Courts of Love: Challenge to Feudalism
By Robert V. Graybill
Essays in Medieval Studies, Vol. 5 (1988)
Introduction: That political liberation from the medieval feudal system in southern Europe was accomplished by myriads of small causes crusades, commercial trade, gunpowder is an old story. Yet there is an ever-new fascination in tracing some of the forces that were strong not merely for that age but for all time. Although C. S. Lewis may have overstated the case in The Allegory of Love, the natural freedom toward which the sexual instinct urges humans is widely held as a foremost politically liberating force. That instinct, expressed through the culture of twelfth-century Provence, particularly in terms of courtly love, played a significant part in the breakup of feudalism. Indeed, one institution of courtly love, the Court or Parliament of Love, had an importance far out of proportion to its time or place. The Feudal political system, based on undying loyalty to a lord or king, had its judicial system too. Although the church exercised power through ecclesiastical courts, the political courts were far from weak. It was an age of formality, legalism, and scholasticism a fixed system. No wonder then that for romantic love to be a part of the culture it had to have its own system of authority, its own court.
At first the concept of courtly love was not competitive to established legal and ecclesiastical systems. Rather, it filled a vacuum in feudal marriage. Since marriage was not based on romantic love, and since romantic love had a never-flagging impetus, some way had to be found to regulate it. The answer was courtly love, a convention which turned passion, jealousy, secret admiration and assignation into (as many of its supporters hoped) a socially valuable force, a means of social control that would be peaceful, even at times wholesome. As Denis de Rougemont remarks: “To impose a style on the life of the passions that dream of the whole of the pagan Middle Ages tormented by Christian law such is the secret wish that was to give rise to the [courtly love] myth” (196).