Courtly Love in The Avengers

One in a series of blogs about confluences between The Avengers and random medieval stuff.

Introductory Waffle and Two Disclaimers

It is interesting to examine the relationships between Steed and Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, and Tara King in terms of the medieval concept of courtly love. Although the parallels are inexact in places, many of the facets of Steed’s relationships to these characters resonate with aspects of the medieval idea of courtly love.

There is some debate over whether courtly love was ever an actual cultural practice, or whether it was simply an idea that was played out in medieval aristocratic literature. I’m not going to deal with that distinction here. I’m interested in how The Avengers resonates with the concept as a concept, not with whether the series hews to actual medieval cultural practices in upper-class cis-gender heterosexual relationships. I will be exploring confluence and resonance, not exact parallel.

No one would be more shocked than I to find that the writers of The Avengers actually had medieval courtly love in mind when they created these characters. I don’t think they did, so I’m not ascribing any intention to any of the writers. I’m interested in the confluences I personally see between the series and medieval courtly love, not whether or not they were put in on purpose. If the courtly stuff is there intentionally, then yahoo!  If not, it doesn’t matter for my purposes.

Definitions and Background-y Things

Courtly love was an important concept in aristocratic circles throughout the late Middle Ages, and it worked something like this:

  • A knight pursues a lady, not the other way around.
  • The lady can choose to accept the knight’s favors, or she can push him away. She can tease him all she wants until she decides to give in or manages to convince him to go away.
  • The knight is obligated to do anything the lady asks him to do, promptly and without question. This can be anything from picking her some flowers to going out to fight one or more other knights on her behalf.
  • The knight is not automatically entitled to the lady’s favors. He has to work to earn them, and she may never grant them.
  • The knight must never try to take advantage of his lady. She has all the power to grant or withhold her favors.
  • The knight and the lady are not married to each other. This is an important point: the courtly love relationship is at bottom adulterous.
  • The lady must in some way be above the knight. Often she is the wife of the lord that the knight serves.
  • The relationship of the lovers in courtly love is what we today would call “romantic love”; the actual marriage relationship was often more of a political and dynastic arrangement than an emotional one.
  • A courtly love relationship technically is not supposed to be physically consummated. The lack of a physical aspect was thought to make the love more pure, and also kept a certain amount of not unpleasant sexual tension going between the courtly lovers. It also could keep one or both of the lovers from being banished or killed if the lady’s husband found out what was going on.
  • However: there is some evidence that courtly lovers occasionally did succumb to temptation: there is a genre of troubadour song called the alba, or dawn song, where a lookout sings about the day breaking in order to send a coded message to the lovers that day has come and they had better skedaddle before they get caught.

A Parfait, Gentil Knight and His Ladies: John Steed, Cathy Gale, and Emma Peel

courtlylove.housethatjackbuiltEmma: Where’s your armor?
Steed: Um, it’s at the laundry.

Steed’s relationships with Cathy Gale and Emma Peel can be conceptualized as courtly love in several respects. Each of these women conforms in many ways to the ideal of the courtly lover, as does Steed. (Important differences between Emma and Cathy will be discussed below.)

  • The women are not married to Steed
  • They maintain separate households from Steed
  • They are self-sufficient; their relationships with Steed are by choice, not necessity
  • They both use the title of a married woman
  • They are both Steed’s social equals, but
  • They are both “above” Steed in some ways: each has skills and talents that he does not, and he admires them for these
  • Their relationships have elements of romantic love
  • Neither Emma nor Cathy automatically grant Steed their favors for the asking; the women are very much in control of that aspect of their relationships
  • Steed does knightly deeds for each of them, rescuing them from harm and fighting on their behalf

While many of these qualities line up pretty well between the medieval idea of courtly love and the relationships between Steed and the women, other parallels are much less exact. Emma and Cathy both use the title “Mrs.”, indicating that they are married women, but they are both in fact widows. Or at least Cathy is; Peter Peel eventually comes back, indicating that Emma was married the entire time she was with Steed. This makes Emma’s relationship with Steed rather closer to the courtly ideal than his relationship with Cathy. Another important element that is missing is Steed’s relationships to the women’s husbands: there is none. Steed is not a vassal knight courting his lord’s wife.

The romantic love aspect also differs between the two women in how they relate to Steed. Cathy cares about Steed very much, and loves him in her own way, but she is very conflicted about it. Their relationship probably did become physical at one point, but it’s unclear how much sex was a part of that relationship and for how long. Emma, on the other hand, is deeply in love with Steed and has given her whole heart to him. Their love is regularly consummated physically. In either case, Steed is a complete gentleman who can take no for an answer: if the women don’t want sex he respects that. (An aside: if we accept Diana Rigg’s contention that Steed and Emma were not having sex, that would bring them even closer to the courtly ideal.)

All three of these characters seem to be of a similar social class. The women have significantly more formal education than Steed does: both Emma and Cathy have PhDs, whereas Steed may not have finished university (there are several variant fan headcanons about this). Both women have intellectual skills that Steed lacks. Instead of being threatened by this, Steed looks up to Cathy and Emma. He thinks it’s wonderful they can do things he can’t, and it makes him happy to have them use those skills alongside him to catch the villains.

Although Steed regularly fights to rescue both of these women, they are far from damsels in distress. They fight, too, and sometimes rescue Steed. The women’s relationship with Steed is not predicated on his prowess in combat, nor do they demand he fight just because they want to watch him knock heads, or because they gain greater social standing if he does. Their granting of sexual favors (or even simple attention) is not tied to any series of tests they consciously set for him, and they certainly don’t expect him to write poetry praising their virtues. (I am sure Steed would be eternally grateful for that last one. As eloquent and quick-witted as he can be, I can’t imagine him writing poetry.)


I couldn’t find the source for this image, but it may be connected to Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide, a medieval romance about a knight and his wife. When Erec is accused of neglecting his knightly duties, he puts on his armor and takes Enide on a quest to get his good name back. He tells Enide she must be silent. Erec fights a series of enemies, and in several of these combats Enide breaks her vow of silence to warn Erec of danger.

John Steed and Tara King

And what shall we make of Miss King? Unlike Cathy and Emma, Tara actually sets the whole courtly love thing on its ear, and here’s how that works:

  • Tara pursues Steed romantically (inversion of knight pursuing lady)
  • Tara is assigned to Steed; he does not choose her (inversion of knight pursuing lady)
  • Tara seems to be of a lower social class than Steed (inversion of lady’s superiority to the knight)
  • Tara is unschooled in her profession, and is much less capable than Steed is in all respects (inversion of lady’s superiority to the knight)
  • Tara is dependent on Steed in many ways (inversion of self-sufficiency of the lady)
  • Tara is unmarried (inversion of single knight + married lady)
  • Steed does not want Tara’s favors (inversion of knight’s pursuit of lady)

Maintenance of the accepted social order was a really big deal in the Middle Ages. Anything that inverted or subverted that order was automatically suspect, and considered unnatural.

Tara’s relationship to Steed is exactly that, in terms of courtly love. Everything about their relationship is upside down. It’s not just her youth that works against her: her social class and her lack of skill and experience contribute to the dysfunction of her relationship with Steed. The lady must love her knight, but she must not look up to him as her superior. The lady must be in some way superior to her knight, because if the knight has nothing to strive towards, then what he does is outside the bounds of chivalry, and it will not be successful.

Medieval knights could, and did, go slumming, and this practice is sometimes recounted in Old French songs called pastourelles, where knights try to convince (or force) peasant women to have sex with them. This also supports the medieval social order, in terms of feudal oppression of the lower classes, but it has nothing to do with courtly love, and isn’t particularly chivalrous.

Steed, however, is chivalrous through and through: he’s not going to take advantage of Tara’s neediness, and he’s not going to breach the courtly social order by pursuing someone who isn’t worthy of him. Instead, he has to muddle awkwardly along, trying to figure out exactly how to relate to this woman who clearly is in love with him, but yet is his inferior in all respects. Steed does his best by her, but I think Steed would find Tara problematic even if he weren’t dealing with a heart broken over Emma’s departure.

Setting aside the whole question of interpersonal relations between the actors, in terms of courtly love it is no surprise that the greatest chemistry is between Emma and Steed and the least between Tara and Steed. The Peel/Steed relationship is closest to the courtly ideal in many respects; that between Tara and Steed the furthest away. Cathy’s relationship with Steed also is courtly, but their relationship is more fraught and the element of romance is more restrained than it is with Emma. For Steed, Emma truly is the lady from whom all his joy comes.

And on that note, I’m going to play us out with Guillaume de Machaut’s ballade of that title.
(Text and translation)

courtlylove.machautMSTwo lovers, folio from the works of Guillaume de Machaut (Paris, BNF Fr. 1584, f. 91v)

blogs in this series
Preux Chevaliers, concerning Emma, Steed, and knightliness
The Story of the Beautiful Knight, about Emma Peel as Steed’s Bel Cavalher
Amor’s Commandments in Le Roman de la Rose, wherein we see how well Steed measures up in the practice of fin’ amours
John Steed and the “Douce Ennemie”: Cathy, Emma, and Steed through the lens of a Machaut virelai, plus an analysis of the opening fencing scene in “Town of No Return”
Courtly Love in The Avengers: Steed’s relationships with his partners through the lens of amour courtois