Reflect for a few minutes on the courtly love conventions we so often see in medieval poetry and prose. Knights pledge their undying devotion to their ladies, and they charge into battle looking at their lady's name on the inside of their shields. They fight and die for the honor...
Reflect for a few minutes on the courtly love conventions we so often see in medieval poetry and prose. Knights pledge their undying devotion to their ladies, and they charge into battle looking at their lady's name on the inside of their shields. They fight and die for the honor of their beloved. Ladies, for their part, send their chosen knights on all kinds of adventures, relying on them for rescue in times of distress and commanding them through the power of their virtue to live as honorable knights.
These courtly love conventions are common in the tales of King Arthur and his knights, in the lays of authors like Marie de France, and in many other medieval stories, but we must ask ourselves if they represent reality or if they are literary creations. For the most part, the latter is true. Literary courtly love traditions may have some foundation in real life, but even so, they are highly exaggerated, and medieval people knew that.
The courtly love tradition actually began as something of a joke. At the hearts of “courtly love” in reality was a game of attraction, desire, and even adultery. Married women strung along their favorite knights as knights tried to convince their ladies to sleep with them. At the heart of this game was often politics as knights competed for positions within a court and as ladies used their unofficial influence to lead their husbands to choose their favorites. Virtue and honor had little to do with it, but poets and storytellers chose to elevate reality to a high ideal, and the courtly love tradition was born.
The misunderstandings behind the courtly love tradition affected historians, too. Many took the presentations in poetry and stories to be historical fact when, of course, they weren't. This isn't to say that the occasional medieval knight and lady didn't have excellent motives and didn't practice honor and virtue. Some of them likely did. But overall, historians missed what the poets/authors were trying to do, so they misinterpreted the historical situation. Their misinterpretations solidified the popular view of the courtly love tradition and allowed it to reign supreme for many years.