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Explore this lesson on courtly love, an essential concept to understanding relationships between men and women in medieval literature. Learn the definition of courtly love, its connection with chivalry, the rules of courtly love, and discover examples of works that feature courtly love from the Middle Ages.

Love Outside of Marriage

Courtly love, also called refined love, is a confusing notion for some modern readers to understand. For most of us, love is tied up with romance and attraction. It is often publicly announced with a marriage or other public arrangement.

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After all, you want the person you marry to love you, right?Courtly love, on the other hand, had nothing to do with marriage. In fact, most accounts state that it wasn’t possible to experience courtly love with your spouse. This does not mean married people were excluded from courtly love; they just experienced it with someone ‘outside’ their marriage.

The concept seems to have gotten its start in medieval literature, but it eventually caught on in the royal courts.Here’s the part that gets confusing for modern readers: courtly love was all about romance (the cheesier the better), but sexual contact typically had nothing to do with it. Most of us consider sexual acts to be something shared between lovers. But at medieval court, the term ‘lover’ referred to the person with whom someone danced, giggled, and held hands; procreation was a spousal duty.

To do otherwise was to break the rules of etiquette. However, we all know that rules wouldn’t be in place unless people were breaking them.

This painting of Tristan and Isolde portrays the wooing of courtly love.
Courtly love brought the romance often missing from arranged marriages.
Painting of courtly love
  • Courtly love was love outside of marriage
  • Courtly love was based on flirting, dancing, and chivalrous actions done to earn favor from court ladies
  • Courtly love was not physical
  • Tales of courtly love were shared by troubadours

Learning Outcomes

When you are done, you should be able to:

  • Explain what courtly love was during the medieval times
  • Discuss the rules of courtly love
  • Describe the role of the troubadours in spreading courtly love stories

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