courtly loveFrench amour courtoisA late medieval, highly conventionalized code that prescribed the behavior and emotions of ladies and their lovers. Amour courtois also provided the theme of an extensive courtly medieval literature that began with the troubadour poetry of Aquitaine and Provence in southern France toward the end of the 11th century.
The courtly lover existed to serve his lady. His love was invariably adulterous, upper-class marriage at that time being usually the result of economic interest or the seal of a power alliance. The lover ultimately saw himself as serving the all-powerful god of love and worshiping his lady-saint. Faithlessness was the one mortal sin.
The Roman poet Ovid undoubtedly provided inspiration in the developing concept of courtly love. His Ars Amatoria(The Art of Love) had pictured the lover as the slave of passion--sighing, trembling, growing pale and sleepless, even dying for love. The Ovidian lover's adoration was calculated to win sensual rewards; the courtly lover, however, while displaying the same outward signs of passion, was usually willing to love his lady from afar.
The idea of courtly love spread swiftly across Europe, and a decisive influence in this transmission was Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife first to Louis VII of France and then to Henry II of England, who inspired some of the best poetry of Bernard de Ventadour, among the last and finest of troubadour poets. Eleanor's daughter Marie of Champagne encouraged the composition of Chretien de Troyes's courtly romance Lancelot, ou Le Chevalier de la charrette. Soon afterward the doctrine of courtly love was "codified" in a three-book treatise by Andre le Chapelain. In the 13th century a long allegorical poem, the Roman de la rose, expressed the concept of a lover suspended between happiness and despair.
Courtly love soon pervaded the literatures of Europe. The German minnesinger lyrics and court epics such as Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan und Isolde are evidence of its power. Italian poetry embodied the courtly ideals as early as the 12th century, and during the 14th century their essence was distilled in Petrarch's sonnets to Laura. But perhaps more significantly, Dante had earlier managed to fuse courtly love and mystical vision: his Beatrice was, in life, his earthly inspiration, and in La divina commedia she became his spiritual guide to the mysteries of Paradise. Courtly love was also a vital influential force on most medieval literature in England, but there it came to be adopted as part of the courtship ritual leading to marriage.