Back to top

Literature of Courtly Love: Introduction


1 Stevens, Music and Poetry, p. 191.

2 Stevens, Music and Poetry, p. 209.

3 Green, Poets and Princepleasers, pp. 127-28.

4 Green, Poets and Princepleasers, p. 114.

5 See Bates, Rhetoric of Courtship, pp. 6-44.

6 Stevens, Music and Poetry, p. 212.

7 Manning, "Game and Ernest," pp. 225-41.

8 Green, "Craft of Lovers," pp. 106-07.

9 Moore, "Some Implications," p. 231.

10 Moore, "Some Implications," p. 234.

11 Moore, "Some Implications," p. 237.

12 Oruch, "St. Valentine," p. 559.

13 Kelly, Chaucer and the Cult of St. Valentine, pp. 145-46.

14 Kelly, Chaucer and the Cult of St. Valentine, p. 144.

15 Norton-Smith, Bodleian Library, MS Fairfax 16, p. vii.

16 See Huot, Allegorical Play.

17 See Walsh, Love Lyrics.

18 Bayless, Parody in the Middle Ages, p. 3.

19 Hammond, English Verse, p. 208.

20 Bayless, Parody in the Middle Ages, p. 7.
Although many different kinds of works circulated with and became attached to Chaucer's name - allegorical, proverbial, monarchical, advisory, anticlerical, and didactic - most of the poems that accompanied Chaucer's works in fifteenth-century manuscripts and sixteenth-century print editions deal in some fashion with what is broadly categorized as fin amours or courtly love. The aristocratic amatory idiom is today considered one of the most influential and enduring literary legacies of the Middle Ages and most of the secular manuscript anthologies and miscellanies available in facsimile (particularly those produced by the Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer), which are heavily dominated by amorous subjects, suggest that the theory and practice of fin amours was a fetishized obsession among fourteenth- and fifteenth-century social elites. Indeed, emphasizing that courtly love was a trivial pursuit - "a pretense, a fiction, a game"1 - John Stevens suggests that from the late fourteenth until the sixteenth century what he calls the "the game of love," including reading and talking about love, and acting, playing, and emulating the lover, provided a primary form of polite recreation for "social play" and "social display."2 Although Richard Firth Green, in Poets and Princepleasers, his study of court literature in late medieval England, stresses the "relative unimportance of the literature of idealized love amongst the intellectual preoccupations of the late medieval nobility,"3 he nonetheless acknowledges that for aristocrats, gentry, and the merchant class, the fiction of courtly love offered a system of etiquette, polite behavior, and good breeding: "Since the capacity to experience exalted human love was, by definition in the middle ages, restricted entirely to the well-born, it followed that one way in which a man might display his gentility was to suggest that he was in love; thus the conventions by which this emotion was defined, originally pure literary hyperbole, became part of a code of polite behavior."4 Catherine Bates demonstrates that this code remained viable throughout the sixteenth century as "playing the lover" and "being a courtier" came to mean the same thing, especially under Elizabeth's reign.5 Beyond providing simple models of courtship and courteous behavior, the rhetoric of amorous seduction and compliment, with its emphasis on "flattering, dissembling, deceitful, and tactical discursive strategies," prevailed as an essential feature in the discourse of political courtiership.

The various genres represented here, ranging from the serious to the satirical, and the sentimental to the sophisticated, and including the panegyric, valentine, amorous complaint, lovers' dialogue, and sacred parody, attest to the diversity and flexibility of the literature of fin amours. Stevens complains that the writers of many love lyrics "have what amounts to a genius for the stilted and colourless," and In February, a lover's lament for his disfavor, appears to manifest the "drab lifelessness" he finds common to the genre.6 Inspired by French "marguerite" poetry and beginning with a panegyric to the daisy, the point of the complaint is not to dazzle the recipient or reader with its insight or originality but to display the writer's familiarity with rhetorical and poetic conventions, or to display what Stevens calls his "sentimental education."

A similar case is found with O Merciful and O Mercyable, a lover's plea for mercy from his disgruntled mistress. The first four stanzas are lifted from an unlikely source: an episode allegorizing Christ's atonement and the redemption of mankind found in the didactic dream vision The Court of Sapience. In the original poem, a personified Sapience relates to the dreamer the well-known story of the four daughters of God, in which two sisters (Mercy and Peace) plead with Truth and Justice for the release of Adam, God's disobedient and incarcerated servant. Our poet adapts the lines so that it is the lover pleading to Cupid for release from the prison of his love sickness. In keeping with his juristic theme, in which the lover plays the vassal begging for mercy from his sovereign, two other stanzas (lines 57-63 and 78-84) which also appropriate the language of feudal law and hierarchy are taken from The Craft of Lovers. Although for some modern readers these poems may seem to be marred by cliché and plagiarism, Stephen Manning reminds us that as with modern pop music, for readers of medieval love lyrics it was the expectation and gratification of the familiar that "creates a peculiar aesthetic pleasure."7

The Craft of Lovers, offering a "symilitude" (line 1) or representation of a conversation between a hopeful suitor and his chosen lady, was repeatedly ransacked by later writers. Again, the lover uses conventional rhetoric and tropes - showering his lady with hyperbolic praise, swearing his allegiance and fealty, bemoaning his pain - to express his desire. The lady, although clearly admiring his deft facility with the language of courtly seduction, is nonetheless wary and repeatedly pushes for clarity ("What is your wille?" [line 50]; "What is your name?" [line 80]). Somewhat surprisingly, the lover frankly admits to his carnal intentions, assuring her that she will not be disappointed since he is "Of mannys copulacioun the verray exemplary" (line 89). Even more surprising, given his somewhat crude veracity, the lady accepts his suit: "Unto your plesure I wold be at youre call" (line 137). The poem ends conventionally with the author hoping that his own "love elect" (line 170) will be inspired by the lady's example and will offer a similar remedy for his own amorous distress.

Although the lover's advances may seem somewhat artificial and hyperbolic to the modern reader, Green argues that the poem is a product of what he calls the Continental "second rhetoric" tradition. These "do-it-yourself manuals for the aspiring writer of courtly verse" provided models of "fashionable flirtation" and were characterized by "heavy polysyllabic and Latinate rhymes" and "pretentious classical and biblical name dropping."8 For the English aristocracy, the poem would have had an "aura of Continental sophistication," providing a "pattern-book for fashionable discourse." On the other hand, Arthur K. Moore instead reads the poem as a parody of ornate eloquence which exposes and satirizes the artificial conventions (the "craft") of amorous courtly discourse. For Moore, the poem claims our attention only as "a reaction against insipid courtly verse filled with denatured amour courtois and allegorical conceits,"9 and he contextualizes the dialogue as part of the tradition of antifeminist protest verse that "employs the devices of courtly panegyric ironically." From this approach, the lover's advances should be read as an "indictment of both chivalric pretense and rhetorical excess." In short, the dialogue represents "not only a keen analysis of courtly supplication but also a rejection of that artificial system of love which in the fifteenth century was, like chivalry, largely anachronistic."10 As such, the poem has a political valence as well, striking at the "pretensions of the nobility, who sought to sustain the faded flower of chivalry at a time when the larger frame that contained it, feudalism, was in rapid decline."11

Although one of the purposes of the dialogue is perhaps to contrast the impotent artificiality of the courtly idiom with the rhetorical efficacy of frank sensuality, the poem was nonetheless viewed as a fecund source of amorous diction by other fifteenth-century poets. Green has found no less than seven instances in which lines - and even entire stanzas - all spoken by the lover, were purloined and incorporated into conventional courtly lyrics. Even the lady's skeptical common sense is itself a rhetorical trope, found also, for instance, in The Court of Love (lines 841-1015). Nonetheless, the poem does offer an interesting example of the seductive dialogue and is perhaps best contrasted with Alan Chartier's La Belle Dame sans Merci in which the unsuccessful lover uses similar tactical rhetoric on his skeptical mistress but who never confesses the frank physical nature of his passion. Believing his own hyperbolic tropes, the lover in La Belle Dame, like Chaucer's Troilus, literally dies from his frustrated desire.

John Lydgate's speaker in The Floure of Curtesye also appears moribund, experiencing the common symptoms - ranging from listlessness to mortal anguish - elicited by his chosen lady's requisite "daunger." His suffering is exacerbated on the dawn of Valentine's Day as he witnesses the annual, ritualistic avian coupling in which the birds freely choose their mates. The spectacle invokes a lament familiar from Chaucer's The Parliament of Fowls that only man, of all species, and apparently against all laws of nature, is constrained to love in one, usually unreceptive, place. Nonetheless, although his case appears hopeless and he lacks literary skill, he composes a lengthy panegyric to his lady in which her beauty and virtues are favorably compared to those of famous women of history and legend. He closes with an encomium, well known to Chaucerians, lamenting his inability to imitate Chaucer's "gay style":
Chaucer is deed, that had suche a name
Of fayre makyng, that was, without wene,                   doubt
Fayrest in our tonge, as the laurer grene.
We may assay for to countrefete
His gay style, but it wyl not be!
The welle is drie with the lycoure swete,
Bothe of Clye and of Caliopé. (lines 236-42)
In this case, the fount of inspiration refers to the Valentine motif, specifically the association of the eponymous saint with spring, the mating of birds, and human courtship. Both Jack Oruch and H. A. Kelly trace the origins of this tradition - which became popularized in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries and which is found scattered among courtly writers such as Christine de Pisan, Oton de Grandson, John Clanvowe, Charles d'Orleans, and John Gower - to Chaucer's The Parliament of Fowls. Lydgate uses the motif in two other poems, A Kalendar and A Valentine to Her That Excelleth All, and despite his characteristic deprecations of his own literary craft, at least in this case the modesty topos is truly undeserved. Oruch describes Lydgate as the "chief innovator in the treatment of Valentine"; he is both the first to make the "name of the saint a label for a type of poem"12 and, according to Kelly, the first to use the term "Valentine" as a name for a sweetheart.13 Indeed, The Floure of Curtesye, a "tour de force" in Kelly's estimation,14 represents one of the best examples of early Valentine poetry.

Finally, The Lovers' Mass (also known as Venus' Mass), a lyrical parody of the first part of the Roman Mass, was once thought to have been by Lydgate, whose amorphous canon in the early twentieth century served as a convenient dumping ground for anonymous verse circulating in courtly anthologies and miscellanies. Although never printed as Chaucer's or attributed to Chaucer, the poem nonetheless has been categorized as a piece of apocrypha by Hartung's Manual of Writings in Middle English perhaps on the basis of its allusion to The Legend of Good Women or by virtue of its appearance in Bodleian Library, Fairfax 16, a mid-fifteenth-century secular verse anthology concerned "with sophisticated morality and the trials and tribulations of fin amors - those concepts and imaginative experiences which reflect the social and literary refinements of the 'lettered chivalry' of the time,"15 and which includes, in addition to works by Clanvowe, Hoccleve, and Lydgate, an impressive collection of Chaucer's minor poems.

In courtly love lyrics the conflation of profane and spiritual passion is a popular and widespread conceit, and sacred parody comprised of macaronic verse, incorporating Latin tags and phrases from the liturgy, is also quite common (see The Court of Love, and Lydgate's The Floure of Curtesye). Nonetheless, in the English vernacular tradition there is, to my knowledge, nothing quite like the ambitious and sophisticated parody of Roman liturgy found in The Lovers' Mass. Hammond points to some Continental analogues, such as Jean de Condé's Messe des Oiseaux ("Birds' Mass") and Suero de Ribera's Misa de Amores ("Lovers' Mass"). Sacred parody is found in ecclesiastical vocal music16 and individual prayers and hymns, such as the Kyrie Alison (IMEV 377) or the "Ave formosissima" ("Hail, most beautiful one"), a parody of the Ave Maria,17 are often adapted to secular, amorous themes. And in Parody in the Middle Ages, Martha Bayless describes a long and flourishing tradition of liturgical parody in Latin, especially Drinkers' and Gamblers' Masses. Many of these texts involve social parody, ridiculing vice or folly. The Lovers' Mass, however, which adapts its lyrics to the tone and mood of the Ordinary of the Mass, is closer to what Bayless calls textual parody, which achieves its effects by "imitating and distorting the distinguishing characteristics . . . of specific texts."18 In this case, Hammond notes that "[i]ts author is not merely dexterous and graceful in the complexities of the Kyrie, and aware of the clear singing quality of the Gloria-stanza, but he is sufficiently sensitive to make the change to the deeper slower seriousness of the Orison."19 Bayless finds that medieval parody is often not "the tool of the reformer, literary or social," and is "more often entertainment than polemic."20 And, indeed, the intent of The Lovers' Mass is less to ridicule the solemnity of the Mass than to humorously mock those who have made eroticism their religion.

The Texts and Manuscripts

In February (IMEV 1562) and O Merciful and O Mercyable (IMEV 2510), both first printed in John Stow's Workes of Geffrey Chaucer (1561), are based on the manuscript which he used as copy text: Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.19 (fols. 160r, 161r-v).

The Craft of Lovers (IMEV 3761), also first printed in John Stow's Workes of Geffrey Chaucer (1561), is found in three manuscripts: H (British Library, MS Harley 2251, fols. 52r-54v); A (British Library, MS Additional 34360, fols. 73v-77r); and T (Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.19, fols. 154v-156r). Stow's edition is based on T (see Edwards and Hedley, "John Stowe"). H and A, both dated 1460-70, are believed to have been written by the same scribe and copied from the same exemplar (see Hammond, "Two British Museum Manuscripts"). Although Bradford Fletcher suggests that "the readings of T[rinity] should be given the greater weight over those of HA" ("Edition of MS R.3.19," p. 346), it seems to me that the Trinity scribe often emends for clarity and simplicity (e.g., lines 18, 39, 57, 73, 101, 139, 161) although he does also manifest what appear to be superior readings (e.g., 46, 103). Since T is available in Fletcher's facsimile, I have used H (which seems to have fewer errors than A) as my base text for spelling and substantives, while substituting a few readings from T. A complete list of variants is found in the Textual Notes.

Lydgate's The Floure of Curtesy is based on the earliest extant text found in William Thynne's Workes of Geffray Chaucer (1532). The two previous editors of the poem, Henry Noble MacCracken and Walter Skeat, emend both substantives and accidentals for the sake of sense and meter. MacCracken's text is far more conservative; Skeat, for instance, restores earlier forms although he also drops the final -e when it is not sounded. I have adopted their emendations only to correct what appear to be clear substantive errors in Thynne's text. The Lovers' Mass (SIMEV 4186) is edited from the only extant manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Fairfax 16 (fols. 314r-317v). See Norton-Smith, Bodleian Library, MS Fairfax 16, introduction.

Go To In February