Courtly love as a literary phenomenon reflects one of the most far-reaching revolutions in social sensibility in Western culture — the dramatic change in attitude towards women that began in the late eleventh century, spread throughout western and northern Europe during the twelfth century, and lingered through the Renaissance and on into the modern world where elements can still be found. In its essential nature, 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 Guenevere–both involved women who deceived their husbands.
Implications of Courtly Love
It is possible to discern two long range effects of courtly love on western civilization. For one thing, it provided Europe with a refined and elevated language with which to describe the phenomenology of love. For another, it was a significant factor in the augmented social role of women. Life sometimes has a way of imitating art, and there is little doubt that the aristocratic men and women of the Middle Ages began to act out in their own loves the pattern of courtly behavior they read about in the fictional romances and love lyrics of the period. The social effect was to accord women preeminence in the great, central, human activity of courtship and marriage. Thus women became more than just beloved objects–haughty, demanding, mysterious; they became, in a very real sense, what they have remained ever since, the chief arbiters of the game of love and the impresarios of refined passion.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, in the work of Dante and other poets of the fourteenth century, the distinction between amor and caritas became blurred. Chaucer’s Prioress ironically wears a brooch on which is inscribed, “Amor Vincit Omnia” (“Love Conquers All”). The secular imagery of courtly love was used in religious poems in praise of the Virgin Mary. The lover with “a gentle heart,” as in a poem by Guido Guinizelli, could be led through a vision of feminine beauty to a vision of heavenly grace. One of Dante’s greatest achievements was to turn his beloved, seen primarily in physical, worldly, courtly love terms in his early work, La Vita Nuova, into the abstract, spiritualized, religious figure of Beatrice in The Divine Comedy.