Where did the modern western concept of love come from? We tend
to assume that it is a wholly natural part of human nature, but
a look around pre-medieval and non-western cultures shows that it
is neither inherent, nor anything to do with Christianity. Some
authors have suggested that it has developed from the concept of
courtly love, an invention of the Troubadours of the Languedoc.
Courtly love (or fin'amor in Occitan) was a medieval European
literary conception of love that emphasized nobility and chivalry.
A medieval literature developed, filled with of knights setting
out on adventures and performing services for ladies driven by "courtly
love". This kind of love was perhaps originally a literary
fiction created for the entertainment of the nobility, but as time
passed, these ideas about love filtered into real life. In the high
Middle Ages a "game of love" developed around these ideas
as part of refined social practices. "Loving nobly" was
considered to be an enriching and improving practice.
Courtly love began in the Occitan speaking courts of Aquitaine
and Languedoc/Provence, and later Champagne and Burgundy, then France,
the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, England and Germany. around the end
of the eleventh century. Courtly love contrasted erotic desire with
spiritual attainment that was often contradictory - "a love
at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined,
humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent".
It seems indisputable that the idea of courtly love was developed
by the Troubadours
in and around the lands of the
Counts of Toulouse and the Dukes of Aquitaine. It is also true
that this development took place at the same time that Catharism
Catholicism in the hearts of the people north of the Pyrenees,
which was, perhaps coincidentally also the time and place that Jewish
Kabbalah studies re-emerged into the light, and that the the
Tarot was created.
Perhaps more significant is the effect of Moslem Spain. At this
same time, the twelfth century, the Duke of Aquitaine conquered
territory south of the Pyrenees, and part of the booty was some
200 harem girls skilled in singing and poetry. The Duke was soon
succeeded by William IX a young man who is now recognized as the
very first troubadour.
Poets adopted the terminology of feudalism, declaring themselves
the vassal of the lady and addressing her as midons ("my lord"),
a standard code name so that the poet did not have to reveal the
lady's identity, and which was flattering by addressing her as his
lord. The troubadour's model of the ideal lady was a lady of higher
status, usually the rich and powerful female head of the castle
(usually the wife of the troubadour's patron or lord). She dominated
the household of her husband's castle, not only when her husband
was away on Crusade or other business but also when her husband
was at home. As the lady was rich and powerful and the poet gave
voice to the aspirations of the courtier class - only those who
were noble could engage in courtly love. This new kind of love saw
nobility not based on wealth and family history, but on character
and actions, with an obvious appeal to poor knights who saw an avenue
At the time marriages - especially among royalty and nobility -
had little to do with modern concepts of love. So courtly love provided
a way for nobles to express love not found in their own marriage.
"Lovers" in the context of courtly love need not necessarily
refer to sex, but rather the act of emotional loving. These "lovers"
had short trysts in secret, which escalated mentally, but at least
in theory not physically, though frequent references to beds and
sleeping in the lover's arms in the troubadour albas and
in romances such as Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot
imply at least in some cases a context of actual sexual intercourse.
Incidentally the very word romance is a reference to the
Occitan language, known in medieval times as the "Roman tongue".
The first romances were troubadour works, written in Occitan,
describing courtly love.
The rules of courtly love were codified by the late 12th century
in Andreas Capellanus' highly influential work De amore ("On
Love"). De amore lists distinctive rules such as:
- "Marriage is not a good excuse for not loving"
- "He who is not jealous cannot love"
- "No one can be bound by a double love"
- "When made public love rarely endures"
Here is an English translation of a work by La Comtessa da Dia,
The Countess of Die, a troubairitz (female troubadour) around AD
1200, entitled I was plunged into deep distress, which gives
an idea of the revolutionary impact of this new art form, and new
way of thinking.
I was plunged into deep distress
by a knight who wooed me,
and I wish to confess for all time
how passionately I loved him;
Now I feel myself betrayed,
for I did not tell him of my love.
therefore I suffer great distress
in bed and when I am fully dressed.
Would that my knight might one night
lie naked in my arms
and find myself in ecstasy
with me as his pillow.
For I am more in love with him
than Floris was with Blanchfleur.
to him I give my heart and love,
my reason, eyes and life.
Handsome friend, tender and good,
when will you be mine ?
Oh, to spend with you but one night
to impart the kiss of love !
Know that with passion I cherish
the hope of you in my husband's place,
as soon as you have sworn to me
that you will fulfill my every wish.
Much of the structure and sentiments of De amore were derived
from Ovid's Ars amatoria. ("The Art of Love").
We will probably never untangle the various threads leading to the
development of courtly love and hence the modern western concept
of love, but a good start is provided by Denis de Rougement, Love
in the Western World (see recommended books, below)
If you want to learn more about these questions from experts like
Henry Lincoln, on location in the Languedoc, you might be interested