Courtly Love – the libido tamed


Around the year 1170, Chretiens de Toyes completed his first romance narrative – the story of Erec and Enide. In this long poem, originally constructed in Old French, Erec (a knight) marries his beloved Enide, and feels such strong love for her that he begins to neglect his ‘manly’ duties. The story was new for its time, an emblem of intense, passionate love found within marriage. Typically, stories of this nature would have involved a hero in love with a woman already married, or a story about a hero and his forbidden unmarried lover. This narrative was avante garde for its time – the coterminality of love and marriage was not a common view…indeed, it was a rare one. However, devout Christian Chretiens was seeking to recreate an Arthurian romance which elevated love found within marriage, and his writing marks a shifting European culture which saw the advent of the first version of western love – courtly love.

Despite our 21st century perceptions, love has not always been associated with marriage in the western world. In Ancient Greece love was a valued concept, but Plato emphasised its value amongst male friendships, not marriage. Indeed, the presentation of love within marriage was seen as a bit superfluous – medieval European peasants created numerous songs and stories which mocked the very concept. While this is not to say that married love never happened – it is unreasonable to think it did not – it was not vogue, and was viewed as ‘unseemly’ if it was publicised.

The change in views towards love & marriage first arose around the 12th century, in response to long-held views regarding sexuality. Christian theologians, inspired by their beliefs in the effects of original sin, believed that sexual desire was a type of potent appetite which must be arduously avoided. This viewpoint surfaced during the Gregorian Reforms of the 11C, during which the church became institutionalised and celibacy became imperative for clergymen. Augustine of Hippo’s views concerning sexuality came into the fore, as he had once argued that Adam and Eve, because of the fall, had become polluted with sexual desire which could consume them.

It came to be believed in the 11C that even one instance of this practice within marriage could be severely potent – and jeopardise one’s soul. Of course this practice was necessary for reproduction, but its enjoyment was viewed as unseemly. Indeed, many people avoided marriage altogether in order to resist this dangerous practice, and those who did marry were extremely cautious with its restriction. Renowned Catholic St Jerome argued that marriage was simply the venue which made fornication official.


However, this was challenged by the 12C rise of ‘courtly love’. Courtly loved, advocates argued, provided an outlet for sexual desire which was pure. It offered a discipline to the ‘dangerous’ passions which were believed to cause potent damage in previous centuries.

Love was the solution to the problem of the sexual libido – it allowed it to be tamed and domesticated. This was ‘true love.’ And the story by Chretiens de Toyes illustrates the beginning of this viewpoint, the prelude to the romantic love which would develop in the 18C.


Walter Reddy, The Making of Romantic Love
Jean Claude KAufmann, The Curious History of Love
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage: a History


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