GUEST POST: Chivalry Versus Courtly Love by Rick Stump

Thursday , 23, March 2017 22 Comments

Lots of people make a series of errors when talking about chivalry, and the most common (and egregious) is conflating Chivalry with courtesy and Courtly Love.

Chivalry is ‘Bravery in war; warfare as an art; the military qualities expected of a noble knight; a body of armed men’.

Courtesy is ‘the showing of politeness in one’s behavior and attitude towards others’.

Courtly Love is ‘a ritualized and idealized code of romantic emotional conduct developed in the Late Medieval Period for the behavior of men and women at court’.

Are you a winged hussar with Jan Sobieski at the Great Siege of Vienna, facing the enemy without hesitation?

That’s chivalry.

Are you thanking your waiter for the fresh glass of tea?

That’s courtesy.

Did you just write a love poem for the wife of your boss, a woman you have no intention of ever kissing, let alone anything else?

That’s courtly love.

In the end, chivalry is a tool to make sure your population of highly-trained, highly-motivated, dedicated, professional killers remains aimed firmly at outside threats. On the other hand, courtesy is the grease that allows society to function smoothly. Not all knights were courteous, and not all courteous people were thoroughly trained for the battlefield from the age of 8 on.

Courtly love? There are two odd things about courtly love. First, it seems to have been very limited to the courts of large, wealthy nations where there were a lot of rich women with little to do. Second, it probably was never anything but fiction. While there are a lot of songs, poems, and books about courtly love there are no court cases, non-fictional records, or other historical evidence that courtly love was anything except poems, and fiction, and songs. Historians generally agree that courtly love was largely the Romance Novel of its day.

Which makes sense, really. Large groups of rich, bored women with professional writers and singers on their staff while their husbands are away, often in arranged marriages for political necessity and in an environment where real infidelity could mean execution? Would anyone be surprised if fantasies about rich, charming men who were so in love with them that they might die sold well?

But would anyone expect professional soldiers trained in warfare since before they could shave would participate in such tomfoolery?

As far as any serious historian can tell, Courtly Love was about as real as Fabio’s tan.

A real stumbling block in grasping the difference between chivalry and courtesy and coutly love is… fiction. Mainly Arthurian fiction. People make all sorts of mistakes about what Arthurian stories really are, which is ‘made up stories’. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Le Morte d’Arthur, one of the most widely read versions of the Arthurian tales, is not just a set of adventure yarns, it is a political commentary. The stories were written during the War of the Roses, when two groups of knights and nobles were ravaging England as each claimed the throne (sound familiar?). Each group claimed to be virtuous and good and each side then went on to commit various atrocities. Le Morte d’Arthur was a cautionary tale meant to teach that you judge people by their deeds, not their title or even reputation. Lancelot is a prime example of this – although a great knight and widely admired he is a fool, a womanizer, and a cat’s paw, easily controlled by any pretty woman.

This continues a great tradition of Lancelot as what TV Tropes calls a ‘Fake Ultimate Hero’ where the author (and usually the story’s characters) call Lancelot a great hero but he acts like a total idiot.

Lancelot’s very first appearance is in the powerfully influential poem Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charette, (in English called Lancelot, The Knight of the Cart).

Written by Chretien de Troyes, The Knight of the Cart largely appears to be just another tale of Lancelot. He’s strong, he’s handome, he’  1s brave, he love Guinevere, and he is the World’s Greatest Knight. A careful reading, though, shows that Lancelot is a complete fool.

But Chreiten tells you up front all is not as it seems. He starts the poem showing you exactly what is going on. He begins the introduction by insisting he will not flatter his patroness, the (incredibly rich) Countess of Champagne. He then goes on, and on, and on about how smart, gorgeous, wonderful, amazing, graceful, etc. the Countess is, ending the barrage of flattery with ‘I only say these things because they are true’.

Bam! Eight o’clock, day one, Chretien is letting you know – this work is a subversion and a satire.

The next thing he tells us in the introduction is that the idea, the characters, and the plot of the story are not his idea – they are all the idea of the Countess herself.

Knowing this makes the following poem one of the funniest works I have ever read. Why? I can see this playing out in my head;

Countess: Chretien, I have an idea for a story [Romance novel summary dump]. Can you write this for me?

Chretien: For you, madame, anything (while silently cackling like a madman).

The entire poem is a satirical take-down of the core conceits of Courtly Love, and it is hysterically funny. Lancelot is the perfect epitome of what noblewomen dreamt of as a courtly lover while Gawain is often the voice of reason. For example, Lancelot and Gawain are in a tall spire when they see Guinevere riding away. Lancelot, overcome with love, plans to leap out the window to be as close to Guinevere as soon as possible. Gawain points out he just be killing himself, so why not take the stairs?

The poem gets its name from a scene in which Lancelot is conned into climbing into a cart reserved for the lowest, basest, and most vile of criminals and then paraded around, all for Courtly Love. On the surface, this appears to show that a man should completely debase himself for the love of a woman, and I suspect the Countess too saw it that way. This message is totally undermined by the author, though, and shows the ridiculous nature of Courtly love very simply.

How? After the abject humiliation of the cart ride when Lancelot meets Guinevere, she is cold, distant, and mean to him. Why?

He hesitated to get into the cart for a brief moment!

While I think this is missed by many, I think Chretien was showing Guinevere (and through her all the women invested in Courtly Love, including the Countess) as being self-absorbed, petty, vengeful, and shallow, completely annihilating the core conceit of Courtly Love – that women are so perfect men should die for them.

In that scene, the scene he named the poem after, Chretien paints noblewomen as not really being worth the effort.

Parallel to Lancelot being a buffoon we have Gawain, a knight with no entanglement with Courtly Love. Gawain is much more practical and, because of that, much more effective as a knight. Again, another subversion by subtly hinting that the sorts of men ‘into’ Courtly Love weren’t very effective, not even very manly.

Anyway, that’s my take on chivalry, courtesy, and courtlylove as well as the Knight of the Cart!”

Rick Stump is a long time dungeon master and the mastermind behind Harbinger Games. He blogs at Don’t Split the Party.

22 Comments
  • deuce says:

    A very good breakdown of it all. People are often confused by the distinctions.

    I thought Boorman did a good job of salvaging the Lancelot character. Lancelot’s cognate in the Welsh tales, Bedwyr, is much more interesting, IMO. Tolkien’s take on Guenivere and Lancelot is definitely worth reading. He goes back mainly to Wace’s ROMAN DE BRUT. Guenivere does not come off well, which may surprise those who think JRRT always idolized the women in his fiction. Far from it. Robert E. Howard portrayed Lancelot as a Gallo-Roman throat-slitter, albeit an utter badass.

    • Anthony says:

      I don’t know that Bedwyr is the cognate, for the simple reason that Bedwyr shows up in other tales as Sir Bedivere.

      • John E. Boyle says:

        A number of Arthurian novelists have used Bedwyr as a cognate for Lancelot; Rosemary Sutcliffe in Sword at Sunset comes to mind.

        It gets confusing.

        • Anthony says:

          Finding an “original” or “correct” version of the legend is a generally futile effort; the great Stephen Lawhead linked Lancelot to a mytho-legendary Irish figure called Llenleawg, or something to that effect.

        • deuce says:

          Wow. Citing the “great” Stephen Lawhead as an authority on anything but his own work is mind-boggling. Lawhead was simply following the lead of Roger Sherman Loomis, a scholar that I do think has some good ideas. It’s also possible that the name from whence “lancelot” was derived had NOTHING to do with Wales or Ireland at all. However, typically of Lawhead, while trying to weave his supposedly “Celtic” tale, he inserts a “Lancelot” that was unknown to the early Weslh storytellers. If there is some echo of Lancelot in Welsh legends — under some “L” name later garbled into “Lancelot” — then that warrior had no relation to Arthur that looks anything like what we see in the later French romances.

          Bedwyr — in the Welsh tales — was a superlative warrior and Arthur’s closest companion other than Kay. Who does THAT sound like? Lancelot was ramrodded into the Arthurian tales by way of the French troubadours and Bedwyr was minimized, eventually becoming the nearly-inconsequential “Sir Bedivere”. All of this has been known for a long time. That’s why far better Arthurian novelists than Lawhead — like Mary Stewart, Sutcliff and Gillian Bradshaw — have brought Bedwyr back to his rightful place as a mighty ally by Arthur’s side. And THAT is why I called Bedwyr “Lancelot’s cognate” in the WELSH legends. If Bedwyr is not the “Lancelot cognate” in those legends, there simply isn’t one at all. The Welsh legends of Arthur are the oldest we have.

          • Anthony says:

            Wow. Citing the “great” Stephen Lawhead as an authority on anything but his own work is mind-boggling.

            Indeed, if I’d done that, it would have been mind-boggling.

            I didn’t cite him as an authority. I pointed out in a one line comment on a blog post that he identified Lancelot with an Irish figure, and he wasn’t the first guy to do so.

            You got me, I’m a huge Lawhead fan and think he’s a great author who wrote a great series, one of several. You’re entitled to your opinion, but you don’t need to be a jerk about it.

          • Anthony says:

            (Not to mention that Bedwyr WAS Arthur’s closest companion other than Kay, as well as a superlative warrior, IN LAWHEAD’S PENDRAGON CYCLE.

            Yeesh.)

          • Anthony says:

            Look, this annoyed me, but I write for the blog and all of that and am generally uninterested in starting a bigger fight. So I’ll end my piece right now:

            You’re talking down to the wrong guy here. I’m a White fan, I’m a Lawhead fan, I’m a Malory fan, I haven’t finished the Mabinogion but I’ve gone through some of it and know what the stories are, especially the Arthurian ones.

            When I said “finding an original or correct version of the legend is generally futile”, well, yeah. It is. You get some early stories from the Welsh but nothing that resembles too strongly our modern Arthurian legendarium. A couple of names show up that make it into later stories, like Kay and Bedwyr, but not a whole lot.

            Lawhead did indeed identify Lancelot with an Irish hero, going off of Roger Loomis. So…yeah. That’s EXACTLY WHAT I SAID. You just went into more detail.

            You apparently have some beef with Lawhead claiming he was making a more Celtic version of the legend, then taking liberties with it. Whatever. You do you. I didn’t care and don’t care.

            And, yes, you got me – I LOVE Stephen Lawhead. I’m a huge fan of his work. I thought and think his Pendragon Cycle is a masterpiece. His King Raven trilogy – his take on Robin Hood – is brilliant too. You apparently don’t like his stuff as much as other Arthurian writers. Fine. You’re allowed. For what it’s worth of those writers you mentioned I’ve tried Mary Stewart and so far have bounced off of her.

            Anyway, I’m just miffed that I made a perfectly innocuous comment where I brought up another theory on Lancelot’s origin used by another author in another Arthurian work of fiction, and you put words in my mouth in order to make yourself sound superior. It’s just petty, and I don’t know why you did it.

            All right. I’m done with this thread.

        • deuce says:

          Talk about playing the victim. Here is my one little sentence within a paragraph in my original post:

          “Lancelot’s cognate in the WELSH TALES, Bedwyr, is much more interesting, IMO.”

          You had to “correct” me by saying this:

          “I don’t know that Bedwyr is the cognate, for the simple reason that Bedwyr shows up in other tales as Sir Bedivere.”

          Either you can’t read plain English or you were picking a fight. As I stated, there is no cognate for Lancelot at all in the WELSH TALES unless it’s Bedwyr. The “Lancelot” invented in France long after took the place Bedwyr occupied in the Welsh Arthurian legends.

          You were trying to score points on an issue that I didn’t even think was an issue. I didn’t put words in your mouth and you weren’t making an “innocuous statement”. The “talking down” didn’t start with me. The progression of the conversation is there for anyone to see. You’re acting like your original pedantic “correction” to me never even happened.

        • deuce says:

          Hmmm. I’m glad that I clicked back in for a second. I just realized that you aren’t the same “Anthony” that originally called me out on Bedwyr to begin with, right? The two different posters with the exact same name — one linked, one not — fooled me. I should have noticed that. If that is the case, then you have my sincerest apology. No hard feelings whatsoever. Mea culpa.

      • Nathan says:

        Lancelot is one of the later additions to Arthurian lore. Arthur has a habit of attracting stray bits of folklore to himself – including parts of the Matter of France.

      • deuce says:

        I’m quite aware of that. Thanks for the info.

  • Blume says:

    I hate lancelot but you have convinced me to read the knight of the chart. Also I thought Chertien was a woman?

  • Anthony says:

    Le Morte is very clear about Lancelot’s sins. Early in the book the knights take their famous oath – you might call it a chivalric code.

    Lancelot breaks the oath SPECTACULARLY. And as a result, Camelot falls. Cause and effect.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    A very interesting post; most people have no idea of the differences between Chivalry, Courtesy and Courtly Love. Most often all three get mashed together in an attempt to get them to support a political or cultural argument. (What do you mean, Chivalry has nothing to do with something as disgusting and brutal as…WAR!)

    I think your comments are spot on regarding Mallory and de Troyes motives, which is why I don’t use either source as inspiration for my Pendragon campaign. Of course, this means that my campaign looks a lot like Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, but my players don’t mind.

    Nicely done, Mr. Stump. Thank you.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    Interesting topic. I’ve just begun reading a book on how the ideas of chivalry influenced soldiers and were used to influence soldiers in The Great War. I’m only part way through but, it touches on a lot of these topics. Title “Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice, and the Great War by Allen J. Frantzen. It’s a good read thus far. Might be of interest to other people who enjoyed this column.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    If I might add. Courtly love appears in the 12 century and is dominated by the Occitans and Provençal trobadors. Interestingly, the Catalans also wrote and sang in Occita. So it appears to be the conventional language.

    From the poems i’ve read they’re stylized language that’s meant to entertain and there are formulas and language rules to follow.

    I often wonder if the Courtly live poems aren’t the first stirring of individuals exercising their free will to chose who they love as opposed to having arranged marriages.

    That consent between man and women is stirring and becoming an important factor in validating a marriage

  • keith says:

    “The Quest of the Holy Grail” has Galahad, epitome of chivalric qualities, juxtaposed with the failings of other knights, including his father Lancelot. True chivalric ideal versus the pretense of it. There is even one particularly memorable episode including Lancelot and the vision of Grail early on.
    Entire work is a potent spiritual allegory, not a political commentary, even if commentators admit that it was in part aimed at unknown author’s contemporaries and their shallow idea of knighthood.

    I dislike Mallory. His work is dry, repetitive, overlong and emotionless. It also lacks spiritual depth of other, much lesser known Arthuriana.

  • keith says:

    Concerning Lancelot in particular, anyone here read Lancelot of the Lake, aka Great Prose Lancelot, Corley translation?
    I’ve been meaning to read it since I’ve been getting back into Arturiana. Some time ago I went trough another obscurity, The Crown by von dem Turlin – mainly because it was often referenced in Evola’s fun if tendentious and misguided work on the Grail legend – and it was actually rather enjoyable. There’s a huge amount of this material that is languishing in the undeserved obscurity.

  • Rod Walker says:

    A long, long time ago, Rod Walker read Bullfinch’s Legends of King Arthur, which included the story of Lancelot, Guinevere, and the cart.

    He thought Lancelot was a chump then, and he is pleased to see he was not alone in that opinion.

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