Jul 1, 2012

The Courtly Love Tradition

some preliminary notes...

The courtly and chivalrous romance derives from a new wave in literature that had been bubbling up from the Provence region in southern France. The poems and songs of the Provencal troubadours in the early 12th century spread to the courts of northern France and east to Germany and other parts of Europe. In Germany, such poets were called minnesingers. In northern France they were called trouvères. The troubadours were known for their beautiful and clever lyric poems of love and devotion to ladies, usually inaccessible women of the court who were already married. In the standard courtly love lyric, the poet sings of his love and longing for the lady, and he seeks by means of his art and by means of passing or enduring trials and tests his lady puts him through, to receive what the troubadours called "merci". Perhaps the lady would allow the man to kiss her on the cheek once a year. Eventually, she might allow an embrace, or something even more intimate.

There is embedded within the courtly love tradition a conflict between true love and conventional marriage. That is to say, for the troubadours true love can exist outside of marriage. It is by definition adulterous. The love of two people with noble hearts cannot be contained by the confines of law and custom. In fact, love outside of marriage is somehow truer, because it is the unrestricted, genuine love between two individuals with noble hearts. Gerault de Bornelh sums this idea up nicely in one of his poems:

So through the eyes love attains the heart:
For the eyes are the scouts of the heart,
And the eyes go reconnoitering
For what it would please the heart to possess.
And when they are in full accord
And firm, all three, in one resolve,
At that time, perfect love is born
From what the eyes have made welcome to the heart.
Not otherwise can love either be born or have commencement
Than by this birth and commencement moved by inclination.

By the grace and by command
Of these three, and from their pleasure,
Love is born, who its fair hope
Goes comforting her friends.
For as all true lovers
Know, love is perfect kindness,
Which is born - there is no doubt - from the heart and eyes.
The eyes make it blossom; the heart matures it:
Love, which is the fruit of their very seed.

What we have in courtly love is an idealized, romantic love (amour) between man and lady, conducted in secret, filled with heaps of unrequited longing and the hope for mercy. It is important to keep in mind that amour is much more than mere lust. It is more than the sex. And it is also not purely a Platonic or spiritual affection. It certainly is not impersonal Christian love (agape, or charity, the love of your neighbor). Amour is an admixture of erotic love and spiritual love. It is the romance of attraction (coming at your through the eyes) and the spiritual connection meeting in the heart. And this love is so meaningful that every other concern in your life pales in comparison. It becomes what the philosopher Kierkegaard called “the defining commitment” of your life. Amour is love of an individual’s body and soul meeting in the heart.

But is it possible to give all to love? Don’t responsibility, duty, honor, fame, and fortune come into to steal our attention and time away from love? Thus is born the conflict between honor and love. In the courtly love tradition, the ultimate sacrifice for winning a noble heart is the sacrifice of honor for love. Troubadours went through wild absurdities to win the woman's regard. It is vital that the lady must assure herself that the lover's heart is gentle, noble, that he is not just a horny man looking for sex, so there is a tradition of delay, testing and trial. If the man is good with sword, you send him out to guard a bridge or slay a monster. If he’s an artist, you'd have him write good poems in coded language meant only for you. Once she is assured of the lover's true intentions, she grants him merci. The lady who accepts service without expressing conviction and merci or rejection is called sauvage (savage).

The great Medieval romance Tristan and Isolde is essentially about the conflict between honor and love, a conflict that sometimes involves comedy, more often, tragedy.