A Matter of Britain
Queen Guenever introduces the Court of Romance to Arthurian Britain. This event marks the start of the popular activity of fine amor, or “courtly love”—a principle decree of which is that it is the duty of women to flirt with well-spoken guests and to receive flattery from them. In short, courtly love allows a character to gain Glory for romantic affairs.
Fine amor is an invention of ladies and poets to recognize and reward “the fairer sex.” It is love for love’s sake—romantic and passionate love that must be contrasted to the emotionless, political attitude of arranged marriage. Some have argued that courtly romance gave social power to women who previously had none (or at least very little).
The experiment was utterly novel at the time, though we may feel it is trite now. How much of it was merely a parlor game, a petty conceit for the debutantes, a castle-bound girl’s Dark Age soap opera of dreamy emotional outlawry? It is hard for us today to tell these things. Was fine amor ever actually practiced? Yes, we know it was. We have records of some historic knights who did the ludicrous and dangerous things demanded by it. Although these may have been isolated cases, they were nonetheless talked about and admired by many contemporaries.
In time, Guenever’s Court of Romance is transformed into formalized social events known as the Courts of Love. She and selected court ladies preside, with everyone else as audience. Women may come to this court to inquire of the rules, to complain of their lover (who nonetheless remains anonymous, of course), and/or to receive the judgment of the court whether an action—“a theoretical activity, of course…”—is romantically “correct” or not. If the Court of Love condemns an affair, or any activity involved in the affair, it might even rule that the love must be ended!
Part of the allure of courtly love is its forbidden nature. It is directly opposed to the sacrament of matrimony, for “True Love” is liberating while matrimony is bondage. Thus the most intense of all romances involves a married woman cheating on her husband. The purity of their bliss sets both lovers free from the gross material concerns of the world and places them into that rarefied realm of emotional commitment. The fact that adultery is forbidden by both Church and State makes its consummation all the sweeter.
But courtly love is not just the work of a back-door man—simple lust is only a base reflection of True Love. Courtly romance is delicate and formalized, and its practitioners are required to go through the stages outlined in The Romantic Affair.
Troubadours are an important part of the romantic scene. They write and sing passionate songs that praise a lady’s beauty, grace, generosity, and chastity. The poems are often disguised, using the names of ancient lovers so as not to name the lady directly. Thus the poet pretends to be entertaining everyone, but in secret sends his love and messages to someone in the court.
There are a number of behaviors expected of men in courtly romance. Firstly, men must adore women in word, thought, and action, with an overwhelming preoccupation. When problems occur and only failure and frustration ensue, the doting man must be nourished by his agony until love becomes the all-encompassing passion of his life.
In fine amor, men are subordinate to their lovers, vassal to his lady. This humble and submissive attitude of the lover was an idea entirely new to its time, when patriarchy was otherwise unshakable and no doubt insufferable in both social and clerical circles. The deliberate role reversal was a reaction against the bondage imposed by prevailing attitudes. It exalted Love, transforming it into something new.