I’m looking at bits of medieval history that might be useful for writers this month. Today, I’m looking at the notion of love, and more specifically, courtly love. It’s strange, in a time when the Catholic church was asserting its primacy, and when sex outside of marriage was deeply stigmatised, that a kind of cult following should have grown up almost simultaneously. The idea of courtly love idolised love in its slightly over the top romantic form, emphasising praise for the beauty of great ladies, romantic poetry (or lays in the old French), and a kind of institutionalised idea that all the young men and women of the court should be at least a little in love. The idea of ‘favours’ or scarves/flowers from ladies being worn in the joust is probably the key intersection of this idea with that of chivalry.
Like chivalry it was obviously a much larger than life idea, and like a lot of the ideas we have about the Middle Ages, including chivalry, it probably didn’t represent reality so much as a fantasy promoted at the time. The ecclesiastical court records showed just how much trouble young men and women got into when they actually acted on these romantic ideals.
We can’t finish here without mentioning Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was in many ways the heart of the courtly love idea in the Central Middle Ages. She was a great noblewoman who was married to two kings, who managed a great deal of power for herself in a largely male dominated society, and whose court was seen as a key centre for musicians, troubadours, poets and romance. If there was a romantic ideal of the medieval noble lady, then a large portion of that ideal was built on her.