In 1168, Eleanor of Aquitaine left the court of her husband Henry II and took up residence in her ancestral lands of Poitou. Having served as viceregent for the king in England, she had no difficulty pursuing her duties as a ruling duchess, and she wielded the power of a feudal lord and accepted the responsibilities that went with it. With a deft hand and a discerning eye, she turned a district that had been on the outskirts of events for forty years into the center of economic and social life.
As a result of this sudden burst of activity, Eleanor's court in the city of Poitiers drew vassals paying homage, squires training to be knights, young ladies acquiring their education, and visiting future kings and queens related by blood or marriage to the duchess. Because she was a woman of renowned beauty, charm and style as well as extraordinary wit and iron will, the poets, chroniclers, musicians, philosophers, artists, and literati who always flocked around her also congregated at Poitiers.
It was out of this heady mix of royalty and romance that the movement of courtly love emerged.
There was very little that was new about courtly love (amour courtois). Poetry devoted with great ardor to a beloved lady had flourished in the Arab culture for centuries. The "courts of love," where suitors would seek advice on matters of the heart from the queen while the king ruled over his courts of law, had also been around for quite some time. Manners were already on the rise among the elite, though they were the source of much amusement and scorn from the rugged fighting men of the nobility. The cult of the Virgin was rising in popularity. And tales of Arthur and his knights, so inextricably woven into the fabric of chivalry and courtly love, had been circulating for years.
Nevertheless, this point in history was the defining moment of courtly love -- its time to blossom -- thanks to the vision of one woman and the literary work of one man.
The woman was Eleanor's daughter (from her previous marriage to King Louis VII of France), Marie de Champagne, and she had come to Poitiers to take charge of the education and training of the young people at the palace. She had her work cut out for her. The Poitevins had not been accustomed to the ways of court life for generations: the young men were boisterous, bragging warriors; the young women had led isolated lives and were free at last from the confines of the family estate. Religious study had not taught these pubescent pupils how to behave. Marie realized that a subject that could hold their interest was necessary to use as a vehicle through which they could be taught manners and respect. One subject sprang immediately to mind.
The man was a clerk known as André the Chaplain (André le Chapelain or Andreas Cappellanus), who had worked at the king's court and may have accompanied Marie to Poitiers in her employ. Marie set him to work writing a handbook on a code of behavior concerning love. André took as his model, perhaps at her suggestion, Ovid's Ars Amatoria ("the Art of Loving"). Ovid's work concerns how to seduce a woman, and among its rules are appropriate forms of dress, approach, conversation, and toying with a lady's affections, all designed to amuse. In the Ars Amatoria, the man is in control, and the woman is simply his prey.
But André (very likely at the behest of Marie) turned the Ars Amatoria upside-down. In his Liber de arte honeste amandi et reprobatione inhonesti amoris ("Book of the Art of Loving Nobly and the Reprobation of Dishonourable Love"), the woman becomes the mistress of the game. It is she who sets the rules and passes judgment on the hopeful suitor. In Ovid's work the lover sighs with passion for his pursuit, but in le Chapelain's Liber the passion is pure and entirely for the love of a lady.
The rules outlined in André's work are in many ways far from the reality of the times. In the medieval world, women rarely had any power to speak of (Eleanor was a notable exception). The nobility were warriors, and the arts of war, leadership and politics occupied their minds. More often than not, a noblemen thought of his wife (or future wife) as a breeder, a servant, and a source of sexual gratification (his, not hers). Fidelity on her part was absolutely necessary to ensure the validity of the bloodline. Fidelity on his part wasn't an issue.
Under any other circumstances, le Chapelain's Liber might have remained an interesting literary exercise (as Ovid's Ars Amatoria was intended to be); or it might have been ignored or laughed out of serious literary circles. But with the historical background at precisely the right stage of development, in the court of Eleanor and under the guidance of Marie, André's "Art of Loving Nobly" was literature to be lived.
Please visit the second part of this feature, Literature to be Lived.
Guide's Note: This feature was originally posted in February of 1998, and was updated in March of 2007.
Sources and Suggested Reading
The links below will take you to a site where you can compare prices at booksellers across the web. More in-depth info about the book may be found by clicking on to the book's page at one of the online merchants.
The Art of Courtly Loveby Andreas Capellanus; translated by John Jay Parry
Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kingsby Amy Ruth Kelly
The Civilization of the Middle Agesby Norman F. Cantor
Life in Medieval Timesby Marjorie Rowling