Courtly love is the unconsummated love of a lowly knight and an unattainable noble lady who shares his feelings but is trapped in a marriage from which she cannot escape. They express their love in languishing sighs, Minnesangs (love songs), secret letters, tears, public rejection and vows of eternal love.

Because of his love for his lady, the knight achieves great things — wins tournaments, goes on crusade, kills dragons, whatever is in his purview to prove his worth and his love. His lady, in the meantime, longs for him but publicly scorns his suit, returns his gifts (some of them) and denies her feelings to any who have noticed their exchange of loving looks. Courtly love is a kind of “higher love” that makes both knight and lady better people which is kind of paradoxical from our vantage point. How can imagined adultery ennoble anyone? We all know what happens when courtly love turns carnal — Camelot falls.

Courtly love still exists. When I started this post, I thought I could speak candidly about its existence in our world today, but I can’t. Suffice it to say, it’s alive and well among extremely romantic people who want the feelings but not the mess of love, or, perhaps, those for whom Camelot has fallen quite enough times, thank you. 🙂

Tanzweise – by Walther von der Vogelweide

‘Lady,’ I said, ‘this garland wear!
For thou wilt wear it gracefully;
And on thy brow ’twill sit so fair, 
And thou wilt dance so light and free;
Had I a thousand gems, on thee,
Fair one! their brilliant light should shine:
Would’st thou such a gift accept from me,–
O doubt me not,– it should be thine.

‘Lady, so beautiful thou art,
That I on thee the wreath bestow,
‘Tis the best gift I can impart;
But whiter, rosier flowers, I know,
Upon the distant plain they’re springing,
Where beauteously their heads they rear,
And birds their sweetest songs are singing:
Come! let us go and pluck them there!’

She took the beauteous wreath I chose,
And, like a child at praises glowing,
Her cheeks blushed crimson as the rose
When by the snow-white lily growing:
But all from those bright eyes eclipse
Received; and then, my toil to pay,
Kind, precious words fell from her lips:
What more than this I shall not say. 

When From The Sod The Flow’Rets Spring” – Walther von der Vogelweide

When from the sod the flow’rets spring,
And smile to meet the sun’s bright ray,
When birds their sweetest carols sing
In all them morning pride of May,
What lovelier than the prospect there?
Can earth boast any thing more fair?
To me it seems an almost heaven,
So beauteous to my eyes that vision bright is given.

But when a lady, chaste and fair,
Noble, and clad in rich attire,
Walks through the throng with gracious air,
As sun that bids the stars retire,–
Then, where are all thy boastings, May?
What hast thou beautiful and gay
Compared with that supreme delight?
We leave thy loveliest flowers, and watch that lady bright.

Wouldst thou believe me,– come and place
Before thee all this pride of May;
Then look but on my lady’s face,
And, which is best and brightest? say:
For me, how soon (if choice were mine)
This would I take, and that resign!
And say, ‘Though sweet thy beauties, May!
I’d rather forfeit all than lose my lady gay.’ 

Walther von Der Vogelweide is, IMO, a great poet. “Unter der Linden” is a beautiful love poem, very sexy and evocative (not quite courtly love). “Alas! Where Have all the Years…” is something we all feel in the later years of life — even now, almost 1000 years later.

Fate’s Gentil Revenge

1         Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
 :              When April with its sweet-smelling showers
2         The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
Has pierced the drought of March to the root,
3         And bathed every veyne in swich licour
And bathed every vein (of the plants) in such liquid
4         Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
By the power of which the flower is created;
5         Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
When the West Wind also with its sweet breath,
6         Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
In every holt and heath, has breathed life into 
7         The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
The tender crops, and the young sun
8         Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
Has run its half course in Aries,
9         And smale foweles maken melodye,
And small fowls make melody,
10         That slepen al the nyght with open ye
Those that sleep all the night with open eyes
11         (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
(So Nature incites them in their hearts),
12         Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages…

Geoffrey Chaucer, General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

This is beautiful poetry, but back in the day, I didn’t see that. There I was, in the “Aprill” of my “yonge lyfe” and Middle English was the last thing on my mind. I will never know if it was the way my teachers taught, my moment in lyfe, or what exactly, but medieval poetry? I mean, just, why? We had Rod McKuen for the love of god, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and the meaningful lyrics of top 40 — The Rolling Stones, Tim Buckley, John Kay of Steppenwolf, The Moody Blues… And any other artists you might have liked or still like.

I did not realize that put me square in the middle of the poetic ethic of Medieval poets who wrote mostly about love and their disenchantment with the status quo. Generally, Medieval poetry is not “deep,” though the ever-popular “hidden meaning” might be jabs at the politics of the age, discontent at the greed of one pope or another and the plundering of ignorant people by the church. There are ubiquitous metaphors for every wrinkle of Jesus’ story that would be clear to medieval listeners but are obscure to us. Many medieval poets were nobles — knights, lords and kings! — some were women, many were churchmen and women, etc. A large, long-lived group were disaffected clergy. Medieval poets sang their poems.

Sir Walther von der Vogelweide from the Codex Manesse

Under the Linden, Walther von Der Vogelweide
translation by Raymond Oliver

Under the linden tree
On the heather,

Where we had shared a place of rest,
Still you may find there,
Lovely together,
Flowers crushed and grass down-pressed.
Beside the forest in the vale,
Sweetly sang the nightingale.

 I came to meet him
At the green:

There was my truelove come before.
Such was I greeted —Heaven’s Queen! —
That I am glad for evermore.
Had he kisses? A thousand some:
 See how red my mouth’s become.

There he had fashioned
For luxury 

A bed from every kind of flower.
It sets to laughing 
Whoever comes upon that bower;
By the roses well one may,
Mark the spot my head once lay.

 If any knew
He lay with me 

(May God forbid!),
for shame I’d die.
What did he do?
May none but he
Ever be sure of that — and I,
And one extremely tiny bird,
Who will, I think, not say a word.

Lyfe is filled with booby traps and, in my case, a lot of them involve stuff I rejected out of hand, much of which became consummately important to me later, like not learning anything about the history of China in high school and then going to China, or not paying attention to medieval literature and then becoming, oops, a “Swiss medievalist historian.”

P.S. Medieval for me is before 1400 CE, before the first great plague changed the political structure of the world.