Put your passion in a poem she won't hear."
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 - a type of Romance and Sexuality Separation. 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 or engaged 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 a Dead Unicorn Trope for a matter of centuries.
There is, of course, a dark side to this seemingly idealized fairy tale. 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 contain 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 their 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.
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".
Nothing to do with Courtney Love, who is pretty much in a polar opposite position of this trope.
- Ryota Miyagi of Slam Dunk 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.
- Magic Knight Rayearth: Ascot's love for Umi concluded with him stating that the most important was to love her, without expecting retribution.
- The romance between Marie Antoinette and the dashing Hans Axel von Fersen in The Rose of Versailles. Her husband, Louis XVI was aware of it but wanted her to be happy and trusted that they would never consummate the relationship.
- It's strongly implied in Saint Seiya that this is the actual nature of Seiya and Saori's relationship. They're all but stated to be in love, but know they can't go much further than Lady and Knight due to her being the Goddess Athena and him being one of her bodyguards.
- Hak from Yona of the Dawn is completely and utterly undyingly loyal to Yona, having a longstanding childhood Bodyguard Crush on her. He repeatedly places his life on the line to keep her happy and safe, and though tries to make his romantic interest in her clear early on, he remains fully willing to stay by her side even when he comes to the conclusion that it'll always be unrequited—ironically, he comes to said conclusion right about the time when she starts to actually requite his feelings.
- In Child of the Storm and its sequel Ghosts of the Past, Harry and Carol's evolves becoming an Anchored Ship, with The Four Loves being explicitly discussed by the Avengers. However, there's the ever-present suggestion that it could get more than platonic at a moment's notice, leaving the door open for them to become Mind Link Mates. Interestingly, their psychic connection formed accidentally fuels both sides of their relationship. However, they acknowledge that both of them have too many issues to date - hers with trust (Harry is definitely in love with her by the sequel, but also utterly scrupulous about abiding by her wishes, stating repeatedly and sincerely that their friendship comes before anything else - this, it is suspected, is why she loves him), his with trauma. Either way, they're generally accepted to be completely devoted to each other. And they eventually get together in chapter 46.
- 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.
- In a Lighter and Softer A Song of Ice and Fire fanfic Sweetrobin's Upbringing, Maester Colemon and Myrcella Baratheon settle for this. They care deeply for each other but Myrcella has been forced to marry Robert Arryn and Colemon, as a maester, is supposed to be celibate, and both of them intend to honor their vows. That's why, except for the actual confession of their feelings, their affair is limited to silent musings and exchanged Longing Looks. Thanks to a happy turn of events, they are freed from their respective vows and get together.
- 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.
- The Hunger Games: Peeta's affections for Katniss has strong aspects of this. He's deeply in love with her, has no real hope that she'll return his feelings (he thinks she's in love with Gale) yet is still willing to both kill and die for her. He plays the role of lover in public but is remarkably chaste with her in private. Even when she lets him into her bed and sleeps in his arms he never tries to so much as kiss her.
- Last Christmas: Tom is obviously infatuated with Kate and makes no effort to pretend otherwise, but he never tries to kiss her or even hold her hand, even as they go on walks, joke around, go ice skating together, flirt, and generally act completely smitten with one another. The most physical the two ever get is a scene where, during a rather intense heart-to-heart, he holds her while she rests her head in his lap, and afterwards, he lets her sleep off her drunkenness in his bed. He does crawl in and sleep with her at her request, and the two share a kiss, but he declines to go any further. Given the reveal that Tom has been Dead All Along, his hesitation to do anything physical with Kate makes sense.
- Petrarch's Laura sonnets are the Trope Codifier (also an example of an Unbuilt Trope, as the narrator is pretty up-front about how miserable his doomed love makes him and how it distracts him from more spiritual pursuits).
- 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 with this trope in most of his sonnets — the ones expressing exalted sentiments about love are addressed to an aristocratic young man (not a typical target for Renaissance love poetry!) and the relationship is (probably) unconsummated largely because of Incompatible Orientation. The speaker and the young man are involved in a love triangle with a "dark lady," and their relationships are essentially the opposite of this trope: one of the most famous sonnets ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun") details how she isn't a classic blonde, blue-eyed Petrarchan beauty, and the speaker's relationship with her is explicitly sexual (she may also be sleeping with the aristocratic young man, and a few of the sonnets suggest she's also married).
- 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.
- 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 heyday. 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 (but, it's just as widely suspected that Aegon IV helped spread that particular rumour for his own reasons).
- Deconstructed by Ser Jorah Mormont of Bear Island, who falls in love with Lynesse Hightower, a woman well above his station and many, many years his junior, somehow manages to impress her enough in a tournament to win her hand, they quickly marry... and, then both promptly demonstrate why these things that are pretty in poetry tend to be disastrous in real life. She gets bored with his bare-bones, provincial life very quickly and he runs his household into the ground trying to provide her with the lifestyle she's accustomed to as compensation. He then breaks the law by selling poachers into slavery for funds and they both have to do a runner to another continent since, you know, married, which ultimately ends their relationship when she finds somebody else closer to what she expected out of life and settles into a comfortable existence as the chief concubine of a rich Lysene merchant prince, even though she's an exile. Then Jorah starts making moves on someone even higher up the ladder and even younger than Lynesse in Queen Daenerys, who puts up with exactly none of his shenanigans once she realises what is going on.
- Hinted at between Ser Barristan Selmy and Ashara Dayne, and Ned Stark and Ashara Dayne as well. She is technically a little below Ned's station, since both are from storied noble families but the Starks are the Wardens of the North, 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 Incompatible Orientation makes a physical consummation even less likely, Renly being rather more fond of Brienne's fellow Rainbow Guard Ser Loras than either Brienne or his own wife, not to mention Renly being one of the most handsome men in the realm and Brienne being one of the most homely women. 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 young Tortallan knight Nealan of Queenscove had a habit of loving lovely ladies of the court from afar and writing songs and poetry about them that irritated his friends to no end in the early Protector of the Small series (including Daine the Wildmage and Queen Thayet herself), but when he met Yukimi, the woman he would eventually marry and love for the rest of his life, none of his friends had a clue there was anything between them until his stoic future wife broke down with worry during Neal's ordeal note
- 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.
- Gender Flipped in Record of Grancrest War. Altirk mage leader Margaret "Hellfire" Odius is in love with her Lord, Villar Constance, Earl Altirk, but mage guild rules forbid a contracted mage to marry and Villar's mommy issues keep him from properly returning her affections, and he dismisses her from his service on her 25th birthday (as he does with all his contractees). After Waldlind and Dartania invade Altirk, she returns to him and they fight a Last Stand together.
- 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).
- Played straight with Ser Jorah Mormont and Queen Daenarys, even though his infatuation is deconstructed in the novels.
- 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 than 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 following "Intervention", 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. Spike desperately grapples for whatever tiny shred of emotional connection he can find in the relationship, while Buffy's depression worsens because of this vicious cycle, and sees it as one of the most desperately lonely times in her life. Season 7, however, plays it completely straight again. In "Touched", the antepenultimate episode, while several other couples (Willow/Kennedy, Xander/Anya, Faith/Wood) are shown consummating their relationships the night before a big mission, Buffy and Spike spend the entire night sleeping, fully clothed, with Spike holding her in his arms, reflecting a new level of trust and intimacy between the two. In the following episode, when Buffy presses Spike not to be coy about his feelings, Spike admits that it was the happiest moment of his life.
- Season 9 and early season 10 of the comics also continue their relationship in this way. In season 9, Spike spends a good chunk of the story hunting after a demon looking for Buffy on his own, stating outright that he'd do anything for her. Later, when she begins to mistakenly believe she's become pregnant, he offers her support and zero judgement in whatever she decides to do—even going as far as to offer to help raise the child if she wanted to keep them, as she would have been a single mother had it not been a false alarm. In early season 10, he rejoins the Scoobies as Xander's roommate and though remains platonically close to Buffy, never at all pushes for romance despite still loving her and everyone and their mother being able to see the raging UST between them. They end up getting together mid-season purely because she made the first move.
- 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.
- Pathfinder: Paladins of Shelyn are encouraged to practice courtly love because while Shelyn is in most respects the local Love Goddess, she is not the goddess of lust or sex (that's Calistria). Shelyn's focus is on beauty and art, so while she doesn't discourage straight-played romantic relationships (and is herself in a polyamorous lesbian relationship with Desna and Sarenrae), it isn't her primary focus.
- Romeo and Juliet. Romeo has a nice, conventional courtly love interest in Rosaline, but after their breakup he gets together with Juliet, who is willing to put out within hours of meeting him under a wedding sanctioned by nobody but a local clergyman (while she's betrothed!) and thus practically out of wedlock.
- Cyrano de Bergerac: The reason why Cyrano will give The Alcoholic Ligniere a Disproportionate Reward is because he did an In-Universe Moment of Awesome of Courtly Love at Act I Scene VII:
Le Bret: But why embroil yourself?
Cyrano: Le Bret who scolds!
Le Bret: That worthless drunkard!
Cyrano: [slapping Ligniere on the shoulder] Wherefore? For this cause;
This wine-barrel, this cask of Burgundy,
Did, on a day, an action full of grace;
As he was leaving church, he saw his love
Take holy waterhe, who is afeared
At water's taste, ran quickly to the stoup,
And drank it all, to the last drop!...
- The central ideological conflict in Tannhäuser is between the chaste, spiritual, courtly love espoused by Wolfram von Eschenbach and the sensual, worldly, pagan love of Heinrich. Appropriately enough, they both sing a poetic ode to their own version.
- In Gioachino Rossinis Il viaggio a Reims, Lord Sidney and Corinna quietly adore each other without declaring their feelings aloud: at most, Lord Sidney leaves her anonymous flowers, though she is aware they are from him. They dont even get to sing a duet together (while two other couples do).
- Ukyo Tachibana and Kei Odagiri from Samurai Shodown 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 has a form of this between Josephine, the ambassador, and Warden Blackwall. The two of them exchange tokens of favor, which is referenced in some bits of party banter and interactions both characters have with assorted Inquisition workers. If either character is romanced by the Inquisitor, however, this is not seen; either way, nothing more ever comes of it.
- In the setting of Final Fantasy VIII, the idea of a chivalrous romance between a Sorceress (a witch-queen) and her Knight is considered to be the romantic ideal, and teenagers strive to emulate the dynamic in their relationships. It differs slightly from the medieval concept in that the Knight is expected to be monogamous, though their love is still chaste. Squall declares to Rinoa his intention to 'be her Knight' and they form a functional pair. Seifer, on the other hand, ends up involved with a much older President Evil Sorceress and spends the rest of the game descending slowly into evil and fanaticism.
- Pursued in Guenevere by (of course) Lancelot towards Queen Guenevere. She can choose to encourage these sentiments or not.
- In Baldur's Gate II, Anomen's romance path seems to start with this, but actually shows in a number of ways how this trope is seriously at odds with reality. CHARNAME is not a noblewoman by any stretch; they can ditch the No Hugging, No Kissing part early; he might never actually become a Knight in Shining Armor. Becomes a Discussed Trope in Throne of Bhaal:
Anomen: I was raised in a culture of chivalry — romance was an art, a craft of specific forms and patterns. Poetic professions of adoration and flattery were the expected ways for a knight to show his love. But now I see how hollow and stilted such conversation is. Forced flirtations hardly seem fit for one such as you.
- In War: 13th Day, Arsenik respects, admires and loves Ambrosia with all the etiquette of a gentleman and the passion of a man. When she's propositioned to and later blackmailed by a Handsome Lech, he begins a fight to defend her honor.
Arsenik: Don't succumb to his demands, least of all on my account. It would be far better that you had allowed him to apprehend me. I'm not ashamed of having defended you.
- 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.
- 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. Due to the Bizarre Alien Biology involved, Rose sacrificed her life to give birth (or became Steven in a way? it's hard to understand or explain) 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.
- The conventions of courtly love were Elizabeth I's major strategy for keeping her court of restless, power-hungry men well under her thumb. It worked quite well for her.
- In 18th-century 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 would never mention her name, 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, 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.
- In modern slang, "lithosexual" and "lithoromantic" are occasionally used to describe a feeling of attraction, without the desire for that attraction to be reciprocated. Folks who would describe themselves as one or both of these terms span an entire spectrum of feelings about actually being in a relationship, and naturally the attraction doesn't necessarily have to reach Courtly Love levels of devotion, though it's certainly possible.