Courtly Love in the Canterbury Tales

Term Paper, 2011

16 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The origins and meaning of courtly love
2.1 First origins of courtly love
2.2 Courtly love in the Romance of the Rose

3. Elements of courtly love in the Canterbury Tales
3.1 The Prologue
3.2 The Knight’s Tale
3.3 The Merchant’s Tale
3.4 The Franklin’s Tale

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The concept of courtly love is combined with the code of chivalry which forms the ideal medieval world of “brave and elegant knights, often in love with beautiful ladies who might be loving or cruel in return” (Rudd 2001:30) and “all in this world are musical, compose verses with ease in English, French, or Latin, and are of noble blood” (Rudd 2001:30).

Courtly love embraces a beautiful lady, married or unobtainable, who was the object of love for a knight. In general courtly love was secret and between man and woman of noble status and it was not practiced between husbands and wives. Such relationships did not exist in real medieval life. Marriages were mostly arranged and women were seen as property to their husbands. It was more an “available fiction which informed the cultural climate, much as the wider conventions of chivalry did” (Rudd 2001:33).

This is a relatively vague definition of the topic of courtly love and it only summarizes the most important points. This paper will work out the origins and the meaning of courtly love more intensive, watching its first origins and its appearance in the Romance of the Rose, and it will mention and describe every important characteristic. These characteristics will be a guideline to show Chaucer’s treatment of the topic in his work The Canterbury Tales. Elements of courtly love appear in the Prologue, the Knight’s Tale, the Merchant’s Tale, and in the Franklin’s Tale . These elements will be shown and explained.

Finally a conclusion will summarize the most important points.

2. The origin and meaning of courtly love

2.1 First origins of courtly love

The south of France in the eleventh century is the starting point of the courtly love tradition. The first ideas of courtly love can be found in the literature of the troubadours. They belonged to a society in which women held a supreme place, where a high importance was attached to social etiquette and decorum, and where definite rules governed the genders in all their relations, especially in matters of love (Dodd 1958:1). In the poetry of the troubadours love was described as an art to be practiced, rather as an emotion or a feeling.

Through the influence of Eleanor of Aquitaine these ideas were introduced into northern France. The woman was interested in the doctrines and practices of courtly love and at the northern court, where she became queen, she introduced the new doctrines. Her daughter, Marie of Champagne, followed her ideas. She was rendering decisions on questions which were argued before the mock Courts of Love and these decisions became regarded as definite rules and regulations of the courtly system (Dodd 1958:2).

These influences finally were included in the contemporary literature, like in Chrètien de Troies’ romances of the Round Table. The romances became representatives of the chivalrous and courtly ideal of the twelfth century society (Dodd 1958:2). The ideas of love in his works are conform to that of the troubadours, but he has transformed them into own and so developed formal doctrines (Dodd 1958:2).

There are many works, contemporary with that of Chrètien, treating love as an art and scientifically categorizing the principles and laws of it, which have its origin in the erotic writings of Ovid (Dodd 1958:3). One of the most important of this works is “De Arte Honeste Amandi ” by Andreas Capellanus. The book deals with the questions: What is love? , What are its effects? , Between whom can it exist? , How is it acquired, retained, augmented, diminished, terminated? , What is the duty of one lover when the other proves unfaithful?, and mainly is concerned with showing whom the lover should chose for his love, how he may win her, and how her favor may be retained (Dodd 1958:4). Furthermore the book states principles and laws, underlying the courtly system:

1) Courtly Love is sensual.

Capellanus defines love as a passion arising from the contemplation of beauty in the opposite gender, and culminating in the gratification of the physical desires thus awakened. The whole system rests on this definition.

2) Courtly love is illicit and, for the most part, adulterous.

Marriage has no place in the courtly system.

3) A love, sensual and illicit, must needs to be secret.

This is the most important article of the code and is kind of a law.

Love must not only be secret, but also furtive and this makes courtly love incompatible with the legal relations between husbands and wives.

The necessity of secrecy led to a rise of a fear of spies in literature.

A reason for secrecy is the necessity of the women of that society to protect their good name and another reason may be that marriage was rarely a matter in which the heart was concerned but business politics often brought unions in which no affection could exist.

4) Love, to meet the requirements of the courtly system, must not be too easily obtained.

This can be seen in the coldness and capriciousness of the lady and causes all the lover’s woes.

Another point, out of the work of Capellanus, is that “love makes the rude and uncouth excel in every grace, that it enriches those of low birth with real nobility of character, and that it makes the true lover show a becoming complaisance to all”; to achieve these virtues is why the courtly lover seeks his lady’s favor (Dodd 1958:8). Next to say is that the biggest mistake, a lover ever could make, would be to be unfaithful. This motive consistently appears in the erotic literature of the following centuries (Dodd 1958:9).

The foundation of the ideas of Chrètien de Troies and Andreas Capellanus formed the literature of the troubadours. Their lyric was inspired by real and actual love affairs and their poems display the birth and progress of their love, emotional experiences, relations and attitudes towards the ladies whose favor they sought, and their behavior affected by their passion (Dodd 1958:9).

According to Dodd the woman is represented as perfect in the troubadour’s poetry. This perfection is depicted in her physical beauty, her character, and her influence on others. The physical beauty coincides with the medieval ideal: her hair is blond or golden, her eyes are beautiful, her complexion is fresh and clear, her mouth is rosy and smiling, her flesh is white, soft and smooth, and her body is slender, well formed, and without blemish. Her character offers features like courtesy, kindness, and refinement. Her influence on other people is always ennobling and her goodness affects all who come near her. (10)

Furthermore Dodd states, that the lady holds a position of exalted superiority in respect to the lover and so he becomes her vassal and protests absolute submission and devotion to her. But the lover seldom experiences the woman’s kindness; to him she behaves cold, disdainful, capricious, and domineering. In vain the lover implores pity, complains of her cruelty and begs for mercy (11-12).

The instinctive hesitancy of the woman to addict too easy is exaggerated beyond all naturalness in this literature and became a convention and motive of nearly all French love poetry for the next four centuries (Dodd 1958:12).

Love has an ennobling effect on the lover. Because of his love he becomes “courteous, gentle, humble, generous, and courageous” (Dodd 1958:12).

Some other ideas of the troubadours which were also treated by Chrètien de Troies have to be called here: At first love is caused by the beauty of the opposite gender. Second, through the eyes, beauty enters the heart, inflicting a wound that only the lady can heal. And third though absent from the loved one, the lover leaves his heart with her (Dodd 1958:13).

All in all the ideas of the troubadours derived in main from Ovid were developed in the south of France and became a fixed code in the north of France.


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Courtly Love in the Canterbury Tales
University of Bayreuth
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Courtly Love, Canterbury Tales
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Cindy Härcher (Author), 2011, Courtly Love in the Canterbury Tales, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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