The meaning of love as seen in the light of Courtly Love

Love as opposed to marriage?

The familiar picture of courtly love (end of the 11th century, in the south of France) comes to us through the drawings by Epinal of handsome troubadours playing on their lutes to beautiful ladies high in their towers; however, we fail to grasp the underlying significance of this. In reality, it was a movement condemned by the Church, questioning as it did stock ideas about marriage and sexuality. Philosophically, it maintained that it was possible to love without any biological or social purpose. This was a profoundly revolutionary notion, as it perceived the individual and his fulfilment as ends in themselves, superior to the economic, religious or political order. Courtly love had as its aim the refinement of the individual, and set forth as of supreme value the man and woman who displayed fortitude in an aesthetic manner; thus it distanced itself from doctrines advocating the sacrifice of the individual to God, the state, and the community (or the company!), while resolutely turning its back on sensual dissoluteness. The most blasé of profligates, just as much as the fundamentalist fighting for ‘basic values’, will find he is offended by the ethical code of fin’amor.
The reason is a surprising paradox: courtly love points towards a way of loving in its raw state which is devoid of almost all the characteristics we normally attribute to love.

The courtly lover, usually from a social background more or less inferior to that of his lady, could never expect to marry her. The lady often belonged to the highest stratum of the nobility, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, whereas the troubadours were not even knights (if they were nobles, they were without lands); rather, they were close to the colourful world of jongleurs and other such travelling performers. A social interpretation of this phenomenon has even been suggested, a sort of mix of classes, due to the pressure on the nobility caused by a nascent bourgeoisie. The lady might be married to a powerful count or duke, but it was agreed that in reality her heart belonged to her courtly lover, whether he was a troubadour or a simple knight – a situation which was tolerated by the official husband.

One of the reasons for this was that courtly love did not involve the sex act. In a famous "tenson", where Mir Bernat is the noble knight and Sifre the troubadour of humble birth, the following problem is posed: a lady has promised half of herself (the upper half) to one of her lovers, and the other half (the lower half) to the other:

“Sifre chooses the upper part; Mir Bernat the lower. (…) How will Sifre defend his choice? By glorifying the assay where one embraces, kisses and caresses (embratz, manei e bays). ‘Better it is’, he says, ‘to practise the gentle art, to embrace, cuddle, kiss her mouth, her eyes, her countenance and her forehead.’ (That is more or less all that the Countess of Die offered to her knight). (…) Sifre totally excludes ‘the deed’, to which some importance was attached in the Middle Ages because of the supposedly hereditary transmission of virtues and vices. (…) That is why husbands theoretically tolerated (although, in reality, they were often very jealous) their wives’ going along with the ordeal of a courtly lifestyle (‘For, with the husband’s permission, I shall be able to practise the gentle art in peace’, said Sifre)

(René Nelli, L’Érotique des troubadours, vol. 2, 10/18, 1974.).”

Here is an unexpected sight: a society at the heart of Christian civilisation about to legitimise a form of adultery! To some extent, the grounds for this new idea of love can be seen in the Arthurian Cycle. Consider Lancelot (of the Lake) and Guinevere: the knight pursues the Grail on behalf of his queen, and both of them deceive King Arthur. But of course moral standards remain intact, for both are punished, and Lancelot fails in his quest. Courtly love is implicit in this story, although reoriented in the direction of Christian morality. For academic students of Provençal love, adultery of this kind, in which the lovers are idealized, had its status enhanced in other narratives, to such an extent that it was agreed that true love could not be found with a husband!

Marriage remained a simple social institution, and, for that very reason, excluded passion. Followers of courtly love seemed to think that the slightest important relationship prevented authentic feelings of love. At that period, the marriages of the nobility were arranged with an eye to vassalage and military alliances. Part of the obligations included utilitarian sexual relations, in order to continue the family line. The courtly lover, on the other hand, could alone share the true love of the lady, but that relationship precluded full sexual relations, so as to avoid disputes about paternity. As we can see from these conditions, society and even husbands tolerated courtly passion to some degree – a passion which also encouraged the development of knightly prowess, as well as providing inspiration for artists.

Marriage for love is an invention of modern society, which thus inextricably links pleasure, procreation and socio-economic self-interest. Is this mixture any more sound than what preceded it? Fortunately, young men and women decide on the choice of a partner. This basic freedom, however, may well open the way to a grand illusion: the hope that a mere social contract contains more than it actually can. Let us recall the wise thoughts of Ermengarde, Viscountess of Narbonne: “Affection between spouses and true love between lovers prove to be completely opposite in nature, and arise from totally different impulses of the spirit.” We have fused together a collection of demands and roles which remained unconnected prior to the Romantic period.

Some regard the Middle Ages as a backward period, but its vision of marriage was realistic: it was a harmonisation of convenience and interests, of which little was expected, shorn of romantic obligations and inordinate idealization. Once the family had been redefined as a practical union, the noble ladies of the Languedoc ‘invented’ the notion of love-as-passion and conspired to create around it a space which was completely novel. According to a legend which has been in existence a long time, there were supposedly several ‘courts of love’ - in the Languedoc, naturally enough, but also in Champagne. These were presided over by countesses, and featured councils of ladies in which strange sentences were passed in accordance with a highly elaborate moral code. There still exist a few traces of these ‘judgements of love’ on contentious issues for which both ladies and troubadours would come and plead their case, receiving the judgement of the council together with whatever punishment might be imposed. Nowadays, there is a general denial of the historicity of these ‘courts of love’, but the myth is telling nonetheless.

A whole society in the 12th century turned to alternative amorous activities which they viewed as the spirit and the true focus of life itself. Thus, marriage no longer prevented genuine self-fulfilment taking place by means of adulterous love.

The spiritual essence of love

In the light of this, what relationship was formed between the lady and her lover?

By means of her conduct and beauty, the lady would acquire more or less pretz (worth). Her reputation could then spread beyond the bounds of her region. A lady would become well known, and men would praise her qualities, which were not moral virtues in the usual sense of the term. As far as her obvious qualities were concerned, she appreciated wit, was generous to itinerant poets, was able to convene an assembly, and be the leading light at sparkling occasions. At a deeper level, however, what did these qualities signify? The lady was worthy of love, meaning that she was something that could be yearned for, and could be loved without any risk of disappointment. She became in effect larger than life, really existing and yet transcending the nature of the world; in her body and her shapely outline she incarnated the perfection of form, while her qualities of mind and character were the embodiment of intellectual perfection.

By her very existence, therefore, she demonstrated the sudden appearance of the sacred or the superhuman in human form. That is why the description of each of these ladies in innumerable poems is adorned with exaggerated language. One could almost believe, at a time when patriarchal religion dominated, that earlier forms of worship, centred around the great goddess and her priestesses, were simply carrying on in another guise by means of courtly love. One might say that what the Christian experiences for the Virgin Mary or Christ, the troubadour experienced for his lady, with this slight difference: to the lover, physical beauty was in itself considered to be of value, having something of the nature of the sacred, and expressing the divine. Sexual attraction here assumes a significance which is both magic and supernatural, just as it did in the ancient mysteries, the secret religions of Antiquity. Beauty is not a physical characteristic; rather, it reveals the superhuman. Women bear the mark of a special power, the ability to represent and mirror here on earth the protection and magnificence of those original goddesses. Here we find the idea of mana.( From the Polynesian word meaning ‘force’ or ‘strength’. In many societies, it indicates a supernatural force which confers powers of magic or attraction.) For the troubadour, his lady is charged with magic power, towards which he is drawn like a moth to a candle. She is the Sun and he the Moon. Left to himself, the man has neither spiritual nor fundamental existence. He needs to turn in ever decreasing circles around a lady who is his superior and who secretly provides him with nourishment.

William IX, the Duke of Aquitaine, describes this sovereign and magical power thus:

“(…) By her Joy my lady can heal,

by her anger she can kill.

Because of her, the wisest man can sink into madness,

The most handsome lose his handsomeness,

The most courtly become a boor,

The most boorish become courtly.

Since no lady more noble may be found,

None more beautiful be seen or even heard spoken of,

I want her for myself alone

So that my heart may find purity,

My flesh renewal,

Never to age again (…)”

La Fin’Amor, tr. by Jean-Claude Marol, Seuil, coll. Point-Sagesse, 1998.

The woman is thus not an ‘object’ of sexual desire; rather, she is recognized as the source of life, not so much because she is mother, but because her beauty and sovereignty constantly confer meaning on the world. It is thanks to his lady that man, that wretched insubstantial being, who lives dependent on others, can find meaning in his labours.
Each knight thus became valiant, by means of, and for, a lady. His heroic exploits could not have been realized without the invigorating image of the superior female who captivated him. Woman was no longer reduced to her maternal function as the guarantor of her lord’s succession or the provider of relaxation to a crusader. On the contrary, courtly love was meant to be sterile.

The courtly couple would not produce offspring, since full genital relations were excluded; these were reserved for the husband, and considered part of ‘minimum’ social obligations. In this context, reproduction was of no importance: the less important procreation was, the more highly valued woman became.

Today’s deafening, enervating talk about the family, together with incessant propaganda targeted at women in support of childbearing, as if that were the only thing that identified them, represents a considerable retrograde step. In much the same way, we assume that the fact that women have the opportunity to “do a man’s job”, or become “female executives” or “female ministers” is a considerable advance. These two areas of activity, however, are a limited set of alternatives, which tend to neglect one of the most basic aspects of women – their ‘magical’ function. Instead of being identified with a single role - that of mother (a role which is transitory and leaves her helpless) – by means of Courtoisie the woman became fully herself, man’s inspiration and his creator. The courtly lady was not only the biological mother of the knight’s children, but spiritual mother of the spirit of the knight, who was her servant.

This explains why, in a number of medieval tales, the sacrifice of the knight setting out on crusade or in search of the Grail is only possible thanks to a lady. It must be understood that feminine attraction had a magnetic, rather than a psychological significance (“I do this because I wish to please such and such a one”). The image of the lady, idealized and exalted in a fitting manner, magically possessed the knight and was able to transport him beyond his everyday limitations. Thus Lancelot accepts the kind of humiliation no ‘normal’ knight could have borne, thanks to the supernatural strength of his love. He finds himself on a cart, insulted and beaten by yokels, and is taken for a coward, whereas with a couple of pinches of knightly skill he could have scattered them like a flight of starlings. Values are overturned in the pursuit of self-sacrifice, even to the point of surrendering his image as a ‘noble knight’ and his manly honour… Lancelot, the archetype of the courtly knight, shows his lady that he is prepared to see himself made nothing, so that she alone can exist; he obliterates his own will and dismisses his most ingrained reactions. This descent into the abyss precedes the re-birth symbolised by the union of the couple after the trials have ended.

Whereas the Christian has little chance of actually encountering Jesus or Mary, and may on occasion wonder as to the certainty of their historical existence, the courtly lover could hope to breathe in the perfume of his lady someday, while still preserving her as a sacred being. It is noteworthy that in various texts, most of them of later date, that the lady is called the Virgin, thereby revealing this spiritual aspect. That dynamic, bringing about the union of physical desire and mystic exaltation, would later constitute the essence of Provençal love; it required a subtle blend of imagination and reality.

The technical aspect of this is of interest: courtly love offered a specific internal operation, consisting, not of energy (chi or ki), as in Taoism, nor of the body, as in yoga, but of both feeling and desire.
We should note that here too we embark on a paradoxical path, since it is feeling which appears the more spontaneous of the two. How may it be channelled, disciplined and transmuted? Therein lie both the key to this route and the incredible potential it possesses.

Love at a distance

A troubadour, who may never have seen a certain lady ‘of high renown’, or may only have seen her from a distance, would nevertheless begin to love her. This strange love was founded on an image which was purely spiritual in nature. One narrative recounts a typical case….

“Jaufré Rudel was a man of great nobility and a good trouveur; he was the prince of Blaye, who, without seeing her, fell deeply in love with the distant countess of Tripoli, on account of the great good that he had heard spoken of her by pilgrims returning from Antioch: “Ah! Fain were I a pilgrim, that such beautiful eyes as hers might fall upon my staff and homespun garment.” He proceeded to make up many songs about her, using modest language and set to beautiful melodies. So deeply did he desire to see her that he became a crusader and took ship. Speaking of that, Jaufré Rudel writes: “So great is her worth (her Pretz) and so trustworthy her merit that I would wish to be a captive yonder in the kingdom of the Saracens”. Falling ill on the ship, he was taken to Tripoli as one dead, and left in an abbey. This was made known to the countess, who came to him, to his bed, and took him in her arms; realizing that she it was whom he loved, he immediately awoke; recovering his sense of hearing and smell, he praised God who had spared his life enough that he might see her. And so he expired in her arms, as sadly and as joyfully as he had formerly predicted in a canso. Thereupon she had his body buried in great pomp by the valiant knights Templar in their monastery; the same day, she took the veil because of the pain she felt at his death.”

(Text reworked in the anthology of Francis Lalanne, Les Poèmes d’amour les plus tendres: des troubadours à Verlaine…. Les Belles Lettres, 1994.)

This account seems historically authentic, despite the writer’s embellishments. It is an extreme manifestation of the phenomenon of love at a distance, in which words are all that is needed to call forth a world of the imagination, all the more powerful the more inaccessible it remained. Human beings have this strange power of projecting in front of themselves an image which they fill with life and beauty, and which in return awakens their senses and their love. Depending on the image used, however, the emotions which are awakened are of varying colours and are destined for different things.

In fact, these mental pictures allow themselves to become stores of energy – the more I love and the more I concentrate on the object of my love, the more I feel rising within myself a force which desires to take bodily form. This technique is skilfully expounded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who advised Jesuits to conjure up a sustained mental picture of Christ or Satan, the Hosts of Good and Evil, the sacrifice of the Passion, and so on. Thanks to this intense concentration, individual Jesuits stored up an enviable inner strength, which they were to use in the accomplishment of their tasks….

The secret of courtly love thus comprised two parts: first, successfully raising this emotional energy and maintaining it at a high level; secondly, channelling it, so as to link the self with noble works and deeds in an increasingly harmonious whole. Unlike modern man, who allows himself involuntarily to be taken over by a group identity, whether it be Lara Croft or show-biz celebrities, expending his feelings on empty fantasies and audiovisual consumer goods, the troubadours channelled their erotic imagination into a lofty form of self-realization.

Troubadours began to great care of the icons they were in love with, becoming intoxicated with the fact of being able to love without expecting anything in return. In courtly love, greater prestige is attached to waiting and non self-realization. What distinguishes today’s ‘fan’ from the troubadour is seen first of all in the active yet disinterested attitude of the courtly lover. Rather than wait for physical contact or deluding himself as to the possibility of mutual love, the troubadour would delight in a love which was unrequited. He considered himself to be unworthy of being looked upon by his lady, and yet was overjoyed to know of her existence. He would give thanks to the universe for creating his beloved. The goal of love was not self-realization, the creation of children or immoderate indulgence in sensual pleasure; it was simply to be in love, and to accentuate desire as an end in itself. This strange intoxication was called Joi, a state of grace, a rush of affection, which was its own reward: loving altered ones perception, and gave meaning to the world.

In point of fact, the troubadour was a master of the technique of visualization; by means of song and concentration on the image of the one he adored, he achieved an ever more intense relationship with her, consciously aiming at the establishment of a deep communion between the ideal of his lady and himself.

In this way Lancelot attains a state of total absorption into the image of his queen, Guinevere. This is a particularly strange state of being:

“The man on the cart (Lancelot), fallen into deep meditation, is powerless and defenceless against Love, who rules him. And his meditation is such that he forgets who he is: he knows not whether he is or whether he is not, he knows not his name, he knows not whether he be armed or no, he knows neither whence he comes nor whither he goes. He remembers nothing, save a single person, and it is on her account that he has forgotten all the rest; it is of her alone that he thinks - so forcefully that he neither hears, sees, nor understands aught else”.

(Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot, ou le chevalier de la Charrette, Folio classique, 1996, pp.45-46).

Here, at this level of erotic concentration, we find areas shared by courtly love and the Bhakti Yoga. The aesthete Bhakta has to live as if he were permanently in the presence of the divine image he adores, so as to be not only in a state of ecstasy but also to feel he is carried away, constantly driven to higher achievements…. Moreover, the lady, unlike today’s rock stars, was becoming so perfect that, even should her servant meet her, he would not be disappointed. By means of their respective disciplines, the protagonists of cortezia were to succeed in bringing about the miracle of making imagination and reality coincide for the space of a few favoured moments - longer and more real than those provided by a rock concert!

What the troubadours had realized was that desire is usually more intense than its fulfilment. They identified what it was that destroyed this state of erotic grace: the meanness of people, any over-hasty fondling of the sex organs, and the sordid banality of marriage. They would therefore attempt – perhaps with some success - to set up a relationship which avoided these three pitfalls.

Esthetics of Love

The troubadour sought to acquire merit and spread his reputation, in order to be worthy of his lady.

He would compose and sing fine poems, live a life of poverty and simplicity, and would act valiantly. He was the ideal knight and the ideal poet combined.

After he had journeyed through a sufficient number of lands, he would end by going to the court of his lady. Once there, he had to be sufficiently skilful to succeed in his approach, since the lady was almost always surrounded by dazzling scholars or lowly maidservants. What is more, the relationship, which was often adulterous, was duty bound to remain concealed. Here the troubadour’s skilled use of ironic teasing was put to the test, as well as a code of secrecy. Even in his poems and songs, the name of the lady was symbolised by a senhal, a symbolic term or mysterious name: Alauzeta (Lark), Rai (Ray), Bels Cavcaliers (Handsome Knight), Doussa Enemia (Sweet Enemy), Noms Verais (True Name), Mon Estui (My Cover), Mon Sobre Gaugz (My More Than Pleasure), Bel Papagei (Fine Parrot), Bel Senhor (Handsome Lord), On Tot Me Platz (Where All Pleases Me), Sobre Luenh (More Than Distant), Bel Cristalh, La Loba (the She-Wolf)…

This senhal has given rise to a very strange story: “So he loved La Loba de Pennautier. La Loba came from Le Carcassès, and Peire Vidal had himself called ‘Wolf’ for her sake, and bore a coat of arms with a wolf upon it. And in the mountains of Cabaret he had himself hunted by shepherds, with their hounds and greyhounds (…) he had clothed himself in a wolf skin to make the shepherds and dogs believe that he was a wolf. The shepherds hunted him with their dogs, and beat him so badly that he was carried, as good as dead, to the dwelling of The She-Wolf of Pennautier. When she realized that it was Peire Vidal, she began to be most joyous at the madness of his action; she laughed much on that account, as did her husband. They welcomed him with great joy, and her husband had him taken and left in a concealed place (…). He sent for a doctor, and had Peire nursed back to health.”

(From the French translation by Jacques Roubaud, La Fleur inverse, essai sur l’art formel des troubadours, Ramsay, 1986. Roubaud studies the symbolism of this type of narrative without believing it to be historic).

Legend, or historic fact?

More often than not, the troubadour confessed his passion in a less extravagant manner, and would offer his services as the lady’s servant by adopting a self-imposed position: “with my hands joined and my neck bent, I grant you myself and control myself for your sake”.
The lady could refuse, but always graciously, without humiliating the poet. One of the virtues for which a lady was praised was her ability to implement her decisions with such delicacy that they were always abided by, without anyone feeling wronged or injured. If she already had a domnei (a servant) she was duty bound to refuse to take on another, even if he were more handsome or more outstanding. In this way, she emphasized the virtue of faithfulness she possessed.

If the lady accepted him, he would become her vassal (“henceforth, if it please her, I will be her sworn liegeman, more devoted to her than to any other lord”), and a strange ‘race for virtue’ would begin, with each working for the perfecting of the other. The lady would set about demanding different proofs from her domnei: she could send him a long way away to other well-known ladies, in order to test his courage and devotion, or she could ask him to compose some songs. All their qualities were to be developed – artistic talents, social skills,
physical prowess, modesty and nobility of spirit.

They jealously guarded their secrets, rarely seeing each other, and then only in secret. The troubadour suffered from his inability to touch his lady and to display his love openly, while both of them would observe each other, without revealing anything, during the games and jousting that took place at court. No doubt they tested each other continually, the lady amusing herself by watching how her domnei, who was supposed to remain chaste(2), resisted the advances of the servant girls and female jongleurs; he would look to see if she were every bit as excellent as befitted her, without overly favouring certain guests. Both owed each other different mutual obligations in order to ascend the steps of a grading system which was comprised of a multitude of tests, by means of which their worth (valor) would increase. These many stages were designated by names such as ‘Entenhador’ and ‘Fenhador’, each of which summed up their rights and obligations.

As time went along, they would grant each other further meetings in secret, meetings which were difficult to arrange, constantly approaching each other with movements as delicate as a butterfly’s wings. Initially, the lady could agree to display her bare feet or shoulders…. The troubadour might be able to breathe in the scent of her hair, and then had to withdraw. Light touching constituted another, further stage. During this time, desire would increase to such an extent that the first time the troubadour and his lady touched each other with their fingertips, they could receive a shock, since the mixture of mutual idealisation, prolonged chastity and the magnificence of the setting would heighten their sensibilities. All this because the lady was acting in such a way as to become the archetype of herself: her clothes, her gestures, her physical bearing and mental attitude, her voice, her rejoinders – all were meant to express the ideal of perfection. She was becoming the incarnation of absolute desire.

In like manner, the troubadour, in his behaviour and magnanimity, would merge into the ideal that his lady had given him to fulfil. This was no longer an encounter between two individuals with all their blemishes: it was two unreal archetypes, who happened to be clothed with flesh, gazing at each other and endlessly creating an image of each other.

This mutual metamorphosis was marked out by several stages. There was the ‘exchange of hearts’ (l’échange des coeurs), in which each was supposed to live within the other in a communion beyond space and time: after exchanging breaths for some time, the two lovers would breathe into each other until they approached a state of ecstasy.
Finally, there was the asag: the two lovers would sleep side-by-side, naked, without touching, separated by a sword, allowing contemplation to quench the desire that could not be appeased.

Such tests, and a host of others that have not been preserved in the historical record, doubtless formed part of a genuine esthetic of love. This allowed the intensity of desire to increase little by little and then be channelled in such a way as to lead to a kind of ecstasy and sudden heightening of ardour. We in the West have lost our familiarity with this. Courtly lovers inevitably came into conflict with the Church, since they practised a separate spiritual discipline alongside Christianity. The cult of the lady was condemned in 1277, accused of being immoral, concealing spiritual depravity and damaging the institution of marriage.
Marriage and love, as we define that union today, is a reinstatement of ideas laid down by the Church; to it is added a pinch of the ideals of Provençal love, mixed in with a liberal helping of social propriety and instant pleasure.

Courtly love, on the other hand, rejected both of these, in the belief that the essential thing was to attain a superhuman state, rather than to make the human condition more or less bearable.

As we have stated, cortezia is opposed to the moral teaching of the Church, but it also runs counter to modern day prejudices. It sees the things of the flesh as being just as important as those of the spirit, thereby shocking both sides in the Western antinomian debate. Instead of recognizing the celebrated dichotomy of the body and the spirit in order to repudiate one of the terms, Courtoisie puts forward a synthesis: it acknowledges both the worth of sensuality and the reality of ‘spiritual’ fulfilment – the one being conveyed through the other. Thoroughgoing free-thinkers will be troubled by the notion of going beyond pleasure by the giving of oneself, whereas Christians will deny the possibility of finding the Absolute in a being who is relative and has ‘no connection with God’.


The Meaning of Desire

This short essay (144 pages) has received positive reviews in France (Cosmopolitan - Le Quotidien du Médecin (a medical review) - M Magazine (a magazine dedicated to men)...

Emmanuel Juste DUITS is a 42 years old French author, he teaches Philosophy. He is engaged in forward-looking research into the new ways people relate and interact in contemporary society.
He has published ‘Man, the System’ (L’Homme Réseau) (Chronique sociale, 1999) – ‘L’Autre désir’ (Another Desire) (La Musardine, 2000)

Because of its unusual topic and his unique approach, we believe this essay could be of interest for your readers.

It discusses the true meaning of our erotic longings and of sexual desire itself?
Society thrusts normative responses upon us: procreation and the heterosexual couple would seem to constitute the best way to achieve personal fulfilment and self-realization. Today, the individual remains conditioned by these dominant, chauvinist views.
This traditional way of looking at things, however, is challenged by practitioners of sado-masochism, just as it was by Plato in Antiquity, then in the twelfth century by those who practised courtly love and who thereby laid claim to both asceticism in love and the sublimation of desire.

The originality of the present essay resides in the comparisons drawn between these two forms of ‘love at arm’s length’, each with its own rituals. In considering sexual practices, the idea of the ‘open couple’ and fidelity, together with what is involved in philosophical terms, the author puts our prejudices firmly into perspective and promises us a new freedom in loving.