The romantic kind of love we look for began in the Middle Ages.
Let’s talk about love. But first, stop thinking about your partner or crush for a second, and think about love itself. The kind of love that we read about in classic literature. The one that has nothing to do with routine or marriage. The longing feeling that makes us write poems and do crazy things every now and then. If it helps you create a mental picture, think about Shakespeare In Love. That movie is a great example of the kind of love I’m talking about: formal but passionate, courteous yet real. It may sound boring to some people, but it’s so much more than corny lines and holding hands in secret. Before there was Noah Calhoun and Jack Dawson, there were already people out there demonstrating how love was truly expressed.
In the Middle Ages in France, the deepest feelings people experienced were expressed through “refined love,” more commonly known as courtly love. This concept was created by troubadours, who redefined traditional notions of love, emphasizing ideals like nobility and chivalry. This concept became popular in the 11th century, specifically in the French regions of Aquitaine, Provence, and Champagne. The troubadours’ influence gradually spread throughout the rest of France, Germany, and England. By the 13th century, the whole continent was swayed by this philosophy, to the point that “courtly love” suddenly became a way of life.
What did courtly love entail?
As the name suggests, this kind of love was performed by nobles in court. To engage in courtly love, the most common practices included wooing the lady with poems, songs, flowers, sweets, and ritual gestures. After being wooed, women regularly gave tokens of their appreciation. Gift exchanges were very common because they were thought to be a way of showing interest and enthusiasm for the other person.
Even though courtly love was practiced by high-ranked people, it was also forbidden. The two people involved had to keep their love a secret, which made it even more exciting. This kind of love was extramarital, because marriage itself wasn’t seen as a love-based decision at that time. As a matter of fact, getting married to someone was more of a business deal to get more land, forge alliances, and combine fortunes. But because of this, courtly love didn’t involve sex; this activity was seen as a reproductive matter, exclusive to married couples.
Because people at this time didn’t marry for love, the romantic desires that everyone felt were channeled through courtly love. It became the only way to express real feelings. The results of this kind of love live on in the work of famous writers from this time, such as Sir Thomas Malory, Gottfried von Strassburg, and Dante Alighieri. Does The Divine Comedy ring any bells? Yes, that Italian masterpiece revolves around Dante’s love for Beatrice, in a very unusual way, though, because as you may recall, this book is set in hell. But in the end, that’s the beauty of courtly love: it was expressed in very unique and personal ways.
All in all, courtly love was a very pure and romantic way for people to express how they felt about someone. Because sex was out of the question, it remained as something more idealized and simple. And because it was forbidden, it was also very exciting and fun. It makes me wonder: could we live this sentimental philosophy in this day and age? Could it be possible?
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