Celebrate Valentine’s Day medieval style: By judging other people with your friends

A 17th-century “map of the heart” by Madeleine de Scudery.
A 17th-century “map of the heart” by Madeleine de Scudery.
Image: Public domain
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As a kid, I thought Valentine’s Day was a chore. My elementary school required us to make cards “for everyone or no one.” Invariably, my sister and I spent the evening of February 13 at the dinner table, struggling to write personalized notes to every one of our three-dozen classmates.

We were not fooled. Even at age six or seven, we knew that desire was not so evenhanded. There was a difference between writing Dear Brad, I like your sweaters to a kid you hardly knew, and signing your name shyly to the one boy or girl for whom your small heart yearned.

As I got older, I found that grown ups were expected to apply that same sense of dutifulness in a different direction. Instead of including the whole class, Valentine’s Day celebrates a narrow, privatized version of love. Our culture insists that only one kind of love can possibly make people happy—usually heterosexual, romantic and monogamous. Come Feb. 14, the only way to experience this love is in isolation: one bottle of wine, two people, and an over-priced three-course dinner.

This Valentine’s Day, I decided that I wanted to dig up an alternative way to celebrate. It turns out that, into the Middle Ages, the Feast of St. Valentine was associated not with committed coupledom but with sexual misbehavior and collective fun. More specifically, having fun with your girlfriends. To this end, on Valentine’s Day in 1400, King Charles VI of France created what he called “La cour amoureuse”—the royal court of love in Paris.

According to Peter Goodrich, an expert on medieval legal history who heads the program on law and literature at Cardozo University, “courts of love” had already been a tradition in parts of France, Spain, and Northern Italy for several centuries. The courts, run entirely by women, heard cases brought by couples. Most often, the couples were courtiers engaged in extramarital affairs. They wore masks to protect their anonymity.

Some medieval scholars argue that it is hard to know how much of what historical sources say about the Court of Love literally happened, and how much is embellished by fantasy. (Imagine the predicament of the historian in six hundred trying to reconstruct the facts of people’s sex lives in 2016, based only on a Nicki Minaj video and Trainwreck.)

What is clear is that Charles VI announced the establishment of the “amatory court.” Goodrich adds that there is very strong “manuscript evidence” that, afterwards, he threw a banquet at which the female officials were elected.

Judges at the Court of Love consulted many different legal sources to help them make their decisions. The most famous was probably the treatise written by Andreas Capellanus in 1190, called Tractatus amoris et de amoris remedio: On love and the cure of love.

The treatise contained legal precedents for dealing with many kinds of romance gone wrong. In one section, it describes a woman who was being bled by her doctor. The woman set the bowl of blood on her window ledge. When her lover came and irritated her, she poured the bucket over him. On his way home, blood soaked, he was caught by a night watchman, who promptly threw him in prison, suspecting him of murder. (He got out the next morning.) As punishment, the court ordered that his mistress had to go to his house every day, whenever his wife stepped out, and “attend to him” until he felt ready to forgive her.

The Tractatus also took a disapproving view of playing hard to get. “The greatest crime,” Goodrich tells Quartz, “was nonchalance.”

Courts of love looked unfavorably upon “a lack of passion, or a lack of desire,” he continues. “It could include acting disrespectfully toward the lover, ignoring the lover in public, exposing the lover in public, attacking the lover unnecessarily or publicly.” The punishment for nonchalance could be “separation of company.” There was a logic to it: by absenting yourself in penance, you hoped to make your lover’s heart grow fonder.

The Parisian court heard several cases involving nonchalance. In one “cutely poetic” example, Goodrich says, a woman attacked her lover with a pin because he hadn’t given her the presents she expected. She scratched his nose in the attack. Her punishment? She had to kiss his nose every day until the scratch disappeared.

In another case heard by the court, a woman’s lover embarrassed her in public.

“A male lover came across his female lover in a park with a number of her friends and kissed her on the ear,” Goodrich says. “She complained to the court that it was an extreme act of inappropriate behavior, and his defense was that he came to whisper something in her ear and then tripped.” The court instituted a requirement that he communicate with her prior to any encounter in order to “get approval for his passion—and chalance,” or heat.

French courtiers might have had any number of means of sending such messages, says Goodrich. “They could send a servant with a message written on her back. Or maybe they would have a system—a code where they would wear a certain ribbon in their hats that day to indicate availability.”

For me, the takeaway is clear. The best way to spend Valentine’s Day 2016 would be to convene a panel of your friends and judge the relationships of other people. Reviving this tradition would let us reclaim the elements of collectivity and mischief that were once associated with the holiday—only to be lost in from the rote consumerist rites of American monogamy.

In fact, the court had a strong line on consumerism too: It was unacceptable to demand gifts or tokens from a lover on Valentine’s Day.

“In general, a woman who complained to the court that her lover had not given her sufficient presents on Valentine’s Day was severely reprimanded for eschewing the spirit of love and favoring the spirit of commerce,” Goodrich tells Quartz.

“The purpose of the court was to expand the scope, range, and longevity of love. Anything that turned love into something else was frowned upon.”

Send that memo to my elementary school teachers—and to Hallmark.