Elements of courtly love in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 'Miller’s Tale'

Seminar Paper, 2007
14 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Courtly love
2.1. Some theories on the origin of courtly love
2.2. Characteristics of courtly love
2.3. Courtly love in the Knight’s Tale

3. The Miller’s Tale
3.1. Genre
3.2. Elements of courtly love
3.2.1. Alison
3.2.2. Absolon
3.2.3. Nicholas

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

When approaching an investigation on the elements of courtly love in a piece of literature as for instance Geoffrey Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, it seems more than reasonable to first of all clarify what the term actually means, i.e. what the focus of study is to be. Consequently, such a clarification constitutes the beginning and also the basis of the examination developed in the course of this paper. It might not be a clarification, however, but at least to a certain extent rather an illustration of the scholarly controversy connected with amour courtois and its English equivalent. Still, ample characteristics of the concept behind the term will be found which are suited to be analyzed in the light of their application in the Miller’s Tale. A preceding brief observation of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale in the context of this issue is inserted for the purpose of gaining a more differentiated view onto the appearance of elements of courtly love in the second of the Canterbury Tales. A final conclusion will sum up central findings.

2. Courtly love

Since its introduction in the nineteenth century a lot of controversy has surrounded the term amour courtois, as far as its use and necessity are concerned.[1]What are the reasons for such difficulties in finding consent here and what are the various connotations involved in the idea of courtly love? It is by no means possible to thoroughly illustrate all conflicting positions in detail on the following pages, but some significant arguments will be outlined hereafter.

2.1. Some theories on the origin of courtly love

A brief look at the development of the notion of courtly love might be helpful in reaching a better understanding of the issue at hand. Where does the term actually come from? When was it developed and by whom? Boase states that the “term amour courtois was coined by Gaston Paris […] in 1883.”[2]He adds that it is disputed amongst scholars, whether the idea of courtly love is an invention of the Middle Ages.”[3]Lewis believes that courtly love appeared “quite suddenly at the end of the eleventh century in Languedoc”.[4]He continues that it was introduced by Provençal Troubadours and served as an influential factor in European literature up to the nineteenth century.[5]

Boase discusses different theories on the origin as well as on the meaning of courtly love, including the assumption that it might have entered European Troubadour poetry through Hispano-Arabic roots.[6]Newman puts forward another theory concerning the origin of the concept of courtly love by quoting Gaston Paris who considered a possible influence of Ovid’s ars amatoria on the development of a new code of love.[7]Robertson who refuses to consider courtly love a governing concept in medieval thinking sees three works “presumably illustrative” of courtly love – De amore by Andreas Cappelanus, Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot and the Roman de la rose – as actually almost the exact opposite: Satires of “idolatrous passion”.[8]It might be interesting to examine this position more closely and to enter more deeply into the relationship between the idea of courtly love and Christianity as Newman and others unfold it.[9]This paper is not the place, however, for such an investigation.

2.2. Characteristics of courtly love

“Courtly love […] in the Middle Ages often called fin’ amors (or some similar term in other vernaculars, such as Chaucer’s ‘fyn lovynge’ […] )” is described as “an overwhelming passion, which turns the lover’s world upside down, like a ‘conversion’ […] The lover then humbly serves his lady, who is for him the sum of all excellence. He serves her with a religious devotion (religious language is often used: the lady is sometimes mistaken for a goddess, or is sometimes the ‘figure’ of a goddess; sometimes the first falling in love occurs in a church or a temple). It is a voluntary service which involves suffering. […] But through suffering love enobles the lover. He grows in the virtues of noble love, ‘*gentilesse’, ‘*curteisie’, dignity and honour, courage and worth. […] Fin amors is associated with youth, beauty, and joy.”[10]Lewis describes this new concept of love that to his mind had no predecessors in antiquity as a “highly specialized” sentiment, “whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love.”[11]The relationship between the lover and his object of admiration resembles that of a feudal vassal towards his lord. In this context Lewis speaks of a “feudalisation of love”.[12]Gaston Paris is introduced by Newman in order to describe basic characteristics of courtly love: It is “illicit (and therefore furtive), yet marked by an almost religious devotion of the lover to his lady. In a relationship that was “a kind of idolatry”, the lover accepts the total superiority of his mistress and humbly attempts to render himself worthy of her by performing whatever daring or ignominious feats she may command.”[13]

Silverstein quotes Capellanus’ work De amore to find an answer to the question of what courtly love is and remarks that it starts “as a passion in the lover, stimulated by the experience of the eye” and finds “its consummation in virtue and grace”.[14]He observes a “basic opposition” lying at “the foundation of all the distinctive instances of courtly love”; “the opposition between carnality and spirit, between passion […] and love.”[15]

Green declares that the “courtly lover characteristically is a knight”[16], whose “love is always sexual in origin, and sustained by desire for possession”. Nevertheless “the highest form of courtly passion […] refuses ultimate physical fulfilment” and “[s]ince courtly love is an imitation, as its imagery and ritual show, of both divine love and its social manifestations in the feudal ideals of honour and friendship, it is assumed to produce virtue in those who practice it.”[17]Green recognizes a strictly conventional narrative pattern, not only as far as the “process of love” is concerned, but also the description of the lady: “Physically she is blond and fair, with stylized features and figure that vary little within the tradition.”[18]

These introductory observations with reference to the phenomenon of courtly love should provide sufficient data for a further inquiry into Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale regarding the utilisation or appearance of correspondent features.

2.3. Courtly love in the Knight’s Tale

Before an eye is cast on the application of courtly elements in the Miller’s Tale, however, it seems appropriate to call attention to their manifestation in the preceding Knight’s Tale, which is on the one hand suited as a literary object of observation, as far as elements of courtly love in operation are concerned, and on the other hand necessary to understand the appearance of courtly love in the Miller’s Tale more thoroughly. Pearsall speaks of a “complementary relationship” between the two pieces of narrative.[19]

The courtly love theme woven into the Knight’s Tale finds two cousins of noble heritage fighting for the favour of a young lady of equally noble descent. Even a superficial glance at the tale will lead to the result that all of the characteristics of courtly love mentioned above are present here. The portrayal of the female object of adoration may serve as a first example:

[…] Emelye, that fairer was to sene

Than is the lylie upon his stalke grene,

And fresher than the May with floures newe –

For with the rose colour stroof hire hewe,

I noot which was the fyner of hem two –[20]

Her appearance in the garden on a May morning[21]doesn’t lack religious connotations:

Yclothed was she fresh, for to devyse:

Hir yellow heer was broyded in a tresse

Bihynde hir bak, a yerde long, I gesse.

And in the gardyn, at the sonne upriste,

She walketh up and doun, and as hire liste

She gadereth floures, party white and rede,

To make a subtil garland for hire hede;

And as an aungel hevenysshly she soong.[22]

These depictions evoke a strong paradisal atmosphere of innocence and beauty. Brewer says that Emily “is indeed like a goddess; her ideal supramundane beauty removes all worldly stain from her” and points out that Chaucer only needed to pick a few significant details of the courtly catalogue because he was able to rely on an ancient conventional tradition to achieve the desired effect;[23]an effect that is reflected by the male parties involved:

He cast his eye upon Emelya,

And therwithal he bleynte and cryde, “A!”

As though he stongen were unto the herte.[24]

The motif of suffering is further elaborated when Palamon says:

This prison caused me nat for to crye,

But I was hurt right now thurghout myn ye,


[1]Cf. Gray, Douglas (ed.) (2003): The Oxford Companion to Chaucer. Oxford. Here: 113f.

Also: Newman, F.X. (ed.) (1973): The Meaning of courtly love. Albany. Here: vf.

[2]Boase, Roger (1977): The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love: A Critical Study of European

Scholarship. Manchester. Here: 1.


[4]Lewis, C.S. (1958): The Allegory of Love. New York. Here: 2.

[5]Ibid: 2f. Also Green, R.H. (1967): Courtly Love. In: New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York [e.a.].

Vol. IV. 393/399. Here: 393.

[6]Boase 1977: 2f.

[7]Newman 1973: vii.

[8]Newman 1973: 3.

[9]On the issue of Christianity and courtly love see also Green 1967: 395.

[10]Gray 2003: 113f.

[11]Cf. Lewis 1958: 2.

[12]Ibid. See also: Green 1967: 393.

[13]Newman 1973: viii.

[14]Newman 1973: 79. Green notes that the “lover is struck at first sight by the physical beauty of the

lady. His passion is aroused at once […]” (Green 1967: 394).

[15]Newman 1973: 82.

[16]Green 1967: 393.

[17]Ibid: 394.

[18]Ibid: 393.

[19]Boitani, Piero / Mann, Jill (ed.) (22003): The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer. Cambridge [e.a.].

Here: 164.

[20]Benson, Larry D.(ed.)(1988): Geoffrey Chaucer: The Riverside Chaucer. Oxford. Here:V.1035-1039.

[21]Even the choice of the month is in accordance with the courtly love convention (Cf. Green 1967: 394).

[22]Benson 1988: V.1048-1055.

[23]Cf. Brewer, D.S. (1955): The Ideal of Feminine Beauty in Medieval Literature, especially ‘Harley

Lyrics’, Chaucer, and some Elizabethans. In: MLR 50. 257/269. Here: 266.

[24]Benson 1988: V.1077-1079.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Elements of courtly love in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 'Miller’s Tale'
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
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ISBN (Book)
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Elements, Geoffrey, Chaucer’s, Miller’s, Tale, Chaucer, Canterbury, Tales
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Fritz Hubertus Vaziri (Author), 2007, Elements of courtly love in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 'Miller’s Tale', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/113294


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