Why is Love Linked with Death in Courtly Literature?

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Troilus and Criseyde from William Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer, 1896

Romeo and Juliet. Dead. Tristan. Dead. Troilus. Dead.

In literature the fastest way to die is to fall in love. For those of you who are trying to guess Negan’s victim in The Walking Dead, just remember that to fall in love with Rick or Sasha is the most dangerous move you can make on the show, and they’ve been really milking the feels for Glen and Maggie’s relationship.

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But why link death and love? Why are Thanatos and Eros linked? Of all the mythical figures, perhaps these two would find the least in common.

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what keeps happening over and over again. The lover seeks the beloved only to encounter his own destruction, and the beloved is fortunate if she does not share the same fate. Troilus, Tristan, Arthur, and many other mainstays of romance die instead of finding new life in love precisely because they have loved. In Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont tries to figure this puzzle out. Through examining the myth of passion in European literature from the Romance of Tristan to modern cinema, he identifies how the formal workings of courtly love tend to promote the connection between love and death.

The seed of the connection between love and death is manifested in the story of Tristan and Isolde. Tristan’s love for Isolde not only leads to his literal death, but it is also characterized by suffering. Rougemont reminds us that the etymological root of the word, passion, is suffering, and directs our attention to points in the tradition where passion becomes a sacred and religious act that places itself in opposition to the Christian Church. Key to understanding passion as suffering is its “very nature to reject satisfaction.” The lover may seek the beloved as a goal, but never be satisfied. The continued experience of passion then becomes the goal itself. Consequently, the passion of the lover and the beloved in the tradition of courtly love is a form of narcissism. Rather than loving one another, Tristan and Isolde actually love being in love. And that kind of love cannot be satisfied and leads to death.

On the other hand, we might look at the development of chivalry and courtly love and wonder how a system that elevates woman can be so bad. But here’s the problem: through placing the beloved above the lover in dignity, courtly love paradoxically objectifies and demeans the beloved through turning her into a goal, not a person. Rather than seeing the beloved as herself, Rougemont notes that she is treated as“an excuse for excited elevation or as an ‘object of contemplation.’”

But it’s possible that writers we usually think of as courtly understood just how damaging the tradition can be. Some scholars have even suggested that we distance ourselves from reading medieval literature within the tradition of courtly love.

Focusing on historical evidence, D. W. Robertson proposes that courtly love as a concept is more a product of nineteenth and twentieth century criticism than actual medieval practice. He notes that to engage in the rules of love would have been “not only impractical but downright inconvenient.”

Benton goes so far to suggest that critics put aside readings like Rougemont’s that look at Provençal literature as examples of courtly love. Together, Robertson and Benton read medieval romances as ironic rejoinders to the concept of courtly love.

Likewise, Theodore Stroud, proposes that “Chaucer has achieved a reductio ad absurdum of the potentialities of courtly love” and renders the moral of the tragedy as a caution that “youth should avoid the Wheel of Fortune by loving only the Savior, whose power and perfection are antithetical to such pagan gods as Love.”

It looks like medieval and early modern authors are instead making fun of the rules of courtly love then. And who wouldn’t make fun of a list like this?

Rules of Courtly Love

  • Public revelation of love is deadly to love in most instances.
  • The value of love is commensurate with its difficulty of attainment.
  • Apprehension is the constant companion of true love.
  • Love is reinforced by jealousy.
  • Eating and sleeping diminish greatly when one is aggravated by love.

But those same authors that seem to be mocking the results of courtly love still link love with death. Troilus still dies. Romeo still dies. Narcissistic infatuation with the idea of love instead of loving the beloved as a separate person leads to death.

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