Knights and ladies in medieval Europe lived by codes of chivalry and virtue. In their world, “romance” evoked much more than a feeling of affection or sexual love. Often these works by poets such as Petrarch and Dante emphasized the lives of the brave fighting knights, the popular heroes of the day. In this great “romance” literature, love is idealized and spiritualised. Its power inspires shining knights and melancholy young suitors alike to feats of fidelity and, usually, chastity. While not perhaps in keeping with Valentine's more amorous traditions, in medieval chivalry, the greatest love was one yearned for, yet unrequited.
Knights and ladies in medieval Europe lived by codes of chivalry and virtue. In their world, “romance” evoked much more than a feeling of affection or sexual love. Often these works by poets such as Petrarch and Dante emphasized the lives of the brave fighting knights, the popular heroes of the day. In this great “romance” literature, love is idealized and spiritualised. Its power inspires shining knights and melancholy young suitors alike to feats of fidelity and, usually, chastity. While not perhaps in keeping with Valentine's more amorous traditions, in medieval chivalry, the greatest love was one yearned for, yet unrequited.

© 2004, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Ivory Casket with Scenes from the Romances

Ivory Casket with Scenes from the Romances



This celebrates the virtues of courtly love by commemorating scenes from Le Roman de l'Alexandre (imagining the ancient general's humility, one of the tradition's perennial themes), Tristram and Isolde, King Arthur's round table, and the unicorn and the maiden.

The British Museum
c. 1325–1350
Carved elephant ivory with silver mounts
21.2 x 12.7 x 7.3 cm.
M&ME 1856,6-23,166
© The British Museum


For indeed I knew
Of no more subtle master under heaven
Than in the maiden passion for a maid,
Not only to keep down the base in man,
But teach high thought, and amiable words
And courtliness, and the desire of fame,
And the love of truth, and all that makes a man.
(Alfred Lord Tennyson, Guinevere, lines 474-80)

The ideal of courtly love is espoused in Roman de la Rose, one of the great “Romances” of 12th-century France. In the Roman the poet is admitted to a garden with a magic pool. Reflected in the pool is a rose bush. He longs to pluck a single flower, evading the thorns and uniting with the beauty of the rose. The story is the defining allegory for the plight of the knight (poet) and the lady (rose). The French ideal of courtly love described the situation of the knight in service to an unattainable lady, often the wife of his lord, in a chaste but romantically idealized and infinitely noble relationship.
For indeed I knew
Of no more subtle master under heaven
Than in the maiden passion for a maid,
Not only to keep down the base in man,
But teach high thought, and amiable words
And courtliness, and the desire of fame,
And the love of truth, and all that makes a man.
(Alfred Lord Tennyson, Guinevere, lines 474-80)

The ideal of courtly love is espoused in Roman de la Rose, one of the great “Romances” of 12th-century France. In the Roman the poet is admitted to a garden with a magic pool. Reflected in the pool is a rose bush. He longs to pluck a single flower, evading the thorns and uniting with the beauty of the rose. The story is the defining allegory for the plight of the knight (poet) and the lady (rose). The French ideal of courtly love described the situation of the knight in service to an unattainable lady, often the wife of his lord, in a chaste but romantically idealized and infinitely noble relationship.

© 2004, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Shield of Parade: 'You or Death' — An Image of Courtly Love

Shield of Parade: 'You or Death' — An Image of Courtly Love



The depiction of the knight kneeling before his lady recalls the golden age of courtly love. The scroll above the knight's head declares the knight would rather die than not win the lady's love. By glorifying the potential dangers of chivalrous love (personified by the figure of Death), the tradition of courtly love emphasizes the transitory nature of death, and the stability of divine love in the life to come.

The British Museum
Late 15th Century
Leather-covered wood
H: 83 cm
M&ME 1863,5-1,1
© 2004, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
• Describe how romantic love has been an inspiration that has influenced literature in most cultures through the ages.
• Explain how literature has represented the ideal that love reveals and redeems the individual
• Describe how historically the notion of romance was broader than physical attraction and reached higher meanings such as courtly love in Medieval times and passionate and divine love in Biblical themes


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