How did a violent medieval Europe give birth to romantic ideas of honorable knights and courtly love? Assistant Professor of History Ada Maria Kuskowski covers this far-reaching evolution in her class Love, Lust, and Violence in the Middle Ages. Kuskowski, a scholar of legal history and culture, vernacular writing and translation, court culture, the crusading movement, travel, and cross-cultural contact, is working on a book, Law in the Vernacular: Composing Customary Law in Thirteenth-Century France, which examines lay juristic communities in Northern France.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, we sat down with Kuskowski for an overview on the history of love, literature, and law in the Middle Ages.
How did European society move from a brutal warrior culture to one that glorified the ideals of chivalry?
At some point in the late 11th and 12th centuries ideas about what it means to be a warrior start to change. Instead of just being really good at fighting, a man should use his fighting prowess in the service of others, especially the church, the needy, the poor, and women.
What led to this evolution?
A lot of these moral ideas come not from the knights themselves but from the church. In the 10th century, knight was a dirty word—someone who’s really good at fighting and who steals and burns things. They were kind of thugs. So you have movements in the 10th and 11th centuries that try to create rules of behavior. For instance, knights can’t do violent things on Sundays or against certain classes of people.
This has limited success, in the sense that when you start finger-wagging at people who are really strong and good at fighting they don’t necessarily listen to you. But also in the late 11th and 12th centuries is an incredible flourishing, first of epic literature, and then romance literature. Instead of finger-wagging, this provides examples of heroes who behave in these sorts of ways. The Song of Roland is one great example of epic literature. He’s a great fighter. He fights with such panache that only Hollywood would be able to replicate—completely unrealistic and kind of superhuman.
Then in the 12th century they add romance literature, which is literature in the vernacular, as opposed to Latin. This is when you start getting stories about knights falling in love and the idea that a knight, when he performs deeds of service to a lady that he loves, is ennobled by these acts.
We have great love stories from the Roman world, but they’re very much emotional stories. I think what the medieval adds is a Christian lens of a ennobling love. Part of becoming a great knight is to have love, but that love is not exactly the same as we would talk about today.
How was love defined during this period?
One of my favorite texts from the 12th century is called On Love, by Andre the Chaplain, or Andreas Capellanus in Latin. Scholars still debate whether this text is sincere or a satire, but either way it still provides a window onto medieval love. What he tries to do is synthesize ideas on love. So at the beginning he explains what love is, and he defines it as an “inborn illness.” Love is something so powerful that it makes you sick.
And then he provides sample dialogues. Today we’d say he basically provides 150 pages of pickup lines that depend on your status and the lady’s status. If you have a man of high status romancing a lady of high status, it’s going to take a very long time and be very intellectual, while a man of low status trying to romance a lady of high status has to address the problem of his class and say that class is not really social status, it’s a quality of the soul. A man can be high class on the inside, even if he’s not high class on the outside, to make himself palatable to this woman of higher status. However, a man of high status romancing a lady of low status more or less says, “Come here wench.”
At the end, Capellanus makes up an Arthurian story where the knight on the quest discovers a tablet that has the rules of love. One of the things students always find startling is that the number one rule on this tablet is that just because you’re married doesn’t mean you can’t fall in love. This is because of the realities of medieval marriage: it wasn’t about love. Families married each other to improve their social or economic wellbeing and for legitimate procreation.
So with a famous pair of lovers like Lancelot and Guinevere, Guinevere is in fact cheating on her husband with this knight. It’s one of the great love stories of the Middle Ages, and it’s valorized, despite a society that is so often characterized as dominated by religion. But it was not that neat, and there were always other ideals at play.
Why were these ideas able to flourish?
Continental Europe sees some hard times in the ninth and 10th centuries. They’re being invaded from almost every direction. They start growing out of that in the late 11th and 12th centuries, when we see a rise in trade, the growth of cities, universities developing. A lot of the war starts moving outwards, especially with the Crusades.
The other development is linguistic. Latin dominated most writing before the 12th century. Writing in the vernacular begins in southern France, influenced by the Muslim neighbors in Spain who have a rich tradition in romantic literature. It creates a fad throughout all of Europe. I think because they start writing in the vernacular, they start writing down the vernacular stories that regular people are telling.
There’s also something to be said about the role of women as patrons of some of these writers. While men were patrons of this sort of literature, so were women. For instance, Chrétien de Troyes is the first to write a real story of Lancelot and Guinevere. He’s also the first to write the story of Percival, which is where the Holy Grail comes in. One of his patrons is Marie of Champagne.
It’s important that these patrons were lay people. There’s a new lay universe that’s opening up and flourishing, and so they’re telling stories that reflect their values, their interests, and their culture. It doesn’t mean that church people are not involved. They’re furnishing a lot of these moral ideas.
And though the relationship between love and marriage is different than in our time, the ways in which people enact the love had a lot of similarities. You have to learn how to say the right nice things to your lover. It’s a good idea to give some sort of gift to your lover so they can remember you. At the same time, because love was outside of marriage, they were very interested in secrecy. The lover who exclaims his love in front of everybody, like in every rom-com, would actually be a bad medieval lover for revealing everything.
What other vestiges of that tradition are still present today?
The proposal of marriage today, at least in Western tradition, is modeled both on medieval knighthood and on medieval love. The knight is submitting himself to a higher authority, be it a lord or be it a lady in love. When a knight becomes the vassal of his lord there is an homage ceremony where the knight gets down on his knees, or on one knee. Medieval images of love also have the knight kneeling in front of his lady. This is exactly what people do when they get engaged today.
We also get love songs. They are written as poetry and supposed to be remembered and retold and sung. They tend to be about unrequited love, or love that’s been broken, or when you’re not near your beloved. Like today, if you turn on the radio, I feel like love songs are one-quarter happy, three-quarters suffering. I think there’s a human tendency to want to spill out the things that are troubling you, and the love song is one place where this happens.
I think we still carry a lot of these ideas of idealized medieval love in the way we think about love. There is still an idea of love as being something that ennobles, despite Andreas’ definition of love being pain. The idea that we’re somehow improved by it. Acts of generosity to your lover let you yourself become happier. That’s a very medieval notion.
What negative aspects of culture could be traced back to that era?
It’s funny because a lot of people talk about romance literature is being “chick lit,” but in the Middle Ages it is often written from the point of view of the knight. You might say that it is often about the man. It’s something that he does in order to be ennobled himself, so even the things he’s doing for somebody else have an inward kind of benefit.
And then there is the dark, or violent, side of “love.” Like I mentioned, in Andreas Capellanus, you would treat women very differently depending on class. And while rape is a capital crime in the Middle Ages in France, you have to prove it, which, as in modern times, is a huge problem because usually there are only two people there, so it becomes a case of “he said” “she said.” But this, of course, would go back much further than the medieval period.
So you did have these ideals of courtly love where women are valorized, but in practice … I don’t want to say women were treated like property, but they did have limited freedom. In law you need to obtain the woman’s consent for marriage, but sometimes a family would put a lot of pressure on her to do so. I think medieval women did live with a lot of coercion. Sometimes we can see it in the sources, sometimes less.
When did Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, originate?
Saint Valentine was a martyr in the Roman period who had nothing to do with love in the antique period as far as we know. In the very late medieval period, the 14th or 15th century, they start to put together his name with the idea of love. Chaucer mentions Saint Valentine and the idea of love together. Eventually people began writing a love note to a lover on Valentine’s Day. Margery Brews, for instance, wrote a note in 1477 to John Paston, who she called her “ryght welbelouyd Voluntyn.” That began at the end of the medieval period and since then grew into what it is today.