How to read Andreas Capellanus’ The Art of Courtly Love as a unified whole

There is a new custom and understanding of love developing in the courts of Western Europe around the 12th century, as we can see exemplified in the troubadour poetry and stories such as Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan. Love was becoming a new social force, a desire that once implanted in a man’s heart, could make him become obsessed with his object of love, and could give him the will to trample over established institutions (such as marriage) and mores (such as honor). Andreas Capellanus sees this, and as a man in a very high position of power (as a clerk, he considers himself a member of the highest nobility), he tries to take control of this great force that was sweeping over medieval society, and direct it towards his own ethical, social and political goals.

In The Art of Courtly Love, he achieves this by setting himself up for a win-win situation. For in the work as a whole, from the very beginning in the Preface until the ending of Book 3, he clearly states that he is for the rejection of love, which he considers to be “not expedient” and not “fitting for any prudent man” (The Art of Courtly Love, Preface). So his opinion, as stated in book 3, is that the reader (Walter) should reject love and other “vanities of the world” and should be mindful that he always performs “charity and good works”. But what if the reader is to do the opposite, and embrace love? Well, if the reader and his beloved abide by the rules of love offered by Capellanus, then the most important thing that the lover will have to develop and maintain is excellence of character (p. 34-35), which means above all performing good deeds and especially works of charity (p. 59-61). Thus, regardless if the reader chooses to engage in the works of love or not, he will still end up performing Christian deeds.

Thus, the first two books not only serve to teach the lover how to succeed in obtaining and maintaining his beloved, but also to instill in him a certain understanding of love. This understanding of love, preached by Capellanus, will not only make the lover a good Christian, if he is to follow it, but it will also use love as an agent of change for society as a whole, imposing on people Capellanus’ system of ethics. Love can be used as such a tool because a man who is in love, considers the good to be whatever pleases his beloved (p. 185, rule XXV), and will leave all other business aside and act towards the fruition of his love (Preface; p. 156). Thus, the woman who is loved by a man is in a position of power, in which she can impose on him any system of ethics she wishes. This is where the key to the whole problem of love lies. Depending on the innate nature of women, and how much that can be changed by culture, rules or learning, lies the value or danger of love. If women are driven naturally towards being good and towards looking for excellence of character in a man, or they can be made so by culture, then love can be used as a powerful tool in imparting a “good” system of morals and ethics on men. This is the assumption that serves as the foundation of the first two books, and because of it women are as much of a target audience, if not even more important, than men. We can see this scenario, of a woman cultivating the excellence of character in a suitor, unfolding in the dialogue between a man of the middle class and a woman of the higher nobility (p. 59-61).

But it is not clear that the nature of women is good. Even though it is mentioned in the first two books that they seem to be the source of all good deeds (p. 108), or at least through their existence enable them (p. 148), and even though their suitors in the dialogues many times praise them for their goodness and wisdom (pp. 37, 54, 84), there are also many dialogues in which the women themselves have different conceptions of love, and need to be educated and convinced in this “art of love” that Capellanus is arguing for. We see this happening in the dialogue between a man of the higher nobility and a woman of the same class. It is in it that we see that the nature of the woman is not necessarily good, and she needs to be educated by the man about the proper habits and rules of love, and constantly reminded about its rules (p. 109). Andreas’ skepticism is fully unleashed in book 3, in which he lists numerous negative qualities that all women possess (pp. 200-209).

What is Andreas’ final take on love and the nature of women? Is he for or against love? Does he consider the nature of women innately good, or innately bad? His work seems to be presenting two opposite and incompatible viewpoints simultaneously, and in order to discern his true position, we must first understand his method. Andreas has a very platonic way of approaching intellectual matters. He makes extensive use of philosophical dialogue in The Art of Courtly Love (most of the work is actually in a dialogue form). In the dialogues, a man and a woman present arguments for both sides of an issue (like for example: “Should women engage in this kind of love?” or “Should nobility of character be more important than nobility of birth?”), and try to convince each other of their validity, while at the same time rebuking the other’s arguments. The dialogues sometimes end with an impasse (the dialogue between a man of the middle class a noble woman), sometimes the woman is convinced by the man (the dialogue between a nobleman and a noblewoman), and sometimes they have to appeal to a higher authority to decide whose argument is right (the dialogue between a man of higher nobility and a woman of the same class).

The work itself approaches the form of a dialogue at a bigger scale, being similar to the last dialogue (between the man and woman of higher nobility), in which two sides are in direct opposition to each other and a third party has to make a decision. The first two books present a strong case for love, and the last book presents a case against love, and Andreas decides against love. But is that because of what he writes in book 3? We know we cannot take many of the things in book 3 to be Capellanus’ final opinion on the topic of love, because he himself presents solutions to these issues in the first two books. For example, for the problem of not having chastity and restraint of carnal desire bringing social shame and God’s rebuke (p. 192), we find the practice of pure love as a possible solution (p. 122), or the problem of love leading to poverty for the lover (p. 191), is solved by the fact that if the beloved truly loves him then she will help him gain even more wealth (p. 145).

But there are also arguments and claims in book 3 that cannot be reconciled with the first two books, such as the claims about the nature of women. Yet, Andreas himself does not seem to be convinced by these arguments against the nature of women, since he says there is only one thing that is really stopping him from being love’s faithful servant, and that is love’s tendency to make men fall in love with somebody who can never return their love, no matter how much they try (p. 32, para. 2; p. 210). The further details that Andreas gives about his unrequited love clarify that it is not a problem with the nature (character) of the woman he loves that is preventing her from partaking in this noble kind of love, since she is “of such a lofty station that we dare not say one word about it”, but with the difference of nobility of character between them (p. 163, para. 4). Furthermore, the chapter about the courts of love further supports the claim that women are indeed capable of partaking in Capellanus’ kind of love, as much as men are (see case XIII, p. 172). So even though Capellanus’ decides against love, it is not the arguments in book 3 that convince him to turn away from it, neither the nature of women, but his unrequited love for a woman of considerable nobility of character.

Capellanus understands that his is a personal choice, and that many people will choose to embrace love despite the arguments offered against it. For them, he has prepared an elaborate framework of love, through treatise, images1 and rules. Under this framework, if a man is to be successful in love, than he must be: generous, charitable, compassionate towards the poor, humble, prudent, wise, clever, sincere, and many other things – in short, he must possess excellence of character (p. 59-61). This excellence of character also includes Christian values such as not saying anything blasphemous regarding god, being respectful to the clergy, going to church frequently and gladly listening to those who are preaching (p. 59-61). In fact, if one is to stray away from the Catholic religion, then that would cause his love to come to an end (p. 156).

Thus, if one follows Capellanus and chooses to reject love, he will be a good Christian. On the other hand, if one chooses to embrace love, and if he does so properly, as recommended in the first two books, by engaging in pure love, not only will he be a good Christian, but following Capellanus’ ethics, he will also consider nobility of character more important than nobility of birth (p. 48), he will respect all women and try to serve them (p. 60), and he will be on a continuous course of self-improvement of character for his beloved. Not bad for a chaplain’s day of work.


  • The Art of Courtly Love, Andreas Capellanus, translated by John Jay Parry, Columbia University Press (1960)

[1] For example the allegories that the nobleman uses in the dialogue with the noblewoman, including the story about the King and Queen of Love (pp 73-83). Another example of an image is the story about how the rules of love were made known to lovers (pp. 177-186).
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