Today I conclude my mini-series on women in
the Middle Ages with a look at cult of courtly love and the controversial topic of how it impacted the status of women.
Critically, the chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides. It could occur between husband and wife – and many of the romances such as Erec et Enide or my favorite Yvain, Or the Knight with the Lion (both by Chrétien de Troyes) or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple. The notion repeated so often nowadays that courtly love or the love of the troubadors was always about adulterous love is nonsense. Nevertheless, the tradition of the troubadours did put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own – provided the lady returned the sentiment. The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult.
Likewise noteworthy in a feudal world was the fact that the lover and the beloved were supposed to be valued not for their social status or their wealth, but for their personal virtues. A lady was to be loved and respected for her beauty, her graces, her kindness, and her wisdom regardless of her status, and a knight was to be loved for his manly virtues, not his lands or titles.
All of these features set courtly or chivalric love apart from the erotic love of the ancients, the Arabs or the modern age. Sadly, people still confuse “chivalry” with superficial gestures of courtesy (such as opening doors) and women in the name of “liberation” reject the concepts that first truly liberated them.