The Cult of Courtly Love
Many of our modern ideas about romance are rooted in the medieval cult of courtly love, which developed from a mingling of many sources. These sources include older traditions of Arab love poetry, which first found their way to Spain and then became popular in Europe by the eleventh century. During the Middle Ages, these passionate expressions of love blossomed.
Courtly love was a school of thought in which courtiers could learn how to be charming and graceful. Famed poets, or troubadours, were attached to specific wealthy courts. They created poetry and songs to entertain and educate those in the court.
According to the model of courtly love, love was important as a catalyst for growth and transformation. When the notion of the transformative power of love migrated to Europe, it was easy for medieval Christians to apply this practice to Christianity. The Virgin Mary came to be seen as a lady worthy of devotion, and as people drew closer to her, they felt that their love for her made them bolder, braver, and more faithful.
Troubadour poetry became popular in Europe during the twelfth century. The Troubadours were a class of musicians and poets based in France, Italy, and Spain who wrote poems and music about chivalry and love. They were most prominent between 1100 and 1350. Many of their writings focused on sexual love.
By the thirteenth century, both the Arab love poetry and the troubadour poetry found a new subject — the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary served as an ideal subject of love poetry because she was viewed as paradoxically accessible and unattainable.
Courtly love was full of grace, longing, and devotion. According to the mores of the time, love made people better than they would otherwise be; and to love another person would be to raise that other person above oneself. Love was always restless, always seeking, and never fully satisfied. The desire to acquire the beloved only intensified with time. Mary could be sought, but never captured; passionately loved, but never possessed.
Today, the ancient tradition of crowning a lady is still practiced during the month of May — but the lady crowned has become the Virgin Mary. Many American Catholics who attended parochial schools during this past century have fond memories of crowning the Virgin Mary with a wreath of flowers during the month of May (which is designated Mary's Month).
May Day Celebrations
One of the ancient romantic traditions rooted in the cult of courtly love is still celebrated today. May Day celebrations offered a way to integrate the pre-Christian practice of crowning a “lady” into the Christian tradition of devotion to the Virgin.
The ancient May Day celebrations included various courting rituals and were a celebration of the springtime and the pagan deities associated with fertility and the land. Increasingly, as the Church sought ways to translate these folk festivals into events that would be compatible with Christianity, they adapted to the rituals of the culture.
Many of the references to the Virgin Mary as “Our Lady” reflect the medieval obsession with courtly love. Our Lady serves as the counter-term to Our Lord. This title is suggestive of the pious notion that Mary was a royal lady who must be wooed and honored.