The Old Talks Series: “Courtly Love and Chrétien de Troyes’s ‘Lancelot’ (or, Why Gaston Paris Was Not Actually Wrong)”


This was an invited talk for the Maynooth Medieval and Renaissance Forum (NUI Maynooth, 2009). It was long. It’s OK, it was meant to be and that was what was requested, that was the form and format. It includes a lot of words and a lot of wordiness about these words, because it’s a close reading. Mainly of what Gaston Paris has to say—that being the point and purpose—but also a fair amount of what Chrétien de Troyes has to say.

(And not because I talked too much, for too long, and people failed to shut me up: I do not do that because it is mean, rude, obnoxious, arrogant, inconsiderate, disrespectful, and a disgrace to The Profession. Also because I despise people who go over time. And people who talk badly. And people whose idea of a “talk” is to read out a written paper that was meant/written for, you know, solitary silent reading; that having been said, the piece below is somewhere between my (then) Super-Formal-Serious For Reading style, and my For Talking To/With Other People style. And though I get grumpy about this sort of thing—especially given the physical pain of having to sit still, ideally on a badly-designed chair, through a bad talk badly delivered—I am not a complete misanthrope, I do like some human beings.)

See also:


The eponymous hero of Chrétien’s Lancelot / Le Chevalier de la charrette has previously been interpreted as perfect knight, perfect lover, both, and neither; fatally flawed, supremely human, or both; and a problematic and downright troubling representative / representation of a courtly ideal. While “courtly love” will become the topic of a long-running modern literary debate – with an ever-growing field of enquiry – its origins and the first modern expression of the idea lie with the Lancelot and its immediate contemporary cultural context: the essay that sparked the debate being “Études sur les romans de la Table Ronde: Lancelot” by Gaston Paris, in Romania 12 (1883). Over the last 125 years, Paris’ work has suffered misreading, rereading, and rejection; but is currently in process of rehabilitation, by Karl D. Uitti through the 1980s, and with Ursula Bähler’s Gaston Paris et la philologie romane (Paris: Droz 2004) – well-received and much-reviewed over the last three years.

This paper is a reading of Paris’s essay and of Chrétien’s Lancelot, so as to ascertain what truths may be recovered or discovered from primary sources and first principles. A second intention is showing where the “courtly love debate” now stands. Having been tied to developments in various theoretical -isms along its historical course, Medieval literary criticism is returning now to its sources but in a renewed state as “New Philology” and, indeed, even influencing the mainstream of literary theory.

The main part of this paper examines courtly love in Chrétien’s Lancelot: instances thereof, its different types of expression, and analysis and interpretation in the light of contemporary intertextual context, bearing in mind a multilingual literary culture. The reading refers particularly to Occitan influences (canso, tenso, novas – especially the judici d’amors), and investigates how far the idea of love in the Lancelot signals a biculturalism that has moved into full cultural infusion and conflation. An epilogue in guise of conclusion shows how the idea of courtly love next evolves (in French romance, but with its main continuations being in Catalan poetry).




Good evening. My paper this evening falls into two somewhat unequal parts; the first is on the courtly love debate – as an exercise in a sort of metaliterary history. The second part goes back to Chrétien de Troyes, to see what evidence this actually provides for an idea of courtly love. I’ll conclude with some suggestions for further expansion – including how I’m working with courtly love right now.

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 12.54.28 PM


The “love” part of courtly love is commonly understood to refer to a heterosexual relationship, usually by a single young man for a married young woman, taking place at court. It is consuming, not necessarily consummated, and often unrequited. The “courtly” part refers both to the court and to courtliness or courtesy; that is, a mode of behaviour and code of conduct derived from models set at court. The court may be, but is not necessarily, “the” royal court, a central, geographically fixed and permanent entity (ex. Camelot). The courts of the king and higher nobility typically moved around from one domain to another through the year. This had practical advantages for the control of territory and its network of seneschals and baillifs. The court may have been one held for a certain time by an aristocrat with sufficient resources and the necessary accomodations, say around a feast, wedding, or tournament.1

The phenomenon is supposed to be visible in Occitan and French lyric poetry, and in French romance, particularly in the 12th century. It is generally accepted to have first flourished in the courts of the Anjou, Poitou, and Aquitaine. Moving further back in time, Roger Boase summarizes the various origins proposed for courtly love as Hispano-Arabic, Chivalric-Matriarchal, Crypto-Cathar, Neoplatonic, Bernardine-Marianist, Spring Folk Ritual, and Feudal-Sociological.2 Courtly love is a predominant idea in the lyric poetry produced by trobadors at the Aquitanain courts through the 12th century, its golden age. It then spread around Europe, via the mobility of courts and court poets. Above all, it spread through the Aquitanain courts and their networks of influence. The Angevins/Plantagenets had acceded to the English throne. Eleanor of Aquitaine – grand-daughter of Guilhem IX – married first the French king, Louis VII, and then the English king, Henry II Plantagenet. The poetry and its poets were disseminated further afield through Eleanor’s children’s and grandchildren’s marriages: through France, Germany, and Spain.

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 12.54.41 PM

The term first appears in modern literary criticism, as the French form amour courtois, in the second part of a study by Gaston Paris on Chrétien de Troyes’ Chevalier de la Charrette / Lancelot (respectively, 1883 and late 12th century).3 While it is obviously dated, much in the article is still relevant and valuable today: romance as conflation and fusion, for example, has been a constant basic principle to theoretical work on genre. This first modern formulation of the idea, and this article, have been central to over a century of debate around courtly love; a debate which has often misread Paris, or only read part of the article, or a second-hand version filtered through another scholar’s version of events. In order to put the subsequent debate in proper perspective, I turn now to the original article in some detail.

The bulk of the article is on variants of the Lancelot story and its sources, in a standard 19th-century quest for the Ur-Text. It is the second of two parts; the first had looked at the German Lanzelet, which is later than Chrétien’s version but based on an earlier source.

  • Gaston Paris, “Études sur les romans de la Table Ronde. Lancelot du Lac. I. Le Lanzelet d’Ulrich de Zatzikhoven.” Romania 10 (1881): 465-96 (= 470-501 in the attached PDF, c/o the BNF)

This second part

  • Gaston Paris, “Études sur les romans de la Table Ronde. Lancelot du Lac. II. Le Conte de la Charrette.Romania 12 (1883): 459-534 (-= 470-545 in the attached PDF, c/o the BNF)

opens (459-85) with a reading of Lancelot, centred on attention to the Lancelot-Guenièvre amorous idyll (478-79), and the love-affair as Chrétien’s original addition to the earlier, Guenièvre-free versions of the story. This is followed by two comparative sections, on two other versions of Lancelot and their possible anteriority to and thus influence on Chrétien’s work. The first is the prose Lancelot (485-98); the second (498-516), to earlier Welsh materials – “divers textes gallois… ayant appartenu à d’anciens récits celtiques” – used by Malory as source-material for the Morte d’Arthur (1469-70). In a final section (516-34), Paris suggests that Chrétien’s Lancelot

paraît […] avoir, dans l’histoire de la littérature française au moyen âge […] une importance plus grande que celle qu’on lui a d’ordinaire attribuée. L’originalité de ce poème, une fois la question du fond et du sens primitif mise à part, consiste dans la façon dont il présente ses personnages, dans les mobiles qu’il donne à leurs actions, et notamment dans la conception qu’il nous offre de l’amour (516)

It is this idea of love that Paris proposes to be Chrétien’s major contribution to developments in literature. It is clear from what follows that Paris is not suggesting (as later detractors have alleged) that the term amour courtois is used by Chrétien in Lancelot. His point is the introduction of an idea – “la conception qu’il nous offre” – underlying, and indeed underpinning, character’s actions. He starts out with some descriptions of this idea of love:

Cet amour est une sorte de fascination et en même temps d’idolâtrie qui ne laisse maître, en dehors de ce sentiment, d’aucune partie de son être […] L’amour règne dans son âme avec une tyrannie sans nul contre-poids; il y est le principe des actions les plus hardies et les plus nobles, comme il le fait passer par-dessus toutes les considérations, même de gloire et de conscience. C’est le type absolu de l’amoureux tel qu’il a longtemps été conçu dans la poésie, et rêvé, sinon réalisé, dans la vie. (517)

Les principaux caractères de l’amour ainsi entendu sont les suivants :

1º Il est illégitime, furtif. On ne conçoit pas de rapports pareils entre mari et femme ; la crainte perpétuelle de l’amant de perdre sa maîtresse, de ne plus être digne d’elle, de lui déplaire en quoi que ce soit, ne peut se concilier avec la possession calme et publique ; c’est au don sans cesse révocable d’elle-même, au sacrifice énorme qu’elle a fait, au risque qu’elle court constamment, que la femme doit la supériorité que l’amant lui reconnaît.

2º À cause de cela, l’amant est toujours devant la femme dans une position inférieure, dans une timidité que rien ne rassure, dans un perpétuel tremblement, bien qu’il soit d’ailleurs en toutes rencontres le plus hardi des guerriers. Elle au contraire, tout en l’aimant sincèrement, se montre avec lui capricieuse, souvent injuste, hautaine, dédaigneuse ; elle lui fait sentir à chaque moment qu’il peut la perdre et qu’à la moindre faute contre le code de l’amour il la perdra.

3º Pour être digne de la tendresse qu’il souhaite ou qu’il a déjà obtenue, il accomplit toutes les prouesses imaginables, et elle de son côté songe toujours à le rendre meilleur, à le faire plus « valoir » ; ses caprices apparents, ses rigueurs passagères, ont même d’ordinaire ce but, et ne sont que des moyens ou de raffiner son amour ou d’exalter son courage.

4º Enfin, et c’est ce que résume tout le reste, l’amour est un art, une science, une vertu, qui a ses règles tout comme la chevalerie ou la courtoisie, règles qu’on possède et qu’on applique mieux à mesure qu’on a fait plus de progrès, et auxquelles on ne doit pas manquer sous peine d’être jugé indigne.

Dans aucun ouvrage français, autant qu’il me semble, cet amour courtois n’apparaît avant le Chevalier de la Charrette. L’amour de Tristan et d’Iseut est autre chose : c’est une passion simple, ardente, naturelle, qui ne connaît pas les subtilités et les raffinements de celui de Lancelot et de Guenièvre. Dans les poèmes de Benoît de Sainte-More, nous trouvons la galanterie, mais non cet amour exalté et presque mystique, sans cesser pourtant d’être sensuel. (518-19)

Amour courtois first appears in passing, a throw-away remark in the midst of a synopsis of the Conte de la Charete prose version and discussion of whether the prose Charete preceded the verse (Chrétien’s) Charrette or vice versa. Paris is discussing two mistakes in an edition of the verse Charrette that have led to subsequent critics’ errors (“un passage qui jusqu’à présent a été mal compris”):

[…] l’omission de deux vers après le v. 360 dans le ms. suivi par M. Jonckbloet et la fausse ponctuation des v. 4484-7 dans son édition ont altéré le sens de ce passage. La reine reproche à Lancelot non pas d’être monté dans la charrette, mais d’avoir hésité un seul instant à y monter, ce qui est absolument conforme au code de l’amour courtois. (488)

There are two things to note here. The first is that, here as elsewhere, Paris habitually punctuates argument with interpretative comment. The second is that he returns immediately to his argument with Jonckbloet’s edition and its consequences. It is therefore stylistically unclear whether or not Paris considers himself to be coining a neologism when he uses amour courtois.

The term’s second appearance (final paragraph of 518-19 quoted above) has courtois italicized, but this only signals its distinction from other sorts of love. This “courtly love” is then connected through conjunction to “chivalric love,” as one and the same single kind of love (the next set of quotes are under 4 on the handout):

l’amour chevaleresque et courtois (520)

Ainsi la valeur des hommes était un encouragement pour la chasteté des femmes, et l’amour des femmes était un aiguillon pour la valeur des chevaliers […] le vrai point de départ et le foyer de la société courtoise, amoureuse et raffinée. […] Ainsi la valeur des hommes était un encouragement pour la chasteté des femmes, et l’amour des femmes était un aiguillon pour la valeur des chevaliers. (521)

A translated extract from Geoffrey of Monmouth cements the relationship by a syntactic device, articulated around a central “et,” making “men’s worth” and “knightly worth” synonymous: “Ainsi la valeur des hommes était un encouragement pour la chasteté des femmes, et l’amour des femmes était un aiguillon pour la valeur des chevaliers” (521). Paris moves into further elaboration of courtly love as a ethical – moral and social – value, and its links to the Aquitanain courts (and to their trobadors), describing the court of Henry I as forming: “le vrai point de départ et le foyer de la société courtoise, amoureuse et raffinée.” (521) This seems sensible enough: chivalry derives from the court. One only has to look to Arthurian literature to see a wealth of supplementary examples, in the original court and its first formulation of the entwined ideas of an order of knighthood and a behavioural code. The general sense of this section is, then, that the court is the root cause for courtesy – as the fundamental ethical and social value – in northern France.

The feminine value equivalent to masculine virtue is chastity: “Ainsi la valeur des hommes était un encouragement pour la chasteté des femmes, et l’amour des femmes était un aiguillon pour la valeur des chevaliers” (521). Such comments suggest love was chaste; that is, the medieval sense of chastity: not abstinence but continence, limiting sexual relations to spouses. Yet Paris also suggests that erotic pleasure might be less restrained:

La réunion des deux sexes dans les fêtes, qui commençait alors à être habituelle, donnait naturellement l’idée de régler leurs rapports, et dans ces règles on ne s’arrêta pas aux relations extérieures, on voulut déterminer même ce qui était de bon ton, de convenance ou de rigueur dans les liaisons les plus intimes. Ces relations mondaines des deux sexes … (520)

Paris is perhaps at his most ambiguous when discussing matters erotic; as love is at the centre of his dissertation, his ambiguity has major repercussions. Paris’ erotic ambiguity cannot be dismissed as the coy expression of 19th century sensibilities, or lip-service to them. In the Chevalier de la Charrette plot summary and brief commentary at the beginning of his article, here is what Paris does with the notorious “night of love” scene, the first carnal encounter of Lancelot and Guinièvre. He is especially careful to include Chrétien’s original text, not least as this first part is important supporting evidence for his later argument:

Il [Lancelot] gagne le lit de la reine, et passe avec elle une douce nuit2,

2 Il y a là un passage qui, sous la forme délicate, laisse deviner une pensée fort lascive. Il est utile de le citer, pour apprécier le caractère de la poésie que nous étudions : Tant li est ses jeus douz et buens Et del baisier et del sentir Que il lor avint, sanz mentir, Une joie et une merveille Tel qu’onques encor sa pareille Ne fu oie ne seue ; Mès toz jorz iert par moi teue, Qu’el conte ne doit estre dite : Des joies fu la plus eslite Et la plus delitable cele Que li contes nos tet et cele (v. 4674-83). (478)

While Paris’ use of “les liaisons les plus intimes” and “relations mondaines” is suggestive of goings-on below the belt, he emphasises that this is no mere rutting – what medieval French calls ameurs as opposed to amours. He also clearly includes the carnal and states that this is not “platonic” love.

cet amour exalté et presque mystique, sans cesser pourtant d’être sensuel (519)

[…] un amour idéal et raffiné, nullement platonique toutefois, et fondé sur la pleine possession, mais ne laissant aux sens qu’une part secondaire, étroitement lié à la pratique et à l’accroissement des vertus sociales, et donnant à la femme, à cause du risque qu’elle courrait en s’y livrant, une supériorité constante qu’elle justifiait par l’influence ennoblissante qu’elle devait exercer sur son amant. (529)

I read these ambiguities first and foremost as ambiguities: to keep options open, and as something can be more than one thing at the same time. That, in turn, allows the maintenance of an active, discursive relation between the ambiguity’s poles, and has the effect of leaving a discursive space open in the text. Whether or not that was Paris’ conscious intention, the result has been that these narrative gaps have led his future readers into questioning and further debate.

Ovid’s Ars amatoria and Andreas Capellanus’ De Amore are used to bring together two other key features of courtly love: “illégitime et en dehors du mariage” (520). Tying in with being an ethical value, love is codified:

Le moyen âge, avec sa tendance logicienne et généralisatrice, devait transformer en rigides maximes les frivoles préceptes de cette théorie mondaine. Convaincu comme il l’était avant tout que toute œuvre d’art est avant tout destinée à l’instruction, il devait prendre au sérieux ce traité [d’Ovide], classique au même titre que tout ce qui venait de l’antiquité, et chercher à le rendre plus sytématique et plus pratique. Cette disposition coïncidait d’ailleurs avec le fait capital du XIIe siècle, la création de la société courtoise par l’établissement dans l’aristocratie, à laquelle se rattachait le monde des clercs, des règles d’une étiquette subtile et souvent bizarre dont l’observation rigoureuse était une science, dont la négligence disqualifiait un homme et en faisait un « vilain ». La réunion des deux sexes dans les fêtes, qui commençait alors à être habituelle, donnait naturellement l’idée de régler leurs rapports, et dans ces règles on ne s’arrêta pas aux relations extérieures, on voulut déterminer même ce qui était de bon ton, de convenance ou de rigueur dans les liaisons les plus intimes. (520)

L’amour était un art, une science, et […] pour avoir le droit de s’en mêler il fallait en posséder les règles. […] Dans le nord comme dans le midi, les princes, les hauts barons, les grandes dames se mettaient à trouver, et là aussi l’amour faisait le fond de cette poésie de société, et c’était l’amour tel que l’avaient présenté les troubadours, l’amour qui faisait le charme et le danger des réunions mondaines, l’amour illégitime et caché, et en même temps l’amour considéré comme un art et comme une vertu. (522)

The next section (522-) deals with Chrétien’s patron, Marie, Countess of Champagne, and her link to the medieval codification of love to which Paris refers, Andreas Capellanus’ De Amore, which Paris takes to have been written at, and on, the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marie’s mother: “ce manuel du droit amoureux” (526).4

In its preface, De Amore sets itself up as an amorous advice given to a young man, Walter. The first book in this work is a theoretical treatise on love, with a middle section illustrating these principles, pitting men and women of various social classes against each other in dialogue of (male-instigated) seduction; emphasis is placed on the proper choice of one’s amorous target. The second book considers the possible consequences of a successful seduction: the retention, continuation, and end of love. Once again, there is an embedded practical, dialogic section: here, cases of love brought before the court for arbitration, and judgements passed by the arbiters, courtly ladies such as Eleanor, Marie, her cousin Isabelle of Flanders, and Ermengarde of Narbonne. A final embedded Arthurian narrative culminates in the King of Love’s 31 rules of love. These rules are seen by Paris as the theoretical twin to Chrétien’s practical exposition of the rules of love. The third and final book is a cynical and misogynist rejection of love, in favour of abstention and religious devotion. It may be read – following authorial comments to this effect – as a second part in a two–part work, a practical and negative counterbalance to the first part’s positive theory of love, as would be proper in any form of medieval intellectual disputation (ex. Aquinas). It may be a later continuation, perhaps in an attempt to save the work from condemnation.

Paris argues that courtly love had a limited place in the real world at courts centred around ladies such as Marie, sitting in judgement on amorous questions. Apparently putting aside the second part of De Amore, except a clever use of the Arthurian tale to cement the Andreas-Chrétien connection, the courtly love he portrays remains lady-centred. He draws an analogy with the salons of the précieuses:

Nul doute qu’un des amusements favoris des réunions que présidaient ces belles et peu sévères princesses n’ait été la résolution de questions galantes et l’établissement d’un code et d’une jurisprudence d’amour. Que ce ne fussent pas des « cours d’amour » au sens où les modernes ont lourdement pris ce mot, il est, je pense, inutile de le démontrer aujourd’hui. La nature même de l’amour qui faisait l’objet des débats et des sentences exigeait le plus grand secret, au XIIe siècle au moins autant qu’aujourd’hui et dans tous les temps, et il est dit expressément à plusieurs reprises que, lorsqu’une affaire est soumise au jugement des dames, ont doit toujours taire les noms des parties contendantes: il suit de là que ces jugements ne pouvaient avoir aucune application et n’étaient que de purs jeux d’esprit, au moins en ce qui concerne les cas particuliers. Mais la tendance générale qu’ils expriment dépassait quelque peu cette définition: il faut y reconnaître, chez les grandes dames de ce temps où apparaît ce qu’on appelle “le monde”, un effort pour créer et faire accepter aux hommes un amour idéal et raffiné, nullement platonique toutefois, et fondé sur la pleine possession, mais ne laissant aux sens qu’une part secondaire, étroitement lié à la pratique et à l’accroissement des vertus sociales, et donnant à la femme, à cause du risque qu’elle courrait en s’y livrant, une supériorité constante qu’elle justifiait par l’influence ennoblissante qu’elle devait exercer sur son amant. C’est quelque chose de fort analogue, avec bien des nuances amenées pas la différence des temps, à ce qu’essaya plus tard l’hôtel de Rambouillet; et Chrétien de Troyes, dans le Conte de la Charete, a été le poète épique de ces précieuses du XIIe siècle. […]

C’est à lui sans doute […] qu’est due l’intime fusion de cet idéal amoureux et courtois avec la « matière de Bretagne ». Cette fusion réussit si bien qu’elle fut consacrée pour toujours, et nous avons, entre autres, un preuve curieuse dans l’avant-dernier chapitre d’André le Chapelain, dans cette histoire de la découverte des Regulae amoris, qui est visiblement l’imitation des romans bretons et particulièrement ceux de Chrétien. (529-30)

Summing up:

Marie, avec sa mère Alienor, avec ses contemporaines Aeliz de France et Ermenjart de Narbonne, a été l’une des principales instigatrices d’un mouvement mondain qui se produisit dans la seconde moitié du XIIe siècle et qui a pour principaux caractères le rapprochement de la poésie du Nord et de celle du Midi et la conception d’un amour raffiné, savant, intimement lié à la courtoisie et à la prouesse, et donnant à la femme, en tant que maîtresse, une importance qu’elle n’avait pas eue jusque-là. Cet amour est précisément l’inspiration du poème de Chrétien, qui l’a peint, tel que l’avait conçu la théorie de ces cercles élégants, dans la liaison de Lancelot et de Guenièvre. – C’est par la peinture de cet amour que le poème de Chrétien a eu surtout de l’influence: il a fait de l’amour courtois un élément presque inséparable des romans de la Table Ronde, et il a servi de modèle, en cela et dans plusieurs autres données, aux grands romans en prose de l’âge suivant, et notamment au Lancelot. (534)

This is only part of an escalation leading up to Paris’ conclusion, which returns to sources and the relative anteriority of different versions. The article’s main focus remains on the genealogy of the Lancelot textual family, praising the merits of Chrétien’s version at a stage when the later prose Lancelot was seen as the superior version, Chrétien’s often lumped together with the “barbarisms” of earlier medieval writing. However, the article remains interesting as a very early case of favouring one version over another on poetic grounds, rather than because it was older (the governing principle behind medievalists’ editorial decisions until recently).

I find some elements in Paris’ exposition of amour courtois extremely useful for making sense of love in other early medieval Romance literature, and I find them to be supported by my own readings of the texts he uses as evidence.

Those elements are:

  • connections between love, worth/virtue, and the acquisition of knowledge – linking goods erotic, ethical, and epistemological;

  • games: codified through ritualization, fictionalised, and in an ironic mode;

  • debate: including ludic role-play, interpretations or judgements, and a mood of fluidity about an idea that is up in the air and open to discussion;

  • ambiguity: openness or multiplicity of senses; such as the nature of love.

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 12.54.50 PM


Besides often being the unquestioned source for material evidence for medieval love (literary and, until a certain point, real-historical), Paris’ text forms the theoretical basis to all subsequent discussion of courtly love, whether in direct discussion, or indirectly as a critical influence. The course of the courtly love debate, with its various twists and turns, has led to theorizations on the nature of love in medieval literature; as a debate, this picks up the very aspect of questioning, discussion, and debate already present in Paris’ original article. A nice example of how late 20th-21st century theory can help in the understanding of earlier texts – medieval and 19th century – and notably contemporary, critically-aware medievalist philology.

The premise to the next half-century or so of courtly love discussion (until the 1960s), accepting Paris as authoritative, is that courtly love does exist in some literary texts, in a body of “courtly literature.” A first conflict is perceived between two sides of the love portrayed: sexual and adulterous, yet spiritual. A second conflict is between amorous relations in the real world and their literary representation.

What we might loosely term a “Christian school”, featuring C.S. Lewis, proposes that courtly love was misread as eros – carnal and temporal – whereas it is actually Pauline agape – a spiritual and abstracted love. The approach coincides with work on the 12th century Neoplatonic renaissance, and the contemporaneous new romance form as its literary expression – whether this Neoplatonist influence is seen as compatible or conflicting with Christian doctrine.5 Others have read this literature as a coded allegory for a purely spiritual illumination and translation to the Light: not a Catholic one, but either Hispano-Muslim – with links to Sufi poetry – or else Cathar, working with evidence for the Cathar perfeits (“perfect ones”) being chaste and associating with those of their own gender only, as part of their repudiation of the world (Darkness) and the worldly. This could parallel a similar reading of other ambiguously spiritual and carnal medieval lyric poetry, towards an ambiguous fusion of lady and Lady, the desired union being symbolic.6

In an intermediate school of thought, this “love” may have involved a sexual aspect, as a necessary step towards spiritual love and divine love: and thus towards truly knowing God’s love for the individual man, and being able to love Him back, in true knowledge. Of particular use as supporting evidence is the work of Bernard of Clairvaux, especially his Sermons on the Song of Songs, and its influence via Chartrean scholasticism on 12th century Platonism. Ecstatic religious writings of the larger period seem to combine the carnal and the spiritual in an ambiguous way: from earlier martyrs such as Perpetua; via mystical marriages to Christ such as those of Alexis and Foi; through to Margery Kempe; Marguerite Porete, and Flemish, French, and German Béguines; John of the Cross; and Henry Suso.7

The latter position is closer to Gaston Paris’ ambiguity on the nature of love. Both positions fall prey to the belief that love must either be sexual or not. Both also assume that a literary text necessarily reflects the real world and its practices, eliminating Paris’ suggestions on games and fictionalization, and the possibility that a literary text might represent an imagined ideal.

In the postwar period, a general shift may be discerned away from a religious focus and towards secularization; and away from a history centred on noble, epic, great men and dates, towards social and popular histories, and the sciences humaines. Good examples of this distancing, with reference to courtly and “romantic” love, may be seen in the works of Erich Köhler, Jacques Le Goff, Georges Duby, and R. Howard Bloch; and in their being influenced by anthropology, ethnography, and social and critical theory.8

Two aspects of courtly love are brought to the fore, as attributes more clearly reflected in historical fact. The first aspect is stereotypical misogyny – and the severe punishments for adultery (especially feminine) in the real world. Indeed, much of Gaston Paris’ original argument may serve a perceived need to have other elements temper the sensual, if this love is being actively associated with women. Women would naturally need an excuse or an exchange for carnal relations, which are after all possession by a man and not naturally welcome, enjoyable, or desirable. The second is a feudal parallel, as power-based relations between subservient postulant-lover and dominant prospective lady parallel those of feudal allegiance between that same lover and his over-lord. As the lyric lover often coincides with the poet, the relationship is also with his patron.

The materialist slant of these approaches risks returning literature to its 19th century position, as secondary to history, and source-material for that dominant form of knowledge. Love and courtesy are simply part of a behavioural code governed by power relations. The court remains an object of attention, as a historical and social entity. The court and its artefacts become disputed territory between historians and literary critics, affording little middle ground in which to have a foot in both camps. An interesting very recent case would be Fredric L. Cheyette’s book on the late 12th century court of Ermengard of Narbonne (2001): a work by a historian well-versed in Occitan literature, containing a short chapter on lyric poetry, interpreted with a materialist slant as a reflection of external social and political circumstances. The book has proven controversial, particulary this explosive chapter on literature, and instigated an intense and passionate correspondence in medievalist journals. Cheyette was the centrepiece in a roundtable discussion at the 2004 International Congress on Medieval Studies, pitting historians against literary critics. To the surprise of many in the audience, discussion was calm, and moved in the direction of harmonious interdisciplinarity as the way forward.9

While literary courtly love became increasingly divorced from historical reality, in the 1960s its very bases were questioned. Seminal essays against the very notion of courtly love appeared: by E. Talbot Donaldson (1965) and D.W. Robertson, Jr. (1962). The debate culminated in a conference at SUNY in 1967, papers from which were collected together and edited by F.X. Newman in 1968, including a revised version of Robertson’s 1962 essay. Courtly love was denied, accused of being an invention by Gaston Paris, of being impossible in medieval society and of never actually having been used in medieval literature: a 19th century literary-critical fiction.10

Robertson is absolutely right to point out that “courtly love” does not appear in Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot: the phrase is indeed never used, although “courtly” and “love/lover” do occasionally appear quite close together. “Courtly love” and correlates do, however, appear in medieval literature, and especially in Occitan. The other problem with attacks on courtly love is tied to the broader postwar critical shift and its attitude towards literature. While literary texts may provide historical evidence, they do not necessarily do so, as they are not necessarily intended as faithful representations of historical reality.

Indeed, over the course of the courtly love debate, a second critical narrative may be traced: approaches to the relationship between medieval literature and the medieval world, with various degrees of sophistication. A literary work is not a faithful historical description. Studies of personal names in a work (such as Flamenca) may succeed in mapping certain named persons onto real historical persons, but they could not all have coexisted at the same time.11 Contrast with historiographical accounts from the period, and with works featuring a fluid inclusion of both senses of “histoire,” and indeed an intermediate mythical zone of “fabula” – from hagiographies set in an indeterminate past, and the romans antiques, to Chrétien de Troyes’ romances. We are far from any “realism” and moving towards Jean-Charles Payen’s “irrealism.”12 While, as in any work through to the remotest futures of contemporary science fiction, there will always be some connection to the real world of a real external author; this is a work of imagination. As such, rather than offering verisimilitudinous representation, it may be exploring possible alternatives, ideal worlds, and questioning the necessity for things to be the way they are in the world, as they could quite reasonably be otherwise.

It looked as though the debate and courtly love came to an end in 1968. Debate about medieval love moved away from Gaston Paris’ article (apparently a lost cause) and back to the first principles of medieval texts. “Courtly love” disappeared from scholarly usage, replaced by fin’ amor – “fine love” – agreeable to all as it occurs frequently in medieval texts.

Yet courtly love had been and was defended, principally in France. These defences are included in Boase’s survey of courtly love scholarship up to 1977.13 Jean Frappier (1973) re-examined the disputed evidence in Chrétien de Troyes and re-defined the idea, though more as idea and less as a specific term.14 A further question arose, as to whether fin’ amor is synonymous with, or contrary to, courtly love. The shift towards using fin’ amor certainly seems connected to a scholarly inward shift. Charles Camproux (1965), Moshé Lazar (1964), and René Nelli (1963) produced earthy defences of a sexualized courtly love. Infused with Freud and Jung, this was a hermeneutics of fused poetics and erotics, whose final step, the joi d’amor achieving the desire in question, was transcendental orgasm. Fin’ amor was perceived as a religion centred around woman and her pleasure, or around the shared transcendental moment, thus rejoining Bernardine thinking linking sex and access to the Divine. Nelli’s work on literature ran parallel to his historical researches on the medieval Languedoc and the Cathar heresy.15

The literature of courtly love, and particularly Occitan lyric poetry, has been read (by the aforementioned scholars, for instance) as a coded guide to achieving the Cathar illumination. Two 13th century events pit the Church against Occitania; events affecting both religion and literature, and used as evidence for a connection between these two things.

Occitan amorous literature suffered somewhat of a demise in the early 13th century, with the Albigensian crusade, French invasion and (re)conquest of the Languedoc, and Occitan cultural obliteration and exile.

The turn of critical attention away from a universally orthodox Catholic medieval France and Europe, towards Cathar Occitania, is endemic of the aforementioned general postwar shift. It is also part of a second postwar broad intellectual trend, away from the catholic and universal (including other grand all-encompassing theories). A move away from orthodoxy and homogeny, and towards heterogeneity, difference/différance, marginality, fragmentation, and polysemies variously feminist, postcolonial, queer, and deconstructionist.

Courtly love has persisted in another thread of discussion (again, mainly in France). The key works have been mainly on Occitan lyric poetry, although not necessarily by Occitanists or even medievalists: Jacques Lacan (1959-60), Julia Kristeva (1983), Jean-Charles Huchet (1990-90), Reuben Cholakian (1990), and Slavoj Žižek (1994).16 Still essentially part of postwar secularization and sexualization, but this time purely via psychoanalysis, this has been a move away from “love” and towards “desire,” away from the external courtly and towards the internal, from history and into imagination and fantasy.

These recent moves – tied to différance, polysemy,and the imaginative realm – parallel those aspects of Gaston Paris’ ideas on love that had disappeared from discussions of medieval literature and love until recently: that is, ambiguity, openness and fluidity; and games, fictionalization, and imagination.

Beyond the postwar, into the postmodern, and back in the Anglo-American world, recent work on medieval literary subjectivity has paid particularly close attention to irony, subversion, and critiques of courtly values. With reference to Occitan, it would be important to cite the work of Linda Paterson (on rhetoric), Caroline Jewers (Bakhtinian parody), and Simon Gaunt (irony); more broadly (irony in medieval romance), Peter Haidu and Dennis Green.17 This critical strand has been a consistent one, over nearly four decades, and sees courtly literature as at once literature, literary criticism, and its own literary criticism.18

A recent contribution by Sarah Kay to the courtly love discussion (Krueger 2000) should be brought in at this point.19 She proposes that it not be thought of as a fixed idea and doctrine, but as a fluid “agenda,” a group of ideas:

The resulting drawback of these discussions [on what courtly love might be], in my view, has been their assumption that such love was susceptible of codification as a system of rules or doctrines. This essay will seek to locate “courtly love” more broadly as a series of questions which are debated across large numbers of texts, and which can be traced back to the tensions within medieval court life.
Sarah Kay, “Courts, Clerks, and Courtly Love” (81)

Kay’s agenda echoes Gaston Paris’ formula, la conception de l’amour courtois, returning the debate perhaps to its departure-point.Later in his text, the phrase appears in this form(532), emphasizing the distinction I drew earlier between a specific thing (and its possible appearance in texts) and a larger idea (of the thing). How far this was intended by Paris must remain uncertain, as he does also use the phrase amour courtois, but always in the sense of an idea. Courtly love is firmly connected to debate: this is the main plot line in Andreas Capellanus’ treatise, read as an amorous manual. The whole modern discussion of courtly love is an example of this exploration of ideas, in a seamless continuation of the medieval exploration. Like the medieval one, the modern debate reveals truths about contemporary ideas of love and other human relations, whose development may be traced through it.

Courtly literature, then, according to Kay’s view, would not be a doctrinal statement with characters and their tales as exempla, but an explorative, questioning, and (inter)active debate. She uses examples of particularly questioning – and playfully so – 13th c. romances, such as Flamenca and the Roman de la Rose (90-93), contrasted with two 12th c. points of reference, the romance polarizations of illicit and licit, marriage-centred love in Tristan and Eneas.

She sees the idea of courtly love as something more fluid; and courtly romance as an attempt to bring things together, a poetics of conflation: Christian/pagan; Celtic/Classical; courtly-chivalric/clerkly. Tensions exist between desire and obligation, between the internal and the external, and, in the courts themselves, between religious and secular. Romances of exploratory conflation bring together audiences that are otherwise thus divided by these tensions. It is currently reckoned that – whatever else might also have been happening with private reading – such works would have been performed to (a) group(s) at court, and discussed afterwards. This discursive, debating, engaged setting is exactly the kind of backdrop suggested by Kay’s idea:

[…] the way Gottfried represents love as in conflict with the demands of the outside world, but in accord with the dictates of a higher, more mysterious power, may be a means whereby the courtier poet defends a private space of inner sensitivity for himself against the constant public requirements of courtly life. […] But it also offers, I think, a way of combining the discourse of the lay and clerical constituents of the court in a way that is more risky, more uneasy, and perhaps for medieval audiences more exciting, than the manner pioneered by the Eneas. […] Thus whilst (in Jaeger’s terms) adultery may be a defense erected by the individual against the group, it may also be an attempt to address the group by negotiating the differences between its members.

Crucial to the framing of the agenda of courtly love, and probably responsible for composing the romances considered here, are the courtier-clerks […] The very fact of having more than one allegiance would enable them to distance themselves ironically from any debate. Thus they have composed a literature that contributes to the elegance of court society, through its polish, rhetorical proficiency, and refinement; that hints at unspoken and unspeakable depths, even though these may be a delusion created by the glitter of the surface; and that promotes a sense of consensus and cohesion whilst simultaneously retreating from it. Courtly love fictions encode the divisions and contradictions of court life, and the problematic status of the clerks who made their careers there. As a result, they are both resistant to definition and also powerful transmitters of their struggle with social tension. (93-94)

It may be observed that most of the last century’s discussion has been about an idea and theme of courtly love. Paris’ original paper is already along these lines. Most of the works cited above treat of courtliness, courtesy, and correlated concepts to do with the court, including investigating the actual appearance of these words in medieval texts; others do likewise for fin’ amor.

The material evidence for courtly love has been re-evaluated by Joan Ferrante (1980). She finds an instance of amor cortes in Flamenca (l. 1197, on which see further in, errm, O’Brien), and the amor and cortes lexemes in close proximity (albeit not in the phrase) in 12th century Occitan lyric (by Cercamon, Bernart de Ventadorn, Marcabru, and Peire d’Alvernhe), Chrétien de Troyes’ Chevalier de la Charrette and Yvain, Hueline et Aiglentine, and some later texts (by Dante, Petrarch, Cino da Pistoia, and Chiaro Davanzati).20 She examines how “courtly” is used in connection with “love” elsewhere in Occitan lyric materials (Bernart de Ventadorn, Raimbaut d’Aurenga, and the vidas), then moves on to the uses of cortesie in French romance (Brut, Chrétien’s romances, Marie de France, and the Roman de la Rose) and Italian lyric. Ferrante concludes that

In all the passages I have cited here, from several centuries of medieval poetry, the connection between love and coutliness is essential not accidental. It is not simply that courtliness is one facet of love, but that love is courtly. The two words “love” and “courtly” (or the corresponding noun, “courtliness,” “courtesy”) are combined so frequently and so emphatically that we are certainly justified in using the phrase “courtly love” to characterize the romantic love described in medieval lyrics and romances. Gaston Paris seems to have made a wise choice after all. “Courtly love” is not a figment of a nineteenth-century imagination, not simply a useful term which we choose to preserve, but a perfectly valid medieval concept. (695)


Now, I might have ended the talk here, with an idea of courtly love. But criticism has moved on further, of late; indeed, from journals and conferences over the last year, it would also appear that theory is dead (or perhaps, “dead”). This had been a rumour since Derrida’s death in 2004. While there are of course still theorists out there, there’s something else that is worth mentioning: philology might be back in vogue. Yes, we had had new philology along the way – a critically-informed sort of philology, trying to bring two apparently disparate fields together, with both their considerable assets for analysis and interpretation; and even the hardest-core of the New Philologists (such as Steve Nichols) still saw what they were doing as part of a fine old exegetical tradition.

More recently, there have been two major moves back to a more old-fashioned philology, in medieval romance studies. The first might – this is still a movement in progress, so forgive my temperance – but it might be a backlash against what is perceived in continental Europe as Anglo-American criticism. Scholars in Belgium, France, Germany, and Italy have continued to produce the kind of work which would not look out of place in an 1880s edition of Romania (this is as much high praise as it is a negative comment). What triggered my returning to Gaston Paris this year was reading reviews of a book that came out in 2004, by Ursula Bähler. Being large and dense might explain why the reviews have been slow to appear. To give you some general gist: it’s important because it manages to be several levels of biography at once, and includes some reference to Paris’ reception. Indeed, reception history and, more generally, context are crucial.

The second move is world-wide: nearly thirty years’ work in electronic philology and the digital humanities. I first met this phenomenon while working on the Princeton Charrette Project as a doctoral student (on the grammatico-lexical and adnominatio databases); and have also used the Anglo-Norman Dictionary and the CD-ROM (alas, neither online nor free) Concordance of Medieval Occitan. I should also mention the medieval linguistics and literature laboratory run by the CNRS in conjunction with the ENS at Lyon. These sorts of project enable a return to, well, good old-fashioned close reading, in a way that is very much closer precisely because it is “assisted.” And this is where we move back to Chrétien de Troyes, for the very end of the talk: because –aside from this idea of courtly love – there is actually some evidence for it in his works, including the Charrette:

A tant lors armes demanderenet
Li chevalier et si s’armerent.
Et lors
corteisie et proësce
Fist la dameisele
et largesce
Que quant ele ot asez gabé
Le chevalier et ranponé,
Si li dona cheval et lance
Par amor et par acordance
[= la d.]
Li chevalier congié ont pris
Come cortois et bien apris


Onques Amors bien ne conut
Qui ce me torna a reproche;
Qu’an ne porroit
dire de boche
Rien qui de par Amors venist
Que a reproche apartenist;
est amors et corteisie
Quanqu’un puet feire por s’amie.
Por m’amie nel fis je pas.
Ne sai comant je die
, las!

Ha! Gauvain, vos qui tant valez
Qui de bontez n’avez paroil
Certes, duremant me mervoil
Por coi vos ne me
Certes, trop i par demorez,
Si ne
feites pas corteisie
Bien deüst avoir vostre
Cil cui tant
solïez amer!

I read closely, specifically looking for our key terms and their derivatives (including cort itself; there is comparatively little corteisie to report, I’m afraid). Differentiating between simple single-word use, deployment in a set phrase, and similar set phrases lacking “corteis”. The latter were perhaps the most interesting case, making one wonder if “corteis” was implied – a cultural given, obvious, and unnecessary – or whether it had slipped out of currency.

Here’s what happens in wider usage: not just by Chrétien de Troyes, nor only through “literary” works: c/o the Anglo-Norman Dictionary entries on cort- and associates:

and-cort and-cort1 and-cort2 and-cort3 and-corteis and-corteisement and-corteisie

Here’s how the cort lexeme figures in Lancelot c/o the Princeton Charrette Project [WARNING: MANY SLIDES…]:

charrette-fig06a charrette-fig06b charrette-fig06c charrette-fig07 charrette-fig07b charrette-fig07c charrette-fig07d charrette-fig08a charrette-fig08b charrette-fig08c charrette-fig08d charrette-fig08e charrette-fig08f charrette-fig08g charrette-fig08h charrette-fig08i charrette-fig08j

Here are some basic kinds of usage of cortoisie:

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 12.55.02 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 12.55.13 PM

And then, outside the scope of this present piece (but being/been worked on elsewhere by yours truly and others…):

  • 2b) Context 1: Chrétien’s other romances
    Literary context:
    —transtextual …
  • 2b) Context 2: contemporary and surrounding literature
    —in French and in Occitan
    —mainly romance: for reasons of essential conjointure of the form, of its function, of aspects and elements, and topics and concepts such as amor cortes
    —contemporary lyric (ditto, and formal/functional experimentation in the late 12th-early 13th c.)
    —later usage: changes… for examples of which, see what happens in the Lancelot en Prose
    —curious incidents: parody, pastiche, and epigonal romance; meta-romance; super-books and the literary summa

Textual examples, categorised; or, the evolution of a quality via attribute, epithet, metonymy,… :


(fine and gorgeous…)

Ses fils et ses filles apele
Et il vindrent tot maintenant
cortois et avenant
Et chevalier et filles


Dit que cortois

Mes se vos le me disieiez
Grant corteisie fereiez
Si porreiz avoir grant preu
Qui estes vos et de quel leu?

(woman + speech)

Bele dame cortoise
Parlant en lengue françoise
(41-42; in
cort AND + CHI)


(+prowess/deeds + largesse + education)

Et lors corteisie et proësce
Fist la dameisele
et largesce

Par amor et par acordance [= la dame]
Li chevalier congié ont pris
Come cortois et bien apris


Filz, molt feroies que cortois
Se ceste anreidie lessoies.

Je cuit que Kex li seneschax
si cortois et si lëax
Que il n’an
fet mie a mescroire

N’est pas la novele cortoise
Qui la reïne cest duel porte
Neporquant ele s’an deporte
Au plus
belemant qu’ele puet


(+ debonair/seemly + loyal)

Molt me troveroie deboneire
Vers vos
et leal et cortois.


Ne vos an tieng or mie a sage
Ne por cortois
, si con ge suel

Car ce fai or tenir por sage
Et por cortois



ci dit li rois
Qui molt
estoit frans et cortois

Qui m’a mostré par sa pitié
Tant de dolçor et d’amistié

Onques Amors bien ne conut
Qui ce me torna a reproche;
Qu’an ne porroit
dire de boche
Rien qui de par Amors venist
Que a reproche apartenist;
est amors et corteisie
Quanqu’un puet feire por s’amie.
Por m’amie nel fis je pas.
Ne sai comant je die
, las!

Ha! Gauvain, vos qui tant valez
Qui de bontez n’avez paroil
Certes, duremant me mervoil
Por coi vos ne me
Certes, trop i par demorez,
Si ne
feites pas corteisie
Bien deüst avoir vostre
Cil cui tant
solïez amer!


Une dameisele venant
Molt tres bele et molte avenant
Bien acesmee et bien vestue.
La dameisele le salue
sage et bien afeitiee

Une bien afeitiee dame

Et deux filles gentes et beles

Si li dist come sage et cointe

Nul chevalier tant deboneire

There’s a strong association with the Queen, education/learning, san/sage/raison. Poetic usage: this is, after all, a poem. Allusion, and a mixture of compilation, substitution, and conjunction. Words used as structuring devices through the poem; ex. use of chiasmus. Adnominatio. Dramatic build-up also through structures of repetition, audience expectation, surprise, suspense: and build-up towards words. Condensation – conjointure – but also clusters, and particularly rich and dense parts (for various things, inc. Amors and cort– derivatives). Importance of derivation, conceptually: derivative ingenuity – and also all good deriving from the court, and/or love. Use of personifications; and the complaints – especially Lancelot’s last one, before the end of the Chrétien section (6166).

Moving from Corteisie to Amors: I’m not going to go through every single instance – we can return to them in subsequent discussion. I found three main patterns. First, Lancelot is commanded to do things by Love. Obviously, this is poetic licence and psychomachia – the poem is puncutated by discussions with, and amongst, Largesse, Pitié, Mort, and so on. But Love as personnification appears here in two sense which are tied to the court. First: amors is tied to reason (369), with the wording and syntax picking up the poem’s prologue: where the patron, Ma Dame (Marie) de Champagne, has commanded Chrétien to produce a book; and she will provide the matiere whilst he adds the san. This use will be picked up again with qu’Amors li comande (around 4412) and l’amor la reïne and her li mande, rhymed with de qu’ele le comande (around 5874). The courtliest link – I say this, as cortoisie does also mean “courtesy”, and I’d tend to use that as the principal sense – is around links between love and justice or jurisdiction: 717, 1245, 1250.

It is from Love that positive attributes derive (3745). One should do things for love – ambiguously, with love as the motive force, and/or asd the desired end result (3793). One ought to please one’s amie (3819). And (3965…) here we have a nice example of cortoisie, tied to acting like a fin amant, structured around spech by the king, and queen, and Lancelot. Around 4377, we find amors et corteisie tied together: it is open to interpretation whether what we have here is a repetition of synonyms for reinforcement, or the use of two linked concepts. The latter at the very least. 6504, similarly.

To my eye: the terms are connected, in a poetic manner, BUT part of a larger network of interconnected terms and repeated structures: this cannot be said to be a poem that is just about “courtly love” – or indeed principally about courtliness, or love. (I do think that courtesy is key, but that’s another story: I’m working on courtesy as a concept linking literature and ethics, especially through saying and doing.) The plot thickens when we turn to Chrétien’s other works: these reinforce the allusions embodied in corteis.

Yvain provides a beautiful exposition of the connection between love and courtesy/courtliness and fictionality/play/irrealism and play with realities, and it’s with that prologue that I shall end:

Li boins roys Artus de Bretaigne,
La qui proeche nous ensengne
Que nous soions preus et courtois,
Tint court si riche comme rois
A chele feste qui tant couste,
C’on doitnommer le Penthecouste.
Li rois fu a Cardoeil en Gales.
Aprés mengier, par mi les sales,
Li chevalier s’atropelerent
Ou damoiseles ou pucheles
Li un recontoient nouveles,
Li autres parloient d’Amours,
Des angousses et des dolours
Et des grant biens qu’en ont souvant
Li desile de son couvant,
Qui lors estoit riches et boens ;
Mais or y a molt poi des siens,
Qui a bien pres l’ont tuit laissie,
S’en est Amours mout abaissie ;
Car chil qui soloient amer
Se fasoient courtois clamer
Et preu et largue et honnorable ;
Or est Amours tournee a fable
Pour chou que chil qui riens n’en sentent
Dïent qu’il ayment, mes il mentent ;
Et chil fable et menchongne en font
Qui s’em vantent et droit n’i ont.
Mais pour parler de chix qui furent
Laissons chix qui en vie durent,
Qu’encor vaut mix, che m’est a vis,
Un courtois mors c’uns vilains vis.
Pour che me plaist a reconter
Chose qui faiche a escouter
Du roy qui fu de tel tesmoing
C’on en parole pres et loing ;
Si m’acoert de tant ad Bretons
Que tous jours mais dura ses nons ;
Et par lui sont ramenteü
Li boin chevalier esleü
Qui en amor se traveillierent.
(ll. 1-41, emphasis mine)

POSTSCRIPT (2015): a couple of points.

  1. A nice chiasmic structure, with a courtly frame abour Arthur, surrounding a centre about Love with a high density of “am-” and “cort-“. Right outside that centre, two items about direct speech and storytelling: fore, the telling of tales and news (noveles as both the “nouvelle” of a short story involving refashioning and novelty, and news/gossip) and discussion of l/Love by courtiers; and aft, an opinion on a dead courteous individual being worth more of a live boor. Live/dead around that centre of condensed love-and-courtesy; the live part about love (parloient d’Amours), its pair about courtesy (un courtois mors), both in live speech.
  2. Look again at the centre: in a great nostalgic grumble, not only is everyone and everything less than it once was, but Love it/himself has suffered. Love has been “turned in/to a fable” and/or “has become the subject-matter of fiction.” It’s a  satirical caricature of court life, now unreal, dreamlike, nightmarish (hello Flamenca); play-acting, nothing is real or true any more (hello e-zombie hordes of 2015 perpetually plugged into their e-devices and not living life, no senses engaged); play-acting, acting out phoney pseudo-lives following patterns seen in fictions (hello every soap ever, and hello again Flamenca).
  3. That centre has got something to say about reality and experienced reality–sentent / mentent–(and I’ll leave that one to the professional philosophers). It’s got something amazing to say. Several simultaneous amazing somethings, at least two of which seem contradictory but hey this is poetry, poetry that’s talking about mythopoesis and about itself, all very deliciously meta; so it can jollywell be more than one thing at the same time. It’s reflecting on writing and storytelling (se faisoient … clamer, dïent, font), about fables and lies, about fictiveness and fiction (the narratio fabulosa of Plato’s Timaeus), and the relationships between fiction and life, the tangled relations and stretchy transitions and overlaps amongst worlds. Like many another Chrétien prologue (and Marie de France, and of course others), a brilliant literary manifesto and critique, often both at the same time and within the same line or rhyme.
  4. Some great puns and inuendo. I mean, Li boin chevalier esleü / Qui en amor se traveillierent? LOL FTW.
  5. I’m always on the look-out for close proximities of “Amours” with ambiguous pronouns and with other persons or personnifications who could be amorous avatars, or otherwise confused or conflated. The roy here could at one moment–if you read the text aloud, as one would for any performance–refer to The God Of Love (or other “Amours” aspect) rather than to Arthur; then there’s a swing back to Arthur-allusion via the Bretons, who are themselves the living link that is continuity incarnate (very Marie), between Days Of Illustrious Yore and The Here And Now.

Et chil fable et menchongne en font
Qui s’em vantent et droit n’i ont.
Mais pour parler de chix qui furent
Laissons chix qui en vie durent,
Qu’encor vaut mix, che m’est a vis,
Un courtois mors c’uns vilains vis.
Pour che me plaist a reconter
Chose qui faiche a escouter
Du roy qui fu de tel tesmoing
C’on en parole pres et loing ;
Si m’acoert de tant ad Bretons
Que tous jours mais dura ses nons

There will be more (summer/fall 2015) On Ambiguous Love. Yes indeed.



1Reto R. Bezzola shifts the courtliness of courtly literature away from the royal courts and towards the feudal ones, particularly those of the Aquitaine, Poitou, and Anjou. Les Origines et la formation de la littérature courtoise en Occident (500-1200) (Paris: Champion, 1944-63).

2Roger Boase, The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), chapter II, “Theories on the Origin of Courtly Love”: 62-99. He also summarizes the theories of its meanings (up to that date) as collective fantasy, play phenomenon, courtly experience, stylistic convention, and critical fallacy (chapter III, “Theories on the Meaning of Courtly Love”: 100-16).

3Gaston Paris, “Études sur les romans de la Table Ronde. Lancelot du Lac: II. Le Conte de la Charrette.” Romania 12 (1883): 459-534.

4The date, circumstances, and reading of De Amore are still disputed. Modern interpetations tend towards seeing it as a playful work, perhaps indeed a satire or burlesque, rather than a serious codification of the laws of love. It is also more often interpreted as a fantastic fiction whose characters happen to coincide with historical persons such as Eleanor, rather than a historical account.

5Clive Staples Lewis, The Allegory of Love (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1936). Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Agestrans. Willard R. Trask(Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953. Alexander Joseph Denomy, “An Enquiry into the Nature of Courtly Love,” Mediaeval Studies VI (1944): 175-260; The Heresy of Courtly Love (New York: MacMullen, 1947).

6Denis de Rougemont, L’Amour et l’Occident (Paris: Plon, 1972; rev. of 1939 ed).

7Karl D. Uitti, in The Poetry of Love: Medieval Romance Lyric Song and the Invention of Love (unpublished notes, Princeton University graduate seminar, September 2000-January 2001).

8Erich Köhler, Trobador Lyrik und Höfischer Roman (Berlin: Rütter und Loening,1962). Le Goff, La Civilisation de l’Occident médiéval (Paris: Arthaud, 1964); Pour un autre Moyen Âge: temps, travail et culture en Occident (Paris: Gallimard, 1977); La Nouvelle histoire, edited with Roger Chartier and Jacques Revel(Paris: C.E.P.L., 1978, for the first edition). Georges Duby, Medieval Marriage: Two Models from the Twelfth Century, trans. Elborg Forster(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978); Le Chevalier, la femme et le prêtre. Le mariage dans la France féodale (Paris: Hachette, 1981). R. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1990).

9Fredric L. Cheyette, Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2001). 39th International Congress on Medieval Studies, University of Western Michigan, Kalamazoo, May 6-9, 2004; Session 504, sponsored by the Société Guilhem IX; presided by Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, with Fredric L. Cheyette, Eliza M. Ghil, William Chester Jordan, and Laurie Shepard.

10E. Talbot Donaldson, “The Myth of Courtly Love,” Ventures 5 (1965): 16-23, republished in Speaking of Chaucer (London: Athlone, 1970): 154-63. D.W. Robertson, Jr., “Some Medieval Doctrines of Love,” in A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1962): 391-503; “The Concept of Courtly Love as an Impediment to the Understanding of Medieval Texts,” in The Meaning of Courtly Love: Papers of the First Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, SUNY-Binghamton. March 17-18, 1967, ed. F.X. Newman (Albany, NY: State University of New York P, 1968): 1-18.

11The question of possible dates for Flamenca’s events (1193, 1223, 1234), then used to suggest end-dates for its composition, has generated a whole sub-field of scholarship. Events in Flamenca are strictly governed by the liturgical calendar, in cycles from one Easter to the next, and, especially, controlling the lovers’ meetings at Mass, in that first phase of their affair. The text clearly identifies the feast-days on which the lovers may meet, and equally clearly tells us how much time elapses between these days. Given the existence of church calendars, for instance in almanacs, one may work out the years in which the story could have taken place. Three principal contributions to the date-debate are: Charles Grimm, Étude sur le roman de Flamenca: Poème provençal du XIIIe siècle (Paris: Droz, 1930); Rita Lejeune, “Le Calendrier du Roman de Flamenca: contribution à l’étude de mentalités médiévales occitanes,” in Mélanges d’histoire littéraire, de linguistique et de philologie romanes offers à Charles Rostaing,ed. Jacques Caluwé et al (Liège: Marche Romane, 1974); “Le Tournoi de Bourbon-L’Archambaud dans le Roman de Flamenca: Essai de datation de l’oeuvre,” in Mélanges de philologie romane offerts à Charles Camproux (Montpellier: Centre d’études occitanes, 1978): 129-47. These have focused on the relationship between internal and external realities. Another approach is to move the emphasis from dates to the relationship between them, and the varying lengths of period elapsed. The timing of events – irrespective of whether or not it is meant to relate to an externally-real year – may be productively read as a narrative device, and a fine way of controlling pace and plot tension. Kay offers a literary interpretation of the calendar in “The Contrasting Uses of Time in the Romances of Jaufre and Flamenca,Medioevo Romanzo VI.1 (1979): 37-62.

12Payen 1978. One may distinguish degrees of irrealism: Béroul’s Tristan comixes Celtic elements; Marie de France’s Lais often do not name protagonists and set events in a vague past; a full irrealism would need complete spatial and temporal dislocation, or the dislocation resulting from mixing incongruous temporal and spatial elements. We cannot tell any more about the degree of Flamenca’s irrealism, as we are missing the beginning of Flamenca, in which we might have had a preface in which more details might have been given on temporal and spatial setting.

13In “I: Chronological Survey of Courtly Love Scholarship,” third section: “1900-1975”: pp. 26-61.

14Jean Frappier. Amour courtois et table ronde (Geneva: Droz, 1973). See also Karl D. Uitti’s critique of Newman: “Remarks on Old French Narrative. Courtly Love and Poetic Form,” Romance Philology XXVI (1972): 77-93.

15Charles Camproux, Le “joy d’amour” du troubadour (jeu et joie d’amour) (Montepellier: Causse et Castelnau, 1965). Moshé Lazar, Amour courtois et “fin’amors” dans la littérature du XIIe siècle (Paris: Klincksieck, 1964). René Nelli, L’Érotique des troubadours (Toulouse: Privat, 1963).

16Jacques Lacan, “L’Amour courtois en anamorphose,” in Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan. Livre VII: L’Éthique de la psychanalyse, 1959-60. Texte établi par Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Le Seuil, 1986): 167-84. Julia Kristeva, “Les Troubadours: du ‘grand chant courtois’ au récit allégorique,” Histoires d’amour (Paris: Denoël, 1983): 263-76. Huchet is responsible for some of the most ground-breaking recent work in this vein on Occitan literature, built around his doctoral work on Flamenca, such as its third wing (Huchet 1991) and Littérature médiévale et psychanalyse: pour une clinique littéraire (Paris: P.U.F., 1990). Rouben Charles Cholakian, Troubadour Lyric: A Psychocritical Reading (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990). Slavoj Žižek, “Courtly Love, or Woman as Thing,” in The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso, 1994): 148-73.

17Paterson 1993; Troubadours and Eloquence (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975). Jewers 2000. Gaunt 1989. Peter Haidu, Aesthetic Distance in Chrétien de Troyes: Irony and Comedy in Cligès and Perceval (Geneva: Droz, 1968). Dennis H. Green, Irony in the Medieval Romance (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979).

18Hermann J. Weigand, “Flamenca: A Post-Arthurian Romance of Courtly Love,” Euphorion 58.2 (1964): 129-52. Gordon M. Shedd, “Flamenca: A Medieval Satire on Courtly Love,” Chaucer Review 2.1 (1967): 43-65. Rolande Jeanne Graves, Flamenca: Variations sur le thème de l’amour courtois (New York: Peter Lang, 1983). Kathryn Annette Murphy-Judy, The Interjection/Exclamation of “Hai Las” in the Roman de Flamenca (Diss. U of Minnesota, 1986). Marie-Dominique Luce-Dedemaine, “Un nouvel art d’aimer, la contestation des valeurs courtoises dans Flamenca,Revue des langues romanes XCII.1 (1988): 61-75. Kay 1990. Jewers 2000. Constance L. Dickey, “Deceit, Desire, Distance and Polysemy in Flamenca,Tenso: Bulletin of the Société Guilhem IX 11.1 (1995): 10-37. Karen Grossweiner, Subjectivity and Voicing in Medieval Romance (Diss. U of Wisconsin-Madison, 2001).

19Kay, “Courts, Clerks, and Courtly Love,” in Krueger 2000: 81-96.

20Joan Ferrante, “Cortes’ amor in Medieval Texts,” Speculum 55 (1980): 686-95.



Anglo-Norman Dictionary:

Bähler, Ursula. Gaston Paris et la philology romane. Geneva: Droz, 2004.

Bezzola, Reto R. Les Origines et la formation de la littérature courtoise en Occident (500-1200). Paris: Champion, 1944-63.

Bloch, R. Howard. Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1990.

Boase, R. The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977.

Camproux, Charles. Le “joy d’amour” du troubadour (jeu et joie d’amour). Montepellier: Causse et Castelnau, 1965.

Cheyette, Fredric L. Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2001.

Cholakian, Rouben Charles. Troubadour Lyric: A Psychocritical Reading. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990.

Chrétien de Troyes. Le Chevalier de la Charrette (Lancelot). Ed. Alfred Foulet and Karl D. Uitti. Paris: Bordas “Classiques Garnier”, 1989. The edition, as well as all the manuscripts, are also online at

Chrétien de Troyes. Le Chevalier au lion in Romans. Ed. D.F. Hult. Paris: Livre de Poche “La Pochothèque”, 1994.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953.

Denomy, Alexander Joseph. “An Enquiry into the Nature of Courtly Love.” Mediaeval Studies VI (1944): 175-260.

The Heresy of Courtly Love. New York: MacMullen, 1947.

Dictionnaire électronique de Chrétien de Troyes

Donaldson, E. Talbot. “The Myth of Courtly Love.” Ventures 5 (1965): 16-23, republished in Speaking of Chaucer (London: Athlone, 1970): 154-63.

Duby, Georges. Medieval Marriage: Two Models from the Twelfth Century. Trans. Elborg Forster. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

Le Chevalier, la femme et le prêtre. Le mariage dans la France féodale. Paris: Hachette, 1981.

Ferrante, Joan M. “Cortes’ Amor in Medieval Texts.” Speculum 55 (1980): 695.

Frappier. Jean. Amour courtois et table ronde. Geneva: Droz, 1973.

Huchet, Jean-Charles. Littérature médiévale et psychanalyse: pour une clinique littéraire. Paris: P.U.F., 1990.

Kay, Sarah. “Courts, Clerks, and Courtly Love.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Ed. Roberta L. Krueger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000: 81-96.

Köhler, Erich. Trobador Lyrik und Höfischer Roman. Berlin: Rütter und Loening,1962.

Kristeva, Julia. “Les Troubadours: du ‘grand chant courtois’ au récit allégorique.” In Histoires d’amour. Paris: Denoël, 1983: 263-76.

Lacan, Jacques. “L’Amour courtois en anamorphose.” In Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan. Livre VII: L’Éthique de la psychanalyse, 1959-60. Texte établi par Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Le Seuil, 1986: 167-84.

Lazar, Moshé. Amour courtois et “fin’amors” dans la littérature du XIIe siècle. Paris: Klincksieck, 1964.

Le Goff, Jacques. La Civilisation de l’Occident médiéval. Paris: Arthaud, 1964.

Pour un autre Moyen Âge: temps, travail et culture en Occident. Paris: Gallimard, 1977.

Le Goff, Jacques, Roger Chartier, and Jacques Revel, eds. La Nouvelle histoire. Paris: C.E.P.L., 1978.

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Allegory of Love. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1936.

Nelli, René. L’Érotique des troubadours. Toulouse: Privat, 1963.

Newman, F.X., ed., The Meaning of Courtly Love: Papers of the First Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton. March 17-18, 1967. Albany: SUNY P, 1968.

O’Brien, Juliet. “Contexts poetic and erotic: trobar amor clusa e cortesa.” Ch. 1 inTrobar Cor(s): Erotics and Poetics in Flamenca.” Ph.D. diss., Princeton U, 2006: 27-143.

— “Reading (and) Courtly Love in Flamenca, via the Charrette.” In Dame Philology’s Charrette: Approaching Medieval Textuality through Chrétien’s Lancelot, Essays in Memory of Karl D. Uitti. Ed. Gina Greco and Ellen Thorington. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS) at Arizona State University, 2009.

Paris, Gaston. “Études sur les romans de la Table Ronde: Lancelot.” Romania 12 (1883): 459-534. Online at

Princeton Charrette Project:

Robertson, D.W. Jr. “Some Medieval Doctrines of Love.” In A Preface to Chaucer. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1962: 391-503.

— “The Concept of Courtly Love as an Impediment to the Understanding of Medieval Texts.” In Newman 1968: 1-18.

Rougemont, Denis de. L’Amour et l’Occident. Paris: Plon, 1972; rev. of 1939 ed.

Uitti, Karl D.Remarks on Old French Narrative: Courtly Love and Poetic Form (I).”Romance Philology 26 (1972): 92.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Courtly Love, or Woman as Thing.” In The Metastases of Enjoyment. London: Verso, 1994: 148-73.


  • “Losing Oneself, Being Found, and Finding One’s Own Way: Lancelot’s Adventurous Travel Without Maps”
    38th Annual Medieval Workshop, UBC
    Vancouver, 2009
  • Le non-dit in Flamenca: language, courtliness, and languages of courtliness”
    International Courtly Literature Society Triennial Congress
    Montréal, 2010
  • “The Trobairitz and Flamenca
    47th International Congress on Medieval Studies
    Kalamazoo, 2012
  • “La Consolation de l’amitié poétique au féminin dans le Roman de Flamenca
    Colloque SATOR
    University of Victoria, 2012
  • “Chat-up lines: the expression of feminine ingenuity in some Occitan hagiography”
    46th International Congress on Medieval Studies
    Kalamazoo, 2011
  • “The 13th-century Occitan Flamenca: a mere curiosity or a larger literary conundrum?”
    FHIS departmental research seminar
    UBC Vancouver, 2009

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s