The idea of courtly love has been a recurring theme in Western literature for centuries, reaching its peak of popularity shortly after its invention in medieval times. It can be considered the chaste ideological predecessor to the relatively modern idea of romantic love, which, while not always chaste, nonetheless provided some kind of moral and ethical justification for sex, often within the legally and religiously sanctioned structure of marriage.

Although the idea of courtly love was reinvented by the poets who praised it and the practitioners whose life imitated the poets' art, the basic premise was as follows: passionate, obsessive, sexually unrequited love between a man and a lady (never a woman, always a lady — and almost always of noble birth). As Elizabeth Abbot wrote in A History of Celibacy:

...courtly love acknowledges human sexual longing but incorporates it into a great passion guided not by carnality but rather by the highest moral and aesthetic values.

Courtly love is an exalted state between a man and a superior woman he both respects and adores with quasi-religious fervor. Her love tests his resolve, firmness, and loyalty, for it is difficult to obtain. It is also immensely ennobling, so that his very suffering strengthens every aspect of his being: his military prowess, social standards, even his moral and religious perspectives. Sometimes, the mere thought of his beloved triggers these holistic improvements. (363)

I couldn't have summarized it better myself. The idea that love makes us better people comes out of courtly love, which ties the pain of unrequited love to the idea that suffering builds character. Courtly love was strongly linked to the rules of chivalry, some of which remain with us today. The Rules of Courtly Love, enumerated by Andreas Capellanus in the twelfth century, place additional restrictions on the nature and expression of courtly love, including jealousy and secrecy.

I'll close with an additional quote from Abbott:

Courtly love was agonizing and admirable, the source of chivalrous virtue. For these same reasons, it was often chaste, both because the logistics of consummation defeated the would-be lovers and also because, in some manifestations, courtly love was inherently pure....

Centuries of literature and lives imitating art transformed courtly love into romantic love, intense and unattainable, a phenomenon too high-mindedly impractical to survive marriage and the trials of time, routine, and old age. The precious instant of recognizing the beloved, the stylized pursuit, the exchange of extravagant words penned on scented paper, the self-indulgently obsessive meditating on each other — these became the characteristics of this new kind of love. Sexual attraction fueled it, but in this case as well, sex never dominated the lovers' agenda. (364-5)

Finally, as the chaste and secret nature of courtly love makes exclusivity irrelevant, I encourage others to add writeups to this, as mine is highly based on Abbott's book and it would be nice to get some primary source-based material here as well.


Many philosophers and poets of the medieval era thought that true love could only exist outside of the bonds of marriage. Marriage meant obligation and duty, leaving behind the honest emotion of true love. This courtly love is almost a religion in its fervancy. The target of such courtly love is always a woman that is somehow unattainable (she may be married, too high on the social ladder, from the wrong family, or any combination of those).

From the start I knew it could never work between us. Her family would never allow it. But still I loved.

Marriage means nothing when it comes to courtly love. A man will remain in love with his beloved if she marries another. He heart will belong to her even if he marries another woman. Death means nothing, as the mans love will stay true long after his beloved is buried in the ground. True courtly love never expires, is never over with, until both people are dead.

She was married six months ago, and I haven't seen her in almost 2 years. But still I love.

The woman is often naive to the entire thing. Many times having no idea that she holds the heart of the man. The lover often feels unworthy of any affection from his beloved, and he takes great pains to hide his true feelings from her.

It took her months to even realize that I had more than just a little crush on her. She just couldn't see it.

Courtly love is almost always love at first sight. The man may glimpse his beloved at a party, see her across the road in town, or meet her at a dinner. He will become instantly smitten, and will stay that way for the rest of his life.

I knew the first time I saw her, before she even looked up at me from the floor she was sitting on. I loved her at that moment, as I still love her now. No feelings have changed.

The lover will bestow anonymous gifts, and interview anyone and everyone about his beloved (any information is important, no matter how trivial). The lover will arrange to spend as much time in the presence of his beloved as possible, even though he will often stay on the opposite side of the room.

She wasn't very much of a social butterfly, but somehow, someway she found me at every party she went to. Although I usually didn't have the courage to say much more than hello.

Courtly love is by definition non-sexual in nature. The lover is in love with the woman, not her body. He often can't even bring himself to think about suchs things (his fantasies are much tamer, perhaps just holding hands, or a kiss on the cheek).

To this day I haven't had more than a handful of truly sexual thoughts about her. My thoughts are simply about her, and her alone.

Any real romance between the lover and his beloved is destined to end in disaster. No matter how hard the try to make it work (it is as if the gods themselves conspire against the lovers).

We met in secret. We talked. But in the end, the world would not let our love come to be. She seems to have moved on. I cannot.

My sources include my own life and (oddly enough), The Complete Paladin's Handbook by Rick Swan.

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