An Interpretation of Courtly Love

Bruce MacLennan

To help explain the ideas in Dante's Commedia I will give my own interpretation of "erotic spirituality" (that is, the spirituality of Eros) as represented in courtly love and related practices. I will treat courtly love primarily as a means of divine union, although certainly it did not always have such exalted goals. My presentation will be from a male perspective, for that is what is represented primarily in the sources (chivalry, Wolfram and the troubadours, Dante and the Fedeli d'Amore); it would be interesting to explore these ideas from a female perspective. (The principal sources for this interpretation will be found in my remarks on Dante and the Fedeli d'Amore.

Archetypal Psychology

From the standpoint of Jung's psychology, the part of a man's unconscious mind that is nearest, and to which he relates most easily, is the Anima, which has a feminine character. Therefore a man often discovers his unconscious mind by means of his Anima, and we may think of her as a guide into the deeper parts of the unconscious, in which are those patterns of behavior that are common to all people, which Jung calls archetypes. When we fall into one of these patterns, the situation seems charged with significance, numinous, because we are participating in eternal forms of meaning.

Certainly one of the most familiar of these archetypal patterns is the relation of Lover to Beloved. At the physical level this is the instinctual pattern of sex and procreation, which leads to the perpetuation of the species. The sparks fly because it is not just a man encountering a woman, but Eternal Man encountering Eternal Woman and together participating in the immortality of the species. This amounts to contact with the divine energy that philosophers from Plato to Ficino have called the Terrestrial Venus – the Venus who sees to the procreation of species through desire, love and sex. (She was called "Terrestrial" to distinguish her from Celestial Venus, whom I will mention later.)

The central core of the unconscious, which may be said to guide our destinies as individuals and as a species, is what Jung calls the Self; it is a sort of divine Providence. According to Jung we may live happier, more fulfilling and meaningful lives by becoming conscious of the Self and working in harmony with it. Individuation is his term for this process of becoming more whole and undivided (individuus).


These ideas can be understood from a Neoplatonic perspective, so it will be worthwhile to think back over our readings and discussions of Plotinus. From this perspective the Nous, the Intellectual/Spiritual Principle, emanates from the One, but is directed back toward it, in an eternal cyclic living flow, by love (eros) of the Good (which is the One). In Neoplatonic philosophy the Nous (Mind) is seen as feminine and is identified with Wisdom (Sophia, Sapientia), Philosophy, Angel of Knowledge, Lady of Thought, etc. (More precisely, each level is "feminine," i.e. receptive, with respect to the level above it, and "masculine," i.e. active, with respect to that below.) In Christian Neoplatonism Nous is often identified with the Holy Spirit (traditionally feminine) or with the Virgin Mary (in which case the One is identified with the Trinity). Henceforth I will call the Nous "Wisdom" and use the feminine pronoun.

Below the level of Wisdom is the level of Soul, which is simultaneously the World Soul and all of our individual souls. Our individual souls, you will recall, have three parts: irrational, rational and intellectual; the latter is the immortal, divine part, which makes contact with the sphere of Wisdom (Nous). Recall also that the intellectual/spiritual part of the soul is not "awake" in most people. Its awakening presupposes desire (Eros) motivated by love of Wisdom (philo-sophia).

Beauty, in the philosophical sense, is the apprehensible aspect of the Good, the sign by which we may identify the Good as an end (a perfection or entelechy). However, the philosopher must learn to look beyond surface beauty and see intelligible perfection. The Platonic "reminiscences of Beauty," with which we are all born, are the archetypal patterns that attract, excite, enthuse, motivate and direct our thoughts and actions. (Therefore Dante and the other poets of the dolce stil nuovo - sweet new style - stressed the importance of embodying beautiful ideas in beautiful words and sounds.)

In the process of ascent as previously described (Plotinian Ascent), the philosopher rises first to the love of Wisdom; then, as his own intellectual-soul (nous) awakes, he ascends to approach and see Wisdom ("Wisdom veiled"); finally he rises to union with Wisdom ("Wisdom unveiled"). However, the ascent, at least as Plotinus conceived it, is entirely interior; likewise Plato (in the Symposium) described a movement (ascent) away from love of the individual beautiful person toward love of Beauty itself (the ascent from Terrestrial Venus to Celestial Venus). Therefore, we need to understand the different process in courtly love, which remained focused on a real woman.

Courtly Love

Ancient philosophers (e.g. Plato in the Phaedrus) distinguished normal sexual pleasure (associated with Venus) from passionate love (associated with Eros), which they considered a kind of divine madness or ecstasy; the latter is literally enthusiasm, which comes from entheos, "possessed," that is, having a god (theos) inside. Therefore, passion is possession by a god (Eros in this case), and thus contact and union with the divine. (Here we can see part of the reason for the conflict between Venus and Cupid/Eros in "Cupid and Psyche.")

In psychological terms, when a man and woman love passionately, they are both "possessed," because they are participating in an archetypal relation, which is universal and eternal. The Neoplatonists said that the lover is possessed by Eros (Love, described as a fair youth), and the beloved is possessed by Anteros (Responding Love, described as a dark youth).

If the beloved is a woman, then she will be experienced by the lover as a manifestation of the Eternal Feminine (who may appear in various guises, e.g. Seductress, Great Mother, Divine Wisdom); that is, she is a reflection in the material world of the divine Beloved. We may say that the lover and beloved idealize each other, in that each person sees the eternal Forms (Ideas) through the other person.

In the feudal world, no less than in the ancient world, married life was not especially conducive to passionate love, which generally occurred outside of marriage. Furthermore, putting one's spouse on a pedestal is not such a good idea even now, since it places unrealistic demands on one partner and raises unrealistic expectations in the other. It's not wise to treat another person as a god; that's what got Psyche into trouble. Therefore, in these societies the divine ecstasy, the possession by Eros and the longing for the eternal Beloved, was usually sought outside of marriage.

Courtly love may be understood as a spiritual practice in which the lover invoked (invited possession by) Eros, and the beloved invoked (invited possession by) Anteros or divine Wisdom. The lover longed for, came to know, and ultimately united with divinity; the beloved came to identify with divinity and to experience the flow of divine Wisdom through herself. Both were elevated, for a time, into the celestial realm, the sphere of Nous. Therefore the lover typically referred to his beloved by a senhal or symbolic name (e.g. "Precious Stone Beyond all Others"). This had the practical effect of disguising her identity (for she was married to someone else), but the spiritual effect of reminding them both that she was representing the eternal Beloved, so they both should behave accordingly. Since the intended relation was archetypal, it was appropriate for each to set aside their egos (hence also the virtue of secrecy).

This relation also effected a transformation of consciousness for, according to the psychological theories of the time, the dormant intellectual part of the soul could be awakened only by an external force, which was called Active Intellect, but also Wisdom, Intelligence, Angel of Knowledge and Giver of Forms. Because this force complemented a man's own faculties, its effect was experienced as a love-union or sacred marriage (hieros gamos). Since it might appear in the form of a man's beloved, the lover submitted himself to his beloved as an incarnation of Wisdom. With this background we can understand some of the characteristics of courtly love.

For this spiritual practice to succeed, each party would have to strive to embody the ideal they represented, to be a suitable vehicle for the divine energies. The beloved would strive to be a living embodiment of divine Wisdom, an inspiration and guide for her lover, so that he would accomplish his heroic destiny. The lover in turn would strive to love the Eternal Feminine through his beloved. He would try and prove his worthiness by subjecting himself to tests and by adhering to the chivalric virtues, which were moderation, service, prowess, patience, chastity, secrecy and pity.

The lover's love for his Lady progressed through three degrees (corresponding to the stages of the ascent in Plato's Symposium):

  1. love for the physical beauty of his beloved (i.e. the beauty of her body),
  2. love for the moral beauty of his beloved (i.e. the beauty of her soul),
  3. love for the divine beauty of his beloved (i.e. the Beauty of Nous).

In the beginning the lover petitioned his prospective beloved by offers of service and by songs or poems of praise. In these ways he proved his sincerity and longing for the Beloved. In time the Lady, as representative of Wisdom, might agree to be his beloved, and they would swear an oath binding them together. She would bestow the Kiss of Peace and give him a gold ring, which symbolized that their bond was unending like the ring. We also read that the beloved saluted her lover, but we must remember that in the Italian of Dante's time salute meant both salutation and salvation. Therefore the beloved's salutation was also a benediction, a granting of salvation by his Lady as representative of the Beloved (Wisdom). The lover expected, when he died, to be welcomed into heaven by the Beloved with a similar salutation and kiss.

The lover then undertook many tasks in service to the Beloved and to prove his faithfulness. Psychologically, these tasks are the challenges that must be faced in achieving an integrated personality. Specifically, they represent the rejected parts of the psyche (the shadow, in Jung's terms) and other psychological complexes that must be acknowledged and consciously integrated. (Recall how Parzival fought but then embraced Feirefiz.) From a spiritual perspective, the tasks represent the many difficulties of adhering to the high standards of courtly love; some failures were to be expected and forgiven.

Service to the Beloved was a common characteristic of courtly love, and by it the lover devoted himself to fulfilling the design of divine Providence, that is, to living in harmony with the Self. The lover was vassal to the Beloved, but served her with dignity.

Separation was another characteristic of courtly love because, short of death, the mortal lover could not enjoy the ecstasy of permanent union with the immortal Beloved. (He could, of course, enjoy sex with the mortal beloved, but that would be a violation of the rules of courtly love and defeat its purpose). Therefore, the lover might be separated from his beloved for long periods; indeed, he might have never met her in person. (This is why so many troubadour songs lament the absence of the beloved; recall also Parzival's long separation from Condwiramurs.) Through separation the lover proved his faithfulness.

Suffering, especially on the part of the lover, was another common characteristic of courtly love. In part this resulted from separation or neglect by the Beloved, but it was also a consequence of the lover being mortal, that is, being physically embodied. From a Neoplatonic perspective, it is according to divine Providence that souls become embodied, and therefore that they endure whatever suffering is necessary to fulfill their destiny while alive. Thus also they must suffer and endure their separation from the Beloved while they do their deeds, until it is their time to die. (Recall that, according to Plotinus, upon death the immortal, divine intellectual-soul reunites with Nous, that is, Wisdom.)

Chastity was another characteristic of courtly love, but it is a subtle concept in this context. From ancient Rome to the Middle Ages poets enumerated the "five lines of love":

gazing, speaking, touching, kissing, coitus;

they may be understood as five degrees of intimacy. Courtly lovers were permitted all except the last, also known as "the gift of mercy" or "the reward." Even here we must draw finer distinctions, for in some cases coitus without ejaculation may have been permitted. The rationale was that ejaculation quenches desire and, especially if pregnancy results, transfers the relationship from Eros (eternal longing) to Venus (procreation). (This was the mistake of Francesca and Paolo, which so frightened Dante.) Given the practical and spiritual dangers, abstinence was probably the safer course for most couples. So long as desire persisted, Eros was present, for it was desire that allowed divine union, according to the Fedeli d'Amore. Therefore, in courtly love desire had to remain unsatisfied.

The practitioners of courtly love described a special Joy of Love (Joy d'Amor), which I interpret in two ways. First is the joy of fulfillment that comes from participating in the archetypal relation of Lover and Beloved; it is the sign of True Love (Vray Amor). The second is the joy resulting from the Beloved, as divine Wisdom, bringing the lover into harmony with eternal Being, the joy stemming from certainty of one's role in the world. In psychological terms, the Anima is the means by which one may become more conscious of the Self and thereby learn to live a happier, more harmonious and meaningful life. When the Joy of Love is achieved, the light of Beauty and the Good shines through all things, transfiguring them. The temporal world and all that is in it are seen as a reflection of eternal Being.

Because, by these means, one comes into contact with the eternal Forms and participates in the eternal life of Nous (Wisdom), one acquires a kind of immortality, for one experiences oneself as a part of the immortal World Soul. These are the reasons why the troubadours described the Beloved as a source of joy, immortality and well-being for the lover. The Joy of Love is described as a fountain of youth. (The Grail, tended by the Grail Bearer, is similarly a source of joy and immortality; it cures all ills. The physical presence of the Beloved has similar effects, according to the Fedeli d'Amore.) Recall also that Joy (Voluptas) was the daughter born of Psyche (Soul) and Cupid (Eros).

In conclusion, Eros is longing for wholeness or completion. One way in which it manifests is in the longing for a beloved to fulfil the archetypal relation of Lover and Beloved, but whenever we are passionate for completion, Eros is upon us. The ultimate longing is the desire to reunite with the One.

This page is
©2001, Bruce MacLennan. Last updated 2001/3/27 20:30 PM