What does the phrase “Medieval Period” make you think of? The words tend bring up a lot of images in a modern reader’s head – knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, and terrifying quests involving magical beasts. And of course there were the troubadours – poets and minstrels whose sole job was to wander around castles and other stately places singing. And what is a common topic of their songs? Why, love, of course. Songs and poems of the time can be found to describe the great beauty of a woman or the beautiful sting of a heart pierced by an image of the beloved’s face. This is the time of courtly love.
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What is this idea of “courtly love?” It is the story of a suffering lover who is seeking the love of an unattainable lady, who is usually an overly idealized member of the aristocracy. The lady is always beautiful and usually married, and her lover must admire her from afar. Scholars add a bit more detail to this definition: there is a conventional, cut-and-paste description of the lady – she has fair skin, is blond, has perfectly pearly white teeth (which would have been a sign of great genetics in this world without modern dentistry), and has a small waist. Also, the lady’s neck is often described in an erotic way.
One thing pointed out by scholars specializing in the time period is that “courtly love” is a modern invention. There is no indication that the original audience for medieval texts would have had any inkling of the overlapping themes that we now categorize as courtly love. We have no way of knowing if it was an established genre or if it was meant to be taken seriously. Now, we look back at these texts of courtly love and fantasize about how romantic it must have been, but there is no reason we should take these fictitious pieces as an example of how love actually worked in the medieval world. Just because Gawain got his love affair in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does not mean that a real knight would have been after the love of a married lady.
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Romance specialists today also point out that the courtly love story that we associate with the medieval period is not the same thing as a medieval romance. In a Medieval Romance, the protagonist (who is usually a knight) goes on a quest, encounters fantastical elements, and has to overcome great obstacles. Sure, there is often a love interest involved, and she may even be the reason for the quest. But the romance is about the quest, not the damsel in distress. While Gawain does sleep with his host’s wife, that is not the main plot of the story. The story is about his quest and his encounters with the Green Knight.
So why should we care? The obvious answer is that the texts can serve as a warning: we can learn from the character’s mistakes. But there is another warning: the romance in life is in the journey. Don’t worry about who you’ll marry. You have time for that. Enjoy the journey. And read something. Books are a great way to pass the time.