Medieval French love poetry comes down through the ages in the songs of the troubadours. This poetry centers on the ideals of courtly love initially put forth in the Court at Poitiers. While romantic in nature, French love poetry of the Middle Ages also explores diverse elements of society at the time, especially outside influences, the role of women and feudalism.
Love poetry in medieval France stems from different influences. Arabic love poetry flourished on the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages; such poetry bears resemblance to the love poetry of the French troubadours. For instance, Arabic love poetry often carries the theme of forbidden or thwarted love, which is also a main theme in French love poetry. Likewise, long romantic narrative poetry inspired love poetry of the time. These narrative poems were based on courtly love stories such as those of Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan and Iseult. Perhaps the biggest influence comes from this tradition of courtly love.
In the late 12th century, Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of the Court at Poiters, France, and her daughter Marie, Countess of Champagne, set up "Courts of Love" whose goal was to teach courtiers to be charming and pleasing by behaving with courtesy. The tradition of courtly love includes the idea that human love ennobles the lovers, elevating romantic love to unprecedented status. This was especially true for women, who were their father's or husband's property at the time; the tradition of courtly love made them the center of attention. Though Courts of Love were social rather than legal institutions, they certainly influenced the poetry of the time, especially since both female rulers patronized troubadour poets.
Troubadours spread the ideas of courtly love. Functioning as both poets and musicians, they composed their lyrics in Provençal, a dialect of a medieval Romance language now known as Occitan. Flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries, troubadours combined poetry with music to perform at various courts, first in Poitiers but eventually spreading throughout southern France and Europe. Though inspired by Arabic love poetry, courtly love reached cult status due to the lyrical verses of the troubadours. Some renowned French troubadours of the time include Guillaume de Machaut, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras and Bertran de Born, though many French love poems come from anonymous sources as well.
Medieval Love Songs
Medieval love songs, the troubadours' combination of poetry and music, feature similar themes. For one, the narrator often offers subservience and fidelity to a cold, cruel mistress in the manner of a feudal vassal to a lord. The narrator in Machaut's "Dame, je suis cilz" says his proposed mistress is "so hard on me as if you wanted to drive me away from you," yet he willingly endures "so long as I can," suggesting the waiting will kill him eventually. Vaqueiras' "Kalenda Maya" asserts that whoever does not love his lady leads a worthless life, and he begs for her "grace." Likewise, troubadours praise the lady's beauty almost religiously. Courtly love in medieval French love songs is usually unrequited and extramarital, and it is always enduring.