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Education Reference Desk | Online Education Resources for Students and Teachers

Medieval Romance

Medieval times often evoke images of knights battling on muddy fields, dank and dreary castles, hunger, plagues-in general, a lot of rather depressing scenes…
…but these Dark Ages also witnessed the birth of a romantic movement.

Women in the Middle Ages were usually treated as property. While medieval country marriages were often the result of love, marriage among the noble class was more a business transaction than the culmination of ardent feelings. But knights returning from the crusades had learned a few things from their adversaries, who revered their women. Passion was considered sinful to 11th and 12th century moralists, but these ideals were slowly being worn away with the rituals of courtly love.

Secret rituals of Romance developed where women-long the loser in a double standard of adultery condoned among men-found champions who would fight in their honor. Courtly love became the subject of some of the most famous medieval poems, and where we get today’s word, “Courtesy.” 


Chapters

  1. 1. Courtly Love
  2. 2. Poetry

Courtly Love

Medieval ladies found glorification when a knight would select her to be his chosen one. For a knight, this could mean any lady, except his wife. According to the “rules” of courtly love, a knight had to promise to be ardent, secretive, and above all, courteous. No matter how long the love was unrequited, a knight had to be true.

Rules evolved-such as chosen women given a ring should wear it “on the little finger of their left hand, and always keep the stone hidden inside her hand.” When writing letters, they refrained from using their proper names so their identities could never be revealed.

Church leaders were distraught with this new movement, fearing that knights would lose sight of their religious obligations. This stance was softened somewhat, when they learned that some of the best songs of courtly love were being written by monks and nuns.

A double standard existed within these rituals as well, for where knights might boast of their chosen lady, women, especially those who were married had to be quite cautious who learned of this relationship. If a man found out he was being cuckolded, he might repudiate his wife, and have the man castrated or executed. Fathers of the women might be exiled and their lands seized.

Poetry

Romantic stories of courtly love were spread throughout medieval Europe by troubadours and minstrels. The language used by this new poetry was intended to be sung, played on musical instruments brought back from the crusades. This was a new style of expressive writing.

One of the first poems to take a romantic turn was La Chanson de Roland (the Song of Roland) an epic about the nephew of Charlemagne. Battlefield scenes were transformed into those of ideal love.

Arthurian legends brought the tale of Tristan and Iseult. Though no complete copy of this poem, written in French, survived to today, extant German translations made it possible to piece together this poem of overwhelming guilty passions.

Aucassin and Nicolette, written by an unknown author, was one of the first to tell a love story with a happy ending. Aucaussin, son of a noble Provencal count, falls in love with Nicolette, the captive servant and god-daughter of a neighboring nobleman. She later turns out to be the daughter of the King of Carthage-she was a princess.

Le Roman de la Rose (Story of the Rose) was an allegory of a love affair, unusual in that the main characters never appear as real people, but rather as different voices that stand for their qualities. This style was tremendously popular, and dictated a style that would be copied in France and England for two centuries.