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Courtly Love

Originating with the troubadours of southern Europe, Courtly Love illustrates the pain of unrequited romantic love - an emotional dead end because marriages were arranged as social contracts to consolidate property.  

Romantic Love mainly applied to the lower property less classes.

Whether this was merely a literary phenomenon celebrated in verse or actual practice has scholars perplexed.  It was likely both, with the literary protestations slightly exaggerated.

Essentially Courtly Love was a code of love making originating from the 12th Century and reflected in European Literature. It was generally restricted to courtiers,  the aristocracy who lived in the Court of the reigning monarch.  With plenty of leisure time on their hands, they would devote it to the complaints of the unrequited lover.

Courtly Love as portrayed in the literature of the period from 1100 – about 1550 shared the following features:

Understanding Love

The bible, in Proverbs states that there are three mysteries in life;

It can be said that science has uncovered to some extent, the first two while the last one may defy us to eternity.  What is the nature of true love?

We will look at poetry, plays and articles written throughout the ages to attempt to solve this mystery.

The early Greeks made a significant contribution to the distinction between various kinds of Love.  They had four different abstract nouns for Love:.

  1. Storge  (Hard G)    Family love.  The first love you experienced was the love of your parents, siblings, kinship, - “blood thicker than water” Affection for relatives.
  2. Philia  (Latin - Amicitia)  Pure friendship based on common interests.   Similar interests in sport, hobbies, activities.  Platonic Love.
  3. Agape  (Latin – Caritas)            The love that makes people to nurse lepers, or other disadvantaged.  Pure ,disinterested, willing service to those in need, though they may be vile.  It is the word the New Testament uses for the “love” between God and Mankind.
  4. Eros  - Lust                     Love for another person of a sexual nature.  Not mere carnal desire, but that plus concentration on this feeling on one particular individual.

Marriage is a relationship that offers, (but does not guarantee)  all four.   It begins with Eros and can add or change to  Philia and with the arrival of children, develop into Storge,.  Agape enables one to do the distasteful and wearying services that are  occasionally needed in any family.

Star-crossed Lovers

Among the most famous lovers of Medieval times, Abelard and Heloise, celebrated their love making by experimenting with unconventional methods. Abelard detailed their irresistible passionate relationship:

Our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it.  We entered on each joy the more because of our previous inexperience and were all the less easily sated”.

Because he was her tutor and twenty years her senior, her father, took exception when she became pregnant and sought revenge by having Abelard brutally beaten with castration.  Humiliated by the loss of his manhood, the lovers take religious vows as monk and nun; are separated for twenty years, and when they meet again though the physical aspect of their relationship is no longer possible declare their eternal love and oneness. 

Heloise writing 12 years after the separation admits: “Even in sleep I find no respite”.  Though brief, the lovers found eternal true love

Other great tragic love stories include:

Romeo and Juliet, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath,  Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

Helen Garner maintains our laws and strictures and conventions have no purchase on the dark regions of the soul into which we venture when we love.

But everyone knows that love is brutal. A thousand songs tell the story. Love tears right through to the centre of us, into our secret self, and lays it wide open. What people find really hard to bear is the suggestion that they themselves might contain their share of human darkness, hidden inside their souls.”Surely Sigmund Freud was right when he said, “We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.”


Classical English Literature deals with the changing trends in middle and upper class marriages.


In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, arranged marriages are contested: Marriage is important to individuals for companionship and support and for society to create stability. Women who were not provided for were especially vulnerable to penury.
Throughout the novel, the author describes the various types of marriages and reasons behind them. Not many of them appear to be happy or successful with the exception of the Gardiners. 
Austen documents a change in the traditions of marriage. Courtship and true romantic love, rather than arranged marriages is increasingly becoming the acceptable mode. Lady Catherine de Bourgh claims that Darcy was promised to her daughter Ann, yet Elizabeth stands up to her almighty power.

Marriage out of economic compulsions can be seen in Charlotte’s marriage to Collins. Marriage due to sensual pleasure can be seen in Lydia’s marriage to Wickham. The marriage of Jane and Elizabeth are the outcome of true love between well-matched persons even though they are not on the same social levels.

In Bronte's Jane Eyre, Jane is pressured to marry a minister, St. John, because he needs a supporting wife to take to India as a missionary. He demands that she sacrifice herself to serve him and God even though she is in love with another man. She stands up to him.

Sayings on Love

  "We all have the extraordinary coded within us...waiting to be released."    Jean Houston

  "Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. To experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life. Meaning does not lie in things. Meaning lies in us."    Marianne Williamson

The pressure of individuals choosing their own spouses was being felt throughout Europe indicating that a transition from the arranged marriage was beginning.

Love marriages may be becoming an anachronism.   “It was only in the 18th century that the bourgeois notion of romantic marriage began to crystallise.  Throughout the history of humanity till then the reasons for marriage were strictly dynastic, practical or procreational.  To marry for love was a truly astonishing idea, and one – if we are honest- many of us are still wrestling with.”    Alain de Botton

Language of Love – Famous romantic lines:

 Leo’s “Promise me you’ll survive.”   from The Titanic

 Given that Kate Winslet recently revealed what we all know – that there was definitely room for Jack on the raft

 "My heart is, and will always be, yours”, spoken by Edward Ferrars in the film of Sense and Sensibility

Dirty Dancing, and Baby’s “I’m scared of what I saw, I’m scared of what I did, of who I am, and most of all I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you.”

Ultimately, it’s impossible to be objective about love. If any of these lines make us believe in a fictional passion, or leave us full of longing, or just make us weep for reasons we can’t quite explain, then they have succeeded, regardless of the beauty of the language or the true sense of the sentiment. However, I also reckon I could throw a rock into a library and hit a piece of prose that’s much more romantic than any of the lines that appeared on the survey. Here are some alternatives …

From The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

“It was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, and it is not only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him.”

From True Romance by Quentin Tarantino

 “I kept asking Clarence why our world seemed to be collapsing and everything seemed so shitty. And he’d say, ‘That’s the way it goes, but don’t forget, it goes the other way too.’ That’s the way romance is.”

To love, you have to hope. You sign up for spells of wretchedness, but still believe there’s no dying ember that can’t be coaxed back to fiery life with warm and gentle breath. True Romance is a gory accidental heist movie, but it’s also about a man who would do anything for the woman he loves (including killing her pimp) because he knows that no matter how tough things get, “it goes the other way, too”.

From The Beautiful and Damned by F Scott Fitzgerald

“Don’t say ‘wife’. I’m your mistress. Wife’s such an ugly word. Your ‘permanent mistress’ is so much more tangible and desirable…”

This is about the vulnerability of love, and the sometimes suffocating need to be someone’s everything. Anti-heroine Gloria is appealing to her husband Anthony to keep looking at her anew, to combine the intimacy and tenderness of a long-term relationship with that sheer, shocked passion felt when two people are still exploring each other. For me, this line epitomises romantic love at its most selfish and impossible. We’ve all been there.

From Parks and Recreation by Greg Daniels

“I love you and I like you.”

This line, spoken by character Leslie Knope while making her wedding vows, is one of the most romantic things I have ever heard. It’s about the way love is strengthened by friendship and respect. A promise to love feels grand and eternal, but vowing to like someone is a small act that needs to be practised every day. I feel so strongly about this one that I used it in my own wedding speech. 

From The Richard Burton Diaries by Richard Burton

 “After seven or eight years, I still miss her if she goes to the bathroom.”

  Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

‘Burton’s words conjure up all that we can hope for from romantic love.’

Burton and Taylor’s enduring, complex love is well documented, but I think Burton’s words conjure up all that we can hope for from romantic love. To never get used to someone. To be separated for seconds and still think, “Hurrah, it’s you!” when you see their face in a crowd, even when you’ve just lost track of them for a bit at the supermarket.

Most of us will hopefully never fully understand how it feels to watch our love fall from the edge of a life raft. But we know that our relationships are in great shape if we can still feel tender towards our partners even after they’ve just spent ages in the loo.

amative  -  disposed to love; amorous.  Amative stems from the Latin verb amāre meaning "to love." It entered English in the mid-1600s.


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