The idea of courtly love proved to be one of the most far reaching and one of the most revolutionary in the history of European sensibility; it spread rapidly throughout Europe, penetrating both lyrical and narrative literature from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, wherever the spirit of romantic literature touched. Therefore, love between the sexes had been regarded simply as courtly passion, or as a form of affection, or as a form of madness or as a combination of these three elements.
Marriage would be, of course, out of the question between the lady and either the troubadour or one of her husband’s male followers. And even more cogent reasons for courtly love remaining outside marriage was that in feudal times marriage was so bound up with the inheritance and transmission of property that questions of love could not be allowed to enter into it. Lordship of land being the very basis of the system, anything connected with the disposal or acquisition of estates was a purely business matter into which sentiments must not intrude. Nor was the teaching of medieval literature calculated to drive the new conception of love into legal channels.
Romantic passion in the relation between the sexes was not regarded by religion as a virtue under any circumstance, and there was no encouragement by the church to graft the new feeling onto any conventional view of domestic happiness. From every point of view the difference between courtly love and the relations between man and wife was emphasized. The lady was mistress (in literal sense) but never wife, and often had to be courted secretly. The courtly lover did not even wish to marry this lady, though he sought a consummation of his love outside marriage. Marriage, the idea often seemed to have been, would spoil everything. It was only later that the romantic ideal of love was linked with marriage and the passion was regarded as virtuous provided that it had marriage in view.
It is clear, therefore, that this conception of courtly love that swept over Europe and penetrated its literature was one that originated among the aristocracy and had little relation to the everyday lives of humbler men and women. It was, at its simplest, a conventionalization of attitude of the high placed feudal servant to his lord’s wife, and if the lord himself was away at the crusades, there was all the more scope for the courtly lover. How far this attitude was just a mere convention and how far it has a realistic basis is very difficult to say.
Sometimes, the whole business was nothing but a polite game, but we know that life often imitates art and the emotional pattern laid down in a literary convention is often spontaneously followed in real experience. There must have been something real behind it all. Of course, to some the convention was just an opportunity to discourse subtly on the psychology of love, and it is to be noted that the psychological treatment of romantic love, so common in European literature, begins with the medieval allegories of courtly love.
This, then, was the kind of sentiment with which the medieval French romances surrounded their action. Such romances were produced in England as well as in France, for, as we have seen, French was the language of the English upper class from the conquest up till the fourteenth century, and during this period, the “polite” literature of England was French, either imported or domestically produced. The translations of French romances into English give us an interesting indication of the difference in social polish between the audience for works in the French language in England and that for works written in English.
The English translators were adapting a sophisticated, sentimental French literature for a much less sophisticated audience, who were more interested in the story than in the refined speculations about love and honor so characteristic of the courtly love tradition. The French romances combined romance with adventure; the English translators as a rule left out the sentiment and stuck to the adventure. The English romances were thus on the whole shorter, cruder, and more of a straight “story” than the French. Such a popular French romancer as the twelfth century Chretien de Troyes, who specialized in what a later age was to call the “language of the heart,” in psychology of courtly love, never achieved the popularity among the English that he had in France and Germany. Those in England, who were courtly and sophisticated enough to appreciate the finer points of courtesy and psychology, expected their literature to be in French: the English translations were to their ruder compatriots.
The English romancer was a part of this world of medieval romance, and if he often abbreviated and simplified his French originals because he was writing for a less courtly audience (and it was the audience rather than the readers, for these romances would be a rule to read or recited aloud to a group), this did not mean that he thought of himself as any way living in a different world than that of fellow romancers, either in France or in England, who wrote in French. It is perhaps misleading to look at surviving English romance and conclude that that gives a representative picture of what English produced in that field during the middle ages.