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‘courtly love’

The Oxford Companion to Chaucer
Douglas Gray

‘courtly love’ 

or ‘amour courtois’. The term is a modern one, used originally to describe the conception of love in the poetry of the Occitan troubadour poets of the 12th c. in southern France, then in the lyric and narrative courtly poetry of northern France and elsewhere, including England. There has been much controversy about the term and its usefulness. It has been claimed that courtly love was an entirely literary conception which had no relationship with actual society or life, but this view has been fiercely denied. It has been claimed that it represents a complete change of consciousness in Western Europe in the 12th c. (and various theories about its possible origins have been put forward). At the other extreme it has been claimed that it was possible in any age or place, and some examples have been produced. Others have argued that it is simply a modern invention of little or no value in the understanding of medieval literature. Since Chaucer never uses the term and seems happy with the word ‘love’, it is tempting to say that that should be good enough for us. Yet he is the inheritor of a distinctive though varied literary tradition in Western love literature, marked by a semi-technical terminology and by certain patterns of ideas.

Courtly love is in the Middle Ages often called fin' amors (or some similar term in other vernaculars, such as Chaucer's ‘fyn lovynge’ (LGW 544). It is essentially a ‘noble’ or ‘exquisite’ love, in contrast to the crude passion of ‘churls’ or those of high birth who do not have noble souls; it is opposed to venial or inconstant love, and to ignoble passions like jealousy (see jalousie). Although traditional patterns of ideas or behaviour may be recognized, we do not have a rigidly fixed ‘code’ with ‘rules’ (see Andreas Capellanus). There are examples of adulterous or extramarital love in courtly love stories (those of Lancelot or Tristram, for instance), but there are also cases where love and marriage coexist (in Chrétien de Troyes as well as in Chaucer). What seems to interest the poets primarily is not whether the love is inside or outside marriage, but the quality of the love itself.

We might safely distinguish the following patterns, which are commonly, though not universally found. Love comes from the sight of the lady; the male lover's heart is pierced by her eyes. There are examples of a distant love (amour lointain) based on hearsay or reputation (as that of the Sultan in MLT), but typically love comes from an actual encounter. It is an overwhelming passion, which turns the lover's world upside down, like a ‘conversion’ (as in Troilus and Criseyde). The lover then humbly serves his lady, who is for him the sum of all excellence. He serves her with a religious devotion (religious language is often used: the lady is sometimes mistaken for a goddess, or is sometimes the ‘figure’ of a goddess; sometimes the first falling in love occurs in a church or a temple). It is a voluntary service which involves suffering. Typically, the unrequited lover will grow pale with sleepless nights, tremble at the sight of his lady, suffer from melancholy, from lovesickness, ‘the loveris maladye | Of Hereos’ (I.1373–4). There is an exquisite blend of pain and joy. But through suffering love ennobles the lover. He grows in the virtues of noble love, ‘gentilesse’, ‘curteisie’, dignity and honour, courage and worth. He will not imagine that he will ever be fully worthy of his lady, but love will make him less unworthy. The lady, for her part, has free choice. She may give her ‘grace’ if and when she wishes. It is assumed that she should show ‘mercy’ to her suppliant lover if he has served her nobly and constantly, but the choice is hers. She will, however, run the risk of being stigmatized as a cruel and heartless mistress, like the lady in La Belle Dame sans Merci (see daunger). Typically, the affair will be secret and discreet. It will usually end in physical consummation, in which the fullest ‘joy of love’ will be experienced. Fin' amors is associated with youth, and beauty, and joy.

Chaucer was obviously completely familiar with this kind of love literature. However, for him it is usually only one kind of love which forms part of a varied and mysterious spectrum (see love, marriage). He will make his own adaptations, like blending it with a philosophically based marriage in The Franklin's Tale, where Arveragus is his lady's ‘servant in love, and lord in mariage’ (V.793). Or he will use its ideas or terminology with comedy or irony, as when in a very non-courtly context in The Miller's Tale, Nicholas in the throes of ‘deerne [secret] love’ for Alison, finally wins favour when he ‘gan mercy for to crye’ (I.3288). But there are a number of poems in which the language or concepts of fin' amours figure prominently and seriously. The Man in Black's recollection of his wooing of the Lady White in The Book of the Duchess is a case in point: after a long service, his lady gave him ‘the noble yifte of hir mercy’. In The Knight's Tale, Palamon is wounded through the eye by the beauty of Emily, and thinks that she is the goddess Venus. Arcite, who is hurt as much as he is, finally dies with the words ‘mercy, Emelye!’ on his lips. In Troilus and Criseyde especially, we have a dramatic presentation of an overwhelming passion, of the sufferings of ‘this wondre maladie’, and the ennobling power of love: ‘for he bicom the frendlieste wight, | the gentilest, and ek the mooste fre …’. But Troilus is more than a ‘typical courtly lover’, and the love story that is unfolded is far more than a typical story of fin' amors.


Dronke, Peter (1965, 1966), Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love Lyric, 2 vols. (Oxford);Find this resource:

Lewis, C. S. (1936), The Allegory of Love (Oxford);Find this resource:

Newman, F. X. (1968) (ed.), The Meaning of Courtly Love (Albany, NY);Find this resource:

Wack Mary F. (1990), Lovesickness in the Middle Ages. The “Viaticum” and its Commentaries (Philadelphia).Find this resource: