Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Art of Courtly Love and Modern Day Storytelling

Andrew Capellanus wrote his rules of Courtly Love in the late twelfth century. Do they still apply today?

1. Marriage is no excuse for not loving.

The concept of a loveless marriage is a potent one in fiction. Why would two characters be together if they didn’t love? The reasons are numerous, but they are almost always catalysts for getting the real couple together. Most loveless marriage examples I can think of are on soap operas, but if you have others be sure to share them.

2. He who is not jealous cannot love.

Jealousy is a also a very strong plot device. It is the motivator to propel a story forward or to throw an obstacle in its path. In many instances, the jealousy is something that causes character flaws to appear or for a relationship to be tested. J.D. Robb actually tackled this one in a new and intriguing way when an old flame of Eve's showed up early on in the series. It peeled back more layers to Roarke, deepening both Eve's and our understanding of the character.

3. No one can be bound by two loves.

The love triangle is a particularly strong plot device. But the concept of passionate love for two different individuals is one that modern romantic sensibilities struggle with. Even in a ménage storyline, one expects that there is always a ‘favorite’ or one who was meant to be.

4. Love is always growing or diminishing.

This rule is simple yet has a complex effect on story lines and characters. Feelings can be nurtured or neglected. Personal perceptions can be overcome and who two people are at the beginning of a journey may not be who they are at the middle or near the end.  Look at Jeremy and Bonnie on The Vampire Diaries. In the first season, Jeremy was not remotely a possibility as a romantic interest for Bonnie. That relationship had to grow, the feelings of the two had to increase. It took time on the journey to achieve even those first baby steps on the way to a real relationship.

5. It is not good for one lover to take anything against the will of the other.

This rule seems to be more a code of behavior rather than of love itself and the most recent example of this was once again The Vampire Diaries (yes, I love my show), but when Damon forced Elena to drink his blood to assure himself that she could die permanently, it took from Elena the right to make her own choice.

6. A male cannot love until he has fully reached puberty.

Self-explanatory, yes?

7. Two years of mourning for a dead lover are prescribed for the surviving lovers.

For Damon on The Vampire Diaries this was a journey that took 145 years, not only to mourn the loss of “Katherine,” but also to foster the hope that he could save her. Katherine’s betrayal, by not being in the tomb, was a brutal moment in Damon’s grief. It laid bare the ideal that he had mourned a liar, it also opened him up to new possibilities.

8. No one should be deprived of love without a valid reason.

On television, a successful relationship often means back burner storylines and no front burner scenes. I.E. a happy couple without conflict is considered a boring entertainment. This argument created severe tension between fans of the television show Bones and the writers as they saw missed opportunities for Booth and Brennan to be together. I think the challenge needs to be met that the onus against that option is as constricting as worrying about lack of storyline if the characters are together.

9. No one can love who is not driven to do so by the power of love.

True love can redeem even the most villainous of characters. They might complain every step of the journey, but they will be driven to do the things they do because of the love they feel. Several characters are representative of this on television and in books:
  • Damon Salvatore, The Vampire Diaries
  • Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Eric, Southern Vampire Mysteries
  • Cara, Legend of the Seeker

10. Love always departs from the dwelling place of avarice.

Couples break up over the heinous acts or choices of a partner. Matt, for example, chose to leave Caroline because he couldn’t handle her supernatural life and existence as a vampire.

11. It is not proper to love one whom one would be ashamed to marry.

Moral and ethical crises can be a great source of storyline material. Elena on The Vampire Diaries is struggling with her feelings for Damon because she doesn’t always like him, similarly Sheriff Forbes has struggled with the concept that her daughter was a vampire, something she has been taught to hate her whole life. But how can she hate her own child?

12. The true lover never desires the embraces of any save his lover.

It’s hard to imagine someone moving on from the person they “love” but sometimes, when you can’t be with the one you love, you love the one you’re with, particularly if you are trying to stay away from your true love as Angel did on Buffy and as Booth tried to do for Brennan when she said she couldn’t handle a relationship on Bones.

13. Love rarely lasts when it is revealed.

Unrequited love provides a powerful and provocative romantic inducement for readers and audiences alike. Damon on The Vampire Diaries actually “revealed” his love to Elena in the episode Rose and then made her forget. He loved her enough to let her go, but only to his brother. His later declaration that “I will always choose you,” was enough to make even the most cynical of hearts swoon.

14. An easy attainment makes love contemptible: a difficult one makes it more dear.

The more obstacles a couple must overcome, the more vital they are to the audience. The trick here is to not create so many obstacles that people believe the couple will never, ever get together (ala Bones). On Smallville, Clark and Lana finally managed it and later, so did Clark and Lois. The obstacles should strengthen the couple’s feelings, not leave the reader (or audience) feeling jerked around.

Skipping ahead to rule 31. Nothing prevents a woman from being loved by two men or a man from being loved by two women.

The romantic triangle is at the heart of many stories whether it’s Damon/Katherine/Stefan, Stefan/Elena/Damon, Hannah/Booth/Bones, Motorcycle Boy/Beckett/Castle, Jacob/Bella/Edward, Bill/Sookie/Eric, Jace/Faythe/Marc – it’s the love story that compels readers and viewers.

Have our views of romance and romantic actions truly changed that much in the last eight centuries? Not really. We believe in love, in fighting for love and in lovers being united against all odds. At the end of the day, it’s that happily ever after that we want for our favorite couples and ourselves.


  1. Wow, just how many rules did he come up with? Or was 31 the last?

    Personally, I think grief can't have a time limit, but I could see where 2 years in the middle ages would be an awfully long time:-0

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  3. The problem with rules is that there are always exceptions, especially when they're rules about humans and human emotions. However, I really love this article, because a lot of the rules are still relevant to relationships today.

    It seems like I've read a few books lately that deal with the conundrum presented in Rule No. 12. Some authors deal with it by having the characters experience an "embrace" with another as being like kissing a brother or sister. Usually the kiss serves to help the character clarify his or her feelings for their "true love." I don't really agree with Rule 13, though it's true enough fictionally speaking. It's why I don't like series that go on forever--writers go to desperate lengths to keep the love story interesting. No. 14 is also a fictional standard, but I can't say it applies to real life. I love slow burn romance.

  4. Love love love love the use of Courtly Love in this examination. Of course, he was examining COURTLY love--chivalry, loving without ever marrying or even touching, men were considered the beacons of light while many women more carnal--or at least until recently. I haven't taken medieval lit. in a while--and of course it was for high born people. I'm not sure if this point low born people were even considered capable of love.

    Yeah--Spike. Joss tripped himself up there. He had for seasons designed an at first selfishly loving, but progressively in love to the extent it appeared to be doing good for good's sake because of Buffy. Which I think would have been an awesome exploration. Can anything, even love, make you gain a soul? The prob was that would have been too shades of gray for a show that prided itself on Buffy offing vampires all the time.

    Instead, they got awkward. 1st. They had to make Spike a villain again and have Riley save Buffy's sense of self worth so that she would break up with spike. 2. Causing the rape scene. Rape scenes in general should only be touched if you are really serious about it, and Buffy wasn't. Plus, it was overall an awkward scene obviously meant to propel Spike into getting a soul. The only problem is, he wouldn't have gotten so upset and decided to go find his soul if he didn't have a soul. Then the next season, he rejoined the group "because he has a soul" and became a martyr. Even for buffy, this is some major messed upedness on the dating front. Ever notice that every single relationship in that show basically comes down to: Life is Pain. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

    Bones--yeah. They were reaching the end of the rope on how long they could keep various sexual tensions brewing. They pulled it off--but barely pulled it off most of this season. However, the problem with so many of these shows that are based on sexual tension is that when you change that, you effectively jump the shark. The original premise, what drove the show more than the actual bones, is gone. Shows that jump the shark rarely, tho ever so often, survive. When a show gets to this point, I believe it is best to tie up all loose ends and bow out gracefully.

    For instance, if it wasn't for the fact they left what happened to spike up in the air (which I think was unnecc.), and the fact we never would have seen the too little, too late, too brilliant Nathan Fillion as Caleb. Eh. Even then--Buffy basically jumped the shark after the sixth season.

  5. Damn. For some reason I thought I posted this here before, but I must have deleted it by mistake. This was a hilarious and fun use of Courtly Love. Of course, courtly love in those days was, well, courtly. Nobody else got to be in true love. Also, courtly love was almost never supposed to actually be consummated. Love was so much more true love when you didn't touch each other, generally.

    Spike--yeah. (SPOILERS!) I've always felt Joss fucked that one up. Over the course of a season and a half, we saw Spike progress so that he was doing good even when it didn't have anything to do with winning brownie points with Buffy. I had begun to believe Joss had created the fascinating concept (which I stole, since he didn't really use it) that a vampire could GROW a soul. But one of Buffy's cardinal rules is that vamps are not redeemable (unless cursed with a soul. And Angel never steps out on Buffy when he has a soul. She dates others, and he does whatever on Angel, but while tormented and in Sunnydale, he is a one woman vamp) Back to growing a soul. The prob is that Joss set up that soulless schtick specifically so that the nation wouldn't feel bad about Buffy staking vamps left and right. So incredibly awkwardly, Spike was proved "bad" again after a season and a half of doing nothing but being behind on his kitten markers. Riley conveniently shows up right then to tell Buffy how cool she is. And takes his married self away (which is good, because we all hate him, but it makes him being there at all sillier). Then, in a move I never like to see, Spike rather traumatically tries to rape Buffy. I don't like to see rape tossed around. It's one of my pet peeves. I don't see the world, and Buffy particularly traumatized enough.

    (STILL WITH THE SPOILERS) But here's the weird again: Spike is haunted by what he tried to do. And yeah, I know, Joss wanted something really big to go wrong so as to have Spike take the drastic measure of getting his soul back on purpose. So the weird is, how can he feel guilt when as soulless he wouldn't know that was wrong? How can he feel pain at hurting another without a conscious? How can he choose this mission to get his soul unless he already has one?

    I firmly believe that if they had let Spike continue his burgeoning into a good guy in season six, season six is the end of buffy. The last sequence (and I won't spoil it) is beautiful, and creates closure, and makes me cry. Seventh Season jumped the shark on so many levels.

    Speaking of which. Bones and Booth can't get together. They can't. The whole show is based on that sexual tension. You may think it's about gross corpses, but it isn't. Bones and Booth getting together means the show will jump the shark. Few survive that jump, and I'm having a hard time imagining how this one would.

  6. This is was a great use of the rules of courtly love. In context with the entire text of On Love, they come across differently, on a spiritual/platonic/melodramatic level, but it still shows how little things have changed.

    @ Bets. Agreed. Bones and Booth getting together (happily) will screw up the show. Just look at Moonlighting.