Courtly Love

He loved her dearly in his heart, but knew better than to love her any more closely.

I say William Shakespeare had the right idea—
Put your passion in a poem she won't hear

I Get By, Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives

Courtly love was a medieval European idea of love dating back to the noble courts of the eleventh century. In essence, courtly love was a contradictory experience between erotic desire and spiritual attainment. Courtly Love is having a romantic affair without ever imagining it will be consummated. The man in question will be in love with his lady — who is normally his social superior — do almost anything for her and in her name. She may love the fella back, if he's fortunate — though that's not expected, and not really the point. The lady in question (and, indeed, the man in question) will almost certainly be married to somebody else: when Courtly Love happens, marriage isn't for love, but for more pragmatic reasons. In periods where Courtly Love is popular, it may be the only form of affair that doesn't get condemned as evil, simply because nothing more intimate than kisses, handkerchiefs, and sonnets get exchanged. In modern times it might happen just because the characters are too young, such as a Childhood Friend Romance.

It was a common motif in Chivalric Romance. The fairy mistress, being one of the Fair Folk, was a natural for it; the magical taboos that hedged her around fit well with the ethos of obedience to the lady, however arbitrary her demands. It even allowed the writer to rationalize the taboo into a whim of the lady.

Almost as soon as it appeared, it was Newer Than They Think; the King Arthur mythos and the Matter of Britain were hammered into shape, and people began to lament that love was no longer what it had been in King Arthur's day. It has now been an Dead Unicorn Trope for a matter of centuries.

There is, of course, a dark side to this seemingly idealized fairytale. Just as Courtly Love is the only genteel and "proper" form of romance short of marriage in nobility, the only outlet for carnal desires falls on the shoulders of those not subject to the respect of chivalry; the peasant class. Malory's writings contains candid accounts of Lancelot casually advising Galahad to rape a local village girl to mend his heart wounded from a failed courtship. This is the most benign examples of the consequences of unfulfilled lust stemmed from the stifling constraints of Courtly Love.

In latter times, Courtly Love may be the only way for a Celibate Hero, or someone whose superpowers are Powered By Virginity, to express his (or her) love for someone. The difference between Courtly Love and Unresolved Sexual Tension is, Courtly Love is supposed to be satisfying in itself because of the mix of the romantic and spiritual. Even when it was popular, it didn't always work that way; Lancelot's love for Guinevere started as Courtly Love but developed into a different sort of affair.

Later on, this trope helped make the era look far more romantic than it already was. Thus we have Knight in Shining Armor, Prince Charming, and Princess Classic.

Older Than Print. Also known as Petrarchan Love, after the Trope Codifier, Petrarch, whose lovesick series of sonnets to Laura made poetry an essential facet of Courtly Love. Today, if one of the two is married, this is known as "emotional adultery".

A Sister Trope to Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date (a more recent romantic ideal).

Compare The Lady's Favour, Lady and Knight.

Nothing to do with Courtney Love, who is pretty much in a polar opposite position of this trope.


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     Anime and Manga 
  • Ranma ½: Ryoga's love for Akane.
  • Ryota Miyagi of Slam Dunk. He loves Ayako and even states he's satisfied as long as he can make her happy.
  • Takeo will do anything for Yamato in My Love Story!!, and tells her that he won't lay a finger on her until they're older. He doesn't even allow himself to hold hands with her, until Yamato voices her desire to.

     Fan Works 
  • In the Death Note Slash Fic Fever Dreams when L dumps him and refuses to see him anymore Light pursues "the Lovesick Moron Plan" sending L sappy poetry and spending all his money on sending him flowers and candy that he knew would be immediately rerouted to forensics.
  • In the Maleficent fanfic Your Servant Mistress, Maleficent and Diaval have this kind of relationship at the beginning. As they're both into BDSM, and Diaval is submissive, he finds this quite satisfying.

  • Spoofed in The Court Jester.
  • Defied in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones because the whole point of the Anakin/Padmé relationship was that he was not satisfied with Courtly Love so when she professed her love to him they consummated their romance. This resulted in them getting married secretly and conceiving Luke and Leia.
  • Rick in Casablanca is a rather complex zigzag of this. In a flashback he met her in Paris and presumably did French things with her, though of course the movie doesn't say directly. Later Rick is understandably angry at not being told she was married (though at the time of their romp she believed her husband to be dead). In the final scene he settles on being satisfied with Courtly Love because he wants his beloved to be happy.
  • Bryce and Julie in Flipped never even kiss although they are only in seventh grade when the story ends.

  • Petrarch's Laura sonnets are the Trope Codifier.
  • The Canterbury Tales plays it straight in the Knight's Tale. Averted in every other part.
  • Don Quixote parodied this along with every other facet of chivalry. Dulcinea, the lady in question, has no idea that Don Quixote exists, yet he believes they have this relationship.
  • William Shakespeare plays this straight in all of his sonnets.
  • Dante's love for Beatrice in The Divine Comedy. And in Real Life.
  • Many of the interactions between men and women in Parzival take the form of this, with the title character eventually managing to reconcile the spiritual and physical aspects of his love.
  • The Mimbrates of David Eddings' The Belgariad universe are based on the ultra-idealistic romance take on medieval knights (to a comical degree), and thus also includes this. The Mimbrate Knight, Sir Mandorallan, is one of the main characters, and stuck in one of these: while he's single, he is hopelessly in love with a married woman whose husband is significantly older, and happens to be Mandorallan's mentor and surrogate father. Mandorallan is too knightly to be anything less than completely courteous, she is too noble to betray her husband, and meanwhile, the husband knows what's between them, knows that he's the only thing keeping them apart, and that they're both too noble to betray him in the least. He decides to take up a few dangerous hobbies. Like going off to war, for instance. Generations of Mimbrate maidens apparently cry themselves to sleep over the sheer, tragic nobility of the situation.
    • Even after he dies, they're still caught up in this, annoying Garion until he finally forces them to get married and be happy. Ce'Nedra chastises him (tongue firmly in cheek) for ruining their noble suffering. Belgarath chastises him (tongue not in cheek) for using a magically-summoned thunderstorm to do so, screwing up weather patterns all over the world.
    • This trope could also pretty much describe what went on between Polgara and Ontrose, despite Polgara's best efforts.
  • Also from Eddings, this is what the knight Sparhawk was planning in the Elenium trilogy, intending to basically bury his love for Queen Ehlana under the veneer of duty and find her a good husband closer to her own age. She had other ideas.
  • Gimli from The Lord of the Rings has this with Galadriel. He prizes three strands of her hair above the more precious and practical gifts she gives to the rest of the Fellowship, and offers to fight anyone who sees her face and does not declare her the World's Most Beautiful Woman, but since she's married that's as far as it goes.
  • Kate Chopin's The Awakening is also a (relatively) modern example of courtly love.
  • James Branch Cabell's Domnei.
  • Mocked without mercy in The Squire's Tales, particularly in The Ballad of Sir Dinadan.
  • The second mate in The Captain's Wife.
  • In the novel The Widow of the South Carrie McGavock develops this with wounded soldier Zachariah Cashwell, and interestingly, Carrie's husband knows full well what's going on and supports her.
  • The idea was probably more popular back in the Romantic Era with such novels as Julie, or the New Héloïse written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and published in 1761 where the heroine virtuously renounced her love for Saint-Preux and forced herself to be faithful to her dull husband.
  • Peeta's love for Katniss in The Hunger Games has strong aspects of this. He's deeply in love with her, has no real hope that she'll ever feel the same way (he thinks she's in love with her best friend Gale) but is willing to die (and kill) for her without a moment's hesitation. While they play the part of lovers in public he is remarkably chaste with her in private, spending countless nights holding her in his arms and never even tries to kiss her.
  • In Chivalric Romance, the matter of Britain was known as the one that dealt with love, with Lancelot and Tristan as exemplars. Later works, though continuing many of the elements, would allow the couple to marry.
    • In addition to his adulterous affair with Guenever and rape by Elaine of Carbonek Lancelot has a genuine courtly love affair with a lady who falls hard for him after nursing him back to health. When gently informed that Lancelot is already committed she comes up with the bright idea of a platonic vow of mutual affection. It turns out to be the happiest relationship with a woman Lancelot ever enjoys.
  • Song at Dawn This was its hey day. The Court of Love is all about how it should be conducted. For instance, one of the questions was about the proper gifts lovers could give without revealing their love and under what circumstances one could break off a relationship.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire
    • Queen Naerys and her champion Prince Aemon the Dragonknight, although it's widely suspected they may have gotten physical as well.
    • Deconstructed by Jorah Mormont, who falls in love with a woman above his station, manages to win her hand in a tournament, and demonstrates why these things are pretty in poetry but tend to be disastrous in real life. She gets bored with his provincial life very quickly and he runs his household into the ground trying to provide her with the lifestyle she's accustomed to. Then he starts making moves on someone even higher up the ladder in Daenarys, who puts up with none of his shenanigans.
    • Hinted at between Ser Barristan Selmy and Ashara Dayne, and Ned Stark and Ashara Dayne as well. She is technically below Ned's station, but is described as such an otherworldly beauty and consummate Proper Lady that any romance involving her is likely to have shades of this.
    • Brienne of Tarth and Renly Baratheon are a gender-swapped example. In the ordinary course of events a match between the third son of a Great House and the only daughter and heir-apparent of a minor one might not have been so impossible, but then Renly puts a crown on his head and places himself out of Brienne's league. The small matter of gender-incompatibility makes a physical consummation even less likely, Renly being rather more fond of Brienne's fellow Rainbow Guard Loras than either Brienne or his own wife. Regardless, it being the only way for her to be close to him, Brienne puts on the armor of a knight, wins a tourney and is awarded a spot in his personal bodyguard, and pledges to fight and die for him.
    • Played with by Sandor Clegane and Sansa Stark. Sandor would scoff at the notion, and he first takes pleasure in mocking Sansa's naivete and then plans to rape her, but at the last minute offers to place himself at her service and protect her instead. When she refuses, frightened, he is overcome with her Incorruptible Pure Pureness and leaves in (relative) peace, which makes it all sound rather more courtly and genteel than it actually was.
  • The Knights of the Cross plot starts with Zbyszko falling in courtly love with Danusia. And he apparently used to pine for princess Ryngałła, but stopped when she poisoned her husband.

     Live-Action TV 
  • Game of Thrones: Gender-flipped with King Renly Baratheon and Brienne of Tarth. She is a devoted knight who will do anything for her beloved king, and she is resigned to the fact that he will never return her feelings. (Brienne believes that Renly's lack of romantic interest is due to her ugly looks and lower social status, not because he's gay).
  • Babylon 5:
    • Gets an interesting treatment with Marcus Cole and Susan Ivanova. For him, it's a standard case of shyness and Unrequited Love, but she doesn't appear to notice (being Married to the Job). Thus, in effect, their relationship is a form of Courtly Love...IN SPACE!!!
    • Lennier is a sadder version because of the class difference and because he is just too shy, far shyer then Cole. He also knows that Delenn is "destined for another" (which turns out to be Captain John Sheridan). In his case it ends badly. As B5 is meant to be in the style of The Epic, borrowing from old tropes is really not surprising.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Spike/Buffy relationship in Season 5 shows aspects of this, as pointed out in this essay. In the following season they start a sexual relationship, but due to personal issues too extensive to recount here, said relationship quickly devolves into mutual abuse and emotional frustration/guilt — essentially trading the love for sex. Buffy goes into depression because of this vicious cycle, and sees it as one of the most desperately lonely times in her life. Season 7 however plays it straight again.
  • Plays out between Lancelot and Guinevere in Merlin. Lancelot will do anything for her (up to and including a Heroic Sacrifice without any expectation that she'll love him in return.


     Video Games 
  • Ukyo Tachibana and Kei Odagiri from Samurai Shodown. They can't get together since she's a noblewoman and he's a wandering swordsman, but they always remember each other fondly and whenever she needs his help, he will go to her aid without hesitation.
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition had a form of this in between Josephine, the ambassador, and Warden Blackwall. The two of them exchanged tokens of favor, but never did the two of them go for anything more.

     Web Comics 

     Western Animation 
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars has the romance between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Duchess Satine Kryze of Mandalore. They met when they were young and he was assigned to protect her from political enemies. He was noble enough to be willing to leave the Jedi Order for her; she was noble enough not to require that of him. The result, years down the line, is a Masochism Tango in which the participants are Twice Shy, as Anakin looks on in amusement and subtly takes his revenge for Obi-Wan's snark against his relationship with Padme.
  • Explored with Finn and Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time - her repeated rejection of his feelings for her are sometimes shown to cause him serious emotional pain, and he sometimes makes mistakes through trying to impress her instead of doing the right thing.
  • Steven Universe features Pearl, who was deeply in love with her leader Rose Quartz. In one episode she talks about the way of a knight, "completely dedicating yourself to a person and a cause", and makes it clear she was willing to give up anything and everything to follow and protect Rose. Unfortunately the relationship did not end well, as Rose was apparently oblivious to Pearl's feelings, fell in love with Greg Universe, and ultimately had a child with him, Steven. Rose died giving birth and Pearl has been missing her ever since, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. Even after Rose's death Pearl still dedicates herself to following Rose's ideals and protecting Steven. Worth noting is that Pearl is a Gem designed to be part of a Servant Race, and the reason she fell for Rose is Rose respected her as a person and gave her a choice instead of just giving orders.

     Real Life 
  • It was rumored that the British ambassador had this for Maria Theresa. Seems likely enough actually.
  • The conventions of courtly love was Elizabeth I 's major strategy for keeping her court of restless, power hungry men well under her thumb. It worked quite well for her.
  • Dante Alighieri had this for his crush and muse, Beatrice.
  • In 18th C. Portugal, it was fashionable for a young man to fall in love with a nun. He wasn't supposed to tell the Sister in question, or even make direct contact with her. He'd hang around the convent hoping to get a glimpse of her between the cloister and the chapel. He'd write poems to her—but never mentioning her name, just substituting another name that would fit the meter—which he might share with his friends or even publish on a broadsheet, or if he were especially bold he'd tack on the convent door. If the Sister in question did identify him, or if he were to meet her by chance, it was considered an unmitigated disaster.