Where did the modern western concept of love come from? We tend to assume that it is a wholly natural part of human nature, but a look around pre-medieval and non-western cultures shows that it is neither inherent, nor anything to do with Christianity. Some authors have suggested that it has developed from the concept of courtly love, an invention of the Troubadours of the Languedoc.
Courtly love (or fin'amor in Occitan) was a medieval European literary conception of love that emphasized nobility and chivalry. A medieval literature developed, filled with of knights setting out on adventures and performing services for ladies driven by "courtly love". This kind of love was perhaps originally a literary fiction created for the entertainment of the nobility, but as time passed, these ideas about love filtered into real life. In the high Middle Ages a "game of love" developed around these ideas as part of refined social practices. "Loving nobly" was considered to be an enriching and improving practice.
Courtly love began in the Occitan speaking courts of Aquitaine and Languedoc/Provence, and later Champagne and Burgundy, then France, the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, England and Germany. around the end of the eleventh century. Courtly love contrasted erotic desire with spiritual attainment that was often contradictory - "a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent".
It seems indisputable that the idea of courtly love was developed by the Troubadours in and around the lands of the Counts of Toulouse and the Dukes of Aquitaine. It is also true that this development took place at the same time that Catharism eclipsed Roman Catholicism in the hearts of the people north of the Pyrenees, which was, perhaps coincidentally also the time and place that Jewish Kabbalah studies re-emerged into the light, and that the the the Tarot was created.
Perhaps more significant is the effect of Moslem Spain. At this same time, the twelfth century, the Duke of Aquitaine conquered territory south of the Pyrenees, and part of the booty was some 200 harem girls skilled in singing and poetry. The Duke was soon succeeded by William IX a young man who is now recognized as the very first troubadour.
Poets adopted the terminology of feudalism, declaring themselves the vassal of the lady and addressing her as midons ("my lord"), a standard code name so that the poet did not have to reveal the lady's identity, and which was flattering by addressing her as his lord. The troubadour's model of the ideal lady was a lady of higher status, usually the rich and powerful female head of the castle (usually the wife of the troubadour's patron or lord). She dominated the household of her husband's castle, not only when her husband was away on Crusade or other business but also when her husband was at home. As the lady was rich and powerful and the poet gave voice to the aspirations of the courtier class - only those who were noble could engage in courtly love. This new kind of love saw nobility not based on wealth and family history, but on character and actions, with an obvious appeal to poor knights who saw an avenue for advancement.
At the time marriages - especially among royalty and nobility - had little to do with modern concepts of love. So courtly love provided a way for nobles to express love not found in their own marriage. "Lovers" in the context of courtly love need not necessarily refer to sex, but rather the act of emotional loving. These "lovers" had short trysts in secret, which escalated mentally, but at least in theory not physically, though frequent references to beds and sleeping in the lover's arms in the troubadour albas and in romances such as Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot imply at least in some cases a context of actual sexual intercourse. Incidentally the very word romance is a reference to the Occitan language, known in medieval times as the "Roman tongue". The first romances were troubadour works, written in Occitan, describing courtly love.
The rules of courtly love were codified by the late 12th century in Andreas Capellanus' highly influential work De amore ("On Love"). De amore lists distinctive rules such as:
- "Marriage is not a good excuse for not loving"
- "He who is not jealous cannot love"
- "No one can be bound by a double love"
- "When made public love rarely endures"
Much of the structure and sentiments of De amore were derived from Ovid's Ars amatoria. ("The Art of Love"). We will probably never untangle the various threads leading to the development of courtly love and hence the modern western concept of love, but a good start is provided by Denis de Rougement, Love in the Western World.
I was plunged into deep distress
by a knight who wooed me,
and I wish to confess for all time
how passionately I loved him;
Now I feel myself betrayed,
for I did not tell him of my love.
therefore I suffer great distress
in bed and when I am fully dressed.
Would that my knight might one night
lie naked in my arms
and find myself in ecstasy
with me as his pillow.
For I am more in love with him
than Floris was with Blanchfleur.
to him I give my heart and love,
my reason, eyes and life.
Handsome friend, tender and good,
when will you be mine ?
Oh, to spend with you but one night
to impart the kiss of love !
Know that with passion I cherish
the hope of you in my husband's place,
as soon as you have sworn to me
that you will fulfill my every wish.