One of the most enjoyable papers I wrote in college was about Sir Lancelot and how poorly he fulfilled the rules of courtly love. For fun, I’m posting the paper in two parts today and Wednesday. I hope you enjoy it and that it makes you think a little.
Lancelot, the Anomaly of Courtly Love
When asked who they believe the greatest and most chivalrous of all King Arthur’s knights is, most people will immediately think of Lancelot. He is considered the most romantic and perhaps the most valiant of all. But, is he truly deserving of this reputation? According to Andreas Capellanus, author of The Art of Courtly Love, there are thirty-one rules of courtly love. If Lancelot is the archetype of this form of love, which would fit with his reputation, then he should adhere to most if not all these rules, should he not? However, when comparing Chretien de Troyes’ version of this knight, his many shortcomings in relation to these rules begin to reveal themselves. While in fact some of the rules are simply not addressed in any context during Chretien’s story, Lancelot still barely fulfills a majority of them, only seventeen of the thirty-one. This clearly establishes that Lancelot follows the codes of courtly love, but it brings into question whether he should be portrayed as the epitome of this romantic ideal.
Perhaps the most pertinent of these rules to the legend of Lancelot is the first. “Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.” The romance associated with Lancelot never could have come about if he had ignored this rule. His lover is the wife of his best friend and king. Under most circumstances, this arrangement would have obstructed the potential for love between Lancelot and Guinevere, but in the context of courtly love it is acceptable. In fact, in their own way and means of interpreting the first rule, all parties involved fulfill its command. Lancelot does not allow marriage to prevent his loving Guinevere, nor does she allow it to stop her loving him. Had this not been so, the story and reputation of Lancelot would have been much different.
However, nowhere does Chretien relate any jealousy on Lancelot’s part. The second rule, “He who is not jealous cannot love” is not fulfilled. According to this rule, Lancelot cannot love Guinevere because he is not jealous. Yet, despite this he very clearly does love her more than his own life. Upon hearing the false rumor that she is dead, he wastes no time in attempting to kill himself and must be restrained from the act until he learns that his love continues to live. Rule twenty-one, “Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love” and rule twenty-two, “Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved” are not obeyed either, but this may simply be because jealousy is not an emotion Lancelot expresses throughout Chretien.
Another rule Lancelot does not follow is the third, “No one can be bound by a double love.” For the majority of the story this seems to be his focus. Even when other women are interested in him, Lancelot refuses them for love of Guinevere. However, by the end of the tale, he has broken this rule. After staying with his rescuer from the tower, the sister of his enemy Meleagant, Lancelot has clearly transferred his love to her. He shows his affection when “He kisses and embraces the maiden.” Additionally, he offers that she “keep my heart, my body, my service, and my wealth,” luxuries normally only bestowed upon a lover. Thus, according to this code, Lancelot could not love Meleagant’s sister and Guinevere at the same time. However, most think of Lancelot and Guinevere’s love as never ending.
Rule five, “That which a lover takes against the will of his beloved has no relish,” is one that Lancelot follows to the letter. He does nothing without Guinevere’s consent. If for a moment he believes that his actions may not please her, he ceases them even at the risk of death. Multiple times while combating Meleagant, Lancelot stops attacking for the sole purpose of his lady’s pleasure. He leaves her presence at her request though he does not understand why she so wrathfully dismisses him. Additionally, Lancelot refuses to come to her room and speak of his love without Guinevere’s consent. His every deed and thought is at her command.
“When one lover dies, a widowhood of two years is required of the survivor,” are the words of the seventh rule. Chretien has Guinevere somewhat follow this in that, “For two days the queen mourned in this fashion without either eating or drinking,” when she receives news that Lancelot is dead. Instead of two years, her mourning lasts for two days, but she at least attempts to follow the codes of courtly love. Lancelot, however, refuses to do the same when he immediately attempts suicide after hearing of her death.
While some may consider his situation in life to be good cause for Lancelot to prevent himself from loving Guinevere, he apparently does not agree and instead decides to adhere to rule eight, “No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.” Not even the fact that Guinevere is the wife of his best friend and beloved king, nor that at first he cannot be certain she will risk returning his love, or even the knowledge that a tryst with his queen could throw Arthur’s kingdom into turmoil checks Lancelot’s love. In fact, Lancelot’s choice to ignore these reasons for not loving allows him to break yet another rule, “No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love.” By not demonstrating love initially, Guinevere not only gives him a reason not to love her, but also prevents Lancelot from possessing the persuasions of love. In this, he is the only one demonstrating love.
Although Chretien does not directly address rule eleven, “It is not proper to love any woman whom one would be ashamed to marry,” one can infer that Lancelot does obey it. Clearly Lancelot cannot hope to wed Guinevere because she is already the wife of Arthur, and he is not the type of knight who would kill his king to free his love for remarriage. However, Chretien never shows any signs that Lancelot is ashamed of Guinevere. Thus, it can be concluded that the only reason this rule does not completely apply to Lancelot is because he is prevented from a position where he could make Guinevere his own wife.
However, until near the end of his story, Lancelot does follow rule twelve, “A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.” Even when another woman offers such a thing to him, he is loath to accept it. In one such instance when Lancelot is in need of lodging, a woman offers him hospitality but on the condition that he sleep with her that night. “Many people would have thanked her five hundred times for this favor; yet it leaves him quite miserable, and he gives her a very different reply: ‘I thank you, damsel, for your offer of hospitality and am most grateful for it. But, if you were agreeable, I could well do without the sleeping arrangement.’”
Both Lancelot and Guinevere also comply with rule thirteen, “When made public, love rarely endures.” Though it is contrary to their desires, they take great pains in preventing anyone from discovering their relationship. “Would she not have gone up to him? ─ Indeed she has: she is so close to him that her body virtually came within an ace of following her heart. ─ Where, then, is her heart? ─ It was kissing and making much of Lancelot. ─ Why, then, was her body hiding? Why is her joy not complete? Is it, then, mingled with anger or hatred? ─ Certainly not in the least; but it is possible that the king or some of the others there, who have their eyes on everything, would have quickly become aware of the whole situation if she had been prepared to follow the promptings of her heart under the public gaze.” Not only are they cautious while others are watching, but also when meeting in the dead of night whilst all are asleep. Lancelot goes so far as to silently remove the bars on Guinevere’s window to prevent Kay from hearing his entrance into her room.
The fact that rule fourteen applies to Lancelot’s relationship with Guinevere makes the affair fit more closely the ideal of courtly love. “The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.” As stated earlier, Lancelot had many factors that could have reasonably prevented his love for Guinevere to flourish. However, if it were not for these factors, her love would not be prized to him as the code and his utter devotion state.
Although Lancelot does not show signs of following rule fifteen, “Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved,” Chretien gives some evidence that he conforms to the sixteenth, “When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved, his heart palpitates.” Lancelot merely shows the symptoms of one rule and not the other. Chretien never says that his heart palpitates, but Lancelot shows other obvious signs that it does. When, “he sees, seated up in a gallery in the tower, the one he most desired to see in the entire world. From the instant he spotted her, he did not turn away or divert his face and eyes from her,” Though this does not indicate a heart palpitation, it does give evidence that the mere sight of Guinevere greatly affects Lancelot. Later in the story, once Lancelot and Meleagant’s combat has been broken up and King Bademagu offers to take him to Guinevere, he shows a stronger sign of possible palpitations when he “almost fell at his feet, he was so overjoyed.” And, even before reaching his destination, the very sight of Guinevere’s golden hair in an abandoned comb gives the strongest evidence to Lancelot’s trembling heart when “he had not enough strength to stop himself collapsing, but was forced to lean forward on the saddle-bow.”
Although it is contrary to the traditional view of a fiery, ceaseless passion between Lancelot and Guinevere, Lancelot does follow rule seventeen, “A new love puts to flight an old one.” As stated before, towards the end of Chretien’s story, Lancelot begins a relationship with Meleagant’s sister after she frees him from the tower and restores him to health. After this incident, Chretien mentions Guinevere’s love for Lancelot, but never again any love of him for her.