The Concept of Courtly Love as an Impediment to the Understanding of Medieval Texts

The Concept of Courtly Love as an Impediment to the Understanding of Medieval Texts

By D.W. Robertson Jr.

The Meaning of Courtly Love, edited by F.X. Newman (Albany, 1968)


Introduction: I have never been convinced that there was any such thing as what is usually called courtly love during the Middle Ages. However, it is obvious that courtly love does exist in modern scholarship and criticism, and that the idea appeals to a great many people today.

Our evidence concerning medieval people as it appears in court records, historical narratives, and other sources reveals them as being severely practical within the limits of their knowledge, and not at all sentimental. But what modern scholars have described as “courtly love,” a thing, I might add, that medieval scholars refrain from describing, is not only impractical but downright inconvenient. For example, as a “courtly lover” I should be constrained to love someone else’s wife, unless, that is, I happened to live in England, where, some authorities insist, I might on occasion practice the art with my own wife.

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The non-English situation is not only inconvenient for the lady, but dangerous, since adultery on the part of a wife in medieval society, as in modern Italy, was not taken lightly by law and custom. In fact, during the late Middle Ages in some areas adultery on the part of the husband was not always regarded with much tolerance either. In late fourteenth-century London, for example, a man and woman taken in adultery were required to be shaved, except for two inches of hair around the head, taken to Newgate Prison, and thence paraded publicly through the streets accompanied by minstrels more than half way across the City to be incarcerated in a small prison in the middle of Cornhill called the Tun. However, a further feature of “courtly love” is that it was frequently “pure,” so that wife or no wife what one got for his pains, and these were considerable, was little more than anticipatory elation, presumably identical with a feeling described by the troubadours as “Joy.”

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