Medieval Courtly Love: Did Women Love Too?
by Cathy Cupitt

“Damsel, come forth! For I will make boast to defend it if anyone is so bold as to intervene. For no woman excels you in beauty or worth, in grace or honour any more than the moon outshines the sun.” 1

My critical discussion of Larry Benson’s paper “Courtly Love and Chivalry in the Later Middle Ages”2, is based on how useful I found it in relation to my proposed long essay question. The question is “In you view, how does Arthurian legend serve either to underpin or subvert its contemporary society”, and I want to focus on how women were represented in the legend, and how it corresponded to the culture of the day.

The notion of courtly love seems significant to me. The introductory quote from Chretien de Troyes “Eric and Enide” shows how the speech of courtly love was used as one of the main modes of interaction between the sexes in medieval Arthurian literature. My main reason for choosing to read Benson’s article was that I hoped it would reveal how the literature related to real medieval cultural practice – how women and men used courtly love.

Did chivalric courtly love exist in medieval culture, as it did in medieval literature? And if so what was it like? These are the questions that Larry Benson attempts to answer in this paper. In my opinion he only half succeeds in answering these questions, as the issue of women’s place in the culture of courtly love is not deeply explored.

Benson addresses the second question first, by discussing what courtly love is not. He argues that when it comes to the idea of courtly love:

Insofar as “courtly love” is used as a label for a code of courtly adultery, the whole idea is indeed a critical myth that never had much real existence in life or literature.3

The crux of his argument then, is that `courtly love’ was distinct from courtly adultery. His proof that `courtly love’ existed in the literature is a quoted stanza from Chaucer’s “Complaint to his Lady” 4. Of this quote he says, “Even the most casual reader knows that late medieval literature simply swarms with characters like this”5, characters who are playing out the role of courtly lover. A valid point I think. But does “even the most casual reader” know what the woman’s response was, or if she also was an active lover? These questions are not considered.

Benson then moves on to answer his first implicit question. Did chivalric courtly love exist in the late medieval noble culture? He attempts this in two ways. Firstly by linking the concept of courtly love to the idea that it was considered a source of chivalric virtue; and secondly by linking courtly love to the use of `proper speech’.

About chivalric virtue and courtly love he says there was a conviction that:

this sort of love is admirable – that love is not only virtuous in itself but is the source and cause of all other virtues, that indeed one cannot be virtuous unless he is a lover … the idea that love was the source of chivalric virtue becomes a commonplace not only in courtly romances and lyrics but even in the “nonfiction” of the time – in handbooks of conduct …6

Examples of a poem written by Edward III, an excerpt from the works of the biographer of Marshal Boucicaut, and a mention of the Literature of the Pulpit in Medieval England are quoted by Benson as supporting evidence.7 All of the lovers in this evidence are, however, male. Benson speaks of “young aristocrats”8 eagerly seeking to emulate literary models of courtly love, but he means young male aristocrats.

Moving on to the second point, he develops the theme that the “observance of verbal taboos” 9 was also due, in large part, to the idea of courtly love, and its corresponding courtly language.

… it is not often recognised that so far as out culture is concerned, this is the period [the late middle ages] in which the distinction between polite speech and vulgar, shocking words was first established.10

Established, he argues, to enhance the “eloquent expression of love”11. Benson goes into some detail in order to support this argument. He refers to personal letters and books of religious instruction to illustrate the use of `courtly speech’ – that is refined, unvulgar speech – in matters of courtly love.

This point of the essay is where my main concern with Benson’s argument lies. His evidence certainly seems to prove that men were deeply involved with the ideal of courtly love, as expressed by courtly language, but he produces little evidence that the women of the later middle ages were much involved. The one piece of evidence he has included is a letter from Margery Brewer to John Paston, which is indeed a fine example of love-lorn writing in the courtly style:

And there wotteth no creature what pain I endure;
And, for to be dead, I dare it not discure.12

Is this one piece truly representative of women’s participation in the language of courtly love? The article does not address this issue. However, this gender bias can perhaps be forgiven. Benson did after all entitled the essay “Courtly Love and Chivalry in the Later Middle Ages”, and one of the definitions of chivalry is “gallant warriors or gentlemen”13. It may also be possible that Benson had little women’s writing to draw from. However there were medieval women writers, whose writings have survived. Surely some of them wrote about their attitudes to courtly love? Finally, the paper was originally given as a lecture, so perhaps the confines of the oral format was partly responsible for the predominantly one gender viewpoint.

In conclusion, Benson argues that the “strange doctrine of chivalric courtship … fixed the vocabulary and defined the experience of lovers in our culture from the latter Middle Ages until almost out own day” 14, and he puts his case well. “Courtly Love and Chivalry in the Later Middle Ages”, is an interesting read, easy to follow, and logically constructed.

However, I don’t believe that it proves that the “doctrine of chivalric courtship” defined the experiences of all lovers in the middle ages. It does, rather, prove that it defined the experiences of men. The reader is still left with the unanswered question: Did Women Love Too?


Benson, Larry D.
“Courtly Love and Chivalry in the Later Middle Ages.” In Ed. Robert F. Yeager. Fifteenth-Century Studies: Recent Essays. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1984, 237-257.

de Troyes, Chretien.
“Eric et Enide.” In Ed. D.D.R. Owen. Arthurian Romances. London: Everyman’s Library, 1975, 1-90.

The Macquarie Dictionary.
Revised Second Edition. Macquarie University: The Macquarie Library, 1989.

End Notes

  1. Chretien de Troyes, “Eric et Enide,” in Arthurian Romances, Ed. D.D.R. Owen. (London: Everyman’s Library, 1975), p. 11.
  2. Larry D. Benson, “Courtly Love and Chivalry in the Later Middle Ages,”
    in Fifteenth-Century Studies: Recent Essays, Ed. Robert F. Yeager (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1984), pp. 237-257.
  3. Benson, p. 239.
  4. Benson, p. 239.
  5. Benson, p. 239.
  6. Benson, p. 240.
  7. Benson, p. 241.
  8. Benson, p. 241.
  9. Benson, p. 242.
  10. Benson, p. 242.
  11. Benson, p. 243.
  12. Benson, p. 252.
  13. The Macquarie Dictionary, Revised Second Edition (Macquarie University: The Macquarie Library, 1989), p. 333.
  14. Benson, p. 237.

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