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.
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”. 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.” 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.” 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.
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.
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.
 Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, ed. and trans. John Jay Parry, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 33
 Ibid, 34.
 Ibid., 35.
 Ibid., 37
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., pp. 37-38
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For more on courtly love, see:
On incels and courtly love
On courtly love, sexual coercion, and killing your idols
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:
On sex with demons
The Medieval Sex Apocalypse on Drinking with Historians
Doing it Right – A Short Introduction to Medieval Sex for Nerd Nite
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
For more on women in the medieval period, see:
Talking medieval women on History Hack
On women and work
Considering bad motherfuckers: Hildegard of Bingen and Janelle Monáe
On the Ideal Form of Women
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
Let’s talk about Game of Thrones part 2: on marriage and Sansa
5 thoughts on “On courtly love and pick up artists”
Dr. Janega – All of your columns are informative and fun, thank you so much! The dynamics you’re describing here happen between gay men sometimes, too. And most probably happened between men in medieval times, too, of course.
Men who pull pick up games are often surprised when I call them on it, so it must work way too often. As a species, we are not very smart.
Oh wow I am so sorry you have to deal with them too Edgar! Solidarity.
Thanks. Nice to know some things never change. : /
One quirk of medieval writers like Capellanus I don’t understand is the interpretation of/reaction to ‘standard classics’ like Ovids De Amore and take it excruciatingly literal. Ovids poem is the worst dating guide imaginable and mostly tongue in cheek, but Capellanus just sat there nodding along? What zero pussy does to a mf
LMAO oh my god so true. I am laughing so hard.