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The Rise of Courtly Love

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the November 1980, A.S. XV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia. Republished in the November 2000, A.S. XXXV issue of the Dragonflyre.

Note: This is the first article Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno) wrote for the Dragonflyre.

The following is a brief and simple overview of the large and complex subject of courtly love. Usually associated with chivalry, it is different from chivalry in many ways. Chivalry is an old, masculine code of social behavior, while courtly love is a more feminine, individualistic code of behavior.

The rise of courtly love can be seen as the cultural counterpart of the twelfth century explosion of learning and art which formed the foundation of the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century. It was a rebellion against the old forms of tradition, and the legacy of the culture of southern France, which was destroyed by the Albigensian Crusade.

The origins of courtly love can be traced to many sources and many of its elements existed before 1100. But it is under Eleanor of Aquitaine that it first flourished. The poets sang of Eleanor:

God save Lady Eleanor
Queen who art the arbiter
Of Honour, wit, and beauty
Of Largesse and loyalty         (Philippe de Thaun)

It was this tireless lady, who had been both Queen of France and England, who was the patron of the most famous names in courtly love: Marie de France, Gautier d’Arras, and perhaps the greatest of them all, Chieties de Troyes.

The first courtly love poets, under the name of troubadours or trouveres, appeared a century earlier. Eleanor’s own grandfather, Guillaume Duke of Aquitaine, was the first troubadour whose work survived. Their main art from, the chanson d’amour, had its prototype in the chanson of Andalusia, a Spanish province then under Arab control. But it is in Provence in France where the true chanson d’amour was born. A typical chanson would be The Pretty Fruits of Love

I rose up early yestermorn
Before the sun was shining bright,
And stepped within a garden fair
Letting my sleeves trail in the light,
And heard a pretty maid dark-eyed
Singing in a meadow near
And delight it was to hear
Her sweet confiding:
       “The pretty fruits of love
       There’s no more Hiding.”

And her lament of full intent
I heard as she spoke sighing there:
“God, I have lost my lover, he
Who loved me so, handsome and fair.
That I should ever be his dear
‘twas such an oath I had from him:
And I have done a foolish thing
None should be chiding.
       The pretty fruits of love
       There’s no more hiding.

“And where is now the young squire gone
Who begged me, ever, night and day,
Lady, take me, body and heart,
And keep me for your love, I pray,
I am your loyal knight always.
And now I’m all alone; what’s done
No longer lets my girdle run
With clasp confining.
       The pretty fruits of love
       There’s no more hiding.

“Now it behooves me loosen out
My girdle span a little mite;
Already is my belly big,
A bigger still I must requite.
Then while I carry this in sight--
No more a maiden stand confessed--
I’ll sing this song, within my breast
For ever hiding:
       The pretty fruits of love
       There’s no more hiding.”

And I who hear with full intent
Adventured then a shade more near;
No sooner had she looked on me
Than she began to blush with fear
And I to her said, laughing clear,
“To many a maid it happens so.”
For shame her blushed paler grown
No more confiding.
       “The pretty fruits of love
       There’s no more hiding.”

The chanson d’amour should be distinguished from the older chanson de geste. The chanson d’amour were about the love of the lover to a lady forbidden to him for any number of taboos, all in a very poetic and stylistic form. The chanson de geste was an epic about the noble Franks in their war against the “heathen” which was often anyone who challenged the glory of France. The chanson de geste was from the established culture, centered around Paris and the French king. And although the University of Paris was just forming with such people as Peter Abelard and William of Champeaux, Eleanor as Queen found Paris and its culture primitive and provincial. And upon marrying Henry II of England, she formed a new culture to oppose the old.

As the old culture had Charlemagne and his paladins as patron and subject of its chansons, the new culture adopted Arthur and his knights. And while for the old, the monks were the custodians of man’s soul and Rome the spiritual center, in the new, both roles were taken over by the lover’s lady. Forms of adoration that were reserved for God were now applied to the lady.

But the item that connects courtly love with the rest of the currents of change is the emergence of the individual. The driving force behind courtly love was the freedom of spirit. Love knew no boundaries, least of all marriage. Man who no longer defined by who was his lord, but by his own knowledge and skill at the arts. The ultimate expression of this idea was the “Book of the Courtier” by Castiglione.

Courtly love was also the first “liberation” movement for women. It was in the courts of love that women first acquired the taste of power. For as courtly love was a rebellion against the old order, being organized women, it also was a rebellion against the masculine domination of the feudal world. And it was the ladies who were the arbiter o the new society and the molders of men’s passion.

 

Bibliography

Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier. Trans. Charles S. Singleton. New York: Anchor Books, 1959.

Heer, Friedrich. The Medieval World. New York: New American Library, 1961.

Ross, James Bruce, and Mary Martin McLauglin, ed. The Portable Medieval Reader. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977.

 

Copyright © 1980 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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