On Courtly Love, Sexual Coercion, and Killing Your Idols

Presumably, there will come a time when we will no longer need think pieces on how courtly love as a construct has poisoned romantic and sexual interactions – especially straight ones. Unfortunately, today is not that day, and we have learned once again, and to our sorrow, that our favs are problematic and our idols must be sacrificed. So, we’re gonna talk about it.

I am here to tell you that any time you hear about men being super pushy about sexual advances and not taking no for an answer, you can pretty much trace the enshrinement of said behaviour back to the OG problematic bin-fire, Andreas Capellanus.

We’ve talked about Andreas several times before because he has a lot to fucking answer for. For those new to the game (and sleeping on my insights about Hotline Bling), Andreas, was, as his name suggests a chaplain. Obviously, he was therefore uniquely suited to giving out romantic advice. He wrote an actual guide on the rules of love, called De Amore, which is really something fucking special.

Yes, it breaks down how people should conduct themselves in love affairs, but specifically casts these interactions as classed. So, if you have a rich dude spitting game at a rich lady, that is one, thing. Fancy mofos who want to chat up merchant’s daughter will, theoretically have an entirely different interaction then if they went after a peasant. Spoiler: you have to be more respectful to women with money. Because peasants aren’t even people!

No, I’m not joking. Andreas says that peasants aren’t even capable of love, and rather than feeling anything of the kind they copulate like beasts. He also warns his audience of idle rich dickheads that they really shouldn’t go out of their way to teach peasants about love because it would distract them from, you know, the unending toil in the fields.

Once he made sure that none of the poors were listening in, Andreas started with the listing of the rules. There are thirty-one in all, but I’ll hit you with some highlights:

1. Marriage is no excuse for not loving.
2. He who is not jealous cannot love.
3. No one can be bound by two loves.
4. Love is always growing or diminishing.
5. It is not good for one lover to take anything against the will of the other.
8. No one should be deprived of love without a valid reason.
9. No one can love who is not driven to do so by the power of love.
12. The true lover never desires the embraces of any save his lover.
13. Love rarely lasts when it is revealed.
14. An easy attainment makes love contemptible; a difficult one
makes it more dear.
17. A new love expels an old one.
20. A lover is always fearful.
21. True jealousy always increases the effects of love.
22. If a lover suspects another, jealousy and the effects of love increase.
26. Love can deny nothing to love.
28. The slightest suspicion incites the lover to suspect the worse of his beloved.
30. The true lover is continuously obsessed with the image of his beloved.

So, yeah, that is some absolutely horrific bullshit, as many important historians have noted.

While all of these things coalesce into one big ball of problematic romantic thought, what we need to focus on here are rules 8, 9, and 14 – aka the ‘women owe you their love and affection, and you should just wear them the fuck down until they give that up’ rules.

Rule 8, I am sad to announce, is something that all women have had to deal with at some point in their lives. Women, you see, can’t just say, ‘No thanks’ when propositioned by some dude. There has to be a reason for them to turn a guy down.  This is the genesis of every boyfriend ever referred to when a ‘nice guy’ hits on a woman. Having a boyfriend is crucial here because it brings us back to rule 3. No one can be bound by two loves! So thanks for playing! Leave me alone and please don’t hurt me! Hahahahaha. You seem nice! Ha!

Moreover, it’s part of the reason why even when women do say ‘no’, men just don’t fucking hear it. The ‘no’ itself is not enough without a specific reason behind it. This becomes especially difficult if a woman is actually on a date. You can’t fall back on the dude in question respecting the theoretical ownership of another dude over you to protect yourself because, well, you are here. This is why the ‘why didn’t she just say “no”’ brigade can fuck off into the sun forever. Rule 8 and society have been telling women for one thousand years that they need to explain, in detail, why it is that they are refusing the advances of a man.

Even if a woman manages to scrape it together to say ‘no’ and maybe even give a reason why she thinks she’s people and can make her own decisions, rule 9 gives men yet another way in which they can overrule that. You see – it is ROMANTIC and PROOF OF LOVE (apologies to Chuck Tingle) if a man continues in his pursuit of a woman in the face of adversity. You see, when a guy is really feeling romantic all his efforts can be explained by his overwhelming love for his beloved. It’s not creepy, therefore, to continue to push for something after a woman has asked that you not. It’s romantic! Triumph over adversity!

Courtly love tells men that their very interest in and of itself is proof of the worthiness of their intentions. If they feel something romantic, it is love. And love is unimpeachable, worthy, and enshrined within our society as an unstoppable force for good. This rule not only tells men that their compulsions are honourable, but also tells women that they should be flattered to be on the receiving end of any such intention. If love is a good thing, and men are inspired by it to pursue women, then women are just being offered something nice!  Take it as a compliment!

This is all compounded by rule 14, which is pretty much the backbone of every romcom ever created. You see, rule 14 tells men not only should they ignore any not particularly well reasoned no’s, as per rule 8, but that their willingness to continue in pursuit of a woman – as driven by their oh-so commendable feelings of love (rule 9) – makes love BETTER.

A willingness to stay in pursuit of a woman once she has told you no means that when you DO eventually get together (and hasn’t all media – from fucking courtly love literature through to motherfucking Sex and the City – told us it’s just a matter of eventuality) it will be so much more meaningful. This is the rule that enshrines pursuit as absolutely mandatory for a true romantic experience. It’s not love if you didn’t overcome hardship to attain it.

Rule 14 also manages to be one of the worst goddamn rules because not only does it encourage stalking, but it also dishes out some sweet sweet slut shaming. No one would want to be with a woman who was interested in them! No way! They have to continually turn you down until they are so ground down into an exhausted mess that they agree to be with you. THAT is love.

Now, lest you get too hung up on the word ‘love’ here, and opine to me that this is all well and good, but has nothing to do with sexual misconduct – believe me when I say that this motherfucking priest was not just talking about feelings. No no, Andreas was up here with the world’s very first baseball analogy – and gave us grades of love too:

The first consists in arousing hope;
The second in offering kisses;
The third in the enjoyment of intimate embraces;
The fourth in the abandonment of the entire person.

The end goal of love – explicitly – is sex.

Not only that, but these grades of love do a pretty sweet job of introducing the old ‘asking for it’ argument. The first stage is ‘arousing hope’. Think about that. If a woman even arouses a suspicion in a man that she might be interested in him THAT IS A STAGE OF LOVE. And as we all know, love is pure and compels men to chase it. If women have even sparked their curiosity for a moment they are therefore encouraging a relentless pursuit. That is even before they kissed a dude or maybe let him cop a feel.

As deeply troubling this is, perhaps the most worrying thing is that this is supposed to be the respectful mode of courtship offered to women who share a high social rank with their ‘admirers’. You know how Andreas wrote peasants off as incapable of love? Yeah as a result, men of high rank can just wait until they “come upon a convenient place … [and] take what [they] want by force.” If you have more power you can feel free to straight up rape women. Yay.


Now it’s easy to write all of this off as something that went down a millennium ago and is no longer influencing us. That is simply not true. Every basic ass motherfucker who says that he believes in ‘chivalry’ is a) woefully misinformed about what chivalry is, but also b) saying that he adheres to the idea that approaching courtship in the courtly love model is admirable. Pursuit is a good thing! Women who acquiesce to our desires willingly are unlovable!

We have been poisoned for centuries into believing that love and sex are a game, and that those who have more power can exploit it in order to take what they want. What is more – this is a laudable experience.

Every single one of these factors is in play in the lamentable saga of ‘Grace’ and Aziz Ansari. Every single defence of his actions (For which there are none. Really. Stop it.) relies on Andreas’s tropes. She aroused his interest, and as a result he was meant to pursue her until he eventually gained the end that he wanted. Hell – as a successful powerful man he was practically owed it!

I’m often asked by (extremely basic and condescending) people why it is that I study the medieval period. It’s times like these that I am presented with a convenient answer. If we spent more time looking at where our expectations of romance come from, and critiquing the social structures that they uphold, then maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t still be living in a culture that blithely allows and even encourages sexual coercion and assault.

I can explain exactly how we got here. I’m just trying to figure out why it is that we’re still excusing it now.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

Loves, as an elder millennial, I am cursed to watch my references recede into the past; my memes wither and die; my ability to think of other jokes to put into this sentence dries up imperceptibly, day by day. So it is with my major reference point for explaining the major tropes in courtly love which are still weaponised as romance now – Hotline Bling. The kids are coming up from behind with references that are more relevant than all of the references I know. They don’t care what a child groomer had to say about love and how that connects with twelfth century romance. And you know what? That is fair.

But while my cultural touch points fade, the grip that courtly love has on dating and people’s conceptions of sex does not. As the internet’s foremost yeller about relationships and sex in medieval history, it is therefore my duty to explain to you in a new way how courtly love has fucked up romantic expectations, just in time for cuffing season 2019.

Now you may be wondering what the fuck courtly love actually is, in which case, welcome to the blog mate. Other than an on-going obsession of mine, it’s also a type of romance literature from the high medieval period. It was invented at the various courts in France so that rich people had something to do while they waited around to start pointless wars of succession where a bunch of poor people would die in a ditch.

Anyway, rich people decided that what they were going to do was set up their own way of doing love to use up their free time. This sorta kinda happened because rich people had also invented their own form of inheritance, which we call primogeniture. The primogeniture thing was that when a rich old dude died, his first son got everything. This was a sweet deal if you were a first son. If you were like a second or third, not so much.

Second sons often got shipped off to the Church where they could be suitably fancy, though there would presumably be less romancing. Youngest sons, in turn, often got tied up with military stuff. That meant that they would often go live at larger courts and knight about the joint generally being most chivalrous or whatever.

Now as I will never tire of telling you, marriage in the medieval period, especially for rich people, was extremely not about love. Might you end up loving your spouse? Yeah sure! Was that the point? Absolutely fucking not. Marriage was by and large a contract about securing property and hopefully making some heirs to pass it down to. Feel free to hate your spouse so long as you did all that.

So anyway that meant that in rich houses there would often be a bunch of people not doing much, making eyes at each other, and more particularly with a surplus of young dudes in the mix. Given these particulars, they thought that what they should do was turn the fact that they wanted to bone down into a game.

“Ummm, yeah. Wow. I love 2 b romanced.” – this chick, probably.
(British Library Sloane 4016, f. 44v )

The game, of course, had rules, which are typified in Andreas Capellanus’s De Amore. Now Capellanus may have been a priest, but that didn’t stop my man from giving interested male readers step by step instructions on who to love and how to love them. In case his students were particularly slow, he also supplied fake conversations that men can mimic in order to love at said women.

These, the author calls the “Dialogues” and they come under the heading “In What Manner Love May Be Acquired and in How Many Ways”. For Capellanus, all possible hook ups were hetero (shout out to a basic bitch), but the things that were interchangeable were the classes of the people involved. He wrote up dialogues for people in what can roughly be translated as the middle, noble, and higher noble classes.

According to Callpelanus, hook ups between people happened because of only three possible things: “a beautiful figure, excellence of character, [and] extreme readiness of speech”.[1] So basically in order to get someone you need to be hot, or a good person, or failing that, have game.

Capellanus was outright disdainful of hot dudes who pick up chicks though, because, “A beautiful figure wins love with very little effort, especially when the lover who is sought is simple, for a simple lover thinks that there is nothing to look for in one’s beloved besides a beautiful figure and face and a body well cared for. I do not particularly blame the love of such people, but neither do I have much approval for it.”[2]

So yeah Capellanus is out here on some standard Chad/Stacey discourse. Fundamentally he is aware that people adhering to the beauty standard are on a one way ticket to pound town. Less hot dudes need fear not, though, as you can talk your way into bed if you aren’t as hot as Sir Chad. This is because, “Many times fluency of speech will incline to love the hearts of those who do not love, for an elaborate line of talk on the part of the lover usually sets love’s arrows a-flying and creates a presumption in favour of the excellent character of the speaker.”[3]

“It’s called my personal space, and ideally you would be aware of it and respect it.” – almost certainly this lady.
(British Library  Harley 4431, f. 145)

How do you do that? Well, with some standard chat up lines, which Capellanus says should be general and vague. Say hello and then “you should say things that have nothing to do with your subject – make her laugh at something, or else praise her home, or her family, or herself.”[4]

If this sounds familiar then it should! Because this is exactly what Pick Up Artists – aka some of the worst humans in the history of the world – encourage. To wit, they tell the weirdos who think that this is a good idea to memorise “openers”, just some random information that you can spew at whatever poor woman has wandered into their periphery. These can range in technique from a “Humor Opener” (where they try to make a joke), an “Opinion Opener” where they ask for input from a woman they are targeting, to the “Stop and Shock” which is akin to saying something like, “I’m sorry but I just have to tell you X…”.

The idea on both parts here is to get women talking in whatever way necessary in order to get to the point where you can get into their good graces.

Step two – make them feel special. For Capellanus this is especially true of middle class women as they “commonly delight in being commended and readily believe every word that looks like praise.”[5] Capellanus says you can tell middle class women that they are beautiful, and then when they sort of disassemble you can hit them with the riddles, i.e. “…if you think you are not beautiful, you should believe that I must really be in love, since to me your beauty excels that of all other women; and love makes even an ugly woman seem beautiful to her lover.”[6] So compliment a woman; get her to say “oh gosh I wouldn’t say that” as she has been told she must lest she be called a vain bitch; then jump at her with the AHA! You now owe me love. Them’s the rules.

This right here? An awful fucking lot like negging. For the uninitiated, negging is a common Pick Up Artist technique where you say awful shit to women in order to make them feel like they are not, in fact, the most exquisite creatures ever to have graced the planet which they probably are. After negging a woman, so the PUA thought goes, women will seek approval from the douche nozzle who negged them. For reasons. I don’t know why, ok? They really do think this. That’s all I know.

Anyway, the important thing with this is that when engaging with women you should always be pushing, with the understanding that the woman will likely be on the defensive. Capellanus gives his readers ways to parry any objections that the women his studious fuck bois are harassing might have including: “you are too old for me”, “the stuff you are saying makes no sense”, “you just said that you don’t know anything about relationships and I don’t feel like being your mummy”, and “I am married”. Respectively, they are “No I am not.”, “Yes I did.”, “So?”, and “I don’t care”, just FYI. See that? Women can never have a reason why they shouldn’t be boning any man who started a conversation with them that a studious man can’t talk them out of. Women are simple like that.

“Um, wow, how can I say no? That is a legitimate question, just by the way.” – this weary woman
(British Library King’s 322, f. 1r )

Similarly, PUAs consistently attempt to up the ante of situations and counter any objections that women may have. Say you are a gross PUA and you have been using the “kino” technique wherein you have been gradually increasing touching a woman, and she is clearly grossed out by it. Well then you employ a “statement of empathy” by saying something like, “Oh sorry, I’m just a really hands on person” to show that you understand she is uncomfortable, but shifting the onus onto her to be empathetic to your sad ass. She is now the mean one for making the dude feel sad for grouping her. Nice.

And this is another place where both courtly love and pick up “artistry” cross paths – both require women to act in the way that they have been socially conditioned to in order to work. In courtly love literature this is sometimes explicit. De Amore, for example, contains a number of mock “trials” in it, where various love cases are brought to the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine to be decided. What these trials do from a literary standpoint (they jury is still out on whether or not they actually took place in any sort of real world setting in the twelfth century) is to codify what are acceptable responses to various romantic quandaries.

Fun fact – in almost all of the findings of every case the woman is found to be in the wrong. There is one case where a dude randomly dumps a woman to shag someone else, then tries to get back with the first woman where the dude is called out. Thassit. Otherwise women were always found to owe whatever dude flashed his boner at her their love. Women in this conception of romance are expected to become objects of male attention and to always accept it, regardless of their own comfort. More or less, if a man loves a woman and can be quantified as “deserving of love” on paper, then he was owed that love.  

It’s this idea – that women owe men something unless you have a specific reason to be able to opt out – that PUAs play on. They are expecting women to follow a specific social script and feel obligated to interact. This is why there are “openers” which they use. They know women feel obligated to reply to people who interact with them because women are consistently told that they are responsible for the feelings of others. Otherwise it’s the woman who is rude.

More to the point, even if both Capellanus and PUAs discard the social niceties they depend on for flirting, at the heart of the courtly love/ PUA approach is the idea that women are a monolith. You can write scripts for how any interaction will go and women will invariably follow them because women are robots following a specific algorithm. You can devalue women and say terrible negative stuff to them and they will respond by trying to fuck you. As long as you push the right buttons, women will have sex with you because all they are is a machine designed to respond to the desires of men.

Christine de Pizan and the squad building a wall to keep the fuck bois out.

The PUA industry is an absolute misogynist pile of garbage that is designed to prey upon the worst aspects and fears of alienated men, for sure. However, it’s not something that came out of nowhere. Our society has a long and proud tradition of erasing women’s agency. Women are trained from an early age to understand that they are expected to respond to demands from men, romantic or otherwise, with deference. When women then accept the roles that society has been shoving at us since we were told the Queen of England thinks we owe some random a relationship, that becomes proof that we are biologically weak minded and predisposed to being gamed. This kicks off yet more PUA nonsense, and so it goes.

 The good news is this: you don’t actually have to listen to any of this nonsense. All of us, men, women, or nonbinaries, have the chance to decide how it is that we react to the people who invade our lives. And as long as douches are writing down what they think the cheat codes to romance are, we can read and subvert them. If you see someone in the wild trying to employ PUA tactics, call them on it. In my experience a good old, “Pick Up Artist tricks, huh? How’s that working out for you?” works wonders.

Similarly, understanding that our conceptions of romance and interpersonal flirting are based on a set of principals written by a too horny priest in the twelfth century can help us liberate ourselves from these expectations. You don’t owe anyone anything because they took an interest in you. I don’t care how good they look on paper, or how much Eleanor of Aquitaine’s literary personification lectures you.

You can reject this. Plus, it makes Drake sad when you do. So that’s a plus.

[1] Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, ed. and trans. John Jay Parry, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 33
[2] Ibid, 34.
[3] Ibid., 35.
[4] Ibid., 37
[5] Ibid., 39.
[6] Ibid., pp. 37-38

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on courtly love, see:
On courtly love and pick-up artists
On incels and courtly love
On Hotline Bling and courtly love
On power and the entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women, or, the thing that is actually ‘medieval’ about Trump

For more on medieval sex, see:
Talking sex in the medieval times on Holly Randall Unfiltered
On “alpha” men, sexual contagion, and poorly disguised misogyny
That’s not what sodomy is, but OK
On sexualising the “other”
On Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
On Sex, Logic, and Being the Subject
The Medieval Podcast – Medieval Sexuality with Eleanor Janega
On the Objectification of Sex
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
On Dildos and Penance
On No Nut November
On cuckolding – a thing
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
The history of penis in vagina as default sex at Bish!
Sex and the (medieval) city: social hygiene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
On women and desire
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture

On how that is not chivalry, see:
That’s not what chivalry is, but ok

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: