Courtly Love




Siân Echard, University of British Columbia

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“... whatever knight of that country was famous for prowess wore clothing and arms of one colour. The women, too, fashionably attired in the same colours, would have nothing of the love of any man, unless he had been proven three times in battle. The women, then, were made chaste and more virtuous, and the soldiers more brave for the love of them.... The knights planned an imitation battle and competed together on horseback, while the womenfolk watched from the top of the city walls and aroused them to passionate excitement by their flirtatious behaviour.” (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia regum britannie IX.14)

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century account of Arthur's plenary court includes this paragraph which associates a desire to please women with chivalric behaviour. By Malory’s day, love and knighthood are in some ways apparently synonymous, but Malory seems at times uncomfortable with the adulterous relationships which have been seen as central to “courtly love.” Certainly it seems unlikely he would have approved of these Rules of Love from Andreas Capellanus’s twelfth-century De amore :

Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.

He who is not jealous cannot love.

Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice.

When made public love rarely endures.

The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.

Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.

When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.

A new love puts to flight an old one.

A man in love is always apprehensive.

Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.

Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.

He whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little.

A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved.

The Codex Manesse is a manuscript copied in Zurich in the mid-14th century, containing love songs in Middle High German. It is lavishly illustrated with idealized portraits of the poets, and its images, samples of which you will see below, suggest an ideal of love and knightly accomplishments which seems in tune with “courtly love”; you may in fact recognize some of these images, as they often are used to illustrate modern editions and studies of medieval texts about love. You can view the whole manuscript online; click here to go to the Universitätsbibliotek in Heidelberg. These images are licensed for non-commercial use under the Creative Commons licence cc-BY-NC-SA; click here to read the terms of use.
Many scholars now think that Andreas was being as ironic as his model, Ovid, and argue that it’s dangerous to take the “cult of courtly love” at face value. Malory for his part is as interested in the relationship between Arthur and Lancelot as in that between Lancelot and Guenevere. The painting below, Edmund Blair Leighton’s The Accolade (1901), shows a lady dubbing a knight. In Malory’s world, the making of a knight is a male-male relation, and the lament from the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, another of Malory’s sources, makes that quite clear.

Compare what is implied by Edmund Blair Leighton’s painting, with what Lancelot says below:


“Alas,” quod Lancelot, “Wo is me,

That ever sholde I see with sight

Again my lord for to be,

The noble king that made me knight!”

(Stanzaic Morte Arthur, 2142-2145)




The paintings by Edmund Blair Leighton and Herbert James Draper used to illustrate this page are in the public domain according to Wikimedia Commons.

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