The Importance of the Belt in Religious and Secular Medieval Courtly Love Literature
By Emily R. J. Long
Honor’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, 2009
Introduction: Courtly love is one of the best-known themes to emerge from the Middle Ages. This particular theme became such a key characteristic of the time that it pervaded not only literature and song, but even manifested itself in society as a whole. However, few people other than those well versed in medieval poetry would know that often courtly love even spanned so far that it made its way into religious lyric and prose. Most often, the subject of these works was none other than the Blessed Virgin Mary. If the poem was secular, often there was imagery relating to the Virgin or Christianity found within it. Usually, in both religious and secular works, courtly love involved an exchange of gifts to show favor of one courtly lover to another. Three stories from this time period focus on a sort of courtly love relationship between two people that involves this characteristic giving of a gift: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Guigemar, and an apocryphal account of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven by “John the Evangelist”. These seemingly different stories share one unifying bond: a belt.
But what is courtly love? Herbert Moller asserts that though it today carries connotations of “courting” a woman, it was far from that. “Courting” is usually reserved for pursuing a marriage, and at the time courtly love had little to do with marriage at all. Moller explains, “While it had originally nothing to do with married life or its customary preliminaries, it greatly influenced the standard behavior of the upper classes, especially their conduct in the presence of ladies”. Courtly love has a sort of formula that involves a love triangle between a young courtly male lover, the courtly lady, and usually her older husband. The object of desire is the woman, who is of courtly or noble status. She is always unreachable in some way or another, thus giving the amorous young man love-centered torment. The young man then writes letters, composes songs or lyrics, or in some way or another expresses how the woman occupies his thought at all times. There is usually loss of sleep, bodily illness, and other ailments, which are usually exaggerations of his excessive longing for the woman.