Here is an essay that I wrote for my Arthurian Literature class on the concepts of chivalry and courtly love, and how they don't exactly always align. The two stories that I read so far have been Yvain (The Knight with the Lion) and Lancelot (The Knight of the Cart), and these are the stories I refer to in the essay. Also, the page numbers are from the Everyman edition. (I apologize for any references to events that make no sense to those who haven't read the book... I hope that my basic opinions are still clear.)
In both Yvain and Lancelot, the forces of chivalry and courtly love make numerous appearances, and Chretien de Troyes uses duality to contrast these two forces of good with the evils of greed and villainy. However, it does occasionally seem that Chretien is mocking those who take chivalry and courtly love to extremes, and provides examples of moments when the two forces oppose each other. Through an in-depth reading of Yvain and Lancelot, with the concepts of chivalry and courtly love in mind, we can see that, when pitted against each other, courtly love will most likely take precedence.
Before we discuss the contradictions between chivalry and courtly love, we must first look at how these two forces work together against evil. Throughout both Yvain and Lancelot Chretien provides numerous examples of the duality between evil and good. Possibly the most obvious in Yvain is the contrast present between the two sisters – one, greedily desiring all of her sister’s land, and the other, only wanting what was her rightful due. Yvain, as a champion of justice, supports the “sensible and courtly” maiden (p. 361). But this is not the only example showing Yvain as the extreme good in contrast to evil. His contrast to Kay, the churlish seneschal, is obvious from the beginning of the story. Kay is described as “extremely abusive, wickedly sarcastic and sneering” (p. 282), and always insists that Yvain will never achieve all that he says he will. But Kay is proved wrong, after Yvain defeats Esclados the Red. Yvain’s chivalric nature in treating Lunete with respect and kindness is also contrasted with the actions of Harpin the Giant, who threatens to “hand over [the lord’s daughter] as a whore to his rabble of knaves” (p. 336).
Lancelot is also shown as a hero. In Lancelot, Kay once more takes on the position of a rude churl, to contrast with Lancelot’s gentler, kinder ways. Lancelot and King Bademagu are portrayed as glowing examples of kindness and chivalry, opposing the villainous Meleagant, who has unscrupulously abducted the queen and made the kingdom an unescapable trap for unwary travelers. “He favored disloyalty and never tired or wearied of baseness, treachery and wickedness” (p. 227).
But occasionally, in both Yvain and Lancelot, these values of chivalry and courtly love come in conflict with one another. Yvain meets such a situation after saving the manor with the 300 seamstresses from the goblins. He, as dictated by chivalry, is a protector of women, and should take the lord’s daughter after saving her. But courtly love demands that he remain true to Laudine, and not marry anyone else. Ultimately, he takes the path of courtly love, and says, “I cannot, at any price, marry a wife or remain here” (p. 358). Lancelot is faced with a similar situation when he is struggling with how to deal with the temptress, who requests that, in order to stay at her house, he must sleep with her. Chivalry, asking that he never deny his protection to a maiden and fulfill her requests, is in conflict with his love of Guinevere. He finds a middle ground, defending the maiden against her “rapist,” but turning his back to her when they are in bed. He remains chaste and his loyalty to Guinevere is not broken.
Lancelot also faces the dilemma of whether to choose generosity or pity, when he has defeated the arrogant knight, but Bademagu’s daughter is requesting that Lancelot kill him. Generosity – following the maiden’s request – requires him to kill the man, but pity – an aspect of chivalry – demands that he give mercy when mercy is asked of him. Again, Lancelot takes a middle ground, giving the knight a second chance at a fight – but this time, Lancelot decapitates him, satisfying the maiden.
As you can see, when a dilemma arises between courtly love and chivalry, generally the path taken leans more toward courtly love. Yvain and Lancelot remain true to their loves, even when chivalry dictates that they should do otherwise. Chretien shows that neither system was flawless, and that it was difficult to satisfy both the demands of chivalry and courtly love.