Caught in Love’s Grip: Passion and Moral Agency in French Courtly Romance

The art of courtly love
The art of courtly love
The art of courtly love

Caught in Love’s Grip: Passion and Moral Agency in French Courtly Romance

Reuben Henriques

Brown Journal of History: Volume 6 (2012)


French royal courts in the late twelfth century were absolutely smitten with love. Troubadaours traveled from place to place reciting stories of knights and the ladies they wooed. Courtiers engaged in playful debates over the nature of love, sexuality, and romance, discussing who was allowed to love whom and what the best way was to profess affection to the object of one’s desires. The language of love made appearances in everything from the documents that land transactions to the loyalty oaths that cemented knights’ bonds of vassalage to their lords.  This was, in short, a culture with a striking degree of interest in the deep affections underlying personal relationships—and nowhere was this interest more evident than in the genre of poems and stories modern scholars refer to as courtly romances. These tales of chivalrous knights and beautiful ladies gained immense popularity in high medieval France, spreading a vision of relationships founded not on law, oath, or politics but rather on something deeper and more emotional: love.

The genre’s recognition of the potency of love as a central characteristic of heterosocial relationships contrasted with an aristocratic society in which men and women were united in marriage more often for pragmatic than romantic reasons. Marriage among members of the aristocratic nobility was largely a means of cementing alliances between two families or ensuring an heir to one’s estate. Love and desire were generally no more than a convenient bonus in marital relationships. Some, in fact, believed love and marriage were mutually exclusive, with the Countess of Champagne writing that “we declare and firmly establish that love cannot unfold its powers between married people.” The courtly chaplain Andreas Capellanus likewise instructed his readers that “if the parties concerned marry, love is violently put to flight.”

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