Along with the brothels and bawds, the concept of rarefied courtly love was evolving in the early Middle Ages. During this time, women were associated with Eve, the lustful temptress who was the cause of man’s fall. Returning pilgrims and crusaders, on the other hand, brought back Byzantine ideas of devotion to Mary, the holy intercessor between man and God, as well as the idealisation of femininity and womanhood as above the messy business of sexuality.
This ideal of courtly love flourished in the hands of the troubadors attached to various courts who flourished in southern France between 100 and 1350 CE. Before the twelfth century, there was no European tradition of love literature, but visitors to Spain and Sicily were increasingly influenced by the Arabic love poetry and philosophy they heard there.
The theme of ennobling love first appeared in the poems of Guilhem, Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine, and was taken up by nobles such as his granddaughter, Eleanor of Aquitaine. In the late 12th century, she and her daughter Marie of Champagne established a female-controlled court in Poitiers. Marie’s chaplain, Andreas Capellanus, devised a set of rules to teach courtiers how to behave. Courtly love was sensual love for an unattainable, idealised lady, but it was essentially pure, which prohibited physical consummation – imagine all of the angst, desire, and jealousy that could incite passion if there was no physical release. That was the theory, at least.
This brings us to Ulrich von Liechtenstein. He was a 13th century nobleman and knight from the Duchy of Styria in modern-day Austria who wrote extensively on how knights and nobles could live more virtuous lives. He was best known for Frauendienst (Service of Ladies), an autobiographical collection of poetry in which he recounts the great deeds of honour he performs for married noblewomen while adhering to the strict conventions of chaste courtly love.
Ulrich appears to have been born around 1200 in the Duchy of Styria, in the south of modern-day Austria, to a minor but prosperous noble family. In his early adolescence, he worked as a page before becoming a squire to Margrave Henry of Istria, the son of Duke Berthold IV of Merania. In his early twenties, he was knighted by Duke Leopold VI of Austria. He then rose through the ranks to become a high-ranking commander and, later in life, a provincial judge, and that he was the proud owner of three castles in Liechtenstein, Strechau, and Murau.
His other book, Frauenbuch (lit. “Woman Book”), was a dialogue set in 1240 that was published in 1257, lamenting the decline of chivalric courtship. Ulrich wrote it sometime around 1250 AD. Ulrich is also mentioned in passing in several books about jousting, with the implication that he was especially gifted at the sport, among other knightly endeavours, if not a little flamboyant.
Ulrich claims that much of his jousting exploits were inspired by a woman, in this case, an older, higher ranking noblewoman the young knight fell in love with when he was a page in his early adolescence. Despite the fact that the married noblewoman had repeatedly rebuffed young Ulrich’s advances over the years and openly mocked his appearance, Ulrich decided to keep trying to win her over anyway. He claims that his obsession with this woman was so strong that he would frequently sneak into her room at night to wash his hands in her bath water and even drink it on occasion.
When Ulrich was a bit older and discovered he had a talent for jousting and other knightly sports, he began entering tournaments in his paramour’s colours, dedicating his many victories to her. When this failed to win her over, he subjected himself to dangerous surgery to correct his cleft-lip which was the subject of her mocking. Soon after he recovered, flattered that he would do such a thing for her, the lady invited him to accompany her and others on a horse-ride. However, once he rode up alongside her, he was too nervous to say anything, prompting her to tear out a lock of his hair in protest of his behaviour.
Ulrich’s love-interest refused to have anything to do with him after this disastrous encounter, and she refused to acknowledge him or the dozens of poems and songs he wrote for her for three years. She also forbade him from wearing her colours in any of the tournaments in which he competed.
In one of his many jousts, his finger was severely injured, and he wrote to his love to inform her of this. She responded by accusing Ulrich of exaggerating the injury. Ulrich cut off his injured digit and sent it to her after reading this response. Ulrich’s love interest was flattered when she received the severed finger and replied that she would cherish his digit and look at it daily as a reminder of his devotion to her.
Ulrich was granted permission to compete in her name once again after regaining her favour. Ulrich set out on a massive jousting spree from Venice to the borders of Bohemia while dressed as Venus, the goddess of love, and dubbed the entire endeavour his Venusfahrt (Venus Journey).
Ulrich competed in hundreds of jousts against anyone who dared to challenge him over the next five weeks, all while dressed as a woman and declaring his undying love for his lady. Needless to say, he claims that many people laughed at him during his lengthy tour, but he claims that he broke 307 lances against his opponents during the joustfest, while only 271 were able to do the same to him.
Because of this Venusfahrt, his lady invited him to dress as a leper and wait outside her castle with the other beggars who wished to see her. Ulrich did this, but even so rather than greeting him, she went to bed for the night and left Ulrich standing outside in the rain, only to send word the next morning for him to climb up to her window using a rope she had dropped down for him. She cut the rope as Ulrich attempted to ascend it after wading across a moat, and he fell into the water below.
After all of this, one would think that Ulrich would get the message that this woman was not interested. But he persisted. He eventually decided to tell her that he was leaving to go on a crusade for her. This finally worked and he won her favour. We can only hope that it was worth it.