The story goes that Eleanor of Aquitaine created the cult of courtly love after retreating to France with her sons. Eleanor was said to have observed her husband, Henry II of England, revamping English Common Law and applied what she learned to establish the Courts of Love at her court in Poitiers. Men would bring their suits or grievances against their lady loves and a panel of women, sometimes sixty strong, would decide a verdict. Eleanor’s daughter by her previous marriage, Marie of France, Countess of Champagne, commissioned Andreas Cappellanus to create a standard of behavior called amour courois. This was codified in his book De arte honeste amandi, or the The Art of Courtly Love. Henry came to Poitiers and sent the court packing, but the standards and views of women in the High Middle Ages were raised. The End. Amen.
Well, as with most things the story is more complex than that. The cult of courtly love developed out of a mixture of Arabic love poetry and Troubadour poetry. Eleanor’s court at Poitiers was a magnet for troubadours and other literati, and most of them created work that praised their beautiful patroness. That was just good politics. They also expected better behavior than the roistering that many knights were used to at the French and English court. Men were expected to exercise manners and courtesy, which was a cornerstone of courtly love.
Marie of France did join her mother’s court at Poitiers, and did commission a work from Andreas Cappellanus. His work was based on Ovid’s Ars Amotoria, which depicted women as prey and the man as in control as the seducer. However, it is believed now, Cappellanus was attempting to make a joke and not a serious code of conduct. One of the rules he put down was true love could only exist outside marriage through adultery. John Benton points out if Countess Marie and her ladies were following this tenet, they would have been packed off to a convent tout suite. In fact, many modern historians believe courtly love was a Victorian invention. E.T. Donaldson declared “courtly love” as a “critical myth”.
However, this seems too simple a dismissal as there are mentions of courtly love in many places in the Middle Ages. Other medieval writings are full of men who put their lady on a pedestal. An example is Chaucer’s “Complaint to his Lady”. Amor courtese is a term used by Italians in the High Middle Ages, and a theme discussed by Petrarch. Also, growing in popularity were the legends of Arthur. Both Eleanor and Marie were very familiar with these. Robert Wace completed “Roman de Brut”, a French translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work, and dedicated it to Eleanor. Marie wrote “Lais”, a collection of poems about the Arthurian legend as well as sponsored Chretien de Troyes works about Arthur. The ideals of courtly love are woven throughout all of these works.
At the time of the middle ages, women were viewed as vessels of sin and the descendants of Eve and her wickedness. However, at the same time as courtly love is said to develop, the cult of the Virgin Mary was developing. Mary, the Blessed Mother of God, was gaining popularity as an intercessor between humans and God. There can be parallels drawn between the adoration of a lady love to the adoration of the Blessed Mother. At the very least, it provided a different view of women than the instrument of the devil. These two contradictory views of women both helped and caused friction in the role of everyday women.
Although the idea of the actual courts of love is amusing, perhaps courtly love exercised a more subtle influence. In the meantime, be good to your noble loves, dear readers. It can’t hurt!