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Courtly Love's Effect on Modern Romance

I am a freelance editor of novels, long-time English teacher (30+ years!), and published multicultural novelist.


Knights in armor, jousting, damsels in distress, heroic quests, grand banquets—this is the essence of romance in the Middle Ages.

As in modern romance, there were “rules” governing how men and women behaved in relationships. By examining the 31 rules of courtly love, readers can discover how much romance has changed and to what degree over the last 800 years.

Louis VII marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine ... and then sailing off to the Crusades.

Louis VII marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine ... and then sailing off to the Crusades.

The idea of courtly love received a great boost from Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122/24-1204), “The Grandmother of Europe,” who led an amazing life. She married Louis VII of France at the tender age of 15 and bore him two daughters. After fifteen years of marriage, Louis VII had their marriage annulled.

Eight weeks later, Eleanor married Henry II of England, a man nine years younger than she was, and eventually gave birth to three daughters and five sons, three of whom would one day be king. Henry II, who was quite a philanderer, would later imprison Eleanor for fifteen years until her son Richard the Lionhearted rescued her and set her up as queen regent. She would outlive all but one son, King John of Magna Carta fame, and one daughter, Eleanor, Queen of Castile.

Eleanor, then, was well qualified to define courtly love and make a list of romantic rules.

The Palace at Poitiers, France

The Palace at Poitiers, France

The Legendary "Courts of Love"

Legend has it that Eleanor, her seventeen-year-old daughter Marie de Champagne, and Isabelle of Flanders held “courts of love” in Poitiers, France, from 1168-1173. Some scholars claim these courts never existed because only Andreas Capellanus, a writer in Louis VII’s court where Eleanor wasn’t welcome anymore, mentioned them in The Art of Courtly Love. Whether these women sat on a dais schooling a group of uncouth courtiers or not, we have the results of whatever happened in Poitiers: the rules of courtly love.


Let’s first look at the court of love’s definition of courtly love:

Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love’s precepts in the other’s embraces.

Love and suffering seem to go hand-in-hand in modern romance, but the 12th Century definition borders on obsession, not love. This kind of love involves “excessive meditation” and wish[es] above all things the embraces of the other.” It almost sounds like stalking, the kind of extreme love found in Jagged Edge and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.

Courtly love also seems shallow, superficial, and sensual since it focuses on “the beauty of the opposite sex” and includes a great deal of embracing. Perhaps it’s the “bodice ripping” kind of love found in so many romance novels today. Despite its obsessive qualities, this definition of love is as reasonable as any other definition, because whether you’re in love or out of love, you do experience a fair amount of suffering.

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The Rules of Courtly Love

Let’s look at the list of 31 “rules” Eleanor’s court allegedly produced. I have grouped similar rules to simplify analysis.

1. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.

Writers of romance often describe “the chase” (courting) in exciting, glowing terms but describe marriage in humdrum, negative terms. Why don’t the excitement and glow continue after the wedding? Shouldn’t they continue? Or is the marriage and all it entails less important than what leads up to it in modern romance?

2. He who is not jealous cannot love.

21. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.

22. Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.

28. A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved.

They must have been flirtatious in Eleanor’s court. To put rule #2 another way, “He who is jealous can love.” One lover trying to make another jealous seems to be a staple in modern romance. According to this rule, however, those who play these mind games truly love each other. Playing on a lover’s jealousy to solidify a relationship and using jealousy to keep a lover seems foolish and counterproductive. Does jealousy increase love, or does it increase feelings of distrust? Isn’t trust an integral part of love? Perhaps these rules speak more about the passion associated with jealousy, the idea that a lover is willing to do almost anything for his or her love. Trying to make someone jealous seems like a petty way to find true love, and yet modern romance still contains this peculiar ritual.


3. No one can be bound by a double love.

31. Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women.

According to the court, it is fine for a man or woman to be loved by two people, and the object of the “triangle” is under no obligation to be “bound.” Some folks like the idea of the love triangle, because by the end of the novel or the movie, tension builds until someone has to make a choice. Is it the same in real life? Can a woman or man in the modern world truly be in love with two people at the same time? Is a love triangle fair to anyone in the triangle? The average person has enough trouble finding one true love in this life. Romance writers will most likely continue to exploit this tradition because the more people in and out of love, the better.

4. It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing.

19. If love diminishes, it quickly fails and rarely revives.

Two people who truly love each other should come to a stasis or balance, shouldn’t they? The roller coaster ride of “s/he loves me, s/he loves me not” is over or should be over because they’ve come to rest in each other’s love. If these statements are true, lovers must always be trying to increase the love in any relationship. That doesn’t sound feasible or possible. All lovers have their down days. Perhaps this rule is a warning to any couple that loving someone is work. If these two pessimistic rules are 100% true, I doubt that anyone could stay in love.


5. That which a lover takes against the will of his beloved has no relish.

The word “relish” back then meant “enjoyment or release.” Thus, if a lover takes advantage of another—sexually or otherwise—it should gain that lover no enjoyment or release. This rule completely contradicts the Fifty Shades of Gray paradigm. I know there are different strokes for different folks (pun intended) when it comes to love, but many romance novels and movies have brutish men “taming” their women by the last page. Do modern women really want such a brute for a lifelong lover? Eleanor’s court would say, “No.”

6. Boys do not love until they arrive at the age of maturity.

The age of consent in the 12th Century was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. If boys in that time didn’t really love until they turned 14, what constitutes maturity for a boy or man in the 21st Century? Is it 16, 18, 21, 25? Is it possible that some men never reach any age of maturity? Eleanor’s court believed that no boy or man could really love anyone until he matured. When is a modern man mature enough to love a woman, and why would any older woman (cougar) want a younger, more immature man if he is not capable of truly loving her?

7. When one lover dies, a widowhood of two years is required of the survivor.

This “rule” would continue into the 19th Century in England and in the United States with widows wearing dark clothes for up to four years and staying out of the public eye for one full year. Queen Victoria wore her “widow’s weeds” for 40 years from 1861 until her death in 1901. How “traditional” should romance be in this modern age? Is there still a waiting period before someone is “allowed” to “get back in the game”?

8. No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.

Eleanor’s court may have been examining the excuses lovers often use to be away from their loves. In my lifetime, I have heard: “I have to do my hair … I’m visiting my sick grandmother in the hospital … I’m really tired … I have such a bad headache.” If lovers make excuses for withholding love, do they really love each other? I have noticed that readers of romance novels don’t like lovers to “step away” or “get some distance” from each other at any time, but in reality, lovers can’t always be together. No one likes to be smothered. Writers who include these “I-need-my-space” scenes have to know that many readers will skim them or skip them entirely. Readers don’t want to be deprived of love (scenes) either.

9. No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love.

Here is a more modern translation: “No one can love unless he is forced to by the complete assurance of love.” If one lover is head-over-heels and the other lover is not, the other lover shouldn’t feel obligated to say those three little words until he or she is completely sure. Though romance writers might enjoy creating characters who force the issue in relationships (e. g. “He loves me, only he just doesn’t know it yet”), some readers and viewers may have problems with those characters’ desperation levels. Desperation can lead to anxiety, and anxiety can lead to whining. Few readers or moviegoers can stand a whiny character for very long, especially if he or she is whining about love. This rule, though, provides some hope for a modern couple: Complete assurance of love takes time, so don’t rush.

10. Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice.

“Avarice” is the insatiable desire for wealth. Romance writers have hooked up a fair share of rich men and poor Cinderella’s, but there aren’t nearly as many romances where the rich man gave up his entire fortune—or his entire kingdom—for the love of a single woman. Sure, it’s a romantic notion (“He gave up everything for me!”), but it’s not very probable. Money or the lack of money doesn’t seem to matter as much as it used to in relationships, and when it does begin to matter, it isn’t usually a deal-breaker. Love in modern romance seems to transcend socioeconomic status more and more—until later, that is. Unfortunately, an estimated half of all marriages end because of money problems, and this may prove the “truth” of the court of love’s rule.

11. It is not proper to love any woman whom one would be ashamed to seek to marry.

Although not as improper as they once were, frequenting prostitutes and gigolos, having one-night stands, and entertaining “friends with benefits” is part of the world of romance. And this begs a question: Should romantic novels and movies end in a relationship or a marriage every time? Do they have to end in a wedding? Let’s look at this rule a different way: Is it proper for a woman to love any man whom she would be ashamed to marry? Romances involving women who fall for drug kingpins, gangsters, outlaws, Mafioso, and other assorted criminals have a strong readership and viewership. While these “romances” might indeed be exciting because of the danger level, is this really what women want in real life? To rearrange some song lyrics, does every “lady need a thug”?

12. A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.

According to this rule, lovers who cheat are not true lovers, yet how often does one lover take another lover back after unfaithfulness? Should this kind of “love” occur in modern romance? We know it does. Romance writers strive to create perfect relationships, but sometimes writers go too far and readers can no longer suspend their disbelief. “She took him back after he slept with her sister? What was she thinking?” The logic (or illogic) goes something like this: he strays and she takes him back; therefore, it must be true love because she wants him despite his cheating heart. Does love still conquer all things? Should cheating hearts and straying minds even be allowed in romance novels and movies? Sometimes I wonder if romance writers are creating soap operas instead of romances.


13. When made public, love rarely endures.

Engagements and weddings are usually public, and both events symbolize enduring love. What did Eleanor’s court really mean by this rule? Were they concerned with PDA—public displays of affection? When two people “show off” their love, I sometimes say to myself, “Get a room!” Or was Eleanor’s court predicting what would eventually happen in our celebrity worshiping society? As soon as two stars hook up in a Tweet, we common people are already cheering for their demise. Rarely do you hear of two celebrities marrying on the sly. They have to make a Hollywood production number out of the marriage—and the messy divorce, or so it seems. It’s sad, really, that as soon as two people make the decision to stay with each other, snipers come out of the woodwork to shoot down their love.

14. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.

I know some soul mates hit it off the first time they meet, and I know couples who “intertwined” the first night they went out and are still together many years later. Some relationships simply don’t have the struggles, the difficulties, and those “against all odds” moments that most relationships do. If the prize is true love, modern couples usually have to work toward it over time. Think about it: if you went to a movie where the boy meets and “gets” the girl in the first five minutes, you’d probably walk out. The “fun” (if that’s the right word) of watching romance unfold lies in the complications.

15. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.

16. When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved, his heart palpitates.

Some people live in fear of their love ending or their lovers leaving them, and some romance writers fill pages with angst so severe it’s often painful to read. Come on, I think as I read, he really loves you. I believe it. Why don’t you? And why are you taking up half this book with her doubting his love? Is loving someone such a desperate enterprise that readers have to see a character shaking, sniveling, sniffling, and weeping until the very end? Isn’t love something that’s supposed to make people happy? If love is an “inborn suffering,” why would anyone ever read 400 pages or watch two hours of such suffering? Rule #16 makes more modern sense to me than rule #15 does. Writing about passionate moments is a romance writer’s stock in trade. Romance novelists have to make their lovers react to each other, sometimes hesitantly, sometimes boldly—but their characters must feel something for each other. There must be passion. Knees and hands must sweat. Mouths and tongues must go dry. Breath must leave the body involuntarily. Hearts must pump. Whenever readers or viewers say, “I didn’t feel the attraction,” they’re really saying, “I didn’t feel any passion.” The characters’ hearts must palpitate so readers’ and viewers’ hearts can palpitate, too.


17. A new love puts to flight an old one.

I am ambivalent about this rule. People with scabs on their hearts often pick at those scabs. Do people in the real world completely forget their first or most recent loves? It seems to happen a great deal in modern romance. People flit from one lover to the next … and the next … until they find the One. And what if one of those old loves returns? What happens then? Does their past relationship help or hinder them? On the other hand, I know some people who “fall in love” with someone new with an almost pathological regularity, and it’s frightening to witness. They seem to celebrate New Year’s (out with the old, in with the new) daily. This rule reminds me most, however, of middle school, where relationships began in first period, blossomed by lunchtime, and were in flames by the last bell.

18. Good character alone makes any man worthy of love.

May I get a resounding “Amen!”? Not many romance writers focus on a man’s character because character is not sexy. They’d rather focus on eye candy. They spend an inordinate number of pages on his clothing, smile, smirk, fingers, dimples, muscles, hair, shoulders, eyes, and/or sexual prowess. Instead of an ordinary man the reader might actually meet, the hero of the typical romance novel becomes extraordinary and far removed from reality. If Eleanor were alive today, she might encourage romance novelists to write more often about men of good character. She might also counsel women to look more at a man’s character than his eye candy.

20. A man in love is always apprehensive.

23. He whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little.

The word “apprehensive” can mean “fearful of the future” and “capable of understanding” as well. Thus, a man in love is either always fearful of the future or he’s always capable of understanding—and neither is always true in the modern world. Men aren’t always afraid, and, I admit, they’re not always capable of understanding, but I don’t think anyone who’s in love is always anything. People aren’t that consistent, yet some people expect their lovers to be that consistent. Love can change a man and make him so focused on his woman that he forgets to eat or has sleepless nights. I’m not sure, however, that it’s romantic for a man to continually pine for his woman. Some woman would find such behavior charming, while others would find this behavior to be pathetic.


24. Every act of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved.

25. A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved.

30. A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.

Every act? Constantly and without intermission? How will anyone work? How will anyone get anything done? Here’s that theme of obsession again. If I were to follow these rules, I’d become so courtly love minded that I’d be no earthly good. I’d be so focused on my lover that I couldn’t function in daily life. And how would a lover feel to hear “It’s all for you … I’d do anything for you … I’ve been thinking about you all day … I can’t get you out of my mind … I gave up my life for yours … I quit my job so I could have more time to please you”? These are why restraining orders exist. Is it even possible to think about another person “without intermission”? One would have to be “possessed”! I’ve met a few people so “possessed” with love that they’re oblivious to the rest of the world—but only a few. Under these definitions of a “true lover,” however, no rational, thinking person can be one.

26. Love can deny nothing to love.

Here’s the first rule concerning honesty in a relationship. Put another way, “If my lover asks me a question, I’ll tell my lover no lies.” This could be a dangerous rule, indeed. Does anyone want complete disclosure from his or her lover? Do you really want to know everything about the object of your desire? Perhaps this person is the object of your desire precisely because you don’t know everything about him or her. Do you really want to know everything about your lover’s shady past? Too much information (TMI) can ruin even casual conversations. Though I believe that “the truth shall set you free,” too much truth in a relationship can often set you free from the relationship.


27. A love can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved.

Solaces are “alleviations of grief or anxiety,” those “there, there, dear, it will all be okay” moments. Some people create drama so they can be consoled, don’t they? Some people create crises so they can get that shoulder to cry on or that hug or, ultimately, the attention they crave. Sometimes that kind of drama gets old. Is any of this truly love? It sounds once again like obsession.

29. A man who is vexed by too much passion usually does not love.

The 12th Century world defined “passion” as “sexual desire,” so the rule becomes, “A man troubled by too much sexual desire usually does not love.” Many women wouldn’t care if this were true because they believe that a man can never be too passionate. There are, of course, people who are only after sex, and yet, in our modern world, maybe that’s all a man or woman actually wants: “I want the passion without the commitment or those three little words.”


Some Changes, Some Constants

Romance has changed since the days of Eleanor of Aquitaine, but there are still some constants. Men and women still play mind games with each other, love is still a two-way street, and lovers still expect passion, honesty, and trust in their relationships. Will the modern world ever revert to rules like these? I seriously doubt it. Modern lovers seem more interested in breaking traditions and rules than following them.

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