THE LETTER 33 (Spring 2005) pages 22-35
Lacan’s references to courtly love in his twentieth seminar Encore of 1972-73 may seem intriguing and anachronistic at first. What can be the relevance of a medieval code of morals, which quite possibly was merely a literary movement, to the problems and difficulties of the relations between the sexes in the twentieth century, relations which, according to Lacan in seminar XX, are not working out? Lacan also wrote extensively about courtly love in his Ethics seminar of 1959-60. I propose to look at the issue of courtly love and some of the theories about its significance, and to ask what its appeal was for Lacan, and what relevance, if any, it has for us now in attempting to understand the issues raised in Seminar XX, issues such as love, desire, limits and feminine jouissance.
If we take the two most famous statements from Seminar XX – ‘The woman does not exist’ and ‘There is no such thing as a sexual relationship’, and interpret them very loosely, then the connection with courtly love may seem clear enough. For in some ways the woman might as well not exist in courtly love, she is an ideal locked away in her Ivory tower, like the Lady of Shalott, rather than a breathing walking person, and the relationship between the knight and his Lady, although erotically charged, was usually chaste. Courtly love poets spoke to their Lady, or about her, in the exalted language usually reserved for a deity, or indeed for the Virgin Mary, with whose worship their poetry frequently seems to overlap.
The nineteenth century revival of interest in courtly love and the chivalry of the Middle Ages, exemplified in poems like The Lady of Shalott, La Belle Dame sans Merci, or Morte d’Arthur, was reflected also in art and…