Courtly love: A philosophy of love prevalent in medieval literature that purported to describe — but more truly prescribed — certain codes of behavior between aristocratic men and women. Although courtly love has come to suggest an ideal, spiritual love beyond physical pleasure, the term still refers to a specific method of courtship and specific manner of amorous conduct.
Courtly love conventions are often traced to the lyrics of the troubadours of eleventh and twelfth-century Provence (now part of France). Important influences included the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote Ars amatoris (The Art of Love) (c. 1 B.C.) and Remedia amoris (The Remedies for Love) (c. A.D. 1), and traditions involving the veneration of the Virgin Mary.
As its name suggests, courtly love refers to love as practiced among the nobility. It involves a nobleman (often a knight) meeting a lady with such striking beauty that he instantly falls in love and begins to exhibit wretched symptoms of ill health and anxiety (such as pallor, loss of appetite, and fits of weeping). If the lady who is the object of his veneration accepts him as her lover, however, the man regains his health and well-being. He then subjects himself to her every caprice and obsequiously serves her. Courtly love does not lead to marriage, which for medieval aristocrats was generally arranged and based on political and economic considerations. Indeed, the lady involved in a courtly love relationship is usually a married woman who depends upon the discretion of her lover to keep their relationship a secret.
With regard to adultery, two traditions of courtly love exist. Early on, adultery was glorified to the point that it was represented as an almost religious experience; later, however, beginning particularly with Italian epic poet Dante Alighieri, courtly love often meant a Platonic (unconsummated) love, one in which the lady inspired her lover to achieve a higher spiritual state rather than to perform noble deeds.
Whether courtly love was purely a literary convention or whether it actually reflected aristocratic practice to any significant extent is still debated. Although representations of courtly love became less common toward the end of the Medieval Period, the influence of the courtly love tradition persisted in the literature of subsequent eras, particularly in Renaissance love poetry influenced by the sonnets of Petrarch, a fourteenth-century Italian poet. The special spiritual status accorded to women and the theme of love’s ennobling power are two aspects of the courtly love tradition that have continued to influence Western thought, perhaps even to this day.
EXAMPLES: Courtly love traditions are represented in “Le rossignol” by the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poet Marie de France, “La mort de Tristan et d’Yseult” (from Les romans de Tristan) by the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poet known simply as Thomas, “The Knight’s Tale” (c. 1387) by Geoffrey Chaucer, and Le morte d’Arthur (1485) by Sir Thomas Malory.