegration of those two great ancient empires, Greece and Rome.

As you can imagine, much of the literature preceding the poetry courtly love era, in those dark ages, were works celebrating war, coarse manliness and valor in battle now referred to as epic poetry.

The literary era of poetry courtly love ushered in a gentler period which placed greater emphasis on humility, courtesy and the elevation of womanhood into a source of reverence and inspiration. Courtly love sang of the nobility of the feminine in ways that had not been heard for centuries. This in turn is supposed to have led to a spiritual enrichment between men and women which had an uplifting effect on the society around them.

How far this became a reality is somewhat debatable because of the prevailing social environment of those times, and even though it did influence some aspects of behaviour in aristocratic circles, courtly love seemed to exist more in the escapism provided by the poetry it inspired which however largely contrasted with the realities of the age.

Poetry courtly love however established a cult of romance and love that was entirely new in Europe. There was no tradition of passionate love literature in the European middle ages before the twelfth century with the exception of Spain and Sicily where there was exposure to Arabic love poetry, to which a lot of our modern ideas about romantic love can be traced back.

The Origins of Poetry Courtly Love

The origins of poetry courtly love is directly traceable to medieval France and the Provençal region.

Here is an intriguing piece of information regarding the French language, that has a direct bearing on this topic:

The term"Romance"which we are familiar with, originally did not refer to a specific literary genre but to the vernacular French language which was called romanz (meaning that it was derived from the language spoken by the Romans, i.e. Latin). We know of course that european languages like French, Spanish and Portugese trace a large part of their development to Latin and are even still referred to as "Romance Languages" today.

In the 12th century, literature which was written down in the French vernacular was referred to as "romance" to distinguish it from so-called "real" literature, which was invariably written in Latin. Gradually, the term "romance" began to refer not to any narrative written in the French vernacular, but to that specific sort of narrative literature, most popular among the French-speaking court audiences of France and Anglo-Norman England. For example, stories of the chivalric adventures of knights and their ladies.

The audience for these early vernacular narratives was largely made up of women--the queen, duchess or countess and the other ladies of her court. These women naturally tended to be interested in stories in which women played more central roles than was true in Germanic epics such as Beowulf (which centered almost exclusively on the exploits of male warriors).

Because the vernacular language poet's livelihood depended upon pleasing his/her audience, the vernacular narratives written for these courts ("romances") tended to focus on other plot developments than the fighting and male-bonding emphasized in epic poetry. The narratives still concerned the deeds of brave warriors, but the Middle English knight was motivated by love for his lady and accordingly, women played an increasingly important and active role.

Two women who had a particular influence on the development of romance were Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen first of France and then of England, and her daughter Marie, Countess of Champagne (in Eastern France). Eleanor brought to the English court her interest in poetry, music and the arts, all of which were cultivated at the court of Aquitaine where she grew up (her grandfather William was the first known troubadour poet).

In the vernacular narratives that were written for and/or dedicated to Eleanor--early "romances"--we find an emphasis on the sort of love relationship that is depicted in troubadour poetry, commonly known as "courtly love" (fin'amors in Provençal, the language of troubadour poetry or fin courtois, a term coined by the critic Garston Paris in his 1883 study of Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot du Lac ).

The "courtly love" relationship is modelled on the feudal relationship between a knight and his liege lord. The knight serves his courtly lady (love service) with the same obedience and loyalty which he owes to his liege lord. She is in complete control of the love relationship, while he owes her obedience and submission (a literary convention that did not correspond to actual practice!)

The knight's love for the lady inspires him to do great deeds, in order to be worthy of her love or to win her favor. Thus "courtly love" was originally construed as an ennobling force whether or not it was consummated, and even whether or not the lady knew about the knight's love or loved him in return.

The "courtly love" relationship typically was not between husband and wife, not because the poets and the audience were inherently immoral, but because it was an idealized sort of relationship that could not exist within the context of "real life" medieval marriages.

In the middle ages, marriages amongst the nobility were typically based on practical and dynastic concerns rather than on love. The idea that a marriage could be based on love (as in the "Franklin's Tale" by Chaucer) was a radical notion. But the audience for romance was perfectly aware that these romances were fictions, not models for actual behavior.

The Major Influences of Poetry Courtly Love

1. The behavior of the knight and lady in love was drawn partly from troubadour poetry and partly from a set of literary conventions derived from the Latin poet Ovid, who described the "symptoms" of love as if it were a sickness in his famous writing called "Ars Amatoria" (Art of Loving).

The "lovesick" knight became a conventional figure in medieval romance. The typical symptoms of this peculiar malady, are sighing, turning pale, turning red, fever and inability to sleep, eat or drink. (All these are of course today, well worn cliches instantly familiar to us all as common fare employed by comedy scriptwriters and contemporary romantic pulp fiction!) These romances were often characterised by long monologues in which the lovers describe their feelings in passionate terms.

Do you remember my introducing you to those two winsome ladies who were the catalysts and muses of poetry courtly love? Eleanor of Acquitaine and her daughter, Marie Countess of Champagne? Well their influence on the concept of poetry courtly love was considerable for it was in their courts that the concept was nurtured and developed. Let us explore this subject further...

1. Courts of Love

Eleanor of Aquitaine was queen of the Court at Poitiers, France, in the late 12th century. Here she and her daughter, Marie, Countess of Champagne, set up a court controlled by women which aimed at "civilizing" the rather rough society of the area. Many gifted poets and scholars came to her court at Poitiers. A unique situation where wealthy powerful women were able to create their own environment.

The doctrine of Courtly Love was designed to teach courtiers how to be lovely, charming and delightful. Its basic premise was that being in love would teach you how to be loveable and pleasing; so love taught courtesy.

This kind of love was a social phenomenon, designed for communal living at a wealthy court where people had plentiful leisure and desired to entertain and be entertained delightfully.

This ideal of courtly love which developed in Poitiers helped to free women from the role of inferior gender and take on some status and elevation. Here, a woman instead of being the property of man, which was the case in feudal Europe, is the mistress of a man who is her creature and property.

Marie and Eleanor had a court of perhaps 60 elegant noble ladies who would hold a Court of Love where they would dispute, jury and judge questions of love according to their code of courtly love.

Of course, all of these Court of Love judgments were based on a code and ideals that had little to do with the realities of women's position in the feudal society. This was a social court, not a legal one. But as events potrayed, these social inventions greatly influenced and gave birth to a new literary tradition which spread its idealistic concepts intended to govern relationships between knights and their ladies all over Europe, for about two hundred years.

The rules and conventions of Poetry Courtly Love that arose under the benign influence of Eleanor and Marie's Court of Love, as well as various examples of the Troubadour Poetry employing these rules are just a click away. You can visit my pages on these topics here:

Click here for Poetry Courtly Love rules

Click here for Poetry Courtly Love conventions

Click here for Poetry Courtly Love troubadours

The era of poetry courtly love led to a re-appraisal of the role of women in the society of Europe in the middle ages, even if this mental change in attitude was somewhat wholly confined to the nobility! From being regarded as chattel, the concept of womanhood attained a deserved elevation to a pre- eminent, almost queenly status.

Eleanor and Marie were not the only women who made noteworthy contributions to poetry courtly love. There is a body of literary works attributed to women poets. These Troubairitz, though relatively small in number, but remarkably outspoken, made their voices heard through love poetry (ca. 1180 to ca. 1260) in which they expressed more complaints about their unfaithful lovers than happiness!

They include Alamanda, the Contessa de Proensa, Na Felipa, Na Guillelma de Rosers, Na Lombarda, Na Maria de Ventadorn, N’Azalais de Porcairagues, Na Bieris de Romans, Na Castelloza, Na Clara d’Anduza and, above all, La Comtessa de Dia.

Altogether, about twenty women poets are known by name, whose output comprises some thirty-two songs, but there could have been many more female poets, hidden behind anonymous songs or behind female masks in debate poems called tenso.

These female poets tended to address their lovers more directly, often in an accusatory tone, and insist on their equality, or at least on their inherited rights.

Remarkably, these troubairitz openly spoke their minds, formulated their love for a knight, expressed their desire to be united with him at night, or contemptuously rejected the courtly spies who threatened their happiness.

The emergence of these women poets correlates with the unique conditions for twelfth-century aristocratic women in the south of France who were entitled again to inherit their fathers’ estates and seem to have enjoyed more political freedom than elsewhere during that period—perhaps as a result of the crusades and the subsequent death of many lords.

Once Roman law was reinstated all over France and the Provence from ca. 1230, this situation radically changed again, which might explain the disappearance of troubairitz poetry thereafter.

Poetry courtly love still retains its fascination till today. Its language is employed in fables and modern-day myths, its significance regarded with a mixture of derision and admiration. Yet its true import -- the terribly transformational power of willing sacrifice of all one has for the sake of Love -- seems to intimidate us, which is a great pity. For really no power in existence is greater or more formidable than selfless love.

The concept of romantic love rising to a higher plane and transforming the life of the giver for the sake of the receiver, is celebrated to be sure, but only as a fleeting thing. An infatuation which is bound to fade with time, when more prosaic matters envelope us in its dreary grey blanket, blotting out all higher precepts of the human spirit. Charity is then replaced with selfishness, beauty with ugliness and cold calculation takes the place of spontaneous warmth.

Still, something so timeless as ennobling devotion, something so completely demanding as self-transcending sacrifice, can scarcely be assigned to extinction. Millennia ago, the Female Principle was paramount. In ages past, there was no shame in the chosen individual sacrificing all for the sake of the superior Female Principle.

No matter how it may baffle our modern, self-interested intellects, no matter how impractical such an ethos may seem to our independent, pragmatic minds... Whether rekindled in role-playing activities of seasonal medieval faires, reflected in the plot lines of modern-day fantasy novels, or woven thinly into the scripts of Hollywood movies, the concept of higher Love's ennobling supremacy endures, and thank Wise Providence for that!

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