The Rules of Courtly Love: A journey to avoid the modern romance novel.


I went on a quest to find Courtly Love and found only that there were rules. The history was harder to find, except they that follow them are fools. Highborn or Low, Swift or slow; the gifts were the same and yet, the pageantry was more beautiful than the stars above when they were first in the heaven’s set.


In my quest to find out what Courtly Love was all about; the internet brought up many, many sites for my perusal. Much of it was tripe, and so off to the library, I went. The many books available were mostly Romance Novels. Again tripe, but you know it’s still something to read and it was still something to read back in the middle ages…Roman de la rose, Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura, Dante’s Divine Comedy being a few of the romance novels of their time…

In the modern romance novels, we find the theme. The uncaring Lord marries his Lady she then falls in love with the Knight/Troubadour/stable hand…etc… Or, The Lady is widowed when her Lord goes off to war and his Liege Lord sends his replacement to woo her and wed her. Or is it the other way around? After some difficulties both fall in love and wed and all ends well and happily ever after and all that rot…Who here wants to barf at the thought? I know after reading the tripe I did. So I set off in search of real historical research to wet my appetites.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

This amazing woman came into her inheritance over two illegitimate younger brothers in a time when sons illegitimate or not were getting control of the fortunes of their fathers over daughters. Her father on his deathbed sent messengers to the king of France, who surprisingly enough was also on his deathbed; to beg him to protect his daughter and the lands she was inheriting. That king then betrothed Eleanor to his son of the same name Louis. To make sure that the marriage went off without a hitch he sent his son to his bride with two bishops and an army, and after they were wed gave in and left this mortal coil. Eleanor’s husband then became King of France and the Aquitaine and other fine holdings were brought under the control of France.

After many adventures, squabbles and a crusade the married couple were seen to have difficulties and even after having several children together could not keep their marriage off the cliffs. Upon doing some research the king found out that they were too closely related, which suited both of them in order to gain a divorce. The king divorced her and took custody of their children and Eleanor got her lands and holdings back. She met Henry, future king of England and jumped in with both feet in love. Again with the marriage to a headstrong but well-made youth? Eleanor, you cougar you! With this marriage came sons and daughters, dynastic fights and imprisonments, just what you’d find in modern romance novels eh? Tired of the squabbling yet Eleanor?


In 1168, Eleanor of Aquitaine left the court of her husband Henry II and took up residence in her ancestral lands of Poitou. Having served as viceregent for the king in England, she had no difficulty pursuing her duties as a ruling duchess, and she wielded the power of a feudal lord and accepted the responsibilities that went with it. With a clever hand and a shrewd eye, she turned a district that had been on the periphery of events for forty years into the center of financial and social life.


As a result of this sudden burst of activity, Eleanor’s court in the city of Poitou drew vassals paying homage, squires training to be knights, young ladies acquiring their education, and visiting future kings and queens related by blood or marriage to the duchess. Because she was a woman of renowned beauty, charm, and style as well as extraordinary humor and iron willpower; the poets, chroniclers, musicians, philosophers, artists, and literati who always flocked around her also congregated at Poitou.


It was out of this heady mix of royalty and romance that the movement of courtly love emerged. That’s what the history books say; however, her father (William X, Duke of Aquitaine) had been one who aspired to the philosophy of Fin’ Amours or Fine Love which had been developing in the Occitan through Troubadours and writers since the 11th century. Her Own Grandfather William IX, Duke of Aquitaine was a poet and troubadour. He was also a womanizing pig according to some of his contemporaries, but usually, this was said in admiration.


There was very little that was new about courtly love (amour courtois). Poetry devoted with great ardor to a beloved lady had flourished in the Arab culture for centuries. The “courts of love,” where suitors would seek advice on matters of the heart from the queen while the king ruled over his courts of law, had also been around for quite some time in literary tradition. New rules of etiquette were already on the rise among the elite, though they were the source of much amusement and scorn from the rugged fighting men of the nobility. The cult of the Virgin was rising in popularity. And tales of Arthur and his knights, so inextricably woven into the fabric of chivalry and courtly love, had been circulating for years.


Nevertheless, this point in history was the supposedly defining moment of courtly love — its time to flourish — thanks to the dream of one woman and the literary work of one man.


The woman was Eleanor’s daughter (from her previous marriage to King Louis VII of France), Marie de Champagne, the man was a clerk known as André the Chaplain (André le Chapelain or Andreas Cappellanus), who had worked at the king’s court and may have accompanied Marie to Poitiers in her employ. Marie (supposedly) set him to work writing a handbook on a code of behavior concerning love. André took as his model, perhaps at her suggestion, Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (“the Art of Loving”). Ovid’s work concerns how to seduce a woman, and among its rules are appropriate forms of dress, approach, conversation, and toying with a lady’s affections, all designed to amuse. In the Ars Amatoria, the man is in control, and the woman is simply his prey.


But André (very likely at the command of his employer) turned the Ars Amatoria inside-out. In his Liber de Arte honest amandi et reprobatione inhonesti amoris (“Book of the Art of Loving Nobly and the Reprobation of Dishonourable Love”), the woman becomes the mistress of the game. It is she who sets the rules and passes judgment on the hopeful suitor. In Ovid’s work the lover sighs with passion for his pursuit, but in le Chapelain’s Liber the passion is pure and entirely for the love of a lady. It should be understood that Andre wrote his treatise for the courts of the king of France, where Eleanor was not in high esteem, and there have yet to be found any letters or documentation of Marie ever visiting her mother in Poitou.

The rules outlined in André’s work are in many ways far-flung from the reality of the times. In the medieval world, women rarely had any power to speak of (Eleanor was a notable exception) due to the church’s teachings. The nobility were warriors, and the arts of war, leadership and politics occupied their minds. More often than not, a nobleman thought of his wife (or future wife) as a breeder, a servant, and a source of yearly monetary gain. There are of course the rare exceptions, such as Eleanor and several nuns and mother abbesses.


The Troubadours were welcomed from town to town singing the songs of love to lords and ladies at the courts, bringing news of the different affairs and disastrous star-crossed loves that were going on so far away. In a time where learning to read and write was not so common, minnesingers would often memorize their poems and songs. After literacy became a little more common, they wrote their own books of songs and poetry and published them but few remain behind as famous as the Codex Mannesse.

The Codex Manesse is an anthology of the works of a total of about 135 Minnesingers of the mid 12th to early 14th century. For each poet, a portrait is shown, followed by the text of their works. The entries are ordered approximately by the social status of the poets, starting with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, Kings Conradin, and Wenceslaus II, down through dukes, counts, and knights, to the commoners.


Most of the poems are Minnesang, but there are also other genres, including fables and didactic poems.

The oldest poets represented in the manuscript had been dead for more than a century at the time of its compilations, while others were contemporaries, with the latest additions of poems being written during the early 14th century.

In the portraits, some of the nobles are shown in full armor in their heraldic colors and devices (therefore with their faces hidden), often shown as taking part in a joust, or sometimes in single combat with sword and shield, and sometimes in actual battle.


Some images are motivated by the biography of the person depicted, but some designs just draw their motif from the poet’s name (thus, Dietmar is shown riding a mule, since his name can be interpreted as meaning people’s horse, while others draw on imagery from their lyrics (Walther von der Vogelweide is shown in a thoughtful pose which exactly matches the description of himself in one of his most famous songs).


On the giving of gifts to one’s inspiration


There were even rules about what one could give to one’s lover. Seriously, rules about accepting a gift from a lover. If they got greedy it looked bad on not only the lady but on the knight who gave the gift. Throwing pearls before swine, so to speak.

“A lover may freely accept from her beloved these things: a handkerchief, a hair band, a circlet of gold or silver, a brooch for her breast, a mirror, a belt, a purse, a lace for clothes, a comb, cuffs, gloves, a ring, a little box of scent, a portrait, toiletries, little vases, trays, a standard(flag) as a keepsake of her lover and to speak more generally a lady can accept from her lover whatever small gift may be useful in the care of her person or may look charming or may remind her of her lover; providing however that in accepting the gift it is clear that she is acting without avarice.” Andreas Cappellanus



How a court of love was constituted


The rule was that all the ladies who composed the courts should be married or widows.

Another principle of selection was that they should belong to the high noblesse of their district. It appears that there was no exact regulation regarding the number of ladies in a court of love. As a general estimate, the number of ladies in the court ranged from ten to sixty, and most of the time was probably of an average of these numbers.


The court of love was not always composed exclusively of ladies. Upon request, the trial could be held by the seigneur of the district, who pronounced the decree necessary “with the advice of his council,” composed of gentlemen like himself. But such cases were exceptions, and the general rule requested that the judges be chosen from the ladies of the district, with one of them appointed the president.


A court of love took its name presumably, from the leading lady or lord who was the highest authority such as the Court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Court of the Countess of Champagne, and so on.


To obtain the judgment, the complete assent of all the ladies or lords present was necessary. The leading lady of the district had to summon a sufficient number of ladies who were specially chosen for the function and were the recognized members of the court. Once the court of love was appointed, the ladies met to hear the complaint made and the cause pleaded in due form before them.


In the end, the court of love tried to legislate upon all questions concerned with what was at the time a subject of culture, art, and elegance: love.

It should be noted however that even with literary sources giving us fictional proof of courts of love, there are no documental sources to show that these courts existed in reality. No letters, or court documents which can give us a shred of proof. We are left with our imaginations and Medieval Romance Novels to give us a picture of what they aspired to, and dream of having such wonder and beauty in our lives.


There are rules for everything in this fictional world of the courts of love, have you noticed the theme yet? The rules can be followed, but on breaking them your honor is forfeit. Does anyone want to go on pilgrimage, it’s safer to navigate the pilgrim’s roads than the rules of the court of love.


According to William Allan Neilson-

There are 12 statutes of the court of love;  commending the virtues of Generosity, constancy to one only, truthfulness, secrecy, obedience, modesty, courtesy, moderation, the forbidding of slander, babbling, the seducing of another man’s mistress and holding intrigues with a woman whom one would be ashamed to marry. The longer set of thirty-one rules is not so high in moral tone, professing to have a higher authority.

These are the rules, I leave them here, where they belong; at the end because in the end we are left with rules to lead us along a pathway to the gentler, though stranger world of chivalry, honor and courtly conduct between the men and women of the middle ages.



  1. Marriage should not be a deterrent to love.


  1. Love cannot exist in the individual who cannot be jealous.


  1. A double love cannot obligate an individual.


  1. Love constantly waxes and wanes.


  1. That which is not given freely by the object of one’s love loses its savor.


  1. It is necessary for a male to reach the age of maturity in order to love.


  1. A lover must observe a two-year widowhood after his beloved’s death.


  1. Only the most urgent circumstances should deprive one of love.


  1. Only the insistence of love can motivate one to love.


  1. Love cannot coexist with avarice.


  1. A lover should not love anyone who would be an embarrassing marriage choice.


  1. True love excludes all from its embrace but the beloved.


  1. Public revelation of love is deadly to love in most instances.


  1. The value of love is commensurate with its difficulty of attainment.


  1. The presence of one’s beloved causes palpitation of the heart.


  1. The sight of one’s beloved causes palpitations of the heart.


  1. A new love brings an old one to a finish.


  1. Good character is the one real requirement for the worthiness of love.


  1. When love grows faint its demise is usually certain.


  1. Apprehension is the constant companion of true love.


  1. Love is reinforced by jealousy.


  1. Suspicion of the beloved generates jealousy and therefore intensifies love.


  1. Eating and sleeping diminish greatly when one is aggravated by love.


  1. The lover’s every deed is performed with the thought of his beloved in mind.


  1. Unless it pleases his beloved, no act or thought is worthy of the lover.


  1. Love is powerless to hold anything from love.


  1. There is no such thing as too much of the pleasure of one’s beloved.


  1. The presumption on the part of the beloved causes suspicion in the lover.


  1. Aggravation of excessive passion does not usually afflict the true lover.


  1. The thought of the beloved never leaves the true lover.


  1. Two men may love one woman or two women one man.











The Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature: Vol. VI The sources and origins of the Court of Love by William Allan Neilson

The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus; translated by John Jay Parry

Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings by Amy Ruth Kelly

The Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor

The Medieval Art of Love: Objects and Subjects of Desire by Michael Camille