A term first used by Gaston Paris in an 1883 article. It may well be a misleading designation for the medieval phenomenon it is supposed to identify. A good many scholars criticize the term and propose that it be abandoned. That is unlikely to occur, owing to its familiarity and usefulness.
It is often (and probably erroneously) used interchangeably with fin’ amors, which is the proper term for a conception of love propounded by the Provençal troubadours. A question that has occupied a good many scholars is whether courtly love, in northern France especially, was a historical and cultural phenomenon or simply a literary convention. It certainly was the latter, at least, and it is in its literary manifestations that it bears on the Arthurian legend.
The danger in talking about courtly love is that one is tempted – and sometimes obliged – to deal with it as a monolithic and uniform system, a code that was firmly established and rarely questioned. Such a notion is entirely mistaken. The troubadours presented in general a system of illicit and passionate love, but though many saw love as more ennobling when not consummated, others insisted that one would have to be a fool to waste one’s effort without hope of recompense. For some, that recompense could be a smile or a word; for others, it could be nothing less than sexual pleasure.
Imported into northern France, this system of love was further developed and was even codified – although perhaps not seriously. Two names that are prominent in that development are Andreas Capellanus and Chrétien de Troyes, contemporaries at the court of Marie de Champagne during the second half of the twelfth century. Andreas is the author of De Amore, a treatise that purports to record “courts of love” at the court. These “courts”, in which a problem concerning love was proposed, discussed, and decided, are themselves the subject of much discussion. They may neve have taken place, or, if they did, they may have been nothing more than literary or social exercises, a king of cultivated parlor game. It may well be that Andreas, inspired by Ovid, intended his work as humor or parody, but that very fact would likely confirm the existence of courtly love, at least as a literary construct. Andreas even goes so far as to offer a list of the “rules of love”, according to which love and marriage are incompatible; a true love eats and sleeps very little, thinks only of his lady, and turns pale in her presence; one can love only one person (but can be loved by many); and so on.
The text that offers the best-known elaboration of the courtly love situation (and, accidentally, the one to which the term itself was first applied) is Chrétien de Troyes Lancelot or Le Chevalier de la charrete. In that romance, it is clear that the duty of the lover (as the lady’s vassal) is to serve her faithfully, with no thought of his own welfare. Thus, Guenevere rejects him not because, in order to come to her, he rode in a cart reserved for criminals but because he hesitated momentarily before doing so; apparently, he was briefly reluctant to dishonor himself, and that concern is incompatible with a system in which all must be subordinated to the service of the lady. Later in the work, he must expiate his sin by humiliating himself repeatedly in a tourney.
As these examples suggest, there is an inherent contradiction between the demands of courtly love and those of chivalry, as the latter is developed in practice. The knight’s duty is to serve (society, the court and king, or individuals in need), but in so doing he gains a reputation for valor and courage, and it is generally important for him not to compromise that reputation. Love, however, imposes higher demands than those of chivalry, at least in Lancelot. In other works, the tensions between a knight’s duty to his lady and his duty to himself and his chivalric calling are worked out in various ways; later, that tension will be replaced by a different one: between earthly chivalry and the higher calling of the Grail Quest. Yet the ideals of courtly love (the lady on a pedestal, served unstintingly by a man who derives his joy from that service) will continue to influence literature throughout the Middle Ages and well beyond.
Jean Frappier has proposed a concept of “Arthurian love”, which he defines as fin’ amors in a Breton context, or the syntesis of fin’ amors and Celtic fairy love. The result is an amorous enchantment, the reflection in literature of a traditional motif: the love of a fairy for a chosen mortal. Marie de France’s Lanval develops that motif explicity, while other works are implicitly and subtly influenced by its spirit and conventions. This Arthurian love is by no means contrary to the spirit of what we generally call “courtly love”; rather, it extends it and invests it with a particular tonality lacking in works not part of the matière de Bretagne.
Holding Court | The Legend of King Arthur