by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the February 1997, A.S. XXXI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
One of the unique aspects of the Middle Ages is the concept of courtly love. And the last thing one would expect to arise in such an age. It seems almost ludicrous to except to see hard-bitten warriors to go out and perform pointless ridiculous tasks for nothing more then the hope of some faint acknowledgment from a lady who was otherwise committed to another man. Yet, that was the ideal of courtly love. Reality, of course, was much different. Nevertheless, courtly love became the touchstone for what was noble for the last half of the Middle Ages. This essay explores how this came to be.
Eleanor of Aquitaine is the central figure in the rise of courtly love. She did not invent it, but she was brought up in it. Her grandfather was one the early troubadours who first gave voice to the sentiments that were to become courtly love. Nor were the great authors of works of courtly love members of her court. Their patroness was Marie de France, Eleanor's daughter. Her contribution was having the prestige that attracted young knights and nobles to her court were they could be imbued with the ideals of courtly love. Much the same way Louis XIV set the pattern for kingship in the baroque period.
To see how remarkable this achievement is requires knowledge of the place of women at this time. Women were little more then property having no legal standing. A woman might own property, but all legal dealings about that property had to be done through her husband or male guardian. In the eyes of the church, sex was condoned only for procreation, and otherwise women had no redeeming value being seen as the source of mortal sin. Romantic love was a foreign concept. The one bright spot was that a woman was in total charge of the daily routines of the household, it only because the men had no interest in such things.
Courtly love arose in southern France for a number of reasons including benign climate, remembrance of Roman luxury and the influence of studied culture in Arabic Spain. Aquitaine, the largest and wealthiest holding in Europe naturally became the center of this emerging culture. Eleanor, as heiress to this domain, was highly desirable as a wife. The first to marry her was Louis VII of France. However, Louis was a monk by disposition, and Paris and all of northern France was more attuned to the older warrior culture. No one was happy. So when Geoffrey of Anjou offered to have his son Henry marry Eleanor, everyone was agreeable. Eleanor got out of the depressing and "primitive" north, Henry got the lands of Aquitaine, and the king's supporters got rid of a woman who did not know her place and was a constant scandal.
To end the civil war in England between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, it was agreed that Henry, who was Matilda's son, would succeed Stephen. As the effects of the civil war wore off, the Norman aristocracy was anxious to establish their place in the scheme of things. Till now, their power rested on their skill of arms, first as Viking raiders in Normandy, then in William's conquest of England. To do this, they appropriated the old legends of King Arthur and refashioned him into a Norman knight. Into the mix Eleanor added concepts of courtly love giving more contrast to the older heroic figure of Charlemagne. This is the reason that all the great romances of courtly love center on figures of Arthur's court.
The height of Eleanor's influence came after her break with Henry over becoming too serious with a mistress. Setting up court in her own lands of Poitou as a rival for Henry's, she set about making her own mark. Henry had given her control of Aquitaine to get her out of the way without actually losing the lands. The young nobility came to this court for various reasons: boredom, curiosity, and social advancement.
The last is the result of the laws of inheritance. These laws dictated that many would receive little or no inheritance. One of the great appeals of the First Crusade was the promise of land. Thus for many, the only way to secure one's fortune was to marry it. And there were plenty of heiresses in Eleanor's court, attracted to it by the relative freedom from men.
It was from this relative strength that allowed them to initiate the various games of courtly love. They were aided by the willingness of the young men to "tweak" the old order which dispossess them. Yet the women had to be subtle for in the end they were not mistresses of their own fortune. The final bargains of marriage were still made by men. Nevertheless, when these men left court it was after learning new lessons on how to behave. And when they came to power in their own right, they modeled their courts after Eleanor's.
Eleanor's court in Poitou came to an end in 1174 with the failure of her son's revolt against Henry. It operated for only a little over five years. Henry had her imprisoned least she continue to conspire against him. Though she lived past Henry, she spent the last years of her life helping Richard run the Avgevin Empire. The baton had been pasted to her daughter Marie, in whose court a chaplain was writing the handbook for courtly love.
Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Trans. John Jay Parry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Heer, Friedrich. The Medieval World. New York: New American Library, 1961.
Painter, Sidney. French Chivalry: Chivalric Ideas and Practices in Mediaeval France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1940.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.