My subject is courtly love, that strange doctrine of chivalric courtship that fixed the vocabulary and defined the experience of lovers in our culture from the latter Middle Ages until almost our own day. Some of its traces still survive -- or at least they do in the old Andy Hardy movies. if you are old enough to have seen some of these films, or young enough to stay up for the really late, late movie, you will surely recall the obligatory scene, around reel two, when a despondent Andy (the younger Mickey Rooney), murmuring the name of the girl next door (Judy Garland), slowly leaves the table, his food untouched. Lewis Stone, stern but kindly judge Hardy, frowns and turns to Mrs. Hardy: "What on earth's gotten into that boy? He doesn't eat. He doesn't sleep. Hejust moons around like a sick calf." And Mrs. Hardy -- Fay Bainter-smiles with motherly understanding: "Pshaw! Can't you see the boy's in love?" And of course we can. Some, of an older generation than mine, may even have shared some of Andy's emotions, for the pangs of unrequited love and the suffering that necessarily accompanies it have been part of Western courtship for centuries.
Indeed, for many centuries -- from the time of the Greeks through the seventeenth century -- physicians regularly offered treatment for love-sickness, "the lovers maladye of heroes," which they regarded as both a physical and a mental affliction. it is true that William of Gaddesden, one of the authorities known to the Physician in Chaucer's General Prologue, treated it only briefly in his medical textbook, since, as he warned his students, "but little money can be made from this disease."1 Moreover, Alain Chartier in the fifteenth century and Shakespeare in the sixteenth objected, Men have died . . . and worms have eaten them, but not for love."2
Page 238Nevertheless, in the seventeenth century appeared the definitive medical study, Eratomania, which filled 336 large pages, and Robert Burton devoted over a quarter of his huge Anatomy of Melancholy to the problem of love sickness.3 Even in the early nineteenth century some of John Keats's friends thought that the first symptoms of an illness from which he suffered were due to his languishing for unrequited love -- though it now appears that he may not have been as unrequited as they thought, since he was actually suffering from syphilis.4
My subject, however, is not medicine nor even Andy Hardy. It is courtly love in the life of the chivalric classes in the later Middle Ages. I must begin by admitting that a good many scholars nowadays are convinced that my subject does not -- indeed, never did -- exist. E. T. Donaldson has announced that "courtly love" is only a critical myth, D. W. Robertson has even more vigorously dismissed it as a nineteenth-century invention, an impediment to the understanding of medieval literary texts.5 You might think that if both Donaldson and Robertson, who agree on so little else, agree on this, there must be something to it. There is. Most of what used to pass for fact about courtly love was simply wrong. I mean the idea that it was invented by the Arabs, Albigensians, or Primitive Germans, elegantly elaborated by the troubadours, diligently practiced in the court of Marie de Champagne, permanently codified by Andreas Capellanus, and defined for all time by C. S. Lewis as "Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love."6 We can all remember when these supposed facts were adduced in article after dreary article in which it was proven that Chaucer or Gower or the Gawain-poet was being "ironical" whenever the work at hand failed to fit Andreas's rules or Lewis's definition -- which was almost invariably the case.
The rejection of these ideas has been all to the good. Peter Dronke has shown that we need not turn to Araby or heresy for the sources of courtly love, which lay much closer to hand in the medieval Latin tradition.7 John Benton has proven what we should have known all along -- that the Countess Marie and her ladies did not carry on like so many Guineveres and Isoldes; if they had, the count would have locked them up in a nunnery.8 Andreas Capellanus, it is now generally believed, was not trying to write a serious code of conduct; he was trying to be funny. I admit that the number of people who have laughed aloud while reading the De arte honesti amandi can be counted on one finger: he was a thirteenth-century Frenchman named Drouart la Vache.9 Yet I think the current opinion is correct: Andreas was trying, and generally failing, to be funny. And clearly the assumption that there was a rigidly defined and widely accepted doctrine of
Page 239love that required adultery is simply wrong. Insofar as "courtly love" is used as a label for a code of courtly adultery, the whole idea is indeed a critical myth that never had much real existence in life or literature. However, it does not follow that, if a doctrine of courtly adultery did not exist, courtly love did not exist. The fact is that courtly love did exist, perhaps not in the twelfth century, but certainly in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and even sixteenth centuries. Indeed, as the recent book by Mark Girouard on chivalry and the English gentleman makes clear, it had a powerful influence not only on the realm of Romantic and Victorian fiction, but on Victorian life and manners as well.10 Its power is to be explained by that fact that, as Kittredge said in his apt characterization, courtly love was part of "the settled language of the chivalric system."11 That language echoes throughout the later Middle Ages, as in this stanza from Chaucer's "Complaint to his Lady":But I, my lyf and deeth, to yew obeye,Even the most casual reader knows that late medieval literature simply swarms with characters like this. We need some term to describe what is going on, and we might as well use "courtly love." That phrase was not, as is sometimes said, invented in 1883 by Gaston Paris.12 Amor cortese, courtly love, was in fairly common use in medieval Italian, and Chaucer might well have come upon the phrase cortesi amanti, courtly lovers, in his reading of Petrarch.13 As for what he might have thought it meant, we need only note that the lover in Chaucer's complaint is so extravagantly humble that he will obey his lady in everything, so courteous he would rather die than offend her even in thought, and so religiously devoted to her that he prays for but one drop of grace, without which he can have neither bliss nor hope. The speaker is not, so far as we can tell, an adulterer, for the text tells us nothing of his or his lady's marital status. But if we omit adultery from C. S. Lewis's famous definition, I can think of no better description of the attitudes embodied in this stanza than "Humility, Courtesy, and the Religion of Love."
And with right buxom herte, hooly I preye,
As [is] your moste plesure, so doth by me;
Wel lever is me liken yew and deye
Than for to anythyng or thynk or seye
That yew myghte offende in any tyme.
And therfor, swete, rewe on my peynes smerte,
And of your grace, graunteth me some drope;
For elles may me laste no blis ne hope,
Ne dwelle within my trouble careful herte.
What distinguishes this style of love from the styles of other times and places is not only the theme of suffering, and certainly not the requirement of adultery, which is always with us and was never, except in Andreas's imagination, a necessary part of courtly love. The distinction lies rather in the conviction that this sort of love is admirable -- that love is not only virtuous in itself but is the very source and cause of all the other virtues, that indeed one cannot be virtuous unless he is a lover. That idea, as might be expected, comes from Ovid. He used it in his Amores, where he playfully inverts the whole Roman value system, and one sees something of the same light-hearted use of the "world turned upside down" in Andreas and Chrétien.14 No doubt Countess Marie of Champagne and the younger members of her court were delighted by the amusing, if unlikely, idea of a world ruled by women, in which all the handsome young men faithfully served their ladies for the sake of love, rather than their loutish feudal lords for the sake of plunder. One suspects that Marie's husband, Count Henry, was not amused. Marie was the patron of Chrétien's Lancelot: Henry patronized the composition of the Vengeance Alexandre, a good old-fashioned chanson de geste, in which religion, loyalty to one's lord, and the smashing of heads are the main concerns.15 And, I need hardly add, there is no nonsense about love in the Vengeance Alexandre. Its author praises Count Henry for his piety, his prowess, and his riches, and he hails him as the new Alexander. That is the sort of thing a great nobleman of the twelfth century liked to hear. One can well imagine what the count would have thought if someone tried to compare him, not to Alexander, but to Lancelot -- a knight who was neither pious nor rich, who was indeed an adulterer, guilty of sin with the wife of his own liege lord. Henry was liege lord of a good many knights, and the idea that Lancelot's way of carrying on was virtuous, was the very source of chivalric virtue, must have seemed to him downright pernicious.
Yet by Chaucer's time what two hundred years before would have seemed amusing to the countess and scandalous to the count was accepted by many as sober fact. The idea that love was the source of chivalric virtue becomes a commonplace not only in courtly romances and lyrics but even in the "nonfiction" of the time -- in handbooks of conduct, such as the poem Edward III is said to have written for his son, the Black Prince:Love ladies and maidens
And serve and honor them
in thought, word, and deed ...
From ladies comes prowess,
Honors, and dignities ...
Page 241For we hardly ever see a valiant manThe proof of this, or so it was believed, was to be found in the old romances. The late fourteenth-century biographer of the great Marshal Boucicaut puts it this way:
Who does not or has not loved.16Thus one reads of Lancelot, of Tristan, and of many others whom Love made good and famous. Indeed, in our own time living now in France and elsewhere there are many such noble men.... Thus one speaks of Sir Otho de Graunson, of the good constable of Sancerre, and of many others whom it would be too long to name and whom love has made valiant and virtuous. O what a noble thing is love to him who knows how to use it! 17Times had indeed changed since the twelfth century, and Chaucer's friend Otho de Graunson was doubtless delighted to be compared to Lancelot and Tristan. That is not to say that he was eager to be known as an adulterer. Lancelot's and Tristan's sins were not forgotten, but they were usually overlooked; that their ladies were married to others was their tragic misfortune, which enhanced the heroism of their devotion to love, since it added to the sufferings of these lovers. Moreover, as Malory explained, all this was far in the past, and "Love was not then as it is now."18 To the aristocrats of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, what mattered was not these heroes' adulteries but their excellence as lovers and therefore as models of chivalric virtue.
The late Middle Ages was a time when many young aristocrats eagerly sought to emulate these models. This was the century that saw the first flowering of what Gervase Mathew calls the new "International Court Culture."19 It brought a new elegance to court life, a new delight in elaborate ceremonialism, and a new and high degree of stylization to the manners of the aristocracy; indeed, if contemporary preachers are to be trusted, in many noble households the reading of romances was part of the ordinary education of aristocratic children.20 When Chaucer in his ballad "To Rosamund" playfully claims "I am trewe Tristram the secounde," he echoes not only Froissart but many a young fourteenth-century gentleman who aspired to secular virtue and knightly renown.21
The new Tristans could most easily be recognized by the way they talked. The new courtly culture placed great emphasis on proper speech, 'What the author ofsir Gawain and the Green Knight called "the tecchles termes
Page 242of talkynge noble."22 in that poem, when Bercilak's provincial courtiers learn that their guest is Gawain they cluster Aout him, hoping to learn how to improve their speech. Likewise, when the French poet and chronicler Froissart first visited the English court, he was delighted to hear such polished talk "of love and arms."23 The squires of the royal court, among whom Geoffrey Chaucer was later to number, were specifically charged in the Household Ordinances to entertain visitors with "noble conversation."24
To master the art of noble conversation was to a large extent to adopt the style of speech developed in courtly literature. None of Edward's or Richard's courtiers went so far as those sixteenth-century French gentlemen who tried to amadiser their speech by imitating the style of Amadis of Gaul.25 Yet from what scattered evidence as we have it is apparent that the language of noble conversation, of talk of love and war, had a recognizable relation to courtly romances and lyrics.
The most obvious characteristic of this style of speech is its observance of verbal taboos. in recent years it has become so common to celebrate the jolly bawdiness of the later Middle Ages that it is not often recognized that, so far as our culture is concerned, this is the period in which the distinction between polite speech and vulgar, shocking words was first established. When the Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales is about to speak, the "gentles" object: "Nay, let hym tell us of no ribaudrye!" Ribaldry and the frank vocabulary in which it is expressed could be as offensive to the gently nurtured in the fourteenth century as in the nineteenth -- and I am thinking here not only of that delightful girl in the fabliau who faints dead away every time she hears the word foutre but of the critical dispute that was then going on about the Romance of the Rose, which turned to a large degree on de Meun's use of frank and vulgar language.26 Such words are now, as Chaucer says, "cherles termes."27 Words used by churls, such as foutre in French and swyven in English, were at that time, for the first time in our culture, no longer used in polite company -- not because of any religious objection, as the salty language of Chaucer's Parson shows, but because in polite, courtly speech they had been replaced by more elegant periphrases.
The difference between churlish and gentle words was a matter of decorum as well as decency. Chaucer's Manciple anticipated Rudyard Kipling by some five centuries in enunciating the principle that the Colonel's Lady and Judy O'Grady are sisters beneath the skin. But the Manciple, being a churl, put the matter more directly than his Victorian counterpart:And God it woot, myn owene deer brother,
Men leyn that oon as lowe as lith that oother.
Page 243. . . . the gentile, in estaat above,Words like "wenche" and "lemman" were not to courtly ears indecent; but they were completely inappropriate, misrepresenting entirely the relationship so precisely defined by "his lady, as in love." Courtly speech, that is, involved not only avoiding certain offensive words but the proper use of certain others: "lady,"11 servant," and such words as "love" itself.
She shal be cleped his lady, as in love;
And for that oother is a povre womman,
She shal be cleped his wenche or his lemman.
(lines IX 221-22; 217-20)
The eloquent expression of love is, of course, one of the main concerns of courtly speech. The form of speech, as Chaucer reminds us in Troilus when he distinguishes love in his day from love in ancient Troy, is an essential part of any style of love. Courtly love, however, is especially dependent on the forms of speech, since not only is every lover a poet, but the main characteristics of the courtly lover -- his courtesy, humility, and religion of love -- are expressed in speech. To be adept at "luf talk" is therefore the first requirement of the courtly lover. He must not be too "adept; it is best if in the actual presence of his lady he is so filled with religious awe that he is rendered speechless or even, like Troilus nearing Criseyde's bed, falls into a swoon. The rest of the time, however, he must be Skilled in courtly talk. Criseyde's first question to Pandarus when she agrees to meet Troilus is "kan he speke wel of love?"
Criseyde in effect is asking, "Is he a gentleman?" since to speak well of love, to use what Kittredge called "the settled language of the chivalric system," is to use a class dialect, the first of which we have any clear ,indication in English. The gentle do not speak "in cherles termes"; the Knight of the General Prologue "nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde ... unto no maner wight." The churl, on the other hand, is incapable of speaking in "termes of talkynge noble." In the Romance of the Rose, when the Lover first speaks to the God of Love, the God responds:For thou answerid so curteisly
For [that] now I wot wel uttirly
That thou art gentyl by thi speche ...
For sich a word ne myghte nought
Isse out of a vilayns thought.
(lines 1985-87, 1991-93)
Page 244Such a speech could not be produced by the mind of a vileyn, a churl, because a churl is incapable of love. This is one of the basic precepts of courtly love. Andreas Capellanus tells the young lover that if he should be attracted to a peasant girl he should waste no time on words, since such base creatures are incapable of understanding; he advises rape instead.28 This idea that only the noble classes are capable of love persisted, and perhaps even grew stronger, in the later Middle Ages. Chaucer's Manciple uses the word "love" only in relation to the lady "of grete estate"; so does Chaucer himself. Though "love" is one of his favorite words, as narrator he rarely applies it to what goes on in his fabliaux.29
This attitude appears even in medical literature, which had dealt with the problems of "love sickness" since the time of Galen and before. None of the Greek, Arabic, or twelfth- and thirteenth-century Latin commentators ever connected this illness with any one social class. But now, at the end of the Middle Ages, an authority such as Giovanni Savanarola (not the later reformer, but his grandfather), in his Practica major specifies that the illness ereos (which earlier commentators had rightly derived from the Greek Eros) is so called because of its relation to the word hero. The malady, Savanarola says, is almost exclusively restricted to the aristocracy: "whence is it often called ereos, because it most often affects heroic and noble men."30 As Kittredge said, "Love was the only life that became the gently nurtured, and they alone were capable of love."31
This cluster of ideas gave a powerful impetus to the use of the "settled language of the chivalric class" at a time when that class was still in the process of self-definition and the old idea that deeds rather than birth define gentility was still strong. If knights or ladies speak of love they must use the gentle language of courtly love; to do otherwise is to cease to be gentle, to become churls.
This must be emphasized, since we so often think of courtly love as a special, self-conscious form of love, as if it differed from what one critic calls "ordinary love." For the aristocracy of Chaucer's time courtly love was the ordinary form of love, because of the very nature of their language. Of course, there was wide variation. As Chaucer tells the audience of Troilus, "Scarsly ben ther in this place thre/That have in love said lik, or don, all." And scarcely are there three writers, or even three works of the same writer, in which the idea of love or the words and actions of the lovers are the same. Yet this wide range of variation occurs within the limits defined by the language of courtly love. if you were a late medieval gentleman, how did you tell a lady that you loved her? Certainly not in the way hende Nicholas declares his lust for Alison, grabbing her by the
Page 245haunche-bone. instead you spoke as Froissart reports Edward III did when he wooed the Countess of Salisbury:Ah fair lady ... truly the sweet behaviour the perfect wisdom, the elegant grace, nobleness and surpassing beauty that I see in you, hath so enraptured my soul, that I cannot but love you; and without your return of love, I am but as dead. 32How do two gentle lovers converse? According to the Disce Morum, a book of religious instruction, they say:how she loveth him and he hir, and what he wol do and suffer for here and she for him, and what they wish and desire, each to other of wele and pleasaunce, it cannot her be expressed, for an hour suffiseth nat to hem, ne a day, ne dayes, ne no tyme to open þeire herte oon to other. 33Indeed, John of Trevisa, translating Bartholomeus Anglicus into English at the end of the fourteenth century, must use the language of courtly love even to describe the mating habits of birds:Males drawen to the companye of females and preyen iche oþir of loue and wowiþ by beckes and voys. 34For the gentle class of the time, or even for the gentlemanly scientific writer, there was no way to explain such feelings except in the language of courtly love.
This is nicely demonstrated in a series of letters written in the year 1398 by William Gold, an English mercenary captain who led the troop of Saint George then in the employ of Venice.35 They were written to Luduvico Gonzaga, the Lord of Mantua, and they concern one Janet of France. In his first letter (July 30) Gold describes her as a "certain Janet" who has absconded with five hundred florins; he asks Gonzaga to arrest and detain her until he can send for her. We do not know Gonzaga's replies, but other letters follow quickly. On August 2 Gold repeats his request and pleads that a diligent search be made for her in hostelries and that he be acquainted with the result, as nothing would give him greater pleasure." By August 4, Poor Janet has been found and is evi4ently making counter-offers, for Gold
Page 246writes , that he has done, and will do, and is ready to do his lordship more honour than any French lady," and he pleads that she be held until his notary can arrive with legal proof of the five hundred florins with which she has absconded. August 6: I know nothing of her husband, Gold writes, and not only fails to mention the five hundred florins, but now says he will pay Gonzaga a thousand pounds if "though it be a trifle against the law . . . she may be placed in a nunnery and not allowed to depart" until he can fetch her. Finally, on August 9, Gold throws himself on Gonzaga's mercy, confessing that he is in love. The Lord of Mantua, he writes.should bear in mind that love overcometh all things -- since it even prostrates the stout, making them impatient, taking all heart from them, even casting down into the depths the summits of tall towers, suggesting strife, so that it drags them into deadly duels, as hath happened to and befallen me for the sake of this Janet, my heart so yearning toward her that by no means can I be at rest or do otherwise; and consider that lovers ought to be succoured -- therefore on my bended knee I devoutly beseech your lorship to put aside everything else and so ordain and command that the said Janet be detained until I send for her ... for if I should have to follow her to Avignon I will obtain this woman. Now, my lord ... [you] ought not to cross me in this, for someday I shall do for you more than a thousand united French women could effect; and if there be need for me in a matter of greater import, you shall have for the asking a thousand spears at my back.This is the last of the series of letters preserved in the archives at Mantua, and we have no way of knowing whether poor Janet ever made it back to her husband in Avignon. I hope so. Gold was obviously a scoundrel. But, as his letters show, in the late fourteenth century even a scoundrel, if he had any pretensions to gentility, had to express himself in the language of courtly love. It was the emblem of aristocratic respectability.
This identification of courtly love with aristocratic virtue is why Chaucer represents John of Gaunt as a courtly lover, suffering from a dangerous case of ereos in the Book of the Duchess. Of course, the representation is not direct, for the idea is not to particularize John as the Black Knight but rather to generalize him, to show how much he resembles the great courtly lovers of the past and thus to imply how much of their virtue he embodies -- to present him, that is, as a model of courtliness, speaking in the "settled language of the chivalric system."
The Black Knight has been accused by some critics of "immoderate grief, but if we want to consider his experience in relation to contemporary life, we would do no better than to turn to an autobiographical account of a similiar experience written by the Knight of La Tour Landry about the same time Chaucer was writing the Book of the Duchess. This is the prologue of the book that he wrote for the instruction of his daughter:In the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1371, I was in a garden, all heavy and full of thought, in the shadow, about the end of April, but I little rejoiced me in the melody and sound of the wild birds. They sang there in their language, as the thrustle, the thrush, the titmouse and other birds, which were full of mirth and joy. And their sweet songs made my heart to lighten, and made me think of the time that is passed ofmy youth, how Love in great distress had held me, and how I was in her service many times full of sorrow and gladness, as many lovers are. But my sorrow was healed and my service well yset and quit, for she gave me a fair wife that was both fair and good, which had knowledge of all honour and all good and all fair maintaining, and of all good was she bell and flower. And I delighted me so much in her that I made for her songs, ballads, rondels, virelays, and diverse new things in the best wise that I could.Clearly the Knight does not regard his passion as sinful, for as readers of his book know, Geoffrey de la Tour Landry was somewhat puritanical, even priggish.
But Death, which on all things maketh war, took her from me, that which hath made me have many a sorrowful thought and great heaviness. And so it is more than twenty year that I have been for her full of great sorrow. For a true lover's heart forgetteth never the woman that once he hath truly loved. 36
Of course, this is a literary reminiscence. We have no way of knowing what the Knight actually thought when his first wife died. The cynical may recall Fielding's Tom Jones, in which we learn that the death of a spouse is an infallible method of restoring lost affection. All we can know with certainty is that this is the way the Knight viewed his experience and wanted his daughters to view it, within the conventional mode of conduct appropriate to the chivalric class. It would not be surprising if in the year 1371 John of Gaunt thought of his loss in very similar terms.
That these terms were the language of the chivalric classes is shown by many other biographical episodes in the knight's book. For example, he tells
Page 248us of his own courtship of a lady during his youth, when he was seeking a wife. On a visit the subject of the English treatment of prisoners of war came up. The courtly young man could not resist so obvious an opening:"Damsel, it were better to fall to be your prisoner than to many another, for I trow your prison should not be so hard to me as it should if I were taken by the English."Readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will recognize the resemblance between this conversation and the "luf talkynge" of Gawain and Bercilak's lady, which also begins with the playful use of the common courtly metaphor of the prison.38 Even the outcome is somewhat similar, for on reflection the knight decided, "She was so pert and light of manners that she caused me to be displeased with her." He left and never returned, "for which I have since after thanked God." He was, as I have noted, a bit of a prig, but his easy use of the conventional language of courtly love shows that in his time even chivalric prigs talked like courtly lovers.
And she answered, "I have seen some no long since that I would you were my prisoner."
"Would you, " I asked her, "put them in evil prison?"
"Nay," she said, "I would keep them as I would my own body."
I said, "Happy is he that might come into so noble a prison. "37
The fact that prigs like Geoffrey de la Tour Landry and scoundrels like William Gold could so easily use the language of courtly love was one of its problems; the noble art of love talking was all too open to abuse by clever scoundrels, such as those clerks in the fabliaux, who realized the tactical advantages of love talking to impressionable young ladies. Perhaps that is why the most telling attacks on courtly love come from concerned mothers, such as Christine de Pisan or the wife of the Knight of la Tour Landry. His second wife listens carefully as he lectures his daughters on courtly love, and when he tells them that love is the source of all chivalric virtue, she breaks in:Ye say so, and so do all other men, that a lady or damsel is the better worth when she loveth paramours. And that she shall be the more gay and of fair manner and countenance, and how she shall do great almesse to make a good knight. These words are but sport and esbasement of lordes and of felawes in a language much common. For they say that all honour and worship which they have is coming to them by their paramours ... but these words cost them but little to say for to get them the better and sooner the grace and good will of
Page 249their paramours. For such words and others much marvelous many one useth ful oft. . . . Therefore I charge you, my fair daughters, that in this matter you believe not your father. 39The lady then delivers an attack on courtly love that would have done credit to Chaucer's Parson. In the debate that follows, the Knight brings her around to admit that some of the forms and practices of courtly love may be acceptable, and she finally concedes that a lady may even reward a knight's services with a kiss. "But as for my daughters,"she says, "I forbid it."40 One kiss can lead to another. The Knight, priggish though he may be, meanwhile maintains a double standard that would have shocked a Victorian smoking car. It is a pity that the book that he says he wrote for his sons has not survived.
The Knight's wife had good reason for concern, for the use of the language of courtly love for the purpose of mere seduction was not restricted to the fabliaux. One of the contributors to Boucicaut's Cent ballades gleefully boasts in his refrain, "One can say one thing and mean another."41 The Marshal Boucicaut himself did not share that cynicism. Indeed, he was determined to protect the sely demoiseles of the time from such rascals, and he founded for this purpose a special order of chivalry, the Order of the Green Shield with the White Lady; some of Christine's other friends planned to do the same to found an Order of the Rose.42 In Paris in 1400 there was even a Court of Love to protect ladies from insincere lovers and slanderers of the fair sex.43 You will recall that Chaucer is hailed before a court of love on the latter charge in the prologue to his Legend of Good Women. But that was fiction. This was a real court, presided over by the king of France, Charles VI, and his queen, Isabel. Charles, as it happened, suffered from recurrent fits of madness, and it may be thought that this court was founded during one of his spells. Yet the most sensible and influential men of the time, including even the Bishop of Paris, joined in this undertaking -- or at least did not mind having it believed that they had done so (our records are all from at least seven years after the event). At the sessions of this court amatory poems were read, and the rules specified that they must be sincere: "Each must write about his own true love and none other."44 And of course, the poems had to redound to the honor of the ladies. The court claimed jurisdiction even over nonmembers, and in later years it issued a solemn decree of banishment against Alain Chartier for having written La belle dame sans merci.45
The most astonishing thing about this astonishing court is that no one was much astonished by it. By 1400 courtly love had become for many not just a way of talking but a way of feeling and acting. Even in the 1340s, Bradwardine tells us, French knights were actually laboring strenuously in
Page 250arms to earn the loves of their ladies, and Henry of Lancaster, so he confesses, actually jousted to win the favors of those whom he seduced. A few years later, Froissart reports, thirty English knights set off for the war in France, each with an eye covered by a patch which he had sworn not to remove until he had struck a blow for the love of his lady.46 One of them may have been Sir Thomas Holland, whose lady was Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, who later became mother of Richard II. The two secretly loved and secretly married -- clandestine marriages of this sort, it now appears, were surprisingly common47 -- but Sir Thomas was absent for years, since after he fought for his lady in France he went on to fight for his faith in Prussia. In his absence Joan was forced into a second marriage, which, when Sir Thomas finally returned eight years later, was annulled on the grounds that, as the papal order specified, she was alone, fearful, "Voluntati parentum et amicorum suorum non audens contradicere."48 Queen Joan must have listened to Troilus and Criseyde with special interest; perhaps, like Chaucer, she would have forgiven Criseyde, for in her own life she must have felt some of the same emotions and been in almost the same situation as poor Criseyde in the Trojan camp. Likewise, Joan's son, Richard II, would have heard with special sympathy the account of the Black Knight's grief in The Book of the Duchess. Richard sincerely loved Queen Anne, and when she died he was so stricken by grief that he ordered that the Manor of Sheen, where Anne had lived, be utterly destroyed, so that not a stone should remain to remind him of his loss.49 This seems even to me a case of "immoderate grief," yet Lancastrian chroniclers, such as Walsingham, who criticize him for everything else they can think of, never criticize him for this. The marriage of King James I of Scotland to Joan Beaufort was a purely diplomatic arrangement, yet James claimed -- with what justice can not be known -- that he fell hopelessly in love with Joan when he saw her from his prison tower, exactly as Palamoun and Arcite fell in love with Emelye in the Knight's Tale.50 Lucia Visconti, daughter of the lord of Milan, seems to have had the same experience as Criseyde did when she first saw Troilus and asked, "Who yaf me drynk?" She saw the Earl of Derby, the future Henry IV, only once, when he visited Milan in 1392-93. But once was enough, and years later, in 1399, so the Venetian ambassador reported to his government, she refused a series of brilliant offers and swore to her father that if only she could have Henry for a husband she would wait the rest of her life, even though she were to die within three days after the marriage.51
Not only did aristocrats of the late Middle Ages fall in love in the ways prescribed in courtly literature, but they also earned their ladies' love in the manner of the old romances -- in elaborate duels and grand tournaments
Page 251of the sort that became increasingly fashionable in the fifteenth century. One of the most celebrated was held at Calais in 1419 by the Earl of Warwick, known to his contemporaries as "the father of courtesy."52 Not only did he joust for his lady's sake, he seems to have realized in life the Franklin's ideal of marriage, writing his wife poems in which he swore:I shall howe sore þat me smertHe so loved his wife that once, when it appeared that he and his lady would be drowned in a shipwreck, he lashed himself to a spar so that, their bodies being found together and recognized by his coat-armour, they might lie together in one grave, for he could not bear the thought of separation, even in death. John of Gaunt, we might note, provided in his last will -- made thirty years after Blanche's death -- that he was to be buried beside his "treschere jadys compaigne Blanch."54
Right humbly with lowly herte
Obeye, and in her governaunce
Set al my welfare and pleasaunce. 53
Certainly not everyone was acting like courtly lovers in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and even those who were probably did so on rare occasions. Yet these few set the fashion that grew stronger and more widespread in the generations that followed. In Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent, that patron of humanist learning and Renaissance art, fought for the love of Lucrezia Donati in a grand tournament, wrote poems to her, and composed a long treatise analyzing the sweet sufferings he endured for her sake.55 About the same time Lorenzo was carrying on in this fashion, courtly love appears even in the usually prosaic Paston family. John Paston writes thus to Margery Brewer:And mistress, I beseech you, in easing of my poor heart that sometime was at my rule, which is now at yours, that in as short time as can be I will have knowledge of your intent. 56Margery replies with the declaration that she had fallen ill and will remain so "until I hear from you." She will follow the dictates of her heart whatever her friends say, and she lapses into verse to describe the pains of secret love:
Page 252And there wotteth no creature what pain I endure;She ends by pleading that "this letter not be seen by none earthly creatures save yourself." While Margery and John were writing thus to one another -- enjoying all the thrills of a secret passion -- their parents were carrying on hard negotiations about the size of the dowry.
And, for to be dead, I dare it not discure.57
Margery andjohn were pretending. By the early years of the sixteenth century Henry VIll's courtiers were living the lives of courtly lovers, using stanzas from Chaucer's Troilus as love letters and carefully guarding their secret loves. Henry VIII himself was trying to use the style of courtly love. Trying, but not quite succeeding: his letter to Anne Boleyn starts out well enough, with protestations of love and service, but by the last line Henry is saying that he wants to "kiss her duckies."58 I'm not sure I want to know what that means.
In France they did things better. The pages of Brantôme are rife with lovers, and famous soldiers such as the Sieur de Bussi proclaimed that "he fought not for his prince nor for glory but for the sole honour and glory of contenting his lady love."59 By this time in Italy one is not too surprised to come upon a letter such as this, dated 3 August 1514:I have encountered a creature so gracious, so delicate, so noble that I cannot praise her so much nor love her so much that she would not deserve more. . . . [love put out her] nets of gold, spread among flowers, woven by Venus, so pleasant and easy that though a churlish heart might have broken them, I had no wish to do so, and for a bit I enjoyed myself in them until the tender threads became hard and secured with knots beyond untying.... And though I seem to have entered into great labor, I feel in it such sweetness ... that, if I could free myself, I would not wish to do so for anything in the world. I have abandoned all thoughts and affairs that are grave and serious; I no longer delight in reading ancient things or discussing modem ones; they are all turned into soft conversations, for which I thank Venus and all Cyprus.... [as to greater things] I have never found anything in them but harm, and in those of love always good and pleasure. Farewell!Yours,60
That Machiavelli himself, that paragon of practicality, felt the sweet pangs of courtly love is not surprising in a time in which courtly love had become a force not only in the lives of the aristocracy but even in the fates of nations. At least that is what Castiglione says in his Book of the Courtier:Many there be that hold the opinion that the victory of King Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, against the King of Granada, was chiefly occasioned by women. For the most times when the army of Spain marched to encounter with the enemies, Queen Isabella set that were in love, who til they came within sight of their enemies, forth with all her damsels. And there were many noble gentlemen always went communing with their ladies. Afterward, each one taking leave of his [lady], in their presence [they] marched on to encounter with the enemies, with that fierceness of courage that Love, and the desire to show their ladies that they were served with valiant men, gave them. Whereupon it befell many times that a very few gentlemen of Spain put to flight and slew an infinite number of Moors, thanks be to the courteous and beloved women.61The historians among you will recall that Columbus could not set out on his voyage of discovery until Ferdinand and Isabella had settled their war with the Moors. If Castiglione can be trusted -- and why not? -- we must conclude that had there been no courtly love that war never would have been won, Columbus would never have set sail, America would never have been discovered, and the present debate over whether or not courtly love actually existed would never have begun. As Chaucer's Theseus puts it,The god of love! a, benedicite!Not the least among his miracles is the fact that in the late Middle Ages, and for long thereafter, the God of Love actually did exist.
How myghty and how greet a lord is he! . . .
He may be cleped a god for his myracles!
(The Knight's Tale lines I 1785-86, 1788)
*This paper was originally given as a lecture at the University of California
Page 254at Berkeley and, in a revised form, at the University of New Mexico. It still bears the marks of oral delivery, but incorporates the helpful suggestions I received in discussions with faculty and students at both universities.
1. "Quia raro medicus lucratur pecuniam cum eis,"quoted in John L. Lowes, "The Loveres Maladye of Hereos," Modern Philology 11 (1914): 503.
2. Alain Chartier, Delectable Demaundes and Pleasant Questions, with Their Severall Answers, in Matters of Love, trans. William Painter (London: Thomas Creede, 1596); William Shakespeare, As You Like It, IV.i.108.
3. Jacques Ferrand, Erotomania or, A Treatise Discoursing of the Essence, Causes, Symptomes, Prognosticks, and Cure of Love or, Erotique Melancholy (Oxford, 1645). Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621; 6th rev. ed., 1651); on love-melancholy, see part 3, sec. 1-3.
4. See Aileen Ward, John Keats: The Making of a Poet (New York: Viking, 1963), p. 185.
5. E. Talbot Donaldson, "The Myth of Courtly Love," in Speaking of Chaucer (New York: Norton, 1970), pp. 154-63; D. W. Robertson, Jr., "Courtly Love as an Impediment to the Understanding of Medieval Literary Texts," in The Meaning of Courtly Love, ed. F. X. Newman (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1968), pp. 1-18. See also the interesting review by Jean Frappier, "Sur un procès fait &arage; l'amour courtois, " Romania 13 (1972): 145-93; and Francis Utley, "Must We Abandon the Concept of Courtly Love?" Medievalia et Humanistica, n.s. 3 (1972): 299-324.
6. C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936).
7. Peter Dronke, Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love Lyric, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965).
8. John Benton, "Clio and Venus: An Historical View of Courtly Love," in Meaning of Courtly Love, ed. Newman, pp. 19-42.
9. Drouart La Vache, Li Livres D'Amours, ed. Robert Bossuat (Paris: Champion, 1926), lines 47-52.
10. Mark Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981).
11. George Lyman Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951), p. 63.
12. Gaston Paris, "&Eacutre;tudes sur les romans de la Table Ronde. Lancelot du Lac, II, Le conte de la charette," Romania 12 (1883): 459-534. For a useful survey of scholarship, see Edmund Reiss, "Fin' Amours: Its History and Meaning in Medieval Literature," Medieval and Renaissance Studies 8 (1979): 74-99.
13. Petrarch, canzone 9.75; cf. Chiaro Davanzati, rima I, lines 37-39:
Page 255"Ch'al primo quando amai/ di folle amor mi prese;/ or son d'amor cortese. Cino da Pistoia, sonnet 80: "Lo fino Amor cortese, ch' ammaestra/ d'umil soffrenza ogni suo dritto servo." See Joan Ferrante. "Cortes' Amor in Medieval Texts," Speculum 55 (1980): 686-95.
14. Ovid, Amores I.ix. 15. Jean le Névelon, La Venjance Alixandre, ed. Edward Billings Ham Elliott Monographs, 27 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press; Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1931). Note especially Jean's direct address to Henry in the first lines of the prologue.
16. Oeuvres de Froissart, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove, 25 vols. (Brussels: Devaux, 1867-77), 1:546.
17. Livre des faits du Mareschal de Boucicault, in Collection complête des memoirs relatifs 'a I'histoire de France, ed. Claude B. Petitot (Paris: Foucault, 1825), 6:393.
18. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, ed. Eugène Vinaver, 3 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 3: 1119-20.
19. Gervase Mathew, The Court of Richard II (New York: Norton,1968), pp. 1-11.
20. On the reading of romances, see G.R. Owst, Literature and the Pulpit in MedievalEngland. -- A Neglected Chapter in the History of English Letters and of the English People, 2nd rev. ed. (Oxford: Blackwell; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961), pp. 10-15. In Amadís of Gaul, Amadis's half-brother, Galeor, is inspired to the knightly life by the diligent reading of romances. See Amadís of Gaul, Books I and II, trans. Edwin B. Place and Herbert C. Behm (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974), p. 73.
21. Chaucer,"Merciles Beaute"; Froissart, "Nom ai Amans, et en surnom Tristrans. " See F. N. Robinson's note to line 20 of "To Rosamounde , in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 859. All references to Chaucer's poetry are taken from this edition.
22. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, 2nd ed., rev. Norman Davis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), line 917.
23. See Frederick S. Shears, Froissart: Chronicler and Poet (London: Routledge, 1930), p. 16.
24. On the importance of speech see Richard Firth Green, Poets and Princepleasers: Literature and the English Court in the Late Middle Ages (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), pp. 73-84.
25. Cf.Edmond Huguet, Dictionnaire de la langue francaise du seizíeme síecle (Paris, 1925), s.v. "amadigauliser, amadiser, amadiseur," for the last of which is cited "ces beaux Amadiseurs auroyent faveurs de dames."
26. La Querelle de la Rose: Letters and Documents, ed. Joseph L. Baird and John R, Kane, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978) I:3197. 27. Canterbury Tales, line I 3169.
28. De arte honesti amandi, book 1, chap. 12.
29. It is used by the narrator six times in the Miller's Tale (lines 3200, 3278, 3290, 3349, 3715, 3754), but always in reference to the pretentious Absolon; it does not appear in the Reeve's Tale or the Cook's Tale and it is used but once, scornfully, in the Manciple's Tale, in the lines quoted above.
30. "Unde haec passio a multis dicta est hereoes. quia herois siue nobilis plus contigit." Quoted by Lowes, "`Loveres Maladye,'" 11 p. 43. Cf. Burton, Anatomy, part 3, sec. 2.
31. Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry, p. 63
32. Froissart, Chronicle, trans. Berners, 1:194.
33. Quoted by Lee W. Patterson, in "Ambiguity and Interpretation: A Fifteenth-Century Reading of Troilus and Criseyde, " Speculum 54 (1979): 303.
34. On the Properties of Things: John of Trevisa's Translation of Bartholomeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum, ed. M. C. Seymour et al. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 1:598.
35. Calendar of State Papers: Venetian, 1202-1509, ed. Rawdon Brown (London, 1864), 1:22-25.
36. The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry, ed. Thomas Wright, Early English Text Society, OS 33 (1868; reprint, Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus, 1973), pp. 1-2.
37. La Tour-Landry, p. 18.
38. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. Davis, lines 1208ff., especially line 1219.
39. La Tour-Landry, p. 172.
40. Ibid., p. 185.
41. Les Cent ballades, par Jean le Seneschal, ed. Gaston Raynand, Société des anciens textes français (Paris, 1905), p. 213: "On peut l'un dire, et I'autre doit onfere."
42. See Richard Barber, The Knight and Chivalry (London: Longmans, 1970), p. 149.
43. See Arthur Piaget, "La cours amoreuse dite de Charles VI," Romania 20 (1891): 417-54; Theodor Staub, "Die Gründung des Pariser Minnehofs von 1400, " Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie 77 (1961): 1-14; and also my Malory's Morte Darthur (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976), pp. 156 and 265, n. 70.
44. Charles Poitevin, "La charte de la Cour d'amour," Bulletin de
Page 257l' Academie royale des sciences, des lettres, et des beaux-arts Belgique, 3rd ser. 12 (1886): 210.
45. Arthur Piaget,"Un manuscrit de la cour amoreuse de Charles Vl," Romania 31 (1902): 597-603.
46. Froissart, Oeuvres, ed. Lettenhove, 2:372.
47. Henry A. Kelly, Love and Marriage in the Age of Chaucer, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970), pp. 163ff. See also Michael M. Sheehan, "The Formation and Stability of Marriage in Fourteenth-Century England: Evidence of an Ely Register," Medieval Studies 3 (1971): 228-63.
48. See Margaret Galway, "Joan of Kent and the Order of the Garter, " Birmingham Historical Journal, 1 (1947): 23.
49. See Mathew, Court of Richard II, p. 17.
40. James I of Scotland, The Kingis Quair, ed. John Norton-Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), lines 274-87.
51. Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts Existing in the Archives of Milan, (1385-1618), ed. Allen B. Hinds (London, 1912), 1:1-2. I owe this reference to Sumner Ferris, of California State College, California, Pa.
52. Pageant of the Birth, Life, and Death of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, K. G. (1389-1439), ed. Harold Arthur, Viscount Dillon, and W. H. St. John Hope (London: Longmans, Green, 1914) pl. 35.
53. Henry N. MacCracken, "The Earl of Warwick's Virelai," PMLA 22 (1907): 597-606.
54. See his testament of 3 February 1398, in Sir Sydney Armitage-Smith, John of Gaunt, King of Castile and Leon, Duke of Aquitaine and Lancaster, Earl of Derby, Lincoln, and Leicester, Seneschal of England (Westminster: A. Constable, 1904), p. 420.
55. See Cesare Carrocci, La giostra di Lorenzo de' Medici (Bologna:1899); and André Pechon, La jeunesse de Laurent de Médicis (1449-1478) (Paris: G. de Bussac, 1963).
56. Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, ed. Norman Davis, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 1:604.
57. Paston Letters, ed. Davis, 1:662.
58. The Love Letters of Henry VIII, ed. Henry Savage (London: Wingate, 1949), p. 47.
59. Pierre de Bourdeille, Seigneur de Brantôme, Vies des hommes illustres et grands capitaines françois (Paris: 1740), discours 85.
60. Niccoló Machiavelli, Tutte le opere, ed. Guido Mazzoni and Mario Cassella (Florence: G. Barbera, 1929), letter 15 (pp. 893-94).
61. The Book of the Courtier, from the Italian of Count Baldassare Castiglione: Done into English by Sir Thomas Hoby, anno 1561, introduction by Walter Raleigh (London: D. Nutt, 1900). p. 265.
[First printed in Fifteenth-century studies: recent essays, ed. Robert F. Yeager. : Hamden, Conn. : Archon Books, 1984. (Page numbers refer to this edition.) Reprinted in Contradictions: from Beowulf to Chaucer: selected studies of Larry D. Benson, edited by Theodore M. Andersson and Stephen A. Barney. (Aldershot, Hants, England: Scolar Press; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate Pub. Co., 1995.)]
Back to Geoffrey Chaucer Page | (Or use your browser's back button to return to the previous page.)