Test your feelings with 31 rules of medieval love

Taras Spivak

Flowers, gifts, heavy sighs, and courtship. All of this was invented by French poets in the 12th century. Would you be able to meet their requirements in the 21st century?

Until the 12th century, there was no need to enchant a woman. In classical Greece, wives were chosen for their housekeeping skills and ability to bear children. In republican Rome, the head of the family would marry off his daughter to a famous warrior without further ado. In the Middle Ages, a feudal lord could take a low-born woman by force.

Then the French changed everything. They transformed brutal lust into fin’amor, that is, refined courtly love. Cultural historians discovered this by analyzing the poetry of French troubadours. In the 12th century, a new storyline appeared in their poems.

The Codex Manesse
Illustrations from the Codex Manesse, a collection of secular poetry written in Middle High German language in 1300. Source: uni-heidelberg.de

If you love to borrow, love to give it back

This was the story of a young man at the court, in love with his master’s wife. Each visit to the lord’s house is a torment for him. One day, the young man decides to show his affection to the lady, he begins to serve her and thereby establishes a bilateral feudal relationship.

Accepting the service of a vassal, the lord was obliged to pay it off. Accepting a young man’s vow of fidelity, a lady had to give herself to him at some point.

The game of love was gaining momentum. In the troubadour poetry, lovers fuel their desire, but hold back for a long time. They are unable to snuggle, because living at the court means to be watched. With constant taming of passion, risk-taking and flirting, the anticipation is the most valuable thing. This is how the French learned to demonstrate their love outside of marriage and bed. The church condemned the courtly culture, but that did not stop the lovers.

Siege of the Castle of Love
Siege of the Castle of Love, mirror back, ivory. Around 1350. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Louvre / PD
Courtly scenes
Courtly scenes, mirror back, carved ivory, the first third of the 14th century. Photo: Jastrow / Louvre / PD

Love is like a friendship

The ability to play courtly love distinguished an educated and sophisticated person from a peasant. Over time, it became courtesy, not brute force, that allowed to get into a woman’s bed.

The status of women was also changing. With the emergence of the chivalric cult of the beautiful lady, they could no longer be taken by anyone. In the troubadour poetry, the word ‘friendship’ appeared for the first time alongside the word ‘love.’ Now love means flirtation, lightheadedness, and emotional connection, not primitive lust.

Then the French went a step further. They began to condemn those who loved improperly.


A quote from ‘De amore’ treatise:

‘Love is a certain innate passion that causes a person to strive above all for the embrace of another person, and in that embrace, with mutual consent, to accomplish everything established by love.’

Who loves like that?

Around 1184, Andreas, the chaplain of the French king, wrote a treatise called ‘De Amore’ (‘On Love’). In the treatise, the Parisian explained what love is, how it should be sought and preserved, and how it can be lost.

According to the text, love makes even ‘an ugly and rude person shine with all beauty’. For the sake of love, one should do everything possible, even if it violates the laws of marriage or decency. Courtly love could arise between any man and woman, regardless of their position in society. Nuns were an exception. It was better not to seek their favour, as Andreas has learned from his own experience.

Among other things, the treatise contains a collection of 31 rules of love. It was said that disputes of French courtiers were allegedly considered according to these rules in the courts of love, chaired by a respected lady, successful in amorous affairs.

Here is an exemplary case described in the treatise. One lady demanded from a knight who loved her to swear to obey her every command. When the young man agreed, she ordered him to leave her. The knight was upset. One day he heard his friends talking dirty about the lady of his heart. He answered them with some harsh words. The lady declared the knight an oath breaker.

The Countess of Champagne who judged the dispute decided that the lady had behaved unworthily. By giving the knight hope for a relationship and then rejecting it, she violated the rule of love. The court ruled that the lady had to accept the knight’s advances.

The Codex Manesse
Illustrations from the Codex Manesse, a collection of secular poetry written in Middle High German language in 1300. Source: uni-heidelberg.de
The Codex Manesse
Illustrations from the Codex Manesse, a collection of secular poetry written in Middle High German language in 1300. Source: uni-heidelberg.de
The Codex Manesse
Illustrations from the Codex Manesse, a collection of secular poetry written in Middle High German language in 1300. Source: uni-heidelberg.de

31 rules of love from ‘De Amore’ treatise:

  1. Marriage is no excuse for not loving.
  2. He who is not jealous can not love.
  3. No one can be bound by two loves.
  4. Love is always growing or diminishing.
  5. It is not good for one lover to take anything against the will of the other.
  6. A male cannot love until he has fully reached puberty.
  7. Two years of mourning for a dead lover are prescribed for surviving lovers.
  8. No one should be deprived of love without a valid reason.
  9. No one can love who is not driven to do so by the power of love.
  10. Love always departs from the dwelling place of avarice.
  11. It is not proper to love one whom one would be ashamed to marry.
  12. The true lover never desires the embraces of any save his lover.
  13. Love rarely lasts when it is revealed.
  14. An easy attainment makes love contemptible; a difficult one makes it more dear.
  15. Every lover turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
  16. When a lover suddenly has sight of his beloved, his heart beats wildly.
  17. A new love expels an old one.
  18. Moral integrity alone makes one worthy of love.
  19. If love diminishes, it quickly leaves and rarely revives.
  20. A lover is always fearful.
  21. True jealousy always increases the effects of love.
  22. If a lover suspects another, jealousy and the effects of love increase.
  23. He who is vexed by the thoughts of love eats little and seldom sleeps.
  24. Every action of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved.
  25. The true lover believes only that which he thinks will please his beloved.
  26. Love can deny nothing to love.
  27. A lover can never have enough of the embraces of his beloved.
  28. The slightest suspicion incites the lover to suspect the worse of his beloved.
  29. He who suffers from an excess of passion is not suited to love.
  30. The true lover is continuously obsessed with the image of his beloved.
  31. Nothing prevents a woman from being loved by two men, or a man from being loved by two women.

(Translated by P.G. Walsh)