Lancelot is desperate to reach Guinevere’s chamber – so desperate that he’s crawled over a bridge made from a sword blade to rescue her. The French poet Chrétien de Troyes describes Lancelot’s fingers shredded to the bone as he wrenches the bars from her window, but in her service he feels no pain…
When, in the latter part of the 12th century, Chrétien de Troyes wrote this powerful account in his poem Lancelot, he was giving voice to an ideal taken up by almost every other writer of the Arthurian stories, from Thomas Malory in the 1460s to Lerner and Loewe in the mid-20th century, when they wrote the musical Camelot.
But the idea of what a later age dubbed “courtly love” goes far beyond the Arthurian tales. This creed of love was heard in the songs of the troubadours and given formal shape in the courts of what we now call France. It began as a literary fantasy, centred around the image of service – a knight, or young noble lover, kneeling in devotion before a lady he may never even attain – which fascinated the aristocracy. Triggering a huge outpouring of poems, songs and novels, courtly love was described by medievalist and writer CS Lewis as a movement compared to which “the Renaissance [was] a mere ripple on the surface of literature”.
Yet in reality, its tropes did not stay confined to the page. Indeed, the image of a man in service to his lover is a picture we still all recognise today. Take, for instance, the popular TV adverts “The lady loves Milk Tray”, where a heroic man went to ludicrous lengths to bring his lover her desire: a box of chocolates. Enshrined in many of our traditional ceremonies and courtesies, its basic tenets have come to inform our whole idea of romance.
But we aren’t the only society to be influenced by courtly love. Time and again, medieval monarchs made political capital from the fantasy. And certainly the ideas of chivalry, and of courtly love, were co-opted into the service of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VII used the Arthurian legends to bolster his fragile new dynasty; Henry VIII called on courtly tropes to woo Anne Boleyn. Their daughter Elizabeth found there a language to sanction her controversial female monarchy.
One of thorniest issues in the creed was whether courtly lovers should surrender to their passions. It had been at the court of Marie de Champagne, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughter by Louis VII of France, that de Troyes had written of Lancelot and Guinevere, on the instruction, he said, of his patroness Marie. He did so in terms that saw their adulterous passion honoured for its ardour: this, at a time when church and state alike demanded the harshest penalties for real adultery. Yet de Troyes’ Lancelot genuflects on leaving Guinevere’s chamber, as if at a holy shrine.
It was probably also at Marie’s court that one Andreas Capellanus (Andrew the Chaplain) wrote his De Amore (On Love), in which he laid down the rules for a spiritual, courtly passion: “You must maintain chastity for your lover,” and “remember to avoid lying completely.” Andreas’s ideal relationship takes place between a young man and a woman already married to someone else, and of higher rank than he. As to whether the relationship was necessarily platonic… that one occupied theorists for centuries. At the end of the 13th century, in a different moral climate from that of Marie’s court, the church condemned Capellanus’s writings.
Andreas satirised the extremes to which this ideal of love could lead – and maybe even criticised it, too. Courtly suitors must obey their ladies’ lightest command, but with women of the lower orders, Capellanus said, they should “not hesitate to embrace them by force… use a little compulsion as a convenient cure for their shyness”.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
The (Surprisingly) Modern Middle Ages
From devastating climate change to deadly pandemics, the challenges that kept our medieval ancestors awake at night weren’t so different from those preoccupying us today, says Dan Jones
The Kings And Queens Of Hearts
Sarah Gristwood reveals how the Tudor monarchs exploited the medieval obsession with courtly love – a romantic creed inspired by the idea of valiant knights risking their lives to woo fair ladies – to further their own agendas
The end of empires
RICHARD J EVANS lauds an innovative work that re-examines the Second World War in the context of global imperial ambitions
Let's cherish this shining light of the great Bronze Age civilisations
THE TAMILS’ GLITTERING CULTURAL UNIVERSE
War between friends
CORMAC O GRADA commends an ambitious attempt to objectively examine the conflict that pitted Irish people against each other in the wake of the bloody War of Independence
Prejudice on the pitch
The racist abuse experienced by some of England’s black footballers after the team’s defeat in the Euro 2020 championship final in July thrust the issue of racism in the sport back into the spotlight. MATTHEW TAYLOR charts the causes and consequences of more than a century of discrimination
EMMA DABIRI explores lesser-known stories from our past
INTERVIEW: HELEN CARR & SUZANNAH LIPSCOMB
A new book edited by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb marks the 60th anniversary of EH Carr's What Is History? by asking that question a new for the 21st century
How George V won the war
The First World War ushered many European monarchies to extinction. But not in Britain. Heather Jones reveals how – through canny PR and genuine compassion for the troops – the royal family emerged from the conflict stronger than ever.
SIAN EVANS recommends an entertaining introduction to the adventures of independently wealthy women in Britain over the past four centuries