Karen Dillon

Courtly Love


What is meant by the term courtly love?

The term courtly love was first used in 1883 by Gaston Paris to describe the type of love that was depicted and celebrated in Provençal (Southern French) love lyrics and discussed at 12th century court. Countries that identified with the concept of courtly love had their own phrases for it. France had fin’ amors, Italy had fin’amore, and Germany had hohe-minne (Boase). The concept of courtly love, which refers to the love described by troubadours in the 12th century and by authors of courtly literature such as Chrétien de Troyes, is best defined by its characteristics.

Features of courtly love

In The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, C.S. Lewis describes courtly love as the "feudalisation of love". Lewis condenses the characteristics of courtly love into humility, courtesy, adultery, and the religion of love. Humility meaning the elevation of the lady as superior to the knight as a lord is to a vassal. Courtesy meaning to bestow court etiquette upon the lady. Adultery has a part because most marriages were arranged at that time and rarely was love a part of marriage. Adulterous love was seen as the only true love. The religion of love refers to the knight’s service to religion and to love.

No matter who is defining the characteristics of courtly love, the features remain consistently the same. The most important feature of courtly love is the absolute submission of the knight to his lady. All of the actions and motivations of the knight should be for love and his lady; that is the service of love. The knight should seek not only chevaleric perfection, but perfection in virtue and obedience to the lady. The knight demonstrates his prowess to honor and impress the lady, and he would sacrifice his honor and his life for her. The knight should revere both the lady and religion, and he may often call upon the God of Love. Love should be and ennobling inspiration to the knight. Adultery is also a feature of courtly love, but there does not have to be a consummation between the lovers, even the desire of a married woman constitutes the adulterous love of courtly love (O’Donoghue).

Origin of courtly love in courtly literature

It was early in the 12th century when courtly love first appeared as a genre. The courts of Eleanor d’Aquitaine in Poitiers and her daughter, Marie de Champagne in Troyes were two of the liveliest courts in Europe at the time. The courts of mother and daughter were centers of literature, art, and intellect, which created a sort of mini-renaissance where classic authors from Antiquity such as Virgil and Ovid were revived. Originating in the south of France but travelling all over, troubadours, which were travelling singers and musicians of oral lyrics and poetry, traveled from court to court singing love lyrics and stories of the court society. These troubadours were the beginning and inspiration for the courtly love literature that we identify today. The troubadours sang love lyrics that were influenced by the society which was being entertained, and so became love stories set at court (Dr. Laverne Dalka).

Chrétien de Troyes was at the court of Marie de Champagne in the 12th century and was urged by her to write Lancelot, the most famous story of courtly love. Chrétien is generally considered the father of courtly love literature with the Arthurian Romances for two reasons. Chrétien was one of the first to write what we know as fictional stories of King Arthur and his court and was also one of the first to make love the central theme of a serious work. Combine these two elements and that is the reason that today we associate the origin of courtly love with the court of King Arthur (Lewis).

Influences on and theories of the origin of the ideals of courtly love

Although courtly literature was the first place that love came together with the royal court, the ideals of courtly love had many influences outside the court. Although there is no absolute certainty on the specific influences of courtly love and there are many theories on where the ideals of courtly love originated, certain connections can be drawn between all of them and courtly love. Ovid’s famous Ars Amatoria, or the Art of Love, certainly may have influenced courtly love authors and lyricists. Many classical ancient texts were revived and being read at literary gatherings at the courts at Poitiers and Troyes at the same time that the troubadours began reciting courtly love lyrics. The Ars Amatoria contains traditions similar to those of courtly love. Ovid’s Ars Amatoria was a comedy written for his own society on the art of seduction and the rules of conduct for lovers. It was a mocking of the woes and wonders of love. That which was being mocked in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria was taken seriously as a code of conduct in later courtly love literature (Lewis).

One theory on where the ideals of courtly love originated is called the Hispano-Arabic theory. During the time of Muslim Spain, when the Moors occupied the country for about 700 years, much Arabic and Islamic culture was brought into Spain and left a lasting influence on the arts and culture. According to some scholars, Arabs were the first people to compose rhymed verse like that of the troubadours, and many common themes can be drawn from early Arabic poetry and the courtly love lyrics of the troubadours. The Islamic were highly educated at the time in the Classics and they were translators of Greek and Latin texts such as Ovid. The ideals of courtly love that are found in Ovid and in early Arabic poetry could have been smuggled into the South of France by the troubadours. They were travelling composers who made their fortune by spreading oral tradition and could have been influenced by the culture of Islamic Spain (Boase).

There are two theories called the Chivalric-Matriarchal theory and the Marianist theory which I will combine because of their similar nature. The Chivalric-Matriarchal theory argues that before and around the 12th century the Germanic, Celtic, and Pictish tribes were matriarchal societies. This theory suggests that the matriarchal society may have influenced the superiority of the woman in courtly love (Boase). Similar to that idea is the Marianist theory, or the influence of Christianity. Christianity was widely spreading around the 12th century and with that arose the cult of the Virgin Mary. This worship and veneration of Mary may have been an influence on the veneration of the woman that dominates courtly love (Lewis).

The most easily accepted theory of the origin of courtly love ideals is the Feudal-Sociological theory. Simply put, this theory says that courtly love ideals came from the society in which the troubadours and authors were living at the time. This supports Lewis’s "feudalisation of love" and shows clearly where many of the elements of courtly love came from. The troubadours sang about love at court and knights and ladies because they were singing for the society at court. Most marriages at court were arranged and had nothing to do with love so therefore adulterous love was seen as true love. The oath of allegiance to the lord was the same as an oath of allegiance to the lady. Courtly love easily models the feudal society in which it was written (Boase).

Although no single theory can be proven as the defining origin of the ideals of courtly love, most likely they all had a part in influencing the troubadours who sang the first love lyrics of courtly love. Courtly love is a term we use now that can only be defined by its features and is a conglomerate of influences that formed into one genre of love made specific and famous by the authors at court.




Boase, Roger. The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love. Totowa: Manchester University Press, 1977.

Dalka, Laverne, Ph.D. Lectures from Fre 321, French Fiction up to 1850. Hanover College, January and February 1999.

Ferrante, Joan M. and Economou, George D., eds. In Pursuit of Perfection: Courtly Love In Medieval Literature. Port Washington: Kennikat Press: National University Publications, 1975.

Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

O’Donoghue, Bernard. The Courtly Love Tradition. Totowa: Manchester University Press, 1982.

Troyes, Chrétien de. Lancelot or The Knight of the Cart. Trans. Ruth Harwood Cline. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Weigand, Hermann J. Three Chapters on Courtly Love in Arthurian France and Germany. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1956.