Medieval England: Language, society and The Canterbury Tales #4

Philo MEHello and welcome to part 4 of Medieval England: Language, society and The Canterbury Tales.
In this part I’ll discuss the origin of romance as a genre and the famous Courtly Love.

But before I start on the topics above I have an announcement to make:
I started this series of Medieval England because my midterms were just around the corner and I was terrified. Now I can proudly announced that I passed with an 8.1!

However, let’s get down to business.


Let’s first explain romance as a genre. The genre is a very broad one and can’t be easily defined. Here are some characteristics so that you may easily recognise a romance story:

  • Idealistic stories, Ideals govern the plot and the characters are only there to show how great the ideal is.
  • Ethics and morals are more important than heroics.
  • There are always supernatural opponents and happenings making a romance super-realistic.
  • Ideals are above all else and so that highness is rendered by symbolic logic instead of realistic logic.

Nowadays these characteristics of the genre no longer fit a romance novel since these now tend to go about a comic love story. However these few general characteristics are important when you define the original genre of romance.
But where did this genre come from and what was the meaning of it in the Middle Ages?

Origin and Medieval Romance
Before the romance conquered the hearts of the English, from around 500-1100 CE the Epic had it all.
An epic was often about a person who would rescue his people against all odds in a physical fight with, for example, a dragon. There were ideals used in an epic, like everlasting glory and mutual relationships. A perfect example of an Epic is Beowulf (if you have not read it yet, do it now).

The origin of the Romance lies in France round and about 1150 CE.
These were usually long verses that later became prose and were written by clerks and minstrels.
When the French came to England in 1066, the feudal system was introduced and so the romance was not based on a mutual relationship but on the feudal system. There’s a hierarchy in every romance and there’s a new hero, no longer is the hero a strong man who fights to defend his people, now the hero is a knight.
There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for why the knight became the new hero; the first crusade.
The pope had ordered a holy war and, since most knights had more spare time on their hands since the French takeover, the knights went to war and so became the new example.
Knights created their own code of chivalry and later on a whole new genre would be created by the English clerks, who added the courtly ideals and so created Courtly Love (see more about this below). This code of chivalry was not just for fun but it was a social, religious and moral code, a code of honour. Of course the code could differ from one country to another but generally these were the ‘demands’:Prowess in battle, ritualized battle, loyalty, being helpful and tender, showing generous behaviour, being humble, defend the poor and vulnerable, Marian devotion (click here for more information).

I already mentioned some of the characteristics of the romance but it’d like to expand a little more on that topic.
Every age had its own sort of romance. Keeping to the general characteristics that I mentioned above that can mean that Folk tales and Fairy tales belong to this genre but also fantasy, horror and science fiction. Here are some more characteristics for the genre of romance:

  1. A larger world is portrayed, it is more than the everyday reality and so gives a heightened reality including fantasy/supernatural beings like elves, giants and aliens.
  2. Everything has a symbolic significance. This is not just for the special features but also for the everyday/ordinary aspects.
  3. They are idealistic. This means that virtues and ideals are shown in action.
  4. There’s a special narrative logic. Being that it’s completely illogical and unrealistic.
  5. And last but not least: a happy ending. This is needed because the virtue or ideal promoted in the story has to triumph against all odds to show that it’s worth living after this virtue or ideal.

As you can see these characteristics can appear in multiple other common genres like fantasy, mystery, horror, western, and back in the day almost all of these characteristics occurred in the romance of chivalry and Courtly Love.

Courtly Love

Woman have long been pictured as awful, dishonest and misleading beings who keep men from their true purpose. They were criticised by the men of the church and so courtly love is a complete opposite, where the woman (the lady) is idealised, she inspires the man and is worth worshipping.
In Courtly Love it’s the woman’s part to give her grace (her favour) and the man’s part to serve the lady in question.

Courtly Love started, as do most things in the Middle Ages, in France with the troubadours. These were medieval artist who usually played music or created poems and performed often for the aristocracy of southern France.
Now here in France there was a queen called Eleanor of Aquitaine and she was married to the French king Louis VII. (for a more detailed description of her life click on her name).
Eleanor became the patroness of Courtly Love. It is said that she was as educated as any man and that she was the example of a woman in Courtly Love.
She divorced her husband the king of France and married Henry of Anjou, becoming queen of England. This is how Courtly Love came to England and from that point onwards the clerks started to add and change things from the original French stories about Courtly Love.

What is Courtly Love?
It’s not sure that Courtly Love was more than a literal conviction.
Basically Courtly Love is the art of love in the Middle Ages and by using the word courtly it’s already obvious that this kind of love was practised by the aristocracy, not by the common people. It was a love of a so called higher level, an ideal love not meant for married couples but a secret kind of love.
Why not a love for married people? Because marriage in the Middle Ages, between a man and a woman belonging to the aristocracy in this case, was strictly business. It was meant for procreation and ‘adding territory’ as is were.

There was a whole courtly civilization, meaning that there was a code of chivalry, a need for good manners, courtship to a lady and there were law court (courts of love). But in the end all evolved around honour. For a man honour was the code of chivalry, honour was in manners (fair spoken, generosity and politeness), honour in gracious living (music, dance, poetry, dress and carving meat) and then there is honour for woman (chastity, obedience and fidelity).

To make in even more fun, there’s a whole guideline about what to do concerning Courtly Love. There are all kinds of stages one has to undergo before, in the end, the secret love triumphs and they live happily ever after.

Stages of Courtly Love
Attraction to the lady, usually via eyes/glance –> Worship of the lady from afar –> Declaration of passionate devotion –> Virtuous rejection by the lady –> Love-sickness –> Heroic deeds which win the lady’s heart –> Consummation of the secret love –> (Endless adventures and subterfuges to avoid detection)

Thanks you for visiting this 4th post about Medieval England and see you next time!


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