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Chapter Ten of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University


10. The Art of Courtly Love
(Twelfth Century)

Little is known of Andreas Capellanus, "Andrew the Chaplain," except that he was connected with the court of Marie de France in the second half of the twelfth century. If he was a chaplain in the spiritual sense--and there is no reason to doubt that he was--he was one who clearly had an intense interest also in the more worldly affairs of the court. He is known today almost exclusively for the book in medieval Latin, The Art of Courtly Love. The book was purportedly written to instruct the author's friend Walter in the ways of love and women, a fact that accounts in part for the masculine point of view and tone of the book. Whatever its original purpose, the book became, in effect, an attempt to describe and codify the principles of a social system that came to be called "courtly love."

Courtly love was a special kind of love that came to be associated with the romantic thoughts and actions of upper-class men and women. Although in some ways it was as much a literary as a social convention, it was credible for a number of reasons. For one thing, since marriages among the upper classes were often arranged marriages designed to accomplish certain political or economic goals, love within such marriages may have been more the exception than the rule. Husbands and wives, if they wanted romantic love, might be expected to find it outside of marriage. Furthermore, since inheritance customs were such that all of the land and property went to the oldest son, second and third sons had to earn their fortunes before they could expect to make a good marriage. Then, when they did marry, they often wanted to marry women younger than themselves so that they could have children. In such marriages the difference in ages of the spouses might encourage the wives to seek romance in liaisons outside of marriage. Then, too, young knights with no land and without the financial ability to marry often pined for love. For many of them the only lady they might conveniently idealize was the wife of the lord they served.

Whatever the social reasons behind it, courtly love was defined specifically to exclude the kind of affection that can exist between married persons. Rather, courtly love was viewed as essentially an adulterous love centering on the romantic relationship between men and women who could not marry because at least one of them was already married.

The Art of Courtly Love falls into three large units or "books." Book One contains some introductory material and definitions, describes the effects of love, tells what classes of people may aspire to love for one another, and shows how love may be acquired. Book Two discusses such questions as how love, once attained, may be kept, how it decreases in intensity, how it comes to an end, what to do if one's lover is unfaithful, and what the "rules of love" are. Book Three is about the rejection of love, and why men should, after all, refrain from engaging in love relationships with women. I discuss below, with occasional quotations from the translations of John Jay Parry, some of the most important rules and principles of courtly love as codified by Andreas.

Book One, "Introduction to the Treatise on Love," defines love as "a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other." There is no question that love is suffering, says Andreas, because "before the love becomes equally balanced on both sides there is no torment greater, since the lover is always in fear that his love may not gain its desire." When a man begins to suffer the fears and pains of love, that person seeks to find an intermediary, a kind of helper or go-between, to help him to decrease his suffering by helping him to achieve his desires.

True love is an ennobling experience, for it can endow a man with nobility of character, can cause a proud man to be humble, and can cause a selfish man to perform many graceful services:

O what a wonderful thing is love, which makes a man shine with so many virtues and teaches everyone, no matter who he is, so many good traits of character! . . . It adorns a man, so to speak, with the virtue of chastity, because he who shines with the light of one love can hardly think of embracing another woman, even a beautiful one. For when he thinks deeply of his beloved the sight of any other woman seems to his mind rough and rude.

Much of Book One is a series of dialogues showing how a man of one class might speak of his love with a woman of his own or another class. Here are excerpts from the "seventh dialogue," one in which "a man of the higher nobility speaks with a woman of the simple nobility." He has not before met the woman, but he has heard her praised by others:

THE MAN SAYS: I ought to give God greater thanks than any other living man in the whole world because it is now granted me to see with my eyes what my soul has desired above all else to see. . . . And I now know in very truth that a human tongue is not able to tell the tale of your beauty and your prudence. . . . And I wish ever to dedicate to your praise all the good deeds that I do and to serve your reputation in every way. For whatever good I may do, you may know that it is done with you in mind. . . .
THE WOMAN SAYS: I am bound to give you many thanks for lauding me with such commendations and exalting me with such high praise . . . . I am therefore glad if I am to you a cause and origin of good deeds, and so far as I am able I shall always and in all things give you my approval when you do well. . . .
THE MAN SAYS: I have chosen you from among all women to be my mighty lady, to whose services I wish ever to devote myself and to whose credit I wish to set down all my good deeds. From the bottom of my heart I ask you mercy, that you may look upon me as your particular man, just as I have devoted myself particularly to serve you, and that my deeds may obtain from you the reward I desire. . . .
THE WOMAN SAYS: Your request that I should consider you as my particular man, just as you are particularly devoted to my service, and that I should give you the reward you hope for, I do not see how I can grant, since such partiality might be to the disadvantage of others who have as much desire to serve me as you have, or perhaps even more. Besides I am not perfectly clear as to what the reward is that you expect from me; you must explain yourself more clearly. . . .
THE MAN SAYS: The reward I ask you to promise to give me is one which it is unbearable agony to be without, while to have it is to abound in all riches. It is that you should be pleasant to me unless your desire is opposed to me. It is your love which I seek, in order to restore my health. . . .
THE WOMAN SAYS: You seem to be wandering a long way from the straight path of love and to be violating the best custom of lovers, because you are in such haste to ask for love. For the wise and well-taught lover, when conversing for the first time with a lady whom he has not previously known, should not ask in specific words for the gifts of love. We are separated by too wide and too rough an expanse of country to be able to offer each other love's solaces or to find proper opportunities for meeting. Lovers who live near together can cure each other of the torments that come from love. . . . Therefore everybody should try to find a lover who lives near by.
THE MAN SAYS: You cannot properly refuse me your love with the excuse of the long and difficult distance between us, but you should gratify me rather than someone who lives near by; besides, it is easier to conceal a love affair when the lovers do not meet than when they converse frequently with each other. . . .
THE WOMAN SAYS: Besides, there is another fact, by no means trivial, which keeps me from loving you. I have a husband who is greatly distinguished by his nobility, his good breeding, his good character, and it would be wicked for me to violate his bed or submit to the embraces of any other man, since I know that he loves me with his whole heart and I am bound to him with all the devotion of mine. . . .
THE MAN SAYS: I admit it is true that your husband is a very worthy man and that he is more blest than any man in the world because he has been worthy to have the joy of embracing Your Highness. But I am greatly surprised that you wish to misapply the term "love" to that marital affection which husband and wife are expected to feel for each other after marriage, since everybody knows that love can have no place between husband and wife. They may be bound to each other by a great and immoderate affection, but their feeling cannot take the place of love, because it cannot fit under the true definition of love. For what is love but an inordinate desire to receive passionately a furtive and hidden embrace? But what embrace between husband and wife can be furtive, I ask you. . . . From this you may see clearly that love cannot possibly flourish between you and your husband. Therefore, since every woman of character ought to love, prudently, you can without doing yourself any harm accept the prayers of a suppliant and endow your suitor with your love.

The woman argues that love really can exist between husband and wife. Neither she nor he will yield on this crucial point, and in the end they submit the matter to the Countess of Champagne and agree to abide by her ruling on this question. She replies to the woman's letter in one dated May 1, 1174: "We declare and we hold as firmly established that love cannot exert its powers between two people who are married to each other. For lovers give each other everything freely, under no compulsion of necessity, but married people are in duty bound to give in to each other's desires and deny themselves to each other in nothing."

In the eighth dialogue, this one between "a man of the higher nobility and a woman of the same class," the man makes an interesting distinction between "pure love" and "mixed love":

THE MAN SAYS: It is the pure love which binds together the hearts of two lovers with feelings of delight. This kind consists in the contemplation of the mind and the affection of the heart; it goes as far as the kiss and the embrace and the modest contact with the nude lover, omitting the final solace. . . . But that is called mixed love which gets its effect from every delight of the flesh and culminates in the final act of Venus. . . . This kind quickly fails, and one often regrets having practiced it; by it one's neighbor is injured, the Heavenly King is offended, and from it come very grave dangers. But I do not say this as though I meant to condemn mixed love, I merely wish to show which of the two is preferable. But mixed love, too, is real love, and it is praiseworthy, and we say that it is the source of all good things, although from it grave dangers threaten, too. Therefore I approve of both pure love and mixed love, but I prefer to practice pure love. . . .
THE WOMAN SAYS: Since a certain woman of the most excellent character wished to reject one of her two suitors by letting him make his own choice, and to accept the other, she divided the solaces of love in her in this fashion. She said, "Let one of you choose the upper half of me, and let the other suitor have the lower half." Without a moment's delay each of them chose his part, and each insisted that he had chosen the better part. . . . I ask you which seems to you to have made the more praiseworthy choice.
THE MAN SAYS: Who doubts that the man who chooses the solaces of the upper part should be preferred to the one who seeks the lower? For so far as the solaces of the lower part go, we are in no wise differentiated from brute beasts; but in this respect nature joins us to them. But the solaces of the upper part are, so to speak, attributes peculiar to the nature of man and are by this same nature denied to all the other animals. Therefore the unworthy man who chooses the lower part should be driven out from love just as though he were a dog, and he who chooses the upper part should be accepted as one who honors nature. Besides this, no man has ever been found who was tired of the solaces of the upper part, or satiated by practicing them, but the delight of the lower part quickly palls upon those who practice it, and it makes them repent of what they have done.

Andreas says that no man should seek the love of a nun, and that if any man did "he would deserve to be despised by everybody and he ought to be avoided as an abominable beast." For men of the clergy, however, it is somewhat different. Andreas says that no cleric should look for love because he is "bound to renounce absolutely all the delights of the flesh and to keep himself free from all bodily filth." On the other hand,

since hardly anyone ever lives without carnal sin, and since the life of the clergy is, because of the continual idleness and the great abundance of food, naturally more liable to temptations of the body than that of any other men, if any clerk should wish to enter into the lists of Love let him speak and apply himself to Love's service in accordance with the rank or standing of his parents.

Andreas has some curious advice for a man who falls in love with a peasant woman:

Be careful to puff her up with lots of praise and then, when you find a convenient place, do not hesitate to take what you seek and to embrace her by force. For you can hardly soften their outward inflexibility so far that they will grant you their embrace quietly or permit you to have the solaces you desire unless first you use a little compulsion as a convenient cure for their shyness.

From Book II of The Art of Courtly Love, entitled "How Love May be Retained," I shall quote only a few of the 31 "rules of love which the King of Love himself, with his own mouth, pronounced for lovers":

1.    Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
2.    He who is not jealous cannot love.
10.  Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice.
11.  It is not proper to love any woman whom one should be ashamed to seek to marry.
13.  When made public, love rarely endures.
14.  The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.
15.  Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
16.  When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.
17.  A new love puts to flight an old one.
19.  If love diminishes, it quickly fails and rarely revives.
20.  A man in love is always apprehensive.
21.  Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
22.  Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.
23.  He whom the thought of love vexes, eats and sleeps very little.
27.  A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved.
28.  A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved.
29.  A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.

Book III, "The Rejection of Love," is Andreas's final advice to Walter. It is advice that seems to contradict most of what came before. He had given the advice about love, he tells Walter here,

not because we consider it advisable for you or any other man to fall in love, but for fear lest you might think us stupid; we believe, though, that any man who devotes his efforts to love loses all his usefulness. Read this little book, then, not as one seeking to take up the life of a lover, but that, invigorated by the theory and trained to excite the minds of women to love, you may, by refraining from so doing, win an eternal recompense and thereby deserve a greater reward from God. For God is more pleased with a man who is able to sin and does not, than with a man who has no opportunity to sin.

Many of Andreas's reasons for rejecting love are traditional religious ones: God's hatred of the sin of lechery, God's love of the virtue of chastity, the fact that men are physically weakened by the act of Venus, and so on. Most of the final book, however, is taken up with the weaknesses of women. Here are some typical comments:

The mutual love which you seek in women you cannot find, for no woman ever loved a man or could bind herself to a lover in the mutual bonds of love. For a woman's desire is to get rich through love, but not to give her lover the solaces that please him. Even though you have given a woman innumerable presents, if she discovers that you are less attentive about giving her things than you used to be, or if she learns that you have lost your money, she will treat you like a perfect stranger who has come from some other country, and everything you do will bore her or annoy her. . . .
That every woman is envious is also found to be a general rule because a woman is always consumed with jealousy over another woman's beauty, and she loses all pleasure in what she has. . . .
And so it naturally follows that a woman is a slanderer, because only slander can spring from envy and hate. . . .
Woman is also such a slave to her belly that there is nothing she would be ashamed to assent to if she were assured of a fine meal, and no matter how much she has she never has any hope that she can satisfy her appetite when she is hungry; she never invites anybody to eat with her, but when she eats she always seeks out hidden and retired places and she usually likes to eat more than normal. We can detect all these qualities in Eve, the first woman, who although she was created by the hand of God without man's agency was not afraid to eat the forbidden fruit and for her gluttony was deservedly driven from her home in Paradise. . . .
Woman is commonly found to be fickle, too, because no woman ever makes up her mind so firmly on any subject that she will not quickly change it on a little persuading from anyone. A woman is just like melting wax, which is always ready to take a new form and to receive the impress of anybody's seal. No woman can make you such a firm promise that she will not change her mind about the matter in a few minutes. . . . Therefore never rely upon a woman's promise or upon her oath, because there is no honesty in her. . . .
Every woman is likewise stained by the sin of disobedience. . . . Wasn't it Eve, the first woman, who, although she was formed by the hand of God, destroyed herself by the sin of disobedience and lost the glory of immortality and by her offense brought all her descendants to the destruction of death? Therefore if you want a woman to do anything, you can get her to do it by ordering her to do the opposite. . . .
Vainglory also mightily possesses woman, since you cannot find a woman in the world who does not delight in the praise of men above everything else and who does not think that every word spoken about her has to do with her praise. This fault can be seen even in Eve. . . .
You will find, too, that every woman is a liar. . . .
A woman does not love a man with her whole heart, because there is not one of them who keeps faith with her husband or her lover; when another man comes along, you will find that her faithfulness wavers. It doesn't seem proper, therefore, for any prudent man to fall in love with any woman, because she never keeps faith with any man.

Andreas's final advice to Walter, then, is that men should avoid love and "trample under foot all its rules." He admits that his little book seems to have been told from two points of view, but explains it this way:

In the first part we tried to assent to your simple and youthful request and did not wish, on this subject, to give in to our indolence; so we set down completely, one point after another, the art of love as you so eagerly asked us to do. . . . In the latter part of the book we are more concerned with what might be useful to you, and of our own accord we added something about the rejection of love. . . . Therefore, Walter, accept this health-giving teaching we offer you and pass by all the vanities of the world, so that when the Bridegroom cometh to celebrate the greater nuptials, and the cry ariseth in the night you may be prepared to go forth to meet Him with your lamps filled and to go in with him to the divine Marriage.


  • Primary source: Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, translated by John Jay Parry (New York, Columbia University Press, 1941).

Chapter Ten of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University

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The contents of this page are copyright 2001 Peter G. Beidler.