The term "courtly love" was first popularized by Gaston Paris in 1883, and has since come under a wide variety of definitions and uses, even being dismissed as nineteenth-century romantic fiction. Its interpretation, origins and influences continue to be a matter of critical debate.
The term and Paris's definition were soon widely accepted and adopted. In 1936 C. S. Lewis wrote The Allegory of Love further solidifying courtly love as a "love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love".
Later, historians such as D. W. Robertson in the 1960s and John C. Moore and E. Talbot Donaldson in the 1970s, were critical of the term as being a modern invention, Donaldson calling it "The Myth of Courtly Love", because it is not supported in medieval texts. Even though the term "courtly love" does appear only in just one extant Provençal poem (as cortez amors in a late 12th century lyric by Peire d'Alvernhe), it is closely related to the term fin'amor ("fine love") which does appear frequently in Provençal and French, as well as German translated as hohe Minne. In addition, other terms and phrases associated with "courtliness" and "love" are common throughout the Middle Ages. Even though Paris used a term with little support in the contemporaneous literature, it was not a neologism and does usefully describe a particular conception of love and focuses on the courtliness that was at its essence.
The practice of courtly love was developed in the castle life of four regions: Aquitaine, Provence, Champagne and ducal Burgundy, from around the time of the First Crusade (1099). Courtly love found its expression in the lyric poems written by troubadours, such as William IX, Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1126), one of the first troubadour poets.
Poets adopted the terminology of feudalism, declaring themselves the vassal of the lady and addressing her as midons (my lord), a sort of code name so that the poet did not have to reveal the lady's name, but which was flattering by addressing her as his lord. The troubadour's model of the ideal lady was the wife of his employer or lord, a lady of higher status, usually the rich and powerful female head of the castle. When her husband was away on Crusade or other business she dominated the household and cultural affairs; sometimes this was the case even when the husband was at home. The lady was rich and powerful and the poet gave voice to the aspirations of the courtier class, for only those who were noble could engage in courtly love. This new kind of love saw nobility not based on wealth and family history, but on character and actions; thus appealing to poorer knights who saw an avenue for advancement.
Eleanor of Aquitaine brought ideals of courtly love from Aquitaine first to the court of France, then to England, where she was queen to two kings. Her daughter Marie, Countess of Champagne brought courtly behavior to the Count of Champagne's court. The rules of courtly love were codified by the late 12th century in Andreas Capellanus' highly influential work De Amore ("Concerning Love").
Given that practices similar to courtly love were already prevalent in Al-Andalus and elsewhere in the Islamic world, it is very likely that Islamic practices influenced the Christian Europeans. William of Aquitane, for example, was involved in the First Crusade, and in the ongoing Reconquista in Spain, so that he would have come into contact with Muslim culture a great deal.
According to G. E. von Grunebaum, there were several elements which developed in Arabic literature. The notions of "love for love's sake" and "exaltation of the beloved lady" have been traced back to Arabic literature of the 9th and 10th centuries. The notion of the "ennobling power" of love was developed in the early 11th century by the Persian psychologist and philosopher, Ibn Sina (known as "Avicenna" in Europe), in his treatise Risala fi'l-Ishq (Treatise on Love). The final element of courtly love, the concept of "love as desire never to be fulfilled", was at times implicit in Arabic poetry, but was first developed into a doctrine in European literature, in which all four elements of courtly love were present.
According to an argument outlined by Maria Rosa Menocal in The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History, in 11th-century Spain, a group of wandering poets appeared who would go from court to court, and sometimes travel to Christian courts in southern France, a situation closely mirroring what would happen in southern France about a century later. Contacts between these Spanish poets and the French troubadours were frequent. The metrical forms used by the Spanish poets were similar to those later used by the troubadours.
Courtly love saw a woman as an ennobling spiritual and moral force, a view that was in opposition to ecclesiastical sexual attitudes. Rather than being critical of romantic and sexual love as sinful, the poets praised it as the highest good. Marriage had been declared a sacrament of the Church, at the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215, and within Christian marriage, the only purpose was procreation with any sex beyond that purpose seen as non-pious. The ideal state of a Christian was celibacy, even in marriage. By the beginning of the 13th century the ideas of courtly tradition were condemned by the church as being heretical. The church channeled many of these energies into the devotion of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Courtly love had a civilizing effect on knightly behavior, beginning in the late 11th century; it has been suggested that the prevalence of arranged marriages required other outlets for the expression of more personal occurrences of romantic love. New expressions of highly personal private piety in the 11th century were at the origins of what a modern observer would recognize as a personality, and the vocabulary of piety was also transferred to the conventions of courtly love.
At times, the lady could be a princesse lointaine, a far-away princess, and some tales told of men who had fallen in love with women whom they had never seen, merely on hearing their perfection described, but normally she was not so distant. As the etiquette of courtly love became more complicated, the knight might wear the colors of his lady: where blue or black were sometimes the colors of faithfulness; green could be a sign of unfaithfulness. Salvation, previously found in the hands of the priesthood, now came from the hands of one's lady. In some cases, there were also women troubadours who expressed the same sentiment for men.
The literary convention of courtly love can be found in most of the major authors of the Middle Ages such as Geoffery Chaucer, John Gower, Dante, Marie de France, Chretien de Troyes, Gottfried von Strassburg and Malory.
Courtly love was born in the lyric, first appearing with Provençal poets in the 11th century, including itinerant and courtly minstrels such as the French troubadours and trouvères. This French tradition spread later to the German Minnesänger, such as Walther von der Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach.
The vernacular poetry of the romans courtois, or courtly romances, included many examples of courtly love. Some of them are set within the cycle of poems celebrating King Arthur's court. This was a literature of leisure, directed to a largely female audience for the first time in European history.
Perhaps the most important and popular work was that of Andreas Capellanus's De Amore which described the ars amandi ("the art of loving") in twelfth century Provence. His work followed in the tradition of the Roman work Ars amatoria ("Art of Love") by Ovid and the Muslim work Tawq al-hamamah (The turtle-dove's necklace) by Ibn Hazm.
The themes of courtly love were not confined to the medieval, but seen both in serious and comic forms in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, for example, shows Romeo attempting to love Rosaline in an almost contrived courtly fashion while Mercutio mocks him for it.
Denis de Rougemont said that the troubadours were influenced by Cathar doctrines which rejected the pleasures of the flesh and that they were metaphorically addressing the spirit and soul of their ladies. Edmund Reiss claimed it was also a spiritual love, but a love that had more in common with Christian love, or caritas. On the other hand, scholars such as Mosché Lazar claim it was adulterous sexual love with physical possession of the lady the desired end.
Within the corpus of troubadour poems there is a wide range of attitudes, even across the works of individual poets. Some poems are physically sensual, even bawdily imagining nude embraces, while others are highly spiritual and border on the platonic.