Here’s another article on the past and how you are wrong about it.
[Also: if you want to help me in my eternal quest to not starve/be homeless, you can buy my book about American History, buy my other book about World Mythology, or just stuff money in my Patreon. I’m not choosy, just jam it in there. Also this is my Twitter.]
Right, where was I? Oh yeah, Courtly Love.
The laws of chivalry themselves have basically nothing to do with romance. They’re all about trying to regulate just how much of an asshole a guy on a horse can be. The secret ingredient that links chivalry to romance in our tiny brains is called courtly love. It’s the great-great granddaddy of “Nice Guy Syndrome,” and it has always been fucked.
OKAY SO WHAT IS COURTLY LOVE?
According to the thousands of poems, songs, and stories about courtly love, the process goes something like this:
1. Pick a total babe who is married to someone better than you.
2. Pine after said babe until you are literally ill.
3. Babe virtuously rejects you because, let’s be clear, this is a terrible idea and also her husband is better than you.
4. Do a bunch of heroic shit that nobody asked you to do, to make yourself worthy of babe.
5. Babe still says no, and you go write a fucking poem about it. OR
5b. Babe is finally like “okay fine,” in which case, great job Romeo, now you have to bust your ass to keep from getting caught. OR
5c. You get caught and the whole world catches on fire.
Courtly love was originally dreamed up by horny poets in the early 1400s, but it flourished because it served a social purpose. Most popular stories, myth and legend especially, survive because they illustrate rules that we think are important for keeping our society together. Coincidentally, most of these rules have to do with humping.
So whose social purpose is served by this miserable dicktease of a courtship ritual? Who comes out a winner? The lady is locked into a straightjacket of protocol that makes actual consent super hard to suss out, the knight is running around murdering dudes nobody asked him to murder because he’s too proud to just jack off into his helmet, and if the two of them ever do get together, every example we have shows it ending apocalyptically. No, you know who’s the real winner here? The husband.
WHAT COURTLY LOVE IS ABOUT: SECURING YOUR HOT WIFE
Think about this from the perspective of a Medieval monarch: you have a smoking hot wife who your buddy gave you because he wanted to use your beach house, and you also employ about a hundred of the best-armed, best-trained psychopaths in the world. These people all live inside of your home with you. At some point, at least one of these psychopaths is going to want to have sex with your wife. And these aren’t just regular psychopaths, either. These are handsome, fit, wealthy psychopaths, in an era where “wealthy” means “everybody else sleeps in mud, and I am the one who pees in that mud.” And your wife, let me reiterate, is married to you because her dad wants to use your beach house. If your stable of monsters starts spitting game at your wife, it is highly likely that your wife will want to sex them back. You need a game plan.
You can’t just tell these guys to cut it out. You hired these guys because they’re unstoppable bastards. You can’t just stand aside and let them fuck your wife, either, because then you look like a weenie, and nobody wants to bow down to King Weiner. Plus there’s all the shit with heirs and succession. It’s a logistical nightmare. But how are you gonna stop them? Put them in jail? These dudes own their own jails. Send another knight after the knight who fucks your wife? Spoiler alert: the second knight also wants to fuck your wife.
What you can do, though, is control the culture by advocating for an elaborate code of etiquette that lets these handsome nightmare people do everything *but* fuck your wife. This is, at the core, what courtly love is: a code of behavior that provides a dubiously healthy outlet for all that pent up wife-fuck-want. Every part of courtly love reinforces the same message: “you can look, but if you touch then I will chop your fucking hand off.” This is perfect for our hypothetical king with his hypothetically hot wife, because it lets him turn a blind eye to all the erotic roleplay as long as it stays “virtuous,” while reserving the right to bring the hammer down as soon as shit goes public.
WHAT COURTLY LOVE IS NOT ABOUT: GETTING YOUR DICK TOUCHED
What I’m trying to get at is this: Despite what everybody seems to think these days, courtly love was *never* designed to help you get laid. It is a system explicitly designed to prevent people from getting laid. The entire process is an erotic Rube Goldberg machine that is a thousand times more likely to chop off your dick than fondle it, and maybe you also kill a bear, I don’t know. If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times: DO NOT LOOK TO MEDIEVAL EUROPE FOR SEX TIPS.
And yet pretty much every movie produced in the 90s is an ode to courtly love with one key point altered: where the old stories had tragic consequences, the new stories have zero consequences. The Wedding Singer, Wet Hot American Summer, Revenge of the Nerds, The Fucking Karate Kid, and about a million other movies all follow the courtly love formula, right up to the point where the love is consummated and there is NO NEGATIVE FALLOUT. The 90s took “If you fuck someone’s honey, bad things will happen” and turned it into “If you fuck someone’s honey … you will have fucked someone’s honey?”
What we’ve done, and where the whole “Nice Guy” thing comes from, is we’ve taken the purpose and the outcome of courtly love and flipped them. We act like because our love is noble, we deserve satisfaction. Courtly love says “your love is evil and you will never be satisfied, so you might as well make it noble.” Neither one is super healthy, as evidenced by the amount of death and vitriol both camps have dealt out, but at least courtly love is honest about what you can expect.
Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to fuck your boss’s spouse. Fuck away, for all I care. All I’m saying is that our modern conception of hopeless romance, of the tormented lover pining away in the night, striving to become worthy of the unattainable beloved, is based on a ridiculous, outdated, socially motivated code of behavior that was invented at a time when marriages were business mergers and adultery carried the god damn death penalty. And I get that it feels good to feel bad, to experience the exquisite pain of loving somebody you know you can never be with. I’ve done it loads of times, and I got some great poetry out of it. Just, for God’s sake, don’t pretend like your secret pain has a noble lineage. The noble lineage is inbred.