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  • Writer's pictureKathryn Hills

Courtly Love, and other Medieval Notions of Romance

Ahh…Valentine’s Day. No matter how you feel about this “day of romance,” I’m sure you will agree it has inspired many. Guest author and friend, E.C. Ambrose, shares a bit of history on love in the middle ages. And, though she doesn't write romance, this history plays a part in her latest fantasy novel, Elisha Mancer - The Dark Apostle. So, sit back, and enjoy some “Courtly Love.”

In a dark historical fantasy series inspired by research into medieval surgery, one might not expect to find much in the way of romance. But in the fourth volume of my Dark Apostle series, Elisha Mancer, just out from DAW books, my protagonist finds himself caught up in an unexpected game when a woman he's met only once before, under strained circumstances (Katherine), faints into his arms while they are traveling on the barge of Holy Roman Empress Margaret. . .


Turning on her side, Katherine propped herself up. “Shall we play at courts of love, Majesty? He is a handsome one.”

Elisha caught his breath, suddenly worried over what the empress had meant about keeping him.

“Gretchen, bring my looking glass! Surely the doctor should see his own face—he is the very image of shock.”

An unaccustomed heat warmed his cheeks, and he stammered, “I fear I haven’t the stomach for such a game, Your Majesty.”

“The stomach? Is it not the liver where love resides?” asked another of the women. “Doctor von Stubben. Does not love emanate from the liver through the eyes?”

“Well, Your Majesty, the effect of the gaze upon the object of love is well-known, of course. It can create all manner of sensations—”

“Like fainting?” asked the blond, with an arch of her brows toward Katherine.

“Indeed,” said the physician. “Fainting is one of the primary symptoms of the dart—” he went on, raising his voice as the women laughed yet louder. “At the sight of the beloved, the heart may go still, or it may race as if during a great exertion—”

Author E.C. Ambrose - portrayed here as a medieval barber

During the Middle Ages, it was believed that invisible darts from the eyes of the lover could literally penetrate the eyes of the beloved, and thus afflict them with all kinds of effects, as Doctor Emerick notes above. Much of this understanding of love derived from a little book called The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus, which was written between 1174 and 1186, and summarizes knowledge about love and the expectations of lovers at the time.

This was the height of the troubadour era, in which tales of lovers wronged and lovers parted were passed around noble courts by travelling poets and minstrels, and many of our great stories of lovers date from the early Middle Ages—including Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet which was collected in a group of Italian stories meant for sharing in the early 14th century, and adapted by Shakespeare much later.

It is to these medieval notions of love that we still owe many of our own ideals about romance—that a person may fall in love instantly, that it is perhaps more noble to love devotedly from a far, and even the idea that the most passionate relationships exist outside of marriage. The women of the early and high middle ages did, indeed, play at courts of love—setting up mock trials to determine the truth of love and the worthiness of relationships (not unlike a public version of those conversations so many of us probably had in Junior High).

Capellanus begins by telling us, "Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex." I think anyone who's been in love can relate to that! According to him, the only appropriate object of love is one of higher station—someone presumed to be more pure, more noble than oneself. He includes a series of dialogs for how to address your beloved, based on the relative station of the man and the woman, and these are everything of courtesy you might expect from medieval romance. It is all quite lovely and worthy of swooning.

Then things get a bit dicey. In a section labelled "The Love of Peasants," Capellanus advises the lover that, "If you should, by chance, fall in love with a peasant woman, be careful to puff her up with lots of praise and then, when you find a convenient place, do not hesitate to take what you seek and embrace her by force." He goes on to explain that peasants are just so coarse they wouldn't really understand the finer points of love anyhow. Yikes!

Thankfully, Capellanus ends with a series of rules for love, including the following, still useful guidelines for today:

XII. A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone save his beloved.

XVIII. Good character alone makes any man worthy of love.

XXVII. A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved.

I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to The Art of Courtly Love. If you'd like to know more about my books, for sample chapters, historical research and some nifty extras, like a scroll-over image describing the medical tools on the cover of Elisha Barber, visit

Elisha Mancer - The Dark Apostle by E.C. Ambrose

E. C. Ambrose blogs about the intersections between fantasy and history at

Buy Links for volume one, Elisha Barber:

Barnes & Noble:


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