Art of Courtly Love, The
by Andreas Capellanus
One theory about the origin of chivalric codes is that they represent a moral framework imposed by the Church to bring restraint to an inherently violent culture. Chivalry channeled aggression into acceptable channels and helped insure that the strong felt an obligation to protect—or at any rate, not to exploit too badly—the weak. Perhaps the same could be said of the medieval enshrinement of feminine beauty. By placing women on a pedestal and inventing an elaborate ritual whereby they must be approached and courted, they are offered a modicum of protection in a society that afforded them relatively few rights.
When we read an artifact of the period like The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus, a product of the late twelfth century court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, it is important to keep this theory in mind. Otherwise, it is hard to see the Art as anything other than a handbook on adultery.
In The Art of Courtly Love, we discover the moral code at work in the medieval romances, now familiar to us through countless Hollywood movies about knights and their ladies. Marriage to another person is no impediment to love. A man offers himself as servant to some lady, and carries little gifts or “favors” from her as a sign of her affection. Sometimes such relationships are chaste, but more often than not the two will become lovers after their elaborate courtship.
The question is, was “courtly love” merely an incitement to sexual sin, or was it an attempt to structure and regulate an ongoing practice—i.e., was Capellanus (who was a monk) introducing a code of conduct that would bring the adulterous impulses already at work under control, just as the chivalric code made gentlemen of brutal warriors? Also, what should we make of the argument that love could only be found outside of marriage, since marriages at the time (at least at the highest social levels) were arranged on a political or economic basis? Is that an excuse?
To modern readers, The Art of Courtly Love may seem like more of a handbook on social behavior than instructions for love. But as foreign as these “rules” of courtly love seem to us, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that, even today, writers invent elaborate codes of amorous behavior designed to help readers find love and contentment outside of marriage. Chivalry may be dead, but for better or (in this case) worse, its influence is still felt today.
by J. Mark Bertrand