Medieval Love Poetry started the beginning of Romance in Literature
The Troubadours, poets in the southern part of France, were the first to write medieval love poetry in which the problem of the Feminine was the focal point. In the following centuries writers in all the European countries began to write about the relationship between men and women. Some produced 'love lyrics' while many others wrote narrative fiction. These fictional narratives about knights, ladies, and love, are usually called 'romances'. It is because love is so important in the romances that any intense and socially troubling form of love came to be called 'romantic love.'
In these "love lyrics", which we may rightly call medieval love poetry, man humbles himself before a woman that he loves with an intense admiration. The man offers to become the Lady's servant, to live only for her, if she will only recognize his feelings. There is no question of marriage, as often the lady is already married.
Medieval Love Poetry essentially evolved from the romantic narratives like Tristan and Iseult, Lancelot and Guinevere, Aeneas and Dido and Troilus and Criseyde.
The case of Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura were unique, in that these latter examples of medieval love poetry from probably the most celebrated and influential medieval poets of the age, were real life experiences and not fictional ( In spite of early scepticism levelled at Petrarch's)
Medieval love poetry reflected the birth of intense love of man and woman as a central subject in European literature.
In tracing the genesis of the phenomena, the first troubadour on record was Guilhem IX Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine (1071- 1127).
He was the grandfather of Queen Eleanor, first of France, then of England who along with her daughter, Marie, Countess of Champagne were the patrons of the golden age of fin amors, the term coined for courtly love.
Around 1100, Guilhem of Aquitaine in south-western France, who had hitherto written a number of poems that depicted his feminine conquests in a rather ribald manner, (as could be expected of the vigorous soldier that he was) suddenly in a marked departure from his previous verses, wrote a new poem, "Farai chansoneta nueva", which changed medieval love poetry forever!
I shall make a new song
before the wind blows and it freezes and rains.
My lady (ma dona) is trying and testing me,
to find out how much I love her.
Well, no matter what quarrel she makes,
she will not loose me from her bond.
Rather I become her servant, surrender to her,
so she can write my name in her contract.
Now don't go thinking I must be drunk
if I love my good lady;
for without her I cannot live...
In another of his poems, almost all the themes that make up courtly love were evident.
Already rejoicing, I begin to love,
For I am made better by one who is, beyond dispute
The best a man ever saw or heard.
By her joy a sick man can recover,
by her wrath one well can die,
a wise man turn to childishness,
a fine man see his beauty change,
the most courtly man become a churl,
and any churl become courtly.
These early examples of medieval love poetry exhibited the strong conflict and tension between joy and pain, private feelings and social roles. The woman's beauty has such power that it can bring the man life or death, depending on whether her response is kind or cruel, positive or negative. This soon developed into an extended parody of the Christian religion's language about mercy and grace, and is an important characteristic of medieval Love Poetry which reflected the role and influence of religion in medieval Europe.
Religion in the middle ages, spiritualised the love concept into the higher form of charity or caritas, which could be distinguished from the more worldly sense of love, refered to as amor. The men and women of the Middle Ages, like people everywhere from the beginning of recorded history, were caught up by love in its many earthly forms and variations. Amor signified the love of things of this world--money, power, possessions, other men and women--things which, however attractive and compelling, were by their own natures fragile and short-lived.
Despite these drawbacks, money and possessions were ardently pursued during the Middle Ages, and so, of course, was romantic love. When the pursuit of human love expressed itself in literature, it often appeared in the form we now call courtly love, which describes the loose set of literary conventions associated almost exclusively with the aristocracy and their imitators.
Courtly love, or fin' amors, as the Provencal poets called it, was the expression of the knightly worship of a refining ideal embodied in the person of the beloved. Only a truly noble nature could generate and nurture such a love; only a woman of magnanimity of spirit was a worthy object. The act of loving was in itself ennobling and refining, the means to the fullest expression of what was potentially fine and elevated in human nature.
More often than not, such a love expressed itself in terms that were feudal and religious. Thus, just as a vassal was expected to honor and serve his lord, so a lover was expected to serve his lady, to obey her commands, and to gratify her merest whims.
Absolute obedience and unswerving loyalty were critical. To incur the displeasure of one's lady was to be cast into the void, beyond all light, warmth, and possibility of life. And just as the feudal lord stood above and beyond his vassal, so the lady occupied a more celestial sphere than that of her lover.
Customarily she seemed remote and haughty, imperious and difficult to please. She expected to be served and wooed, minutely and at great length. If gratified by the ardors of her lover-servant, she might at length grant him her special notice; in exceptional circumstances, she might even grant him that last, longed-for favor. Physical consummation of love, however, was not obligatory. What was important was the prolonged and exalting experience of being in love.
It was usually one of the assumptions of courtly love that the lady in question was married, thus establishing the triangular pattern of lover-lady-jealous husband. This meant that the affair was at least potentially adulterous, and had to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy and danger. The absolute discretion of the lover was therefore indispensable if the honor of the lady were to be preserved. Though the convention did not stipulate adultery as a sine qua non, it is nevertheless true that the two great patterns of courtly love in the Middle Ages--Tristan and Isolt and Lancelot and Guinevere--both involved women who deceived their husbands.
Courtly Love conventions highlight the great contradictions of the genre: Apart from caritas and amors, the medieval concept of romantic love hinged on the resolution of conflicting elements like suffering and pleasure, with their attendant mores such as jealousy, obsession, secrecy and risky danger. While the other side of the coin was the possibility of sexual fulfilment, fantasy, honour and worth, and love. These elements, as conflicting as they were, set the markers for much of the medieval love poetry that was written thereafter.
This paradox was no where more evident in medieval love poetry than the example proffered by the troubadour Cercamon, who wrote between 1135 and 1145 in a manner that was going to be repeated for centuries to come:
I neither die, nor live, nor get well,
I do not feel my suffering, and yet it is great suffering,
because I cannot tell the future of her love,
whether I shall have it, or when,
for in her is all the pity
which can raise me up or make me fall.
I am pleased when she maddens me
when she makes me stand with open mouth staring,
I am pleased when she laughs at me,
or makes a fool of me to my face, or my back;
for after this bad the good will come
very quickly, if such is her pleasure.
Finally the great Bernart de Ventadorn whose medieval love poetry I have already treated at length (see Poetry Courtly Love) brought courtly love poetry to its literary perfection:
In good faith, without deceit,
I love the best and most beautiful.
My heart sighs, my eyes weep,
because I love her so much and I suffer for it.
What else can I do, if Love takes hold of me,
and no key but pity can open up
the prison where he has put me,
and I find no sign of pity there?
This love wounds my heart
with a sweet taste, so gently,
I die of grief a hundred times a day
and a hundred times revive with joy.
My pain seems beautiful,
this pain is worth more than any pleasure;
and since I find this bad so good,
how good will be the good when this suffering is done.
What is most striking is the paradoxical terminology. The poet takes such pleasure in expressing his unhappiness. Love is so wonderful that even all the frustrations imposed by social inequality, and the near-impossibility of union, cannot weaken it.
Using the themes contained in the great romantic narratives of the time, let us chart the development of medieval love poetry through its celebrated protagonists:
Other great troubadours were Guiraut de Bornelh, whose medieval love poetry we shall look at shortly, Bertran de Born, renowned for his passionate devotion to combat and love poetry in equal measure, and Raimbaut de Vaqueiras.
But as important as the troubadours were to the growth of medieval love poetry, we shall bypass these worthies and cut to the quick, by looking at Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine who was first queen of France then, after a divorce, queen of England. She married King Louis VII of France in 1137 when she was 15, but in 1152 she divorced him and married Henry Plantagenet, who soon after became King Henry II of England. One of her daughters by the first marriage, Marie, married the Count of Champagne in 1159, and set up a court in Troyes modelled on her mother's in Poitiers, and both courts were centres of literary and artistic culture in which the ethos that gave birth to courtly love poetry was nurtured.
de Machaut 1
If you like Medieval Love Poetry and would like to receive more information directly in your inbox, subscribe to my Love Poetry of The World newsletter
Return from Medieval Love Poetry to Love Poetry of The World