These days the “knight in shining armour” is more like a cheap chocolate wrapped in alfoil; overly saccharine and with a vaguely oily aftertaste. But go back a few hundred years and you’ll find that the truth ain’t so sweet.
In 1936 C.S Lewis described courtly love as, “love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love“.
But wait a second Sir Lancelot…. Adultery?
I’d always imagined that the knight in shining armour swept the lady off her feet and straight to the closest chapel, but it seems that was not the case. The very reason these knights and ladies were able to reach such divine heights of adoration was because they were not impeded by the greatest enemy to romance of all time: marriage.
Courtly love was almost always practiced by a lady with higher status, generally the wife of her lover’s lord or employer. While the lord was off at war, the knight was left to keep his castle, and his lady. These knights “serviced” their ladies with such slavish devotion and without any expectation of sexual release, that some historians say they were the unwitting inventors of Sadomasochism, though it’s probably safe to say they never guessed their horse whips would one day be used against them.
A love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent.
– Francis X. Newman
A point of controversy was the existence of “courts of love”, first mentioned by Andreas Capellanus. These were supposedly made up of tribunals of 10 to 70 women who would hear a case of love and rule on it based on the rules of love. 19th-century academics treated these courts as fact, however later historians have disputed that such a thing could ever have existed.
Even so, it’s interesting to consider what they may have thought of today’s “rules of love”. The modern man woos with pizza rather than poetry, but then again women been given the right to vote, amnesty from hysterical asylums – one can even own a black cat without being tied to a stake and burned. I guess as they say… you can’t have it all.
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