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"Courtly love" and the art of loving without touching (or nearly so)

During the Middle Ages a new literary movement arose that initiated a particular version of ‘platonic love’. It was known as ‘courtly love’ and it was a rather aristocratic (today we would say ‘classist’) type of love. It was reserved for the upper classes of the Middle Ages as it was only the nobles (the ladies and gentlemen) who fell in love following the rules of ‘courtly love’. It was definitively not meant for the man and woman on the street. Those in charge of writing the rules of this new ‘game’ were the troubadours who were themselves noble poets with a higher social and intellectual status. The minstrels, on the other hand, were destined to amuse the masses and the commons. Tania O’Donell in her History of courtship crudely expresses the difference:

Andre le Chapelain writing in the twelfth century, believed that the rules of love did not apply to farmers who he claimed resembled the beasts they cared for, by freely giving themselves up to lust as nature intended.

He counsels against allowing farmers the finer feelings in case this makes them too weak to fulfil their purpose of producing food for the community.

He also openly advises labourers to rape any lower class woman who takes their fancy, since her ‘shyness’ needs to be overcome. ‘And if you should, by chance, fall in love with some of their women, be careful to puff them up with lots of praise and then, when you find a convenient place, do not hesitate to take what you seek and to embrace them by force’. Given that this advise is coming from a clergyman, one can see the open contempt that the nobility had for the peasantry. They were perceived as little more than animals to abuse and abandon.

On the one hand, courtly love was influenced by Christianity because, unlike what happened in ancient Greece, same-sex relationships were no longer tolerated. On the other hand, it went against the Christian ethics since it was a love that generally occurred outside of marriage. This is one of the main differences with the present time, because today, in our Western societies, marriage has to coincide with love. During the Middle Ages, love marriages were often the exception, not the norm. The other difference is that, for us, love is more ‘democratic’, it is not necessarily reserved for one particular class, it is there for everyone ‘to be consumed’. Love today is sometimes seeing also as a commodity, something comercial, not just a noble feeling (San Valentine, expensive rings, honey-moons, etc.)

The origin of courtly love is in the troubadours of the south of France, more specifically, in Provence. They developed this literary fiction with the intention of entertaining the ladies of the court in the twelfth century. During the crusades and the war campaigns in which knights were absent from their castles and palaces, boredom increased among the ladies and troubadours sang elaborate love stories to entertain them. The genre became so popular that it was the benchmark for good taste and distinction. Today, this role is fulfilled by soap operas, online pornography, Hollywood, Bollywood or certain reality tv programmes that are the reference in matters of lovemaking and romance.

Contrary to what it may seem, the love stories sung in the poems of the middle ages were not of adulterous passion. Many of their ideals were of renunciation, discipline, humiliation and servitude to the lady. Some of its characters had not even met their loved ones and, sometimes, the ladies did not even know of the existence of their admirers. Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616) masterfully caricatured this in the relationship between Don Quixote and his dame Dulcinea. He fell in love with her without having seen her at all, not even once. He described her as a princess of blinding beauty when in reality she was a plain peasant.

‘Courtly love’ was considered a refine and elevated form of love, as opposed to vulgar or fleeting passion. From the books and verses of the poets, it passed to the halls of the castles in the same way as the type of love (and sex) that today appears on tv or mobile phones made the transition to the rooms of millennials and Z-gens.

From an educational point of view, ‘courtly love’ also served a function. It taught the young men how to treat and respect the ladies. Women were not simple objects of desire; and the gentlemen had to learned the rules of the waiting game, the gestures, the look, the right words… everything. The rhythm of restraint marked the steps to follow and, in many cases, love never culminated in physical contact (or sex) since they were mostly married women who preferred a ‘platonic love’. Falling in love in the Middle Ages was a state of grace that elevated lovers above physical desire.

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