Andreas Capellanus Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Andreas Capellanus fl. 12th century-

(Also known as André le Chapelain; Andreas the Chaplain) French prose writer.

Capellanus is best known for his Liber de arte honeste amandi et reprobatione inhonesti amoris (c. 1185; Book of the Art of Loving Nobly and the Reprobation of Dishonorable Love), a Latin treatise on the practice of courtly love. Commonly referred to as De Amore, or The Art of Courtly Love, the work explicitly lays down the rules to be followed while engaged in this adulterous romantic pursuit. Since the book was written at a time when society's attitudes towards women and love were undergoing rapid transformation, it is an important historical document on changing mores. When its logic and rationality are read as satire, as some modern readers have done, the book also constitutes an amusing entertainment.

Biographical Information

Virtually nothing is known of Capellanus. While prevailing thought is that he served as chaplain to Countess Marie of Champagne, there is no factual evidence to support the assertion. Some assumptions about his life can be made based on reading De Amore, but even that may lead to faulty conclusions if the book was, in fact, intended to be satirical. Capellanus was certainly well versed in Ovid's writings and critics have demonstrated that he used the Ars Amatoria and the Remedia Amoris as models for his book.

Major Works

De Amore consists of some two hundred pages and takes the form of a letter of advice from Capellanus to his friend Walter, who is most likely a fictitious creation. The treatise, divided into three parts, sets down the principles of courtly love promoted by Marie and her mother, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. In the first volume Capellanus explains what love is, its effect, and how to acquire it. He also provides examples of several dialogues between men and women of various classes—for instance between a man and a woman both of the middle class; a man of the higher nobility and a woman of the simple nobility; a man and a woman both of the higher nobility; and other combinations. The examples are intended to provide instruction about how to act suitably in certain social situations. In the second book Capellanus explains how to keep love once one has gained it, how to nourish it, how it can decrease; and how it can end. He addresses the matter of unfaithfulness, and writes about various romantic decisions made by Marie in her legendary Court of Love. Finally he lists thirty-one rules of love. Among them: “He who is not jealous cannot love”; “When made public love rarely endures”; “The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized”; and, “A new love puts flight to an old one.” In the third book Capellanus explains why everything he has said about love so far should not actually be practiced. He stresses that the point of the previous two volumes was simply to explain the theory of love so that, in refraining from following it, one may gain in God's eyes: “For God is more pleased with a man who is able to sin and does not, than with a man who has no opportunity to sin.”

Critical Reception

Barbara Nelson Sargent has studied contemporaneous response to Capellanus's treatise, particularly that of Drouart la Veche, who translated the original Latin prose into vernacular French verse. She contends that Drouart enjoyed the message of the first two books but that critics err when they believe that Drouart found the treatise funny. Not everyone enjoyed the message: the work was condemned in 1277 by Bishop Stephan Tempier on the grounds that it claimed something could be philosophically valid, but conflict with religious principles. Modern scholars disagree on whether the Christian message of the third book is meant to be taken seriously: some believe Capellanus sincerely attempted to harmonize courtly and religious love. Much of the focus of Capellanus studies is on reconciling the third book with the first two. Some critics choose to believe that Capellanus was sincere in the first two books and cynically appended the third book to try to avoid having the preceding ones banned. Ohers think that Capellanus was sincere in the final book; still others posit that he was being ironic; and one group advocates viewing all three books an elaborate humorous exercise. Modern thought regarding this issue leans toward viewing the work ironically. Don A. Monson specifically addresses the issue of irony and how what is meant by that term has changed considerably over the centuries. Catherine Brown embraces De Amore 's contradictory messages and contends that they are teaching devices used by Capellanus to promote intellectual and spiritual development. Besides Capellanus's huge debt to Ovid, critics have traced ideas found in the treatise to Plato and to Ibn Hazm. Andreas's influence on works by Geoffrey Chaucer and Juan Ruiz has been examined by critics Thomas Jay Garbáty and Dorothy Clotelle Clarke, respectively. Scholars including Richard A. Koenigsberg study the treatise for what it reveals about the Court of Love, an institution which continues to fascinate the general public even though the Court may have been no more than a literary creation.