The Enduring Popularity of Courtly Love

The Enduring Popularity of Courtly Love
Kay L. Stoner

Not long after the turn of the first millennium, C.E., a phenomenon known as "courtly love" emerged in medieval Europe. Andreas Capellanus, chaplain to Marie de France and author of the classic The Art of Courtly Love, defined Love as ". . . a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight 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." Lauded by nobility and idolized by troubadours, the ideal of "pure" love (which included strongly self-deprecating behavior and servitude by a man for a distant, unattainable woman) was a driving force throughout the high period of medieval love literature. From 1100 to 1300 (most intensely in the quarter-centuries before and after 1200), the language of lady love prevailed in the courts of England and Europe.

Courtly love was viewed as an art with rules, which rules were articulated in great detail in Andreas Capellanus' work The Art of Courtly Love. Whether this work is satirical or sincere, is debatable, but its popularity (evidenced by the number of translations into vernacular and surviving manuscripts -- 12 -- more than twice as many as those of another much-loved tale of that time, Knight of the Cart, or Lancelot, by Cretien of Troyes) is nevertheless testament to the popularity of this ethos.

Scholars differ as to the origins of courtly love. Some claim this ideal arose out of Moorish influence, as the Arab poets brought their lyrics of lady love to Europe, in the wake of knights returning from conquests in the Holy Land and increasing European trade with the East. Others claim that courtly love was European in origin, citing the influence of Celts, Cathars, and Neo-Platonists. No matter how well they have documented the free intermingling of Christian and Moslem cultures in that time of world trade and literary development, however, scholars seem unable to account for the popularity of the ethos of lady love. As Parry declares in his introduction to The Art of Courtly Love, "Even if we accept the theory that courtly love is a fusion of Latin and Moorish elements . . . still we have not solved the problem of how and why it developed." [emphasis added].1

Perhaps scholars are looking in the wrong places for explanations. In many works on courtly love, emphasis is placed on the role of the male in this dynamic, and the origins of courtly love are traced through lines of male poets, troubadours and patrons of literature. But the widespread popularity, even quasi-religious devotion to, courtly love cannot be easily explained by the intentions of medieval patriarchs. Nor does the interplay of then-contemporary Eastern and Western cultures explain this mystery. One must look beyond the spheres of contemporaneous male influence, and into Medieval Europe's recent and distant past -- a pagan, matriarchal, Goddess-centered past -- to understand the import that courtly love's guidelines held for the peoples of Medieval Europe.

The Ever-Present Goddess

". . . [I]n the countless millennia before Christianity, [woman] had been the glory of the world, an object of worship among her people. . ."2, says Davis. Since between 9000 and 7000 B.C., depictions of the Great Goddess [had] appeared; from Ireland to Siberia, through the Mediterranean area, Near East and Northern Africa, archaeological finds of Goddess images abound. The Venus of Wildenmannishloch Cave dates back 70,000 years.3 These finds testify to a popular devotion to the Divine Female that was once durable and ever-present.

Some of the most enduring and ubiquitous matrifocus was among the Celts. In the 3rd century B.C., the territory of the Celts ranged from Galatia to Asia Minor, from northwest Scotland and Ireland, south to Andalusia in Spain. The Celts' influence over the European way of life was pervasive and long-standing. According to Piggot, "The basic structure of the Mediaeval farming economy had been in existence in prehistoric Celtic Europe for five thousand years prior to our era."4 But the farming economy of medieval Europe, dating back to the 6th millennium B.C.5, was not the only significant aspect of Celtic ways.

Equally pronounced, was Celtic feminism. Consisting of complete equality of the sexes, with balance slightly weighted on the feminine side, Celtic society relied heavily on the leadership of women. They attended, and often presided at, the tribal councils; chief men were elected, while the monarchy was hereditary in the female line 6. A source of awe to the conquering Romans, the significance of women in Celtic society was frequently recorded by Roman historians. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote, "A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Gaul if he called his wife to his assistance, who is usually very strong and with blue eyes." 7 "It was for the matrons to decide," Julius Caesar wrote in The Gallic Wars in 58 B.C. "When troops should attack and when withdraw."8 According to Julius Caesar, the Celtic women comprised the joint chiefs of staff of the Celtic people.9 In domestic affairs, as well, women were accorded equal significance. Marriage ceremonies were designed to assure the bride that she would lose none of her independence by marrying -- that she would be equal partner with her husband in the pursuit of honor and glory, "to share with him and dare with him, both in peace and in war," Tacitus reports.10

As high ranking and fierce as mortal pagan women, were the deities of the pre-Christian world. And of all the ruling female figures, the Goddess Artemis, or Diana, reigned supreme throughout most of the settled world, and Artemis myths extend back to Neolithic sacrificial customs. Hers was a fierce reign. At ancient Taurus, all men who landed on those shores were sacrificed by Artemis' holy women (under the direction of high priestess, Iphegenia), their severed heads nailed to crosses. At Hieropolis, Artemis' victims were hung on trees in her temple. And in Atica, Artemis was ritually propitiated with drops of blood drawn from a man's neck with a sword (a remnant of former beheadings). In her Huntress aspect, her hunting dogs tore the Horned God Actaeon to pieces, in the classic Artemis drama, the stag king (with deerskin and antlers) reigned over the sacred hunt for half a year, then was attacked and dismembered by Artemis' hunting dogs (her sacred bitches) and replaced by his co-king.11

In Europe, Artemis was known as Diana, the Triple Goddess. She was Lunar Virgin, Mother of Creatures, and the Huntress/Destroyer. In her sanctuaries, sacred kings periodically engaged in combat, the loser dying as the god Hippolytus. The roles of shaman, sacred king, priest and victim commingled in rituals intended to assure the fertility of fields and prosperity of the people. As gruesome as the sacrificial king's end may have been, it was his blood which assured the continued survival of his subjects. And without his compliant obeisance, his willingness to put his own life aside for the sake of the greater good, that ritual of the old ways would have come to naught.

The Encroaching Christian Church

It was into this matrifocal pagan continuum that the Christian church came. And for hundreds of years, Christ's greatest rival was the Great Goddess. At first, Constantine ordered the destruction of all goddess temples in the Roman Empire, and forbade the worship of the Goddess. Yet the devotion of the people (pagans) to the Great Mother endured. Diana's cult was so widespread in the pagan world that early Christians viewed her as a major rival, and later named her "Queen of Witches". The Gospels called for the destruction of all temples of Diana, and in Ephesus (a major Dianic pilgrimage center), the Dianic shrine was taken over in the 4th century A.D. and rededicated to the Virgin Mary. In 431 AD, one of the earliest churches dedicated to "Our Lady" was in Ephesus, but most believed the lady was Diana, not Mary. In 432, the Council of Ephesus tried to eliminate Diana worship, but the bishops were besieged by crowds demanding, "Give us Diana of the Ephesians!"12

And give them Diana, they did -- she was assimilated into Christian mythos as Mary's mother or elder self, the Grandmother of God, Anna (Hannah) or Di-anna (Dinah). The Gnostics named their Wisdom-goddess Sophia, the same Grandmother of God, and when the Ephesian Diana temple was demolished, its porphyry pillars were carried to Constantinople and built into the church of Holy Sophia.

From the beginning, the exclusively masculine new Christian religion was resented and resisted by the its potential converts. Christian evangelists discovered, however, that the people would accept the Christ, if allowed to retain their goddess as Mary.13 The Christian church incorporated pagan holidays into its own sacred calendar, and acknowledged Mary as "Queen of Heaven" (originally the Roman title of Diana, the triple goddess) and Mother of God. Ironically, Christianity succeeded ultimately because it represented a return to the original goddess worship which devotion to the Roman gods had precluded.14

Despite all attempts by the church to stamp out pagan ways, medieval man still predominantly worshipped the Mother. "Simulating a reverence for the strange religion. . . the real religion went underground. . . . The Black Mass and the Sabbat were far more widespread than the church cared to admit; . . . the people of Europe formed secret societies at every level, figuratively and literally to thumb their noses at Christianity." [emphasis added]15 Without some saving grace to redeem Christianity in the eyes of the people, the survival of the church seemed unlikely.

And so Diana, dressed as the Virgin Mary, rose in prominence and waxed in power. Knights took to their shields her likeness, incorporating millennia-old ideals into the new, medieval context -- a context which was of dire necessity allowed, even encouraged by the struggling new Christian church. Cathedrals built in medieval Europe at the turn of the millennium may have been intended to glorify the masculine God, but they resulted in the veneration of "Notre Dame", Our Lady. In its fanatical patriarchalism, the church had set out to annihilate goddess worship, yet in its struggle for survival, the church was forced by popular demand to recognize Mary.

Unfortunately, Diana's redeemed status did not carry over to the portion of mortal women; a misogynist Church was on the rise. Priests increased their influence, preaching a mix of male domestic violence and female shame to newly converted heathens. Husbands were encouraged, even exhorted, to beat their wives, and wife-killing was an easily pardoned offense.16 Women were reduced from ennobling ideals to sources of temptation and failure, and tales abounded about knights who succumbed to the temptations of the female, at the expense of their liege's sovereignty. Despite the ferocity of the church's subjugation of the female, "heathens" retained their devotion to the Great Goddess. By the 11th century, Mary had eclipsed Jesus as the savior of mankind.

For Love of the Lady - "Permissible" Goddess Worship for the Masses

It was in the 11th century, that the troubadours first began to appear, chivalry waxed in form and substance, and the ideal of courtly love found expression in the words and deeds of medieval man. Celts of Cornwall, fleeing the encroaching Christian church, found greater acceptance and tolerance in France. They broght with them a wealth of folklore (such as the accounts of the Holy Grail ), which French poets absorbed into their own work. Out of the Celtic folklore, French poets created the great romances of the Middle Ages.

The first troubadour of record was Duke William of Aquitaine. His poetry is said to contain all the elements of courtly love, and his formalized ideals were carried north when his granddaughter, Eleanor of Aquitaine, married King Louis of France, divorced, then married Prince Henry of England. Eleanor became queen twice shortly after each marriage, and it was in her courts to the North and to the South, that the ways and poetry of courtly love flourished.

Under Eleanor's influence, Tristram and Ysolt, Wace's Brut and the romance of Troy were written. Three of Eleanor's sons were patrons of literature and kept the troubadour tradition alive. But her two daughters, especially Marie de France, played the most influential roles in carrying on their mother's social and literary interests. Marie was to thank for commissioning Cretien de Troyes' Knight of the Cart. Cretien credits Countess Marie with furnishing subject matter and the manner of treatment, and writes that he was trying to carry out her intentions.

Courtly love most flourished in the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine's influence in France and England, when Andreas Capellanus declared "a court of ladies convened in Gascony". But this age of influence was not long-lived. In 1174, the same year that dates The Art of Courtly Love, the courtly love experiment in France was set back abruptly when King Henry of England came to Poitiers, took Queen Eleanor back to England and imprisoned her for some time. The other ladies in her court were sent to their homes. The disbanding of the Poitiers matriarchy dissolved the critical mass of female power and influence, and was no isolated incident in the medieval patriarchal/Christian wresting of power from the women of Europe. Misogynist writings flourished at that time, and the sin, guilt and impurities of women were preached from every pulpit.

There was a brief return to matriarchal influence in 1181, when Count Henry of Champagne died, leaving Marie to act as regent during the minority of their sons. During this time, Marie revived in Troyes on a small scale her mother's social experiment without interference. While Marie's court was not as receptive to the ideals of courtly love as Eleanor's had been, courtly love's ways did survive in the literary activity of that period. Cretien worked on his Story of the Grail, and Andreas Capellanus (her chaplain) continued work on The Art of Courtly Love under her direction.

The age of chivalry signaled a "revival of Celtic feminism"17 in England, and revived in Christian Europe the matrifocal ethos of the Celts. Yet the passion engendered by courtly love was hardly mortal in nature, alone. In locales where women's political and social power was concentrated, the gynofocal ethos of courtly love found both a context and a language to express what was one of the last overt expressions of veneration of the Divine Female. For the long-standing, now-subverted European tradition of Goddess worship had found a new voice in the language of love poetry from Eastern lands. The love poets of the East brought to France a vocabulary of veneration for a chaste and distant female, which matched the sentiments of once-matriarchal Europe. In a time when overt Goddess worship was strictly forbidden, the language of courtly love and the standards of chivalry enabled a deprived and subjugated people the chance to express a deeply rooted side of them within a permissible social context.

Pagan Pleasure, Pagan Pain -- The Ethos of Eros

As tempting as it may be to credit Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de France with creating and nurturing the institution of courtly love, it might be more accurate to say they merely built upon the long-standing archetypal foundation of lady love that had been denied its right to expression by the Christian church. In essence, they tapped a wellspring which the new politico-religious order insisted on sealing tight. But whatever the official view of courtly love and however strongly royal sentiment furthered its popularity, among the common people, the ideal flourished. The Art of Courtly Love was widely copied, translated and circulated. One of the earliest translations into French (La Doctrine l'amour), dated June 14, 1287, attaches religious significance to passages not present in the original, and it explains that the lady whose love one seeks is the Virgin Mary.18 Throughout Europe, courtly love was both fashionable and desirable, as troubadors and Minnesaenger sang of lady love, or Minne.19

Whence the popularity? If we look to the religious socio-mythical ideals which dominated pre-Christian Eruope, we find ample precedents for this degree of self-effacing devotion of the male to the female. Within the lyrics of the troubadours, these precedents echoed loudly. Such sacrificial sentiment to an idealized female figure may seem innocuous (even ridiculous) to a 20th century reader, but they illustrate well the resilience and durability of ancient Goddess worship. Witness the simliarities between the language of courtly love and the traits of one of the most integral of pagan rituals - the slaying of the warrior-victim-king at the hands of the high priestess to enhance the fertility of the fields...

In the long-standing religious practices of pagan peoples of Europe, the willing subjugation of the male to the female was nothing new. An omnipotent, all-life-giving Female had long been revered and had full dominion over a subject male, who was expected to go to any length to prove his worthiness to her, to make any sacrifice she required of him, for the good of the people. Sacred kings had been sacrificed (by beheading, or bloodletting from the neck) to the Goddess (Diana) throughout the Western world for millennia, and the part of the stag king of Dianic Europe, was to be hunted and dismembered by the Huntress's hounds each year. Whether the kings' blood was spilled in forests or on fallow fields, such rites were performed to ensure fertility of the fields and prosperity of the people. In an agrarian society where fertility could scarce be taken for granted, such a sacrifice was of paramount importance. It transformed the victim to the ultimate provider and imbued his personal loss with redemptive glory. In one fell sweep of the high priestess'es blade, he became both martyr and hero.

Figuratively speaking, the love aspired to as "courtly love" could well be equated with the blood-letting of the sacred stag king, whose personal sacrifice ennobled and raised him above his merely human status, as he gave his life in service to his people, his land, his queen, his Goddess. Courtly love, as described by Andreas Capellanus, had a wasting effect on the lover. It made him weak and pale and drained his strength. And yet it ennobled him and enriched his character. Placing the lover (male) at the often abject, if not life-threatening service of the beloved (female), must have hardly seemed the foreign concept we consider it today -- it had been the accepted social order for generations of Europeans. The newfound, Christian-fashioned male supremacist mythos was an artificial novelty.

Small wonder, then, that courtly love so profoundly captured the imagination of generations of Europeans. Here, at last, was a language which openly pined for an ancient, outlawed, almost-forgotten, omnipotent feminine principle in terms which were permitted, even encouraged, by the powers that be. In Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, the author bemoans,

"They are right who say that 'Love is hounded to the ends of the earth'. All that we have is the bare word, only the name remains to us: and this we have so hackneyed, so abused, and so debased, that the poor, tired thing is ashamed of her own name and is disgusted with the word. She heartily loathes and despises herself. Shorn of all honour and dignity she sneaks begging from house to house, shamefully lugging a patchwork sack in which she keeps what she can grab or steal and denying it to her own mouth, hawks it in the streets. For shame! It is we who are the cause of this traffic. We do such things to her and yet protest our innocence. Love, mistress of all hearts, the noble, the incomparable, is for sale in the open market."

But his distress is not without relief, for he goes on to say,

"Yet we are heartened . . . when there is a good love-story, when we tell in poetry of those who lived once upon a time, may hundreds of years ago, our hearts are warmed within us and we are so full of this happy chance that there can be none who is loyal and true and free of guile towarsd his love that would not wish to create such bliss in his hown year from himself. [emphasis added] 20

Courtly love sang of the nobility of the feminine in ways that had not been heard for centuries. Once again, the elements of pagan veneration of the female, the sacred grove, the tilled fields returning to green fertility, the willing sacrifice of the male to the omnipotent female for a higher purpose, were introduced into popular expression and echoed in verse after verse of courtly love poetry throughout the 10th - 12th centuries. The great pagan drama of Diana and her sacrificed horned god was revived once again, if only in metaphor. The troubadours proclaimed

"She who wishes to please me, I shall please her. . . Being free, I repeatedly boast myself free, as being like chaste Hippolytus. . . The woman who seduces with eyes and finger does not overcome me that suddenly. . . . Boldness in a woman of this kind pleases me. . . . I am the prisoner of your charm, my lady. . . Because I have strayed in this way I am worthy of heavy punishment. Seize upon me, a penitent, if it pleases you in your own chambers." [emphasis added] 21

Raimbaut d'Aurenga writes, "I do not sing because of bird or flower or snow or frost, nor even because of cold or heat or because of the field growing green again. . . Of my beloved I make lady and lord, whatever may be my destiny." [emphasis added]22 And Blondel de Nesle proclaims,

"Neither her indifference nor her idleness saved me from being wounded deeply by a sweet look the injury from which pierces me, which she gave me. . . Love disposes of me fittingly at his own whim, and Hope and my lady equally torment me much between them in a sweet way. I do not know if they intend ever to make me an ill reward. . . . She for whom I have abandoned myself and everything else, may she wish to keep me for her use! For no sorrow from Love, nor envy of anyone else, could turn my desire from her. If devotion can avail more than treachery, and Love wishes to dispense his good with justice, I may yet be able to come to a great good." [emphasis added]23

In the language of this new brand of abject subordination, the speakers (the male) are uncertain of the results of their sacrifice, much as the horned-god-kings of ages past must have wondered at the fruitfulness of their own deaths at the hands of the high priestess. What remains, is their determination to prove worthy of that sacrifice, to revel in their subjugation, and its higher purpose. Successful service is important, but moreso is service in and of itself. "Well may that love prosper through which one hopse to have the joy of successful love and serving loyally!" Gace Brule writes. "But I expect nothing from mine except death, since I ask for love in such a lofty place. And so I see nothing in it but my own end, if my lady does not take pity on me or if Devotion and Love do not ask it from her. . . . In Love there is such great nobility, that it has the power to make the poor rich; so I look for its mercy and help. . . . Loyal love (of which I have a great abundance) will kill me." [emphasis added]24 Service should be a pleasure, for its own sake, and Heinrich von Morungen warns, "Great is his misery, whoever puts heartfelt love in such a high place that his service is entirely unpleasing."25

Yet taking pleasure in serving the female principle waned, as the years passed. Knightly orders which sprang up and institutionalized the practice of courtly love were first absorbed, then disbanded, by the Christian Church. The Knights Templar, by far the most powerful and prominent of orders, were dissolved, their monies confiscated by Rome. The Order of the Garter, which retained the most pagan elements of any order, was all but destroyed when the Inquisition found most of the members guilty of witchcraft. Repeated attempts to revive the sensibilities of the old order were in vain -- Christianity prevailed over those attempts, if not by negotiation and diplomacy, then by the terror and sheer force of the Inquisition. The veneration for The Lady that once thrived on the tongues of Troubadors, knights and courtiers, disintegrated in the political and social warfare that tore Europe asunder for hundreds upon hundreds of years to come.


To this day, we retain a sort of bemused fascination with courtly love. We use its name loosely, yet only rarely do we find its precepts examined in great detail. As though familiarity with this devotion is taken for granted, courtly love is referenced, its language employed in fables and modern-day myths, its significance regarded with a mixture of derision and admiration. Yet its true import -- the terribly transformational power of willing sacrifice of all one has for the sake of Love -- seems to intimidate us. The concept of romantic love rising to a higher plane and transforming the life of the giver for the sake of the receiver, is celebrated to be sure, but only as a fleeting thing, an infatuation which is bound to fade with time.

Still, something so timeless as ennobling devotion, something so completely demanding as self-transcending sacrifice, can scarcely be assigned to extinction. Millennia ago, the Female Principle was paramount. In ages past, there was no shame in the chosen individual sacrificing all for the sake of the superior Female Principle. No matter how it may baffle our modern, self-interested intellects, no matter how impractical such an ethos may seem to our independent, pragmatic minds... Whether rekindled in role-playing activities of seasonal medieval faires, reflected in the plot lines of modern-day fantasy novels, or woven thinly into the scripts of Hollywood movies, the concept of higher Love's ennobling supremacy endures.


Works Cited


1 Parry, "Introduction" in The Art of Courtly Love, pp. 12-13 [Back to Text]

2 Davis, p. 210 [Back to Text]

3 Id., p. 73 [Back to Text]

4 Piggot, p. 45 [Back to Text]

5 Davis, pp. 206-208 [Back to Text]

6 Davis, p. 206 [Back to Text]

7 As quoted in Dillon and Chadwick, The Celtic Realms (New York, New American Library, 1967), p. 154 [Back to Text]

8 Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars, trans. by John Warrington, Bk. I (New York, Dutton, 1958), p.27) [Back to Text]

9 Davis, p. 210 [Back to Text]

10 Tacitus, Germania 18, in Complete Works of Tacitus, trans. by A.J. Church and W.J. Brodribb (New York, Modern Library, 1942), p. 671 -- as referenced in Davis, p. 211 [Back to Text]

11 Walker, pp. 58-59 [Back to Text]

12 Walker, pp. 233-234 [Back to Text]

13 Davis, p. 243 [Back to Text]

14 As late as the 14th century, a bishop found monks of the Frithelstock Priory worshipping a statue of Diana at an altar in the woods and forced them to destroy it. The Inquisitor Torquemada declared Diana is the devil, and officers of the Inquisition named her "Goddess of the heathen". Throughout the middle ages, Diana ruled the wild forests of Europe -- the patron of the forest at Ardennes was Dea Arduenna, the patron of the Black Forest was Dea Abnoba, and to Serbs, Czechs and Poles she was Diiwica, Devena, Dziewona. Until the 18th century, Diana remained Goddess of wild woodlands in England. (Walker, p. 234) [Back to Text]

15 Davis, p. 243 [Back to Text]

16 Davis, pp. 252-253 [Back to Text]

17 Davis, p. 208, (referencing W.W. Comfort, ed., Arthurian Romances of Chretien de Troyes, (London, Dent, 1914), p. ix; and Lady Charlotte Guest, "Original Introduction" in Mabinogion (London, Dent, 1906), pp. 6, 12 [Back to Text]

18 Parry, "Introduction" in The Art of Courtly Love, p.22 [Back to Text]

19 Minne is

" 'Love' the medieval Aphrodite worshipped by Minnesingers and Minstrels; perhaps the Moon-goddess Mene or Mana, or the erotic Fish-goddess Minaski-Kali of India. . . . The Edda said she was a pagan Goddess who gave men and women permission to make love, as opposed to the Christian church which called lovemaking evil." (Walker, p. 659)

[Back to Text]

20 O'Donoughue, pp. 250-251 [Back to Text]

21 From the Carmina Burana, as quoted in O'Donoughue, ibid., p. 61 [Back to Text]

22 Ibid., p. 121 [Back to Text]

23 Ibid., pp. 178-181 [Back to Text]

24 Ibid., pp. 181-185 [Back to Text]

25 Ibid., p. 225 [Back to Text]

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Copyright (c) 1997 by Kay Stoner - all rights
September 27, 1997