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Alain Chartier, Belle Dame sans mercy, courtly love, degraded courtly values


At first blush, Alain Chartier’s late medieval poem, the Belle Dame sans mercy seems to recount a story that is quite similar to narrations of other frustrated affairs in the courtly love tradition, as it tells of a devoted lover who relentlessly, yet unsuccessfully, begs for the euphemistic “mercy” of his lady. Plying the lady with compliments, assailing her with threats, and attempting to verbally manipulate her, the lover endeavors to force the lady to love him through various unsuccessful linguistic strategies. Although he commits to the lady and presents her with countless arguments about why she should cede to his advances, and the consequences that will arise if she does not, his pleas and threats are voiced without any success, and the lady remains unpersuaded. Modified only slightly, this frustrated relationship is also reflected in the frame narrative, where a mournful narrator has likewise lost the opportunity to communicate with his beloved. Since the Belle Dame sans mercy has often been understood as a rather ludic or even frivolous work, the acerbic points of critique that Chartier offers are frequently overlooked. A key issue that the Belle Dame explores through its study of language are the degraded courtly values that bleed over to the linguistic failure and problematic speech acts of Chartier’s protagonists. This causes his characters to communicate poorly when they are able to communicate at all, and regularly leaves them to grapple in vain with fragile, “trembling” words that highlight their vulnerable state.