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Halverson, J. (1970). Amour and Eros in the Middle Ages. Psychoanal. Rev., 57(2):245-258.

(1970). Psychoanalytic Review, 57(2):245-258

Amour and Eros in the Middle Ages

John Halverson


The term “courtly love” (amour courtois) was coined in the nineteenth century by a great French scholar, Gaston Paris, to refer to a rather vague complex of literary conventions in the love literature of the Middle Ages. It has turned out to be a rather unhappy invention used to lump together all serious approaches to the theme of love in medieval literature, approaches that in fact are quite different and sometimes contradictory. That theme first flowered in southern France of the early twelfth century in the lyric troubadour poetry, which was in origin primarily an adaptation of the Arabic poetry from Moslem Spain. Among other recurring themes, that of adultery is clearly expressed, and has often been taken to be fundamental to “courtly love.” Yet, when later in the century love is taken up as a subject of the romance literature in northern France, we find the great poet Chrétien de Troyes, usually regarded as the finest exponent of “courtly love,” celebrating not adultery but married love in his three completed romances, and indeed showing an aversion to adultery. His sole romance of adultery and extravagant Frauendienst, his Lancelot, was undertaken at the suggestion of Marie, Countess of Champagne, who provided sens et matière, and it was left unfinished by Chrétien, possibly because of his lack of sympathy with the theme. Another basic idea of “courtly love,” that love of women is the source of chivalrous deeds, is found in Chrétien, but so is its opposite and even more emphatically: the idea that this same love effeminizes and debases the knight, that his infatuation precisely prevents him from performing manly acts.

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