, Volume 95, Issue 4, pp 523-541

First online:

Why is la Belle Dame sans Merci? Evolutionary Psychology and the Troubadours

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The findings of recent research into the psychology of sexuality, including those of evolutionary psychology, can shed light on many of the paradoxes of troubadour poetry. A central feature of human sexuality is a fundamental asymmetry of sexual desire, the fact that men want sex more than women. Men and women also have different criteria for mate selection: men prefer women whose youth and beauty signal health and fertility, whereas women prefer men who possess resources and a willingness to devote those resources to the rearing of offspring. The troubadour love song is based on a clash of volitions opposing the amorous desires of the lover and the resistance of his lady, mirroring the asymmetry of desire observed in real men and women. Women’s power to determine whether sexual relations will take place is expressed figuratively in terms of medieval social hierarchy, resulting in the “feudal metaphor.” The lady’s resistance is reinforced through external obstacles to the relationship, notably same-sex competition in the form of jealous husband and rivals. The love song represents a fictional act of courtship that seeks to overcome that resistance, appealing to an essential criterion for women’s mate selection by stressing the sincerity of the lover’s commitment to the relationship.


Courtly love Evolutionary psychology Gender Sexuality Troubadours