[Flower logo of the Medieval History Course] Courtly Love

Kenneth Clark: Civilization [Romance and Reality 600-1100, 6:00]
Courtly love

Of the two or three faculties that have been added to the European mind since the civilisation of Greece and Rome none seems to me stranger and more inexplicable than the sentiment of ideal or courtly love. This was entirely unknown in antiquity. Passion, yes. Desire, yes, of course. Steady affection, yes. But this state of utter subjection to the will of some almost unapproachable woman. This belief that no sacrifice was too great that a whole lifetime might properly be spent in paying court to a disdainful lady, or suffering on her behalf.

This would have seemed to the Romans, or to the Vikings, not only absurd but unbelievable. And yet for hundreds of years it passed unquestioned. It inspired a vast literature, from Chretien de Troyes to Shelly, most of which I find completely unreadable. And even up to 1945, we still retained a number of chivalrous gestures. We raised our hats to ladies and let them pass first through doors, and in America, pushed in their seats at table. We still subscribed to the fantasy that they were chaste and pure beings, in whose presence we couldn't tell certain stories or pronounce certain words.

Well, that's all over now. But it had a long run, and there was much to be said for it. How did it begin? The truth is that nobody knows. Most people think that, like the pointed arch, it came from the East, that pilgrims and Crusaders found in the Muslim world a tradition of Persian literature in which women were the subject of extravagant compliment and devotion.

I don't know enough about Persian literature to say if this is true. But I do think that the Crusades had another, less-direct influence on the concept of courtly love. The lady of a castle must always have had a peculiar position. Cooped up with so many unoccupied young men, who couldn't spend all their time fighting. And when the lord was away for a year or two, the lady was left in charge. She took on his functions and received the kind of homage that was accepted in a feudal society. And the wandering knight who visited her did so with the mixture of deference and hope that one gets in the troubadour poems.

In support of this theory is the subject of the siege of the Castle of Love, which appears on mirror cases and caskets and other domestic objects of the 14th century.

I ought perhaps to add that the idea of marriage doesn't come into the question at all. Medieval marriages were entirely a matter of property. Well, as everybody knows, marriage without love means love without marriage. And then, I suppose, one must admit that the cult of the Virgin had something to do with it. In this context, it sounds rather blasphemous. But the fact remains, that one often hardly knows if a medieval love lyric is addressed to the poet's mistress or to the Virgin Mary. The greatest of all writings about ideal love, Dante's Vita Nouva - the New Life - is a quasi-religious work. And in the end, it is Beatrice who introduces Dante to paradise. So, for all these reasons, I think one can associate the cult of ideal love with the ravishing beauty and delicacy that one finds in the madonnas of the late-13th century.