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The Chivalric Ideal, Part III (work in progress)

The Rules of Courtly Love

Ah, Courtly Love!  It conjures up images of handsome courtiers, lounging and languishing at the feet of their lady fair, begging a token to wear upon their sleeve, gallant knights jousting for their lady's honor, minstrels singing romantic ballads... Courtly Love was all of these things and more.  It was conceived of in Eleanor of Aquitaine's "Court of Love" during the 12th century.  Its strict rules and dictates were passed along from court to court by the minstrels and bards, and it became an integral part of the Chivalric culture.

The rules of Courtly Love were complex, and governed the "proper" relationships of noble lords and ladies.  The basic idea was that a knight was not "complete" unless he had a lady to whom he was devoted.  This was to make the knight more gentile.  Who wanted a stinky blood covered ravening warrior stomping around their court?  While martial prowess was a necessity in the medieval era, that didn't mean one had to be a barbarian.  The knight's devotion to his lady would civilize his image.  For her honor and glory would he fight, to her beauty he would compose songs.  She would be the first thing he thought of in the morning, and the last thought befre sleep.

Of course, the catch is, this lady was not, and indeed should not be, his wife!  In the Middle Ages, marriage was about property, lineage, continuing the family line, alliances... it had nothing to do with love.  Marriage was a contract, much like the contract between lord and vassal.  A vassal needn't love his lord to fulfill the contract.  In this line of thinking, one needn't love one's wife to fulfill the contract of marriage, which is to impart to her the use of one's goods, name, and property, in exchange for children and service.

This is not to say that love matches did not occur.  It's just that they were rather uncommon.  Also, nobody wanted to encourage young people to fight for love marriages.  It does seem to be a peculiar dichotomy; romantic love was encouraged, just not to one's spouse!  Indeed, it was considered rather common and ill-bred for husband and wife to be in love.  How like rutting peasants!  WE don't marry for such a venal thing as love, we marry for status and power!

So is this all about rampant adultery?  Perhaps it amounted to that, in actual practice.  But the rules said NO.  The Knight was supposed to worship his lady from afar, never touching her.  (Lancelot and Guinevere broke that rule and look what happened to THEM).  The lovers were supposed to be above lust.  Courtly Love was supposed to be totally pure, not unlike the devotion to the Virgin Mary.  In fact, it is widely held that Mary's rise in importance at this time is linked to the practice of Courtly Love.

The theory was that Courtly Love would liberate the knight from demeaning attachments.  If a knight loved his wife, she might mike undue demands on him.  Worse, if he loved the servant girl he was currently shagging, he might be subservient to her, a peasant!  The proper and worthy object of a knight's love was therefore a lady either equal to or above the knight's stature.  Ideally, she should be married to a husband conveniently away on pilgrimage, or at least disinclined to take exception.  Courtly Love was not logical, but it allowed men to give their hearts freedom without compromising their duty or honor.

What about the women, then?  For the lady, the idea was to inspire as many men as possible to be in love with her.  The lady was supposed to be gracious, kind, accomplished, learned and pious.  She needed to be intelligent and educated enough so that she could understand that all the songs that were written for her, be able to hold her own in conversation, and understand the honor of having someone fight in tournaments in her name.  However, the rules dictated that she also be distant, a little cruel, so that the eager knight wasn't encouraged to do something stupid....again, like Lancelot, or Tristan.  There were actually two schools of thought about women.  One said that she should remain aloof from the behaviors of courtly love (like the Virgin Mary), while the other said that she should secretly pick one her admirers to fall in love with, but never allow him to know for certain that he was her chosen.