I’ve been reading The Allegory of Love by C.S. Lewis, about the medieval idea of “courtly love”. Lewis sums up the concept as (emphasis mine):
The sentiment, of course, is love, but love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love. The lover is always abject. Obedience to his lady’s lightest wish, however whimsical, and silent acquiescence in her rebukes, however unjust, are the only virtues he dares to claim.
This topic is important because it fundamentally transformed the way we view the world:
They effected a change which has left no corner of our ethics, our imagination, or our daily life untouched, and they erected impassable barriers between us and the classical past or the Oriental present. Compared with this revolution the Renaissance is a mere ripple on the surface of literature. There can be no mistake about the novelty of romantic love: our only difficulty is to imagine in all its bareness the mental world that existed before its coming…
This includes not only our idolization of romantic love, but also what we commonly call chivalry*:
Even our code of etiquette, with its rule that women always have precedence, is a legacy from courtly love
In this regard I learned I was incorrect in assuming that there had at one point been something noble to the idea of chivalry. Chivalry (as we know it*) has always been an expression of abject groveling. This is one of the reasons that adultery was a core component:
The love which is to be the source of all that is beautiful in life and manners must be the reward freely given by the lady, and only our superiors can reward. But a wife is not a superior.81 As the wife of another, above all as the wife of a great lord, she may be queen of beauty and of love, the distributor of favours, the inspiration of all knightly virtues, and the bridle of ‘villany’;82 but as your own wife, for whom you have bargained with her father, she sinks at once from lady into mere woman. How can a woman, whose duty is to obey you, be the midons whose grace is the goal of all striving and whose displeasure is the restraining influence upon all uncourtly vices?
Lewis describes the groveling and humiliation involved in the poetry of courtly love and it is truly astounding. Gladly bearing the deepest humiliation at the hands of the woman was seen as the greatest virtue.
The other reason courtly love had to be adulterous is because it was considered shameful for a man to have passion for his own wife:
…the impropriety (from the courtly point of view) of loving his own wife. Such a man is in propria uxore adulter. His sin is heavier than that of the unmarried lover, for he has abused the sacrament of marriage.
Lastly, it is fair to say that medieval fans of courtly love are the original cuckservatives. Chivalry and a quasi religious view of romantic love are conservative ideals today because they are seen as harkening back to a more virtuous time, the time of courtly love. Yet chivalry and courtly love has always been a longing for fictional values of the past:
What is new usually wins its way by disguising itself as the old.
What was theory for his own age had been practice for the knights of Britain. For it is interesting to notice that he places his ideal in the past. For him already ‘the age of chivalry is dead’.40 It always was: let no one think the worse of it on that account.
The concept of courtly love was a cuckold fetish from the start, and it has always been a longing for bygone days. The only difference between now and the medieval age of courtly love is that we now have a cross-dressing model of husband and wife, freeing cuckold fetishists to finally reverse the position of the husband and the interloper.
But some modern day chivalrous men still prefer the old school model, albeit modified for our age of technology:
*Edit: Oscar pointed out that there was an earlier form of chivalry prior to the concept of courtly love. This didn’t have the groveling to women and was a martial/Christian code. But the code we know today is really the courtly love version, the version that as Lewis explains includes putting women first.