From Quest to Brothel: The Demise of the Courtly Love Tradition in La Celestina

Author: Alyssa Acierno, Hofstra University, United States of America
Published: April 5, 2017

Citation: Acierno, A. (2017). From Quest to Brothel: The Demise of the Courtly Love Tradition in La Celestina. IAFOR Journal of Arts & Humanities, 4(1).


Enduring an arduous quest is an important component of the knightly code of honor. In the courtly love tradition of the Middle Ages, embarking on this quest and prevailing over its daunting obstacles epitomized the essential requirements for courtly love; that is, in overcoming those obstacles, a knight gained the spiritual value and honor that made him worthy of love. Accordingly, the attainment of spiritual value and honor opened a critical door: it allowed the knight to win over his lady and thus fulfill his carnal desires. Lancelot, for example, the main character in Chrétien de Troyes’s The Knight of the Cart, meets all the quintessential requirements implicit in the courtly love tradition when he embarks on his quest for Guinevere. I will argue in this paper that, by the late fifteenth century, Spanish writer Fernando de Rojas, in his seminal work La Celestina (1499), reclaims this tradition’s generic and distinguishing principles (a tradition called amor cortés in Spanish) in order to set up a specific path of inference for the reader. His reader, clearly recognizing the courtly love scantlings, will assign specific meanings to the work that correspond to a set of possible, courtly-love inspired conclusions, to which he/she is being led. This design is evident from the first lines of the work: when Calisto sees Melibea in her garden and love enters his soul just from the sight of her, the structure of the language and the emotive meaning it creates for the reader is, unmistakably, that of courtly love. But the reasoning texture soon becomes more complex, as the semantic information provided by other characters (who are not courtly lovers and, interestingly, often whisper to themselves or to each other in asides) begins to undermine the reader’s path of inference, forging an alternate dimension of meaning where the work’s language becomes contested ground, the instrument of credible agents holding pragmatic systems of belief and opposing values. In other words, for the reader, the initial prescriptive dimension of unequivocal meaning anticipated by generic courtly love language and content is challenged and overwhelmed by a subversive pattern of reasoning, one based upon real-life needs, interests and the profit motive.


courtly love, medieval Spain, quest narratives, Spanish literature, tragicomedy, Celestina