In the poetry of troubadours, the conception of love first appears. Love is service, like that of a slave to his mater except that it is not based on outside compulsion. The knight serves the lady of his choice, suffers any kind of indignity for her sake, thinks only of her, commends himself to her when he goes into battle, and in referring to her uses kind of language that is scarcely, if at all, distinguishable from that used in religious poems with reference to the Virgin Mary (and clearly there is a reciprocal influence between the cult of Virgin Mary and the courtly love tradition).
The slightest favor the lady chooses to bestow upon her servant is sufficient reward for the greatest hardship he may have to undergo for her sake. He is her humble vassal, and she is his liege lady. He must be loyal to her for life, however she may treat him. However desperate he is, however hopeless of winning his ladies favor, however he may sigh and moan because of unrequited love, he must never think of ceasing to be the servant of her whom he has originally chosen, for it is better to be in love than to have no liege lady to serve.
Love is, as it were, its own reward, and though a more concrete reward is desired and sometimes obtained, the lover must not swerve in his allegiance if it does not come. This is not a relation between husband and wife; indeed throughout most of this entire literature it is taken as a matter of course that a husband cannot be the lover of his own wife. That is a role to be taken by someone else. The courtly love tradition implies, in fact, and idealization of adultery, and if modern romantic love is automatically linked to marriage that is because the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets deliberately grafted the idea of courtly love onto the domestic ideal of married happiness.
The concept of falling in love, wooing, marrying, which is one of the staple themes of fiction for two centuries, represents a modification of the medieval courtly love tradition while deriving from that tradition. In medieval courtly love, when a poet offers love to a lady, he does not bother about her husband at all: his real rival is anyone who seeks to be a lover of the lady in the same way as himself.
The lover’s conduct must conform at all points to a strict code of honor: in addition to the service of his lady, he must dedicate his himself to the cause of women in a general sense, always ready to defend them, always prepared to succor damsels in distress. The rules of knightly behavior were carefully defined, and involved many subtle points of conduct: by these rules, every lover was bound. There were, in theory if not in practice, “Courts of Love” which adjudicated on subtle points of honor and of proper conduct in love affairs.
The origins of this influential new conception of love between the sexes must be partly in social conditions, partly in a way in which such Latin writers on love as Ovid were interpreted in the middle ages, partly in a religious attitude which shifted attention from women as Eve, the origin of all our human woes, to woman as the Virgin Mary, the pattern of ideal maidenhood. One must remember that feudal civilization (especially on the continent, where central government was generally less effective than in England) tended to resolve itself into separate islands of social life, the lord of the manor living with his lady in a little nucleus of civilization of which he was the guardian.
Among his retainers and hangers-on there would be a great variety of male types who, while far above the land tilling peasantry who supported the whole group by their labor outside the walls of the castle or manor and his lady: adventures, landless knights, squires, pages, would look up to their master and mistress as their feudal superiors. The lady would become the source and arbiter of courtesy within the community, superior in rank to all except the lord himself, and, if he were away at the crusades or some other adventure, superior to all without exception.
Thus, service courtesy was her rights anyway, and if any of the men of the community were to love her, the love would have to be expressed in a context of service and courtesy. Perhaps the genealogy of the courtly poet also throws some light on the ideals of humility and service also bound up with the new romantic attitude. Before the real troubadour poetry began, it was the common practice for the lord to have about him for his personal entertainment minstrels, jongleurs, at first merely primitive mummers or acrobats. And though the troubadours rose in the social scale until they included in their number many of the lord themselves, it is not fantastic to see in the stress on service in courtly love poetry some trace of the humble position of the original troubadours, who were merely glorified clowns.