english history · european history · history

The Tradition of Courtly Love

It’s time for February’s post and I thought it would be only fitting to write a post regarding the theme of love. As I was beginning my research and narrowing down different topics I came across a most amusing book, The Art of Courtly Love, written between 1174-1184 (dates are not precise) by a clergyman by the name of Andreas Capelanus (also known as Andreas the Chaplain). Requested by his patron, Countess Marie of Champagne (daughter of the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine and her first husband, Louis VII of France), this book outlines the rules of courtly love in the guise of a lesson to Andreas’ fictional friend, Walter (who it seems has just been rejected by his beloved). Yet, there is more to it than just Capelanus’s rules. This was an important part of social life in noble circles, at least so much so that Countess Marie requested a written work on it. The work of Andreas Capelanus spread far through courts across Europe and began to be printed in the 1400s. There is debate whether courtly love was actually practiced or if it was just a literary device, but, either way, it seems to have been important to society. In this post, I wanted to dive into some of the details regarding this tradition. One of the most surprising discovers is the appeal that courtly love may have held for women of this period which is supported through the patronage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie of Champagne.

Countess Marie of Champagne


It seems that the practice of courtly love began in Southern France in Aquitaine and Provence. The practice spread to the Northern countries partly through Eleanor of Aquitaine and her marriages with Louis VII of France and Henry II of England. Her children would continue to expand the practice and traditions further. Her daughters of her first marriage, Countess Marie and Countess Alix of Blois would spread literary interests. Countess Marie would become a patron of poets such as Chretien de Troyes (The Knight of the Cart) and of Andreas Capelanus who would write of these traditions at her requests. Eleanor’s sons by Henry II (Henry, Geoffrey, and Richard) would become patrons of literature as well. Richard the Lionheart was known to compose his own poetry. It is easy to see why social, literary, and artistic patronage would be of an interest to Eleanor. Her family in Aquitaine had a history of participation in this fad. Her own grandfather, Guilhem IX of Aquitaine, was not only a duke who led military campaigns, but was also one of the first “troubadours” and would write lyric poetry in the Occitan language. He would write humorous and scandalous poems, but also poems that exemplified courtly love:

Every joy must abase itself,

And every might obey

In the presence of Midons [‘my lord’, expressing homage], for the sweetness of her welcome,

For her beautiful and gentle look;

And a man who wins to the joy of her love

Will live a hundred years


The joy of her can make the sick man well again,

Her wrath can make a well man die,

…the courtliest man can become a churl,

And any churl a courtly man…

By the year 1170, Eleanor became estranged from her husband, Henry II, and moved back to her own hereditary domains in southern France. Her favored son, Richard, was only about thirteen years old and had been named as the duke of these domains by his father. As Richard was so young, Eleanor would become the reigning duchess again of Aquitaine and their holdings. She would set out with determination to revive her court in Poitors. With her son in tow, acknowledged as the new duke, Eleanor would go on a royal tour of her lands gathering the old Aquitaine nobility creating an entourage of young nobles and prospective knights. There would be a variety of entertainments like poetry, singing, tournaments, dancing, special events, etc. Eleanor would be a patron of the arts and provide a valuable courtly education for these prospective heirs. She would also use the rebuilding of her ducal home to showcase some of the treasures she had brought home from when she traveled to Byzantium on Crusade with her first husband supporting her love of the arts.

Eleanor of Aquitaine


Countess Marie, as a daughter of Eleanor, probably knew a lot of her families poetic beginnings, but also married into a duchy with a strong literary tradition. Her court of love was stationed in Troyes (her husband’s domain) and writers and poets found many sponsorships. She may have also been in contact with her mother as she set up her court in Poitors, collaborating and sharing ideas. This was the atmosphere Andreas the Chaplain had to write his treatise on The Art of Courtly Love at the direction of the Countess. There is not much known of the author except that he was a clergyman. He may not have approved of much of what he was writing about for the Countess and this is evident in the writing, yet it is ironic that it became so popular. Some view it as a satire piece, though I believe there must be some truth in the traditions or it would not have been approved by his patron. Per John Jay Parry’s translation of the work, it is thought that Andreas the Chaplain was attempting to portray Queen Eleanor’s court in Poitiers between 1170 and 1174 (by 1174, she had been called back to England by her husband). It seems courtly love was the new fad among those of the “leisure” classes.

It can be suspected that since society was so restrained by the church that it was natural something of courtly love would come about to provide a bit of fun in society. The church was very restrictive and did not approve of love in the idealized sense. One married for property and for the procreation of children and did not partake in the “sinful” character of love. Women specifically were very restricted as they were to perform their duty to their family and remain obedient. Courtly love was something outside of marriage that contradicted to all of society’s expectations.

Andreas writes this treatise as if he is writing to his friend, Walter, “a new recruit of Love” in order to teach him how to come back from rejection and get a proper beloved. Andreas defines love as “a certain inborn suffering derived from the sigh of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love’s precepts in the other’s embrace.” Yet, despite the suffering, he goes on to explain, true love brings out the best traits in a person. A lover is humble and would give up everything, all worldly positions to attain it. Courtly love is fickle and can always be either increasing or decreasing, which supports the importance of a written rule book.

There are five means by which love may be acquired, per The Art of Courtly Love. These include “a beautiful figure, excellence of character, extreme readiness of speech, great wealth, and the readiness with which one grants that which is sought.” Though it is important to only acquire love from the first three options as the other two viewed dishonorable. A good character is the most important thing one should look for in a potential lover, which might not be what you’d expect from a world based on class and wealth. Money, according to Andreas, will not buy you proper love.

“A person of good character draws the love of another person of the same kind, for a well-instructed lover, man or woman, does not reject an ugly lover if the character within is good.A man who proves to be honorable and prudent cannot easily go astray in love’s path or cause distress to his beloved. If a wise woman selects as her lover a wise man, she can very easily keep her love hidden forever; she can teach a wise lover to be even wiser, and if he isn’t so wise she can restrain him and make him careful.”

Good character lies supreme over all when it comes to choosing a partner through courtly love, even if physical beauty is lacking or there is a difference in class (though be sure not to include peasants, clergy and prostitutes in that number, per Andreas). I believe good character would be defined by Andreas as someone who is accomplished, humble, chaste, generous, polite and courageous. This is the feeling I got from reading The Art of Courtly Love. On the other hand, an excess of passion would not have been attractive in a courtly lover. Lust and disloyalty will hurt one’s courtly love affair.

Image result for courtly love


“An excess of passion is a bar to love, because there are men who are slaves to such passionate desire that they cannot be held in the bonds of love–men who, after they have thought long about some woman…when they see another woman straightway desire her embraces, they forget about the services they have received from their first love, and they feel no gratitude for them. Men of this kind lust after every woman they see; their love is like that of a shameless dog. They should rather, I believe be compared to asses, for they are moved only by that low nature which shows men are on the level of other animals rather than by that true nature which sets us apart from all the other animals by the difference of reason.”

I thought it was interesting that Andreas, a man of his time, would point this out. He continues later that “if one of the lovers should be unfaithful to the other…he renders himself wholly unworthy of his former love, and she ought to deprive him completely of her embraces, because the feeling of love he formerly had is now completely gone.” Andreas actually encourages the woman to leave the man and accepting that lover back into her life would just cause herself unneeded suffering. Andreas explains that the woman should never take back an unfaithful man, even if he asks permission to leave. If he does ask this she should reject him immediately. I thought this was surprisingly empowering of women, during a time where they were treated as essentially property. A woman has the power to reject a man who has wronged her through the practice of courtly love.

The idea of courtly love can be viewed as providing women with more power and authority. She is the the one to be worshiped and men are to become their projects. A woman can choose who she wishes to bestow her favor on and when she wishes to reject advances, which contradicts the practice and restraint of arranged marriages. The woman can, through her love, make a man of good character. For example, Andreas writes eight different dialogues between members of different classes and their experience pursuing courtly love. In the dialogue between the middle class man and the noble woman, the middle class man begs her to become his teacher and provide him with wisdom. A training in good character can make everyone noble.

Image result for courtly love


The power is truly in the woman’s hand as courtly love, as it appeared to me in my research, was based on obtaining a woman’s favor and the hope of her love. Andreas writes that a man should always try to flatter his beloved early in the conversation and the dialogue’s are riddled with this (changing depending on the class situation). He also writes that a man should be sympathetic. If he happens to offend his love, he must apologize immediately. A man must always be obedient and humble and not brag to others about his love. In his twelve rules of acquiring love, Andreas is very specific on certain points: always be modest, always be polite and courteous, do not exceed the desires of the lover, and always obey the lady.

I can see why this practice may have been appealing to women of this era. This was a time when marriage was used for political gain and a woman no more than a pawn. She would have to marry as her family wished in order to enhance their fortunes. Very rarely could she be granted a divorce, as this practice was unfavorable to the Church. She was restrained and made to be obedient, yet courtly love may have been an outlet. It is one of the rules of courtly love that marriage and true love are incompatible. They must and can only remain separate. In one of the dialogues a letter from Countess Marie is quoted (I do not know if this was real or made up by Andreas): “We declare and we hold as firmly established that love cannot exert its powers between two people who are married to each other. For loves give each other everything freely, under no compulsion of necessity, but married people are duty bound to give in to each other’s desires and deny themselves to each other nothing.” Basically, she is saying that marriage is a duty, while love is given without concerns for wealth, status, or obligation (in theory). This is probably why another of the rules of courtly love is to keep it a secret!

Andreas creates a list of 31 ultimate rules of courtly love, and though I will not share all, I believe some to be interesting:

  • Marriage is no real excuse of not loving
  • He who is not jealous cannot love
  • No one can be bound by a double love
  • The which a lover takes against the will of his beloved has no relish
  • Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice
  • A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved
  • When made public love rarely endures
  • Good character alone makes any man worthy of love
  • If love diminishes it quickly fails and rarely revives
  • A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved

How were these “rules” put into practice? Poetry and song were large outlets for expression of this type of love. Take these three verses I have selected from Bernart de Ventadorn’s,  It is no wonder if I sing:

In all good faith, without deceit

I love her, the fairest and best.

I sigh in my heart and weep from my eyes,

For I love her so much that I grieve.

What more can I do, imprisoned by Love

In a cell, while she keeps the key?

It will be opened only by mercy,

And no mercy comes to me


This love strikes me so gently

In the heart with its sweet savor,

A hundred times a day I die in pain

And revive with joy a hundred more.

The bad in me wears a beautiful face,

For my bad is better than another man’s good;

And since my bad is so good for me,

The good after grief will be good indeed…


Good lady, I ask you nothing at all

Except to make me your servant,

For I’ll serve you as I would a good lord,

And never ask for another reward.

So here I am, at your command,

A frank, humble heart, courtly and glad!

You’re surely not a lion or bear

Who’d slay me when I surrender!

Ventadorn follows the practice of courtly love as he is consumed by the image of his beloved. It is all consuming and powerful, he is searching for the hope of love from the woman of his heart. He asks to be her servant, he is not worthy of her but her love will make him worthy. Most importantly, he asks for no reward, which shows he is not influenced by greed or status.

God Speed! By Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900


There is also an example of a female troubadour during this period who also wrote of courtly love. I loved finding examples of female writings. I wonder if courtly love actually provided more opportunities for female troubadours?

The female troubadour who was active during this period was known as La Comtessa de Dia (her true identity has never been known).

The poem I selected is titled From joy and youth I take my fill:

From joy and youth I take my fill,

And joy and youth fill me up;

Because my lover is a merry man,

I am merry and pretty, too.

And since I’m always true to him

It’s only right he’s true to me;

For my love for him has never waned

And wane it never shall.


I’m pleased that he’s a worthy man,

The one who’s worth so much to me,

And pray that those who set us up

God will set in great delight.

And if they say I do bad things

He should say no if I say it’s not true;

For the man who hunts for switches

May turn out to be the one switched

These are the first two verses and the Comtessa de Dia is hitting on the important themes of good character (worth) and the importance of loyalty. These are key for a woman to look for when she is pursuing a courtly lover during this time. He must be worthy and true to her.

She continues in the next two verses:

So a lady who cares for her name

Must surely give her care

To a worthy, noble knight.

And when she sees his worth

Let her open up to love,

For once the love of a lady opens,

No noble or charming man

Will speak lightly of her charms


My man is so high-born and handsome

He makes merit rise even higher;

Sensitive, giving, and deft,

He has the gift of wit.

I pray that he’ll believe in me,

Not in others who’d make him believe

That I could ever be false to him—

Unless he were false to me!

These verses reveal the woman’s anxiety regarding how her own character is viewed by primarily her beloved. She worries that gossip and rumor will affect her lovers opinion of her worth. Andreas warns of this anxiety and how it can cause love to “decrease” if it becomes all consuming. That is why trust is important, though Andreas goes on to explain that jealousy is key to increasing love. This is a bit confusing as any tinge of unfaithfulness is bad, but jealousy is good?

Andreas also writes of the famous “Courts of Love” which were supposed councils of women who would take love cases and make a decision. Andreas writes of the cases that some of the women took and made decisions on which include Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Countess Marie, and other high born ladies who were popular in the European courts. Were these “courts” real? Probably not, but could Andreas accounts be based on events he saw or experienced? In the context of the book, they are used to illustrate the rules of love and give a nod to his patron. These cases would hit on the issues of marriage, unfaithfulness, deciding between two loves, worthiness of character, and unusual situations (like what if your lover lost a limb in war?).

Image result for courtly love

Yet, there were criticisms of the practice of courtly love. Was this just a game or did it lead to something more sinful? Christine de Pizan, a medieval writer and early feminist, wrote about her disapproval of the practice. She believed it was actually a harmful practice to the woman who gained nothing, while the men gained more. The woman would only gain more anxiety, due to the secretive nature of the practice and then more “dishonor and criticism” when the truth came out. She also disagreed with the idea that marriage and love should always be held as separate. As a Christian as well, she found courtly love to be an excuse to legitimize adultery. This is a valid criticism of practice and would definitely have been distasteful to the Christian values medieval contemporaries were taught. I don’t believe Andreas, as a clergyman, believed in the practice either.

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Tristan and Isolde by Edmund Blair Leighton


Courtly love was an interesting social practice among the upper classes of medieval society which expressed itself through literature and poetry. There is speculation whether it was actually practice in real life, but there is evidence that the themes were rampant in the written word of the day. The practice was spread greatly by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine throughout her life and through her offspring. The practice created an outlet for those who felt constrained by the duties of medieval society and by the Churches teachings. It possibly provided more power and freedom to the woman, who the practice was built around, whose duty to society constrained them. Yet, others criticized it as an excuse to commit adultery and distance themselves from the Church. Overall, this has been an interesting topic to research and eventually evolved into our ideas of a “perfect love” or “romance” today.

Thank you for taking the time to read my post! I am sorry if the formatting is a bit off. I am still trying to figure out how to use the new wordpress editor!


Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Translated by John Jay Parry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990

Paden, William D. Troubadour Poems from the South of France. Boydell & Brewer, 2007

Bogin, Meg. The Women Troubadours. W.W. Norton Company, 1976

Kelly, Amy. “Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Courts of Love.” Speculum Vol 12, no. 1 (Jan 1937): 3-19.



“Love as a Threat: Christine de Pizan’s Reflections on Courtly Love in the Book of The Duke of True Lovers” article by Safak Altunsoy

All images obtained from Google Images

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