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.

For more on courtly love, see:
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
On incels and courtly love

For more on sex, see:
On women and desire
The history of penis in vagina sex at Bish!
These hoes ain’t loyal: on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture
Sex and the (medieval) city: social hygiene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’

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

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kendrick Lamar enthusiast.

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