What is courtly love?

What is Courtly Love?
An idealized and often illicit form of love celebrated in the literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in which a knight or courtier devotes himself to a noblewoman who is usually married and feigns indifference to preserve her reputation.

Literary Dictionary:

courtly love, a modern term (coined by the French scholar Gaston Paris in 1883, as amour courtois) for the literary cult of heterosexual love that emerged among the French aristocracy from the late 11th century onwards, with a profound effect on subsequent Western attitudes to love. Probably influenced by Arabic love poetry, the troubadours of southern France were followed by northern French trouvères, by German Minnesänger, and by Dante, Petrarch, and other Italian poets in converting sexual desire from a degrading necessity of physical life into a spiritually ennobling emotion, almost a religious vocation. An elaborate code of behaviour evolved around the tormented male lover’s abject obedience to a disdainful, idealized lady, who was usually his social superior. Some of these conventions may derive from misreadings of the Roman poet Ovid, but this form of adoration also imitated both feudal servitude and Christian worship, despite celebrating the excitements of clandestine adultery (as in stories of Lancelot and Guinevere) rather than the then merely economic relation of marriage. The most important literary treatments of courtly love appear in Chrétien de Troyes’s romance Lancelot (late 12th century), and in the first part of the 13th‐century allegorical poem, the Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris, later translated by Chaucer. Middle English literature shows less enthusiasm for, or understanding of, courtly love: Chaucer treated the cult sceptically, if sympathetically, but its later influence, established and modified through the Petrarchan tradition, is strong in 16th‐century English lyrics.
Britannica Concise Encyclopedia:

Late-medieval code that prescribed the highly conventionalized behaviour and emotions of aristocratic ladies and their lovers. It was the theme of an extensive literature that began with late 11th-century troubadour poetry in France and swiftly pervaded Europe. The courtly lover, who saw himself as enslaved by passion but fired by respect, faithfully served and worshiped his lady-saint. Courtly love was invariably adulterous, largely because upper-class marriage at the time was usually the result of economic interest or the seal of a power alliance. Its literary sources are believed to be found in Arabic literature, transmitted to Europe through Arab-dominated Spain; the growing religious cult of Mary was another influence. Examples of works inspired by the ideal are the Roman de la rose, Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the lyrics of the trouvères and minnesingers. See also chivalry.

Columbia Encyclopedia:

courtly love, philosophy of love and code of lovemaking that flourished in France and England during the Middle Ages. Although its origins are obscure, it probably derived from the works of Ovid, various Middle Eastern ideas popular at the time, and the songs of the troubadours. According to the code, a man falls passionately in love with a married woman of equal or higher rank. Before his love can be declared, he must suffer long months of silence; before it can be consummated, he must prove his devotion by noble service and daring exploits. The lovers eventually pledge themselves to secrecy and to remain faithful despite all obstacles. In reality, courtly love was little more than a set of rules for committing adultery. It was more important as a literary invention, expressed in such works as Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot (12th cent.), Guillaume de Lorris’s Roman de la Rose (13th cent.), and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (14th cent.). In these works it was the subjective presentation of the lovers’ passion for each other and their consideration for other people that transformed the code of courtly love into one of the most important literary influences in Western culture.

Poetry Glossary:

A late medieval idealized convention establishing a code for the conduct of amorous affairs of ladies and their lovers. Expressed and spread by the minnesingers and troubadours, it became associated with the literary concept of love until the 19th century.


Courtly love was a medieval European conception of nobly and chivalrously expressing love and admiration. Generally, courtly love was secret and between members of the nobility.It was also generally not practiced between husband and wife.
Courtly love began in the ducal and princely courts of Aquitaine, Provence, Champagne and ducal Burgundy, at the end of the eleventh century. In essence, courtly love was an experience between erotic desire and spiritual attainment that now seems contradictory, “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent”.
The term “courtly love” was first popularized by Gaston Paris in 1883, and has since come under a wide variety of definitions and uses, even being dismissed as nineteenth-century romantic fiction. Its interpretation, origins and influences continue to be a matter of critical debate. Paris said amour courtois was an idolization and ennobling discipline. The lover (idolizer) accepts the independence of his mistress and tries to make himself worthy of her by acting bravely and honorably (nobly) and by doing whatever deeds she might desire. Sexual satisfaction, Paris said, may not have been a goal or even end result, but the love was not entirely Platonic either, as it was based on sexual attraction
The themes of courtly love were not confined to the medieval, but seen both in serious and comic forms in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, shows Romeo attempting to love Rosaline in an almost contrived courtly fashion while Mercutio mocks him for it.
A point of ongoing controversy about courtly love is to what extent it was sexual. All courtly love was erotic to some degree, and not purely platonic—the troubadours speak of the physical beauty of their ladies and the feelings and desires the ladies rouse in them. However, it is unclear what a poet should do: live a life of perpetual desire channeling his energies to higher ends, or physically consummate. Scholars have seen it both ways.
Many scholars identify courtly love as the “pure love” described in 1184 by Andreas Capellanus in De amore libri tres:
It is the pure love which binds together the hearts of two lovers with every feeling of delight. This kind consists in the contemplation of the mind and the affection of the heart; it goes as far as the kiss and the embrace and the modest contact with the nude lover, omitting the final solace, for that is not permitted for those who wish to love purely…. That is called mixed love which gets its effect from every delight of the flesh and culminates in the final act of Venus.[18]
Within the corpus of troubadour poems there is a wide range of attitudes, even across the works of individual poets. Some poems are physically sensual, even bawdily imagining nude embraces, while others are highly spiritual and border on the platonic.[19]
Stages of courtly love
(Adapted from Barbara Tuchman[21])
■ Attraction to the lady, usually via eyes/glance
■ Worship of the lady from afar
■ Declaration of passionate devotion
■ Virtuous rejection by the lady
■ Renewed wooing with oaths of virtue and eternal fealty
■ Moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire (and other physical manifestations of lovesickness)
■ Heroic deeds of valor which win the lady’s heart
■ Consummation of the secret love
■ Endless adventures and subterfuges avoiding detection.
Courtly Love


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