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Courtly Love and Social Institutions

For several thousand years, the world’s wealthy and nobility used marriage as a contract, a method of binding two families together to increase power or money. Only in the last century has that sort of arranged marriage disappeared. During the Middle Ages, arranged marriages were common in every station of life. From princes to weavers to peasant farmers, it was the social norm for two families to arrange a match between their children for the sake of power and wealth.

In some cases, these unions might bring together two powerful estates or kingdoms, while in ther cases, two smaller farms might combine to become a small estate. This kind of arranged marriage did not always take into account the basic human need for affection. All people want to be loved on some level, especially by someone with whom they spend a significant amount of time. It is this lack of affection in so many marriages that helped lead to the era of courtly love and chivalry, the effects of which are still seen in modern Western culture.

Marriage itself was incredibly important during the Middle Ages for all social classes for both religious and social reasons. Getting married as a way to devote yourself to one person for the rest of your life, much like monks devoted themselves to God. Perhaps this is the reason why Gratian felt justified in saying, “That no woman is to be compelled to marry a man Ambrose testifies commenting on the First Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘Let her marry whom she wills, only in the Lord. That is she shall marry one whom she thinks fit for her, for unwilling marriages commonly have bad results[1]. ” His main point is that anyone who is forced into marriage is very likely to be unhappy and the sacrament of marriage is ot meant to be a punishment. Marriage is the holy union between a man and a woman for the sake of love and having children. However, social standards required men and women to marry people of a similar station.

A king would never be allowed to marry the daughter of a peasant farmer, and a common soldier would never dream of asking a duchess to marry him, regardless of any level of affection between them. For the most part, marriages were still arranged by parents even though the idea was looked down upon by the church, however, it wasn’t nusual for the intended couple to have some say in who they would or would not marry. In the eyes of many, a marriage couldn’t be seen as valid unless there was some form of consent or agreement from both of the parties involved. For between them there was consent which is the efficient cause of marriage according to the words of Isidore… [2]” For example, a father could approve of several suitors for his daughter, but she would be allowed to choose which of them she would marry. Of course, this wasn’t always the case.

There were some instances where children were betrothed at birth to eal an alliance. The marriage itself is somewhat difficult to define. During the Middle Ages, Gratian said, “It should be known that a marriage is begun by betrothal and completed by intercourse[3]. By this, he meant that a betrothal was the technical beginning of the marriage, however, the marriage wasn’t entirely valid until it was consummated. There was some debate over this because many nobles considered a marriage binding as soon as the betrothal was declared, while others had reasons to withdraw from marriage contracts and used the absence of sexual intercourse as a reason o have the marriage annulled. Essentially, marriage was a tool that the rich and powerful used to make themselves even more so, though the church did sometimes support those who did not consent to a forced marriage.

From the late twelfth century to the beginning of the thirteenth century, the idea of courtly love became a standard of behavior for society, especially among the nobility and wealthy middle class. The image of knighthood changed entirely with the advent of courtly love and chivalry. Before the late twelfth century, knights were essentially ounted soldiers who only retained their status for as long as they had their weapons[4]. But, when you think of a knight today, you get the image of a courageous soldier, fighting for good and protecting the weak and innocent.

The ideas behind several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as well as Thomas Mallory’s le Morte d’Artur – two of the most well-known stories of all time and shining examples of what comes to mind when we think of knights – came out of this era of courtly love. The notions of romance and chivalry that are still apparent now, eight hundred years ater, have their roots in this time. So much of society was altered by the standards imposed by courtly love, especially among the nobility, soldiers, and artists.

Though nobody is entirely sure where and when the ideals of courtly love began, it is commonly considered that Andreas Capellanus wrote the most authoritative description of the rules and intentions of courtly love. In his Tractatus, Andreas Capellanus was trying to synthesize two very different notions of love – the sensual and the religious – so he combines elements of the two in his rules for courtly love[5]. The people of the Middle Ages were striving to find a balance between the carnal and the divine, and the standards of courtly love gave them a way to do that.

I think Alexander J. Denomy put it best when he wrote: When the object of love is the pleasure of sense, then love is sensual and carnal; directed towards the spiritual, it is mystic, towards a person of the opposite sex, sexual, towards God, divine. Courtly love is a type of sensual love and what distinguishes it from other forms of sexual love, from mere passion, from so-called platonic love, from married love is its purpose or motive, its formal object, amely, the lover’s progress and growth in natural goodness, merit and worth[6].

The rules of courtly love varied depending on whose court you were visiting, but the general ideas stayed the same. A male lover was expected to present himself to a woman of high social status and engross himself in desire for this woman. The ladies involved were often married and rarely had any kind of direct contact with their “lovers,” however, she was seen as perfect and aloof, almost too good to touch. The male lover was supposed to devote himself to the woman in question, doing deeds in her ame and rendering services to her.

If the “lover” were a poet or troubadour, he would compose poems and songs in his lady’s honor to be performed in her presence. Because the lady does not return any of these feelings or reward the man for his service, he can only better himself and increase his self worth through her praise and approval[7]. Herbert Moller once wrote that, “The venerated person or image is a woman whose very existence in the poet’s life has an assuring, exhilarating and uplifting effect[8].

The man in question is supposed to better himself and purify imself by striving for this woman’s affection and approval in much the same way he would strive for God’s approval. And, like God, the woman does not always show signs of her appreciation because she is so far above him in social, if not spiritual, ranking. In many ways, the Courts of Love were where women ruled over the men. It was an accepted fact that in everyday life, the husband was head of the household and made the important decisions, however, with the rise of courtly love, women gained a certain level of power over men.

Just by looking at the rules you can see how women have more control. The male lover has to be subservient to the object of his affections and she does not have to actually acknowledge him. This era also allowed for women to begin composing their own verses in the romantic style of the age. The Countess de Dia is a prime example of both the proliferation of female poets and the time of female empowerment. The last stanza of her poem, Lovers, shows the power that women wield in the Court of Love. Handsome friend, charming and kind, when shall I have you in my power?

If only I could lie beside you for an hour And embrace you lovingly- Know this, that I’d give almost anything To have you in my husband’s place, But only under the condition that you swear to do my bidding[9]. It becomes obvious that “friend” she is addressing is someone she feels desire for, and she knows that he desires her in return, but she shows her strength and one of the characteristics of courtly love when she tells him that she would replace her husband with him if he would only do what she asks of him.

There is no question that when courtly love and chivalry became a prevalent part of medieval society, women gained a significant amount of social power. Aside from the increase in power for women, courtly love also brought about changes in general social standards of behavior. The advent of chivalry and a certain level of politeness while in public had not been experienced like this before in Western Europe, at least not since Roman times. This new social norm encouraged people to be better than they were before. Courtly love promoted virtue and goodness in all people.

As Andreas Capellanus said in de Amore, “There is another thing about love that we should not praise in few words; it adorns a man, so to speak, with he virtue of chastity, because he who shines with the light of one love can hardly think of embracing another woman, even a beautiful one. For when he thinks of his beloved the sight of any other woman seems to his mind rough and rude[10]. ” Being involved in a courtly romance was an accepted way for a man to become more virtuous by spiritually loving a woman without being sexual.

For a woman, having a man completely devoted to making her appear a better person could only raise her social standing. Also, she would have to remain virtuous and pure simply to be worthy of the raise and tributes she would receive from him. Of course, not everything about Courtly Love was entirely positive. For the nobility, it was a complex game of social climbing and reputation building. For the poor, some of Capellanus’s rules could be seen – in modern times – as a violation of their rights.

In de Amore he addresses a man of noble or wealthy status and says, “If you should, by some chance, fall in love with a peasant woman, be careful to puff her up with lots of praise and then, when you find a convenient place, do not hesitate to take what you seek and to embrace her by force[11]. Basically, he is condoning the rape of peasant women by men of higher social and economic status if those men should fall in love with a peasant girl. However, I can’t see how any man who is actually in love would be able to rape the woman in question, so his point is both moot and offensive.

According to Irving Singer, Capellanus was not being satirical or humorous when he wrote the Tractatus, but rather he was being ambivalent. He was caught between the beauty and purity of holy love, and the carnal passion of natural love[12]. However, when compared to the rest of the rules of courtly love and the deals set down by Capellanus, this particular passage doesn’t make much sense. What is pure or holy about raping a peasant woman? Regardless of the negative side to the Tractatus, most of the principles of courtly love were positive in nature and many have survived to this day.

Simple acts of common courtesy and chivalrous gestures all have their roots in the Courts of Love of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As Herbert Moller wrote, “The entire complex of sentiments and modes of behavior as well as the corresponding poetry was alive only in the welfth and early thirteenth centuries; much of it, however, finally entered the mainstream of Western Civilization, such as the high evaluation of sentimental love and the conspicuous politeness of gentlemen toward ladies, which became specific Western culture patterns[13].

There is no denying the influence that courtly romances had on modern society. Every time a man holds a door open for a woman or somebody hands you the dollar you dropped on the street, they are acting out of the common courtesies first seen in the era of courtly love. The poets and troubadours of the late twelfth century have had a reater impact on Western culture and civilization than they will ever know.

The common courtesies that we so often take for granted and the conventional notions of a pure and spiritual love affair came to us through the centuries from a group of artists who devoted themselves to melding the spiritual love of God with the earthly love of other people. Their songs and poems inspired a few generations of people to change their social habits and their way of thinking about love, and, even now, the ideals introduced by them still hold a place in society and our own art.

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