Courtly Love and Social Institutions


For several thousand years, the world’s wealthy and nobility used marriage as a contract, a method of binding two families together to increase power or money. Only in the last century has that sort of arranged marriage disappeared. During the Middle Ages, arranged marriages were common in every station of life. From princes to weavers to peasant farmers, it was the social norm for two families to arrange a match between their children for the sake of power and wealth. In some cases, these unions might bring together two powerful estates or kingdoms, while in other cases, two smaller farms might combine to become a small estate. This kind of arranged marriage did not always take into account the basic human need for affection. All people want to be loved on some level, especially by someone with whom they spend a significant amount of time. It is this lack of affection in so many marriages that helped lead to the era of courtly love and chivalry, the effects of which are still seen in modern Western culture.


Marriage itself was incredibly important during the Middle Ages for all social classes for both religious and social reasons. Getting married was a way to devote yourself to one person for the rest of your life, much like monks devoted themselves to God. Perhaps this is the reason why Gratian felt justified in saying, “That no woman is to be compelled to marry a man Ambrose testifies commenting on the First Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘Let her marry whom she wills, only in the Lord.’ That is she shall marry one whom she thinks fit for her, for unwilling marriages commonly have bad results[1].” His main point is that anyone who is forced into marriage is very likely to be unhappy and the sacrament of marriage is not meant to be a punishment. Marriage is the holy union between a man and a woman for the sake of love and having children. However, social standards required men and women to marry people of a similar station. A king would never be allowed to marry the daughter of a peasant farmer, and a common soldier would never dream of asking a duchess to marry him, regardless of any level of affection between them.


For the most part, marriages were still arranged by parents even though the idea was looked down upon by the church, however, it wasn’t unusual for the intended couple to have some say in who they would or would not marry. In the eyes of many, a marriage couldn’t be seen as valid unless there was some form of consent or agreement from both of the parties involved. “For between them there was consent which is the efficient cause of marriage according to the words of Isidore…[2]” For example, a father could approve of several suitors for his daughter, but she would be allowed to choose which of them she would marry. Of course, this wasn’t always the case. There were some instances where children were betrothed at birth to seal an alliance.


The marriage itself is somewhat difficult to define. During the Middle Ages, Gratian said, “It should be known that a marriage is begun by betrothal and completed by intercourse[3].” By this, he meant that a betrothal was the technical beginning of the marriage, however, the marriage wasn’t entirely valid until it was consummated. There was some debate over this because many nobles considered a marriage binding as soon as the betrothal was declared, while others had reasons to withdraw from marriage contracts and used the absence of sexual intercourse as a reason to have the marriage annulled. Essentially, marriage was a tool that the rich and powerful used to make themselves even more so, though the church did sometimes support those who did not consent to a forced marriage.


From the late twelfth century to the beginning of the thirteenth century, the idea of courtly love became a standard of behavior for society, especially among the nobility and wealthy middle class. The image of knighthood changed entirely with the advent of courtly love and chivalry. Before the late twelfth century, knights were essentially mounted soldiers who only retained their status for as long as they