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Courtly love is epitomized by the idea of the lover's unworthiness, the educative and ennobling effects of love, the need for secrecy, the idealization of the woman, and the pain that the lover feels.

Often the love is characterized as hopeless: the lady is stony-hearted or far away. Courtly love was predominantly an institution of serving male interests: the acquisition of honor and status. 

Yet women were necessarily implicated in the tradition. The rhetoric and practices of courtly love did nothing to raise the status of women in the regions where courtly love flourished. If idealization of the feminine became culturally widespread, there were no tangible benefits to actual women in terms of individual autonomy.

The ideology of courtly love was evolved by men intent on working out their own ideas of what women should be, ideologies which fulfilled their own emotional needs and desires.


Although the great majority of the female population were married at some point in their lives, the writings by women which survive are overwhelmingly those monastic women, who have never been, or were no longer, married. Yet the universality of marriage in one form or another is such that there are many texts which serve to flesh out a conception of the changing institution emerging in law codes and theological writing throughout the period.

Marriage customs varied by region and marriage patterns were modified by class. At the most general level marriage is a social mechanism designed to regulate the distribution of women between male members of society and to formalize the links between a man and his offspring. In western Europe men have tended to have only one wife at a time: serial monogamy.

In early medieval Europe divorce seems to have been relatively easy to obtain. A declaration before witnesses that a husband or wife was divorcing his or her spouse was all that was necessary. However, by the tenth century, marriage had changed from an essentially private arrangement between a man and a woman and their respective families, into a Christian and lifelong monogamous partnership.

The wife had to have useful kindred to cement political alliances, be able to provide sons and heirs in sufficient numbers to ensure inheritance, and, increasingly, to be a companion to her husband.


Medieval medical writers and natural philosophers, as opposed to theologians, viewed sex as necessary to both men and women. Without a regular outlet for sexual desire both sexes were likely to become ill. Male seed, and the female equivalent which many writers believed to exist and be discharged by the woman during orgasm, had to be eliminated from the body periodically, just as other discharges such as phlegm, saliva, etc.

Thus, sexual pleasure of the woman was regarded as a precondition of conception. Without orgasm, it was thought, ejaculation of the 'female seed' would not occur and conception could not take place. Women were then expected to take pleasure in sex. It was commonplace in writing that women were naturally more lustful and voracious in their sexual appetites than men, and that they could easily exhaust and destroy their husbands' with their relentlessness.

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Women's History Magazine


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