The Art of Courtly Love

Sneaky Sex

Posted Feb 14, 2014

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s Valentine’s Day, and it’s snowing. No problem. I’ve curled up with a box of chocolates and a couple of good books. Today, they’re all about courtly love.

Back in the 12th century, in the age of the Crusades, at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughter, the countess Marie of Champagne, Andreas Capellanus wrote a book about love. He talked about how upwardly mobile courtiers ought to approach members of the opposite sex. Getting friendly with a farmer’s wife was easy enough: “Be careful to puff them up with lots of praise and then, when you find a convenient spot, do not hesitate to take what you seek and embrace them by force.” But making love to one’s betters was another matter altogether. It was important to go to church often, be generous and honest, not be a fop or laugh too much, and above all to provide an important service—“be courageous in battle,” for instance. The grail at the end of every knight’s quest was an heiress.

And it was obvious that courtly love had nothing to do with husbands and wives. Countess Marie of Champagne laid those ground rules herself. “We declare and we hold as firmly established that love cannot exert its power between 2 people who are married to each other,” she wrote. Courtly love was about getting cuckoos (see etymology of “cuckoldry”) in other birds’ nests. 

Consider Tristan. “No youth was so blessed with looks or had such beautiful manners,” but Tristan was an orphan—Mark of Cornwall’s poor, landless nephew. One day, Mark made Tristan his heir; but later on, he changed his mind. Tristan was sent to Ireland to bring back his uncle's bride. And on the way home, he took a poke at Isolde himself. “Each looked at the other and spoke with ever greater daring, the man to the maid, the maid to the man. Their shy reserve was over. He kissed her.”

Or consider Lancelot, the best of all Round Table knights, who fell in love with king Arthur’s wife. A discouraging word from Guenever would drive Lancelot out of his mind; but he got superhuman strength from her come-hither glance. “He grasped the iron bars, strained, and pulled until he had bent them all and was able to free them from their fittings,” were the words of Chretién de Troyes, another of Marie of Champagne’s friends.  “The queen stretched out her arms toward him, embraced him, clasped him to her breast, and drew him into the bed beside her.” 

Or, consider dung beetles. Onthophagus acuminatus lives in Central America's lowland tropical forests, where it feeds on the feces of howler monkeys. Some O. acuminatus males, the big ones, tend to grow long horns; but other O. acuminatus males, the small ones, don’t. The horned beetles guard entrances to tunnels where females lay eggs, but occasionally, small beetles sneak in. Sometimes, they creep by when the horny guards are distracted. Other times, they work underground: most little dung beetles tunnel in from the side.

Andreas Capellanus drew a line between what he called “pure” love, which omitted the final solace and went on increasing without end, and what he called “mixed” love, which culminated in the final act of Venus and lasted only a short time—often with pangs of regret. If the poets who wrote at Marie’s court, and afterward, were right, regret was the usual outcome. Paternity would have been confused.


Andreas Capellanus. The Art of Courtly Love, translated by John Jay Parry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Emlen, Doug. 2014. Extravagant Weapons: The Story Behind Arms Races in Animals and Men. New York: Henry Holt.