Rear Cover: Courtly Love in the Caucasus: Rustaveli’s Georgian Epic, The Knight in the Panther Skin

Dianne Ecklund Farrell


The Knight in the Panther Skin by Shota Rustaveli is the great medieval (ca. 1200) epic of Georgia, and its most distinctive feature is courtly or romantic love, which is its basic motivating force. This article seeks to establish in which respects The Knight in the Panther Skin resembles Western courtly love, and what the explanation for this resemblance might be. In this endeavor I have had to challenge a common (mis-) conception that Western courtly love was essentially illicit love
One can easily demonstrate that the literary roots of The Knight in the Panther Skin lie in Persian literature rather than in direct contact with Western courtly love, but the reason for the resemblance to Western courtly love is more problematic.  Various possibilities are entertained:  namely, (1) that Arab love poetry gave rise to it in Georgia (and possibly also in the West, as has been held); (2) that Neoplatonism produced or constituted a philosophic underpinning for courtly love and that it was transmitted to Georgia and/or Western Europe (a) by Arab Neoplatonists; (b) by Western Christian Neoplatonists or (c) by Byzantine Neoplatonists. A third possibility is (3) that it arose due to social and political conditions.
And what were the social and political circumstances in Georgia and in Western Europe which, at the same historical period, produced and elaborated a culture so deferential to the ladies?  And which, being absent in the Islamic world, did not produce courtly love there?  
In Georgia a sovereign queen presided in the era of Georgia’s greatest power, wealth and extent. Feudal servitors crowded the court, eager to gain honors and riches for themselves through preferment by the queen, virtually guaranteeing a cult of adoration of the queen.  It is Sovereign Queen Tamar to whom Rustaveli dedicates his poem, and to her that he declares his undying love. In Provence, where there were many feudal heiresses, a similar incentive to “please the ladies” prevailed.
No direct influence from the troubadours and minnesaenger of Southwestern Europe can be found. The evidence does not support Arab love poetry as a source of or conduit for courtly love, nor can Arab Neoplatonism have played a role. Byzantine Neoplatonism, however, was prominent in the courtly culture of Rustaveli’s time, and the social and political conditions in Georgia likewise were favorable to the rise of a culture of courtly love. Thus both intellectual and socio-political conditions favored the blooming of courtly love in twelfth-century Georgia.  

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