Courtly Love

Roxane can prove a troublesome character for contemporary audiences. Occasionally appearing stubborn, flippant, or just downright silly, her conduct can be confusing and estranging to playgoers and readers. We wonder at her decisions, disaffected by her airy disposition. To write her off, however, would be unfair to her character and to her role in the drama. Some of Roxane’s more stymieing moments are those in which her actions are governed by now-obsolete cultural norms. She’s a woman whose expectations of and response to any man pursuing her are prescribed by popular practice. She beckons back to an era of unblemished love, of noble-minded pursuit, and of nuanced and artful courtship—practices that seem oddly foreign in our current social context.

The existence and nature of what’s come to be known as “courtly love” are hotly debated topics among scholars. It was once theorized that a unity of set practices arose in eleventh-century France as troubadours, traveling the south of the country with their lyrics, spoke of the torments of passionate, unfulfilled afflictions—inspiring the adoption of their poems’ practices. Their songs told of men who had fallen victim to love’s pangs by tending devotion to an unattainable woman. These knights would share their feelings through emotional and elegant writing delivered by way of intermediaries, and would complete any sort of ennobling, heroic task a lady might request. Knowing that full consummation of their relationship would remain unattainable, a lover’s actions were exerted in the hopes of gaining the beloved’s favor. Thus romantic love established its foothold in the Western tradition, providing a place for its expression in a world in which marriage was an affair of wealth and alliance, social order was rigidly structured, and the domain of higher loves was dominated by the church.

As attractive as this picture may be, many contemporary scholars consider it a myth, an invention on the part of history, retroactively projected onto a distant time. The book supposed to have codified the standards of courtly love is popularly regarded as a farce today, and many earlier beliefs have not withstood the scrutiny of new investigation.

Scholarly debate aside, the idea of courtly love remains strong in our tradition. We hear the term and can immediately conjure the image of Guinevere and Lancelot engaged in a courtship of elevated proclamation and noble deeds. Indeed, men and women throughout the late Middle Ages and Renaissance regarded the norms proposed by the troubadours’ tradition to be a working rubric. Failure and success in attempts to comply with these expectations are chronicled time and again in written works of the time, both in literature and personal correspondence. By the time of Cyrano, popular opinion had come to value the alignment of inner disposition with marriage’s worldly aims, due in no small part to courtly love’s influence.  The Baroque world continued to be governed by these standards of conduct, and the distinguished classes used the model of courtly love to separate themselves from the masses. Suitors were expected to reflect this distinction, expressing themselves in elevated poetic forms, performing honorable tasks to prove their devotion, maintaining upright reverence from afar, and comporting themselves at all times in a manner worthy of dignity. If nothing else, the myth of courtly love had served to civilize a sometimes-barbarous medieval Europe as life came to reflect art.

Roxane judges her relationships with men by these standards, her expectations of Christian’s discourse offering a good example. It’s worth noting, as well, that the coinage of the term “courtly love” was the work of a Frenchman in 1883, shortly before Rostand’s writing. Whether or not it ever existed as we conceive of it, such love was very real in the imagination of the day. Rostand and others believed in a tradition of refined love, marked by noble comportment and verbal eloquence, as did many for centuries throughout Europe. Sometimes, just believing in something makes it real enough.  

Samuel Evola, a student at University of Notre Dame, researched and wrote this essay as an intern with CST’s Education Department.  



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