David McAlpine Cunningham: L’Amour Courtois

David McAlpine Cunningham

Manuscript from the end of the 15th century illustrating “Roman de la Rose”, a popular mid-13th-century poem – used under Commons License


“Um…we find the term amour courtois, or courtly love, appearing first in Chrétien de Troyes in 1388. De Troyes, in his romances, Eric, Yvain, Cligis and of course… Lancelot, brought together Celtic mythology and courtly love terminology. Um…De Troyes was describing a concept of love found in the songs of the Provencal troubadours of the twelfth century. These songs in fact represent the first expression of courtly ideas about love in Europe. Uh…”

The lecturer drones on. He holds a wilting sheaf of papers in his right hand. His left hand gropes the air for illustrative effect. Many more sheets of paper, all unnumbered, are scattered over the lectern in front of him. Pausing yet again, he sifts through them, searching for a phrase that might logically proceed from the one he has just uttered.

His audience sits as far apart from one another as the dimensions of the lecture theatre allow, making the attendance seem even sparser than it is. Hardly any of them take notes. It is a late afternoon in late November. Reflections are beginning to appear in the window. Sleet spatters it and slides down to make piles of frappéd ice on the ledge.

“In the late twelfth century, somewhere between 1175 and 1180 in fact, one Andreas Capellanus wrote a handbook for courtly lovers called De Arte Honeste Amandi. I’ll spell that. Capellanus. C-A-P-E-L-L-A-N-U-S. Um…”

Only one student sits in the back row, coughing intermittently. He has a pale, undernourished look and unkempt fair hair. At the top of his open pad is written Mediaeval Literature: Courtly Love. But he has by now abandoned his note-taking altogether and is instead doodling in the margin. He draws a man’s bald head. Were he to flick back through the pages, this image would be repeated over and over, with the head darting birdlike glances in different directions, growing all the time more gaunt.




After the lecture he goes to his tutor’s room upstairs. Each flagstone step dips in the centre, worn down by the tread of generations. At the top he pauses and glances out of a small casement window to watch the other first-year students cross the quadrangle. Treading through the mulch of fallen leaves, they look energised by their liberation. In front of his tutor’s door, he pulls up his jeans then tugs down his shapeless jumper, exposing the neck of a white t-shirt beneath, which lends him a vaguely clerical appearance. He taps on the door and enters.

His tutor is on the phone. She motions towards the chair reserved for students. It is placed beside her desk, at a right angle to it. Sitting down, he watches her obliquely. She is in her late-thirties. The Grecian planes of her face lend a distinction to her features, placing her exactly on the cusp between beautiful and handsome. High heels are parked under her desk. She sits back with one leg flung over the other, her foot swinging idly back and forth.

“So when’s the doctor coming? But I can’t take him tomorrow morning. I’m booked solid that’s why. When is it? Eleven fifteen? Well, I suppose you can’t take him? Yes. Yes, I know you are. So am I. I’ve got a student waiting right now, in fact. All right, all right. I’ll just have to ask someone else to do Restoration Comedy. No, it isn’t, but one of us has to be with him. What do you mean, a martyr? No, come on, what do you mean? Richard? Hello? Richard?”

She takes a deep breath and replaces the chunky, old-fashioned receiver very carefully in its cradle. Then, flicking her dark fringe out of her eyes, a gesture she always makes when addressing her mind to a new topic, she withdraws his essay from near the bottom of the pile before her and thumbs through it as he watches.

“Sorry about that, Callum,” she says.

“That’s all right.”

He labours over each essay into the small hours and hands it to her in a state of fearful reverence, hoping to both impress and delight her, as if it were the head of a common foe, tied up with ribbon.

“It’s my son,” she explains, her eyes skipping back and forth over the page.

“What is?”

“The problem is. He’s come down with ‘flu. So I have to take him to the doctor tomorrow morning. Only now he’s inconsolable because he got sent home from rehearsals for the school play. Seems he kept on sneezing and blowing his beard off.”

“His beard?”

“Yes. It’s a nativity play. He’s a wise man.”

“Oh, I see… Can’t your husband take him?”

“He is also a wise man. He knows that I’m already so wound up with guilt that I’ll cave in and take Roddy myself.”

He nods. As she continues reading, he says, “I did a nativity play at school once. I was Mary.”

She smiles

“Not by choice?”

“No. It was a boy’s school you see. I remember my father saying that even if the baby in the manger wasn’t the son of God, it would still constitute a miracle of some kind.”

Her smile is replaced by a frown.

“How is your father?” she asks.

“He…isn’t any better.”

She nods

“Yes, it’s awful how inevitable these things are.”

She reaches over and gave his arm a squeeze, causing him to drop his returned essay.

“Sorry” she says, as he scrambles around on the floor for it, next to her feet, which are withdrawn just a fraction under the desk.

He rearranges the disordered pages and prepares to read aloud. Clearing his throat, he realises that he hasn’t coughed since he has been in the room.

“In mediaeval lyric poetry the attitude of the courtly lover to the object of his affections, is not dissimilar to…”

“I think just ‘similar,’ don’t you?” she suggests.

“Oh, of course. Yes, sorry. Is similar to that of the vassal to his lord. He worships her not only from afar, but from an inferior position.”


“Courtly love is invariably extra-marital. One or both of the participants are married, most often the woman. This restricts the love to being a chaste, ennobling passion. The Lady remains unattainable, worshipped from afar.”

“I think you’ve repeated yourself there,” she says.


A month later, on the first day of the new term, he stands in front of her door again. The journey up from the coast, by train and replacement bus, through a lingering January storm, has made him late, so he taps on the door and enters immediately. The room is empty and unlit. He pauses, irresolute, on the threshold for a few moments. Then – slowly, helplessly, like someone drawn forward by a strange enchantment – he approaches her desk, opens one of the drawers and starts rifling through it. He is looking for a stray scrap of information. Not necessarily anything intimate, just something she won’t know he knows: something he can use as a shield against the disquiet that her questing gaze awakens in him.

Hearing the tap of her heels on the staircase, he closes the drawer and retreats to the student’s seat. She hurries in, laden with shopping bags, which she stores under the desk.

Her hair is all over the place. Taking a brush from the drawer he has just closed, she tugs at it. Then, having regained her usual composure, she turns to him and says, “Callum, I was so sorry to hear about your father. Tell me, how are you?”

He hesitates, avoiding her eye. How is he? It’s difficult to say. His father hadn’t wanted anyone to know about his illness, so Callum has avoided sharing this this one, governing fact about his life with his fellow students. His few friends from school have moved away to more distant Universities. He feels each day as if he proceeds from lecture to seminar to cafeteria locked in a kind of mobile solitary confinement. Not talking about what has occurred is so ingrained that he struggles to find any words that might adequately describe his current emotions, even to her. Especially to her.

“Oh, you know, surviving,” he says at last. She nods, her head tilted sympathetically. They talk a while, but he confines himself to a matter of fact description of the funeral and the muted Christmas celebrations that followed.

When he finishes, she says, “Well, please let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

“Thank you.”

She nods again then withdraws his exam script from the pile on her desk. Under his anxious gaze, she leafs through it.

“Actually,” she continues. “I was wondering if you’d like to come for dinner at the end of the week?”


“Yes. At my house, with my husband and me. I thought it might help to have a change of scene.”

“That would be fine. Great. Thank you.”



“So, shall we say Friday, seven thirty? I’ll try to make sure Roddy’s already in bed”


“Good. Now, let’s see. Yes. You handled the Spenser and the Milton questions quite well. The Milton one very well actually. But I wasn’t quite so sure about the Chaucer. You point out that in later works like The Canterbury Tales he was frequently subverting the concept of courtly love. But you shouldn’t overlook early writings like The Book of the Duchess. Have you read that?”


“Well you might want to dip into it. It’s much more sympathetic to the whole idea. It celebrates the virtue and beauty of the relationship between the yearning knight and his lady, though in this case they are actually married and she dies.”

“I see.”


At seven twenty nine on Friday night, Callum stands looking up at a sandstone mid-Victorian house in the city’s west end. He climbs the short flight of steps to the front door and presses the bell. From the other side comes a prolonged and melodious chime.

A few moments later, the door opens and Callum is confronted by a tall, bearded man, who greets him with a cordial, if somewhat appraising look

“You must be Callum,” he says, extending his hand. He has an English accent. “Hi, I’m Richard. Come on in.”

Shaking the man’s hand, Callum steps into an oak panelled hall. To the right, a staircase with an intricately carved banister leads to the basement floor. But Richard, having taken Callum’s coat, steers him instead towards the bay-windowed living room on the left.

“Your timing’s perfect, I’ve just got Roddy down for the night. So…can I get you a drink?”

“Great, thanks.”

While Richard busies himself at the drinks cabinet, Callum gazes around the room, taking in the cornicing, the gilded ceiling rose, the recessed bookcases. He accepts a large whiskey from Richard and perches on the edge of the Queen Anne sofa. Somehow he feels it would be inappropriate to sully it with his imprint. Free of such inhibitions, Richard settles deeply into the adjacent wingback armchair.

They attempt small talk. This mainly consists of Callum praising the décor of the house and Richard making vague noises of agreement then enquiring in detail about the route Callum took to get there – as if it lay not in a suburban terrace but at the far end of a treacherous valley, frequently impassable in winter.

Gradually the conversation becomes less stilted. All the time, however, Callum studies Richard with keen attention. Her husband is quite a bit older than she is, but this does little to diminish his presence. Indeed he comes across as seigneurial in tone and bearing.

Evidently feeling that he has established some kind of rapport between them, Richard ventures onto more personal territory.

“I was sorry to hear about your father,” he says.

For reasons he can’t quite understand, Callum feels himself stiffen. He takes another gulp of whiskey and the small flame it has already kindled in his stomach flares into something more intense.

“Thank you. So was I,” he replies.

“It must be really tough on your Mum.”

“It must be, yes.”

“So, how’s she feeling?”

“Like a widow, I should think.”

Richard frowns.

“Sure. Yeah. Um…”

Just then his tutor appears at the door, flushed and drying her hands on a dishtowel.

“Okay, we’re ready,” she says. “Hi Callum.”


“Come on down to the dining room.”

The dining room is no less elegant than the sitting room and lined with yet more books. Richard uncorks a bottle of Pinot Grigio and places it next to Musigny already open on the table. They start with smoked salmon and asparagus, followed by chicken breasts stuffed with Parma Ham and mascarpone.

The salmon is consumed in almost complete silence. But by the time they move on to main course the conversation has creaked back into life, with Callum resolving to remain as equable as he can throughout the rest of the evening.

For the most part Richard talks about his many successes in property development and the portfolio he has put together. There is also the occasional, bucolic detour into the early years of his relationship with her, when she was teaching at Royal Holloway and rented a flat from him.

Listening to all of this, Callum feels more and more puzzled, as if a series of veils are descending over what thought he knew about her. She displays none of the frustration with Richard that she hinted at before. Instead she seems to accept unquestioningly the way her husband’s mercantile values dominate the evening. Literature hardly gets a look in. Callum strives not to let disappointment at this fact mutate into resentment, but given the amount of wine he has drunk it isn’t easy.

As they begin the dessert, however, Richard surprises him by saying, “So Callum.  What kind of stuff are you working on at the moment?”

“Courtly love.”


“Yes. I didn’t do so well on it in the end of term of exam, so I’m going back over it.”

“And what is it about exactly?”

“Well. You see. Courtly love defines the relationship between a vassal and his lady.”

Without intending to, he nods towards her, but Richard doesn’t seem to notice.

“Vassal and lady. I see, how interesting.”

“Well, that’s not quite right,” she says.

They both look at her.

“You see Callum, I think what you’re missing is the idea that the courtly love relationship is only modelled on that between a feudal follower and his lord. It doesn’t have to be between the follower and his lord’s wife. Nor indeed does the man have to be the woman’s social inferior. What is more important is the fact that it’s a love that is extra-marital on one or both sides, therefore private, concealed, vulnerable to exposure.”

Richard raises his glass to her.

“My wife,” he says. “The literary policewoman.”

She smiles back at him.

“Superintendent, surely,” she replies.

“Of course,” Callum says, in a slightly louder voice than he’d intended. “That’s right. But it’s still true that in the courtly love relationship the woman is married and the man isn’t. So in that way he is still inferior to her. And often for her it’s just a dalliance, not a consuming passion. Anyway, most of the time he’s the one who suffers.”




Dust swims in the spring sunshine that fills her room. Each mote glows as intensely as a tiny electric filament. She sits with her eyes closed, listening to him reading from his notes: “In conclusion therefore, the courtly lover indulges in extravagant despair when adoring his lady. He goes into a precipitous emotional and physical decline, sighing, weeping, trembling – in short, he languishes. She may or may not behave in a way that encourages his excesses. But invariably she is bound to her lord and the courtly lover is rejected. In defeat he is compelled to lick his wounds and reflect upon how misguided his passion has been.”

Opening her eyes, she nods.

“Right. That’s fine all in all. It should stand you in good stead for the degree exam.”


She looks at him. He returns her gaze without blinking.

“Are you quite sure about the last part though?” she says.


image used under Commons License



David McAlpine Cunningham was born in Ayrshire and studied English & Scottish Literature at Glasgow University. His short stories have appeared in a variety of magazines/anthologies and have been broadcast on Radio 4. He has published two novels: CloudWorld (Faber & Faber; 2006) and CloudWorld At War (2008)


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