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.