Courtly Love Conventions

Somewhere between the merry sensuality of Ovid and the ecstatic spirituality of Platonism is the tradition of Courtly Love. Courtly love resembles the Ovidian convention in that it is not supersensous: its aim is physical consummation, its object of love physical beauty. It differs from the Ovidian tradition in its interpretation of the nature of love. In the Courtly system, love is seen as an ennobling passion, the lady as an object of worship, and the conventions of courtship as religious rituals. The lady, furthermore, is venerated not simply as an ideal of physical beauty, but as an image or reflection of an ideal of spiritual beauty.


  • has its origins in southern France (12th century) and was celebrated by the poetry of the troubadours
  • idealized women — put them on a pedestal for worship
  • the lover was stricken by the beauty of his lady and he was ennobled by his feelings making him worthier of his venerated mistress
  • as marriage was still seen as business, love had to be found outside of matrimony, usually with someone else’s wife — adultery was glorified and romantic as opposed the arranged convenience of marriage
  • influenced by the medieval tradition of devotion to the Virgin Mary, but it became secularized in its evolution as the earthly mistress replaced the celestial goddess
  • the courtly love tradition spread to England and appears in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde — but the tradition does not really manifest itself in English literature until the 16th century (via Petrarch) in the sonnet sequences of Sidney, Spencer, and Shakespeare
  • there are four universal elements: (a) the four marks of courtly love are humility, courtesy, adultery, and the religion of love; (b) the love is desire; (c) it is an ennobling and dynamic force; (d) it generates a cult of the beloved

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