By Danièle Cybulskie
The courtly love tradition gave rise to some absolutely beautiful literature over the course of the Middle Ages, and February is always a good time to revisit some good, old-fashioned romance. Despite being based around a concept that involved the breaking of a very big rule (adultery), courtly love had some strict rules of its own. It’s fair to say that these tips won’t go over so well in real life (look at Ulrich von Liechtenstein), and you should probably not expect a happy ending. Nevertheless, if you follow these simple steps, you can be a hero straight out of a medieval romance in no time at all.
1. Choose a lover
To be a good courtly lover, you should pick someone worthy of your affections, but also someone who can raise your profile. A good choice to be the object of your devotion should be a lady who is beautiful, powerful, virtuous, and also unobtainable. Choosing a perfect, yet unobtainable lady to pine over will make it easy for you to summon up the flood of tears, spontaneous poetry, and fainting spells required to show the depth of your feelings. In choosing Guinevere, Lancelot checks all the right boxes. You want to pick a lady who’ll make you look good just by chasing her.
2. Exchange some tokens
Once you’ve selected your lady, it’s time to exchange some tokens to sigh over. A classic love token is always the lady’s favour – a scarf, ribbon, or sleeve – that you can wear into the tournament. It’s important to wear a favour that is obvious, but not too obvious. You want to sort of wave it around so that people know you’ve got yourself the affections of a great lady, but you don’t want to tip off her husband – just everybody else. Luckily, romance husbands can be as oblivious as they are cruel, so you can usually be pretty flashy. Rings are also great tokens; the more bejewelled or magical, the better. Don’t worry if your hand sizes are extremely different: the ring will always manage to fit. If you can’t officially get a token, found items work, too. Lancelot again sets a great example by fainting over a few hairs of Guinevere’s.
3. Sneak in some time for canoodling
One thing that’s awesome about medieval romance is that there’s always a convenient forest or garden to canoodle in. If you’re lucky, your lady will also be from the faerie otherworld, like Launfal’s, and will bring her own tent full of cushions to lie on. Alternatively, you can sneak in a window and “find solace” in the lady’s bedroom if her husband is away. It helps if you’re also a shapeshifter, like Yonec, because then you can just fly in. Otherwise, you may need to enlist your lady to drop you a sheet. Upper-arm strength is important for this maneuver, so it’s never too early to start strength training, just in case.
4. Watch for spies
If you’re going to be canoodling, it’s a fact: you’re going to be distracted. Try not to let your guard all the way down, though, because if there’s one thing that’s true about great ladies, it’s that they have jealous husbands. It’s a safe bet that if you are in the canoodling phase, there is some sort of lady-in-waiting standing by to catch you two lovebirds out. (This, no doubt, is why they’re called ladies-in-waiting.) A spy in the woodwork, or behind a convenient curtain, can end your love affair quickly and unhappily, as Yonec discovered. Don’t let this happen to you. Always check behind the curtains (although maybe not the way Hamlet does).
5. Obey your lady
Because this is medieval romance and your lady is essentially a prize to be won, you may discount the wisdom underneath those luscious locks. It’s a mistake to believe your lady doesn’t know what she’s talking about when it comes to things like the jealousy level of her husband, or the likelihood of getting caught. It’s an even bigger mistake to break a promise to her, leading to terrible consequences like madness (Lancelot and Ywain), the threat of capital punishment (Launfal), or extremely long quests (also Ywain). It may sound crazy, but ladies don’t appreciate being forgotten about or ill-treated. Better for you, then, to show up at the appointed time and place, and keep your lips zipped about her identity. Although this still won’t guarantee you a happy ending, it will at least give you a bit more time to enjoy the joys and the pains of romantic love.
All joking aside, the courtly love tradition is the source of some brilliant and endlessly entertaining stories. For a quick start, check out The Lais of Marie de France or the many works of Chrétien de Troyes.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Lancelot and Guinevere depicted in the 1922 book The Boy’s King Arthur: Sir Thomas Malory’s History of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Edited for Boys by Sidney Lanier.