9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
–Phil 2:9-11 (ESV)
Courtly love started out as a game, a parody of Christianity. In the parody God’s love was exchanged for romantic/sexual love, and women became the object of worship instead of God. The forms of worship remained the same, but the worship was redirected away from God. This is why we now have the custom of singing songs in praise of romantic love and women, and of a man getting down on one knee and confessing his love and devotion to a woman. While it started ostensibly as a game and parody of Christianity, very quickly Christians began adopting the parody in place of the real thing. Today this substitution is nearly complete, but the process began almost immediately.
One way to see the amazing speed with which courtly love replaced Christianity is in the story we have of St George and the dragon. Per the BBC St. George provided a sort of blank slate our medieval ancestors could fill in:
Very little, if anything, is known about the real Saint George. Pope Gelasius said that George is one of the saints “whose names are rightly reverenced among us, but whose actions are known only to God.”
There are at least two variants of the story of St. George and the dragon*, but the most popular one is rich with symbols of the religion that replaced Christianity, the religion of courtly love. This version comes from The Golden Legend, an anthology compiled by Archbishop Jacobus de Voragine on or around 1275. But since The Golden Legend was an anthology of existing tales (much like the Brothers Grimm), the story itself would have been circulating for some time prior.
In The Golden Legend, St. George slays a dragon to rescue a beautiful princess and convert a pagan kingdom to Christianity. St. George manages to wound the dragon with his lance after making the sign of the cross. But he needed a symbol of something more powerful than Christ to control the dragon (a noble woman’s sexual purity). This came in the form of the virgin princess’ girdle (an exterior belt). Once the noblewoman’s girdle was placed on the dragon’s neck, the dragon was tamed and the princess (not St. George) lead the dragon back to town:
…St. George was upon his horse, and drew out his sword and garnished him with the sign of the cross, and rode hardily against the dragon which came towards him, and smote him with his spear and hurt him sore and threw him to the ground. And after said to the maid: Deliver to me your girdle, and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afeard.
When she had done so the dragon followed her as it had been a meek beast and debonair. Then she led him into the city, and the people fled by mountains and valleys, and said: Alas! alas! we shall be all dead.
Once in town, St. George offered to slay the dragon if the kingdom converted to Christianity. After the kingdom converted St. George kept his promise and slew the dragon.
Note that the girdle is a classic courtly love symbol a noble woman would give a knight to demonstrate that he had won her favor:
For a classic gift of love, a medieval lady could bestow a favour on a knight on the tournament circuit, usually one of her detachable sleeves, a handkerchief, a ribbon, or a scarf. Something fluttery and easily tied would make a good public declaration;
…Other handmade gifts from ladies, as Gilchrist notes, could be “a pillow, towel, kerchief, girdle or purse”
Not only is the dragon subdued by the power of a noblewoman’s sexual purity, but St. George symbolically had to win the noblewoman’s favor in order to do God’s will.
In 1350, King Edward III made St. George the patron saint of England. This coincided with Edward III creating the Order of the Garter. The motto of the Order of the Garter is:
Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks evil of it)
The most popular legend involves the “Countess of Salisbury” (either Edward’s future daughter-in-law Joan of Kent or her former mother-in-law, Catherine Montacute, Countess of Salisbury). While she was dancing at a court ball at Calais, her garter is said to have slipped from her leg. When the surrounding courtiers sniggered, the king picked it up and returned it to her, exclaiming, “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (“Shame on him who thinks evil of it.”), the phrase that has become the motto of the Order.
Unlike the girdle in the tale of the dragon, the garter was an undergarment (emphasis mine):
Since garters were not intended to be seen by any man other than her own husband or wishful lover, a woman’s garters may have fine needlework embroidered onto them, French mottoes of courtly love or amorous words of love.
This explains the snickering when the Countess of Salisbury accidentally dropped her undergarment for the king to pick up. It also shows the futility of trying to separate the ostensibly noble concept of royal/military chivalry from courtly love. This is the highest order of chivalry in England, and it is directly tied into the themes of courtly love.
The reason we don’t notice that the two are hopelessly intertwined is that as a society we have adopted courtly love as something virtuous, and we struggle greatly to distinguish between courtly love and Christianity.
*The other variant was created during the reformation and dispenses with the courtly love symbolism.
Edit: Added a quote from the Golden Legend. See also this new post for clarification.