On Incels and Courtly Love

knight and chad

Because the world is a garbage place, unfortunately this week suddenly a few more people are aware of what Incels are, and that said Incels are capable of killing people because they are simultaneously incapable of getting play.

Now this is hugely upsetting, disappointing, and all-around disgusting. Also, like pretty much every disgusting thing about our society’s relationship to sex and love, we can trace its roots to the horrifying ideas of relationships and love enshrined in the concept of courtly love.

Now, backing up, for those of you who are unaware of what an Incel is: first, congrats that you have made it this far without having to learn about these terrible people. Second, sorry I have to ruin this for you right now. ‘Incel’ is a foreshortening of ‘involuntary celibate’ and is a term used by a sad group of white dudes who feel the world owes them sex and that they have somehow been cheated out of it. Or, as Debbie Ging has put it they can be identified by the ‘claims to victimhood and aggrieved entitlement made by young, sexually disenfranchised white males’ that they delight in.[1]

These men have the sads because they think that women are all very busy having lots of sex with ‘Alphas’ or ‘Chads’, or men that uphold their ideas of hegemonic masculinity. They believe that women are just out here absolutely throwing themselves at any dude with a square jaw and an expensive car, and they believe that the reason they do not have sexual access to women is because they are ‘Betas’. Their beta-ness they attribute to their own physical looks (which they categorise obsessively, and assign numbers to), as well as their interest in non-“traditionally” masculine pursuits – so maybe video games, My Little Pony (IDK, alright?), or complaining obsessively on Reddit that you can’t get any.

The fact that women are not interested in these men is, of course, the fault of women, who are simultaneously ‘sluts’ who are constantly having sex with Chads, and also frigid and hateful women who are likely to make false rape accusations. Because sure, that is a thing.

Much is made by these men about how they are ‘gentlemen’ and ‘nice guys’ and that women always ignore them to go instead for traditionally masculine men who will treat them badly, which can be interpreted as being physically abusive, or cheating on them. If only these silly women who ‘are children: mentally, behaviourally, and evolutionarily’[2] could think in the same enlightened way as these dudes, they would be completely INTO banging this angry My Little Pony enthusiast who – as an added extra – is likely to be also racist.[3]

As you may have noted here, there is a strong thread of entitlement that runs through this particular group of dudes. The term ‘involuntary celibate’ is itself emblematic of this fact. If these dudes have their way they would be having sex, but instead these AWFUL WOMEN (bitches/sluts/etc.) have managed to block them from the sex which they so richly deserve because they are a Nice Guy™. Also, all these terrible women who are denying them sex will be PUNISHED one day by being left alone ‘Because no self-respecting man worth his name will have anything to do with [them] except sex. And when she gets older as all women inevitably do, not even that.’[4]

Yeah, so all of these ideas are absolutely flooded with medieval thought of the grossest kind.

First of all there is the idea that men who behave in a specific way are in a competition for love and sex. This tracks neatly with the ideas of my favourite medieval dude to hate on – Andreas Capellanus. Blog fans will remember Capellanus as the nasty dude who wrote De Amore, or On Love for those of you who haven’t learned Latin like the cool kids. This is a set of rules for how one should comport themselves in love, and also a definition of what love is. Spoiler: love is mostly a thing for bored rich people to do with each other, while they are married to other people, so basically the entire thing revolves around a contest for the affection of a woman who is already spoken for.

Literally Capellanus’s first rule of love is that marriage is no excuse for loving, and he states that nothing stops anyone from being loved by more than one person. HOWEVER, love is itself only monogamous. You can be loved by more than one person, but you can’t love more than one person. In fact, you can’t love if you aren’t jealous according to rule two.

So Capellanus is clear – heterosexual relationships are a contest, and you are in competition for the attention of the opposite sex. Access to members of the opposite sex is a resource that is being hoarded and you need to get in there and take it. This is why jealousy is paramount – at any minute the object of your affection (stress on the word object, here) could be taken from you by another man. You had best be jealous.

Incels have swallowed this line of thinking hard out, and they absolutely see themselves as in a battle with these imaginary Chads for access to women, and more specifically, sex.

Even beyond this, Incels are certain – absolutely certain – that all women are also cheating on their partners with men they find more sexually attractive. Show them a happy relationship between a regular nice guy (who they would be gross and term a beta) and they will tell you that that man is being ‘cucked’ for his money, and that the woman is sleeping with ever alpha she comes into contact with. They firmly believe, like Capellanus, that all relationships are at all times besieged by the possibility of new lovers.

The idea that women are always and forever cheating on men feeds into the second super medieval thing about the Incel conception of sex and women – the idea that women are rapacious sexual beings with little mind of their own that will throw themselves at any available alpha dude. AKA they just out here looking for the D. According to Incels and the medieval world, women, like animals, cannot help but be obsessed with sex. Jerome’s contention that ‘women’s love in general is accused of ever being insatiable; put it out, it bursts into flame; give it plenty, it is again in need’ shows us how medieval people just assumed that women were DTF. The Incel obsession with ‘sluts’ and the idea that women are always and forever having sex with any man they see – other than them – is fed by this assumption.

According to both Incels and Capellanus, this supposed female interest in sex also helps to compound the idea that women aren’t valuable. Capellanus assures us that ‘An easy attainment makes love contemptable’, so these theoretical sex-crazed women out here getting it with any man they see are simultaneously contemptable because they are not having sex with Incels, AND because they are having sex with other people. A real, valuable, woman would be hiding in a closet somewhere never interacting with men until such time as one appeared to her and she married him. I mean, ideally then you would also keep her in a closet afterwards, because you know how women be.

Capellanus and the Incels also have an interesting reaction to what should be the easy answer to all of these problems, which is obviously to get a professional in. Incels don’t want to pay for sex though – oh god no! Because they are entitled to it for free! Women should just be stoked that they are interested at all and start giving them sex because THEY ARE GENTLEMEN. (It’s almost like these guys aren’t interested in solving their problem, and mostly just want to bitch about it? Weird, right?)

Capellanus is straight up with them on this, and says that ‘[a] woman who you know desires money in return for her love should be looked upon as a deadly enemy, and you should be careful to avoid her like a venomous animal that strikes with its tail and fawns with its mouth.’[5] So, um, that is nice.

Besides! If what you want is just some sex, Capellanus maintains that you can just go ahead and find yourself a woman from a lower class than you and ‘when you find a convenient place, do not hesitate to embrace them by force.’[6] Go ahead! Help yourself! There’s nothing wrong with this!

In a capitalist white supremacist patriarchy, i.e. our current dystopian nightmare, de facto all men are the betters of all women. There can be some issues with dating ‘up’, i.e. rich women would be guarded by rich men who have more status, but any man technically has more status than any given woman. Women, therefore, should be in plentiful supply for any white dude, no matter how sad, to feel free to take.

The trope of saying that women are like children or animals also plays into this. If women are stupid and unable to know what they should be doing they are, by virtue of their childishness and foolishness, always inferior to men. Men should therefore have access to them whenever they feel like it. All of these Incels are, of course, super secret geniuses as well, so they are even MORE entitled to help themselves to any woman who happens to wander by.

So here is the really unfortunate situation about all of this mess – these horrible Incels are upset because Western culture has for over a millennium absolutely been shaped to give them everything they want. And it calls this romantic. They are complaining because in the last fifty years or so we have been making baby steps towards equality, and that deprives them of the ability to be assigned a woman as a sexual outlet, or to be allowed to just physically attack any woman who is their inferior, which is to say ALL women.

Women being in control of their own livelihoods, bodies, and destinies subverts the medieval/Incel view of the world. Because women are allowed to choose what they want, it doesn’t matter that these men have more status than they do. This is extremely upsetting if you are an unremarkable sad racist white boy. And it allows for a pretty intense tantrum. It’s a fundamental shift in the rules of the game! Women aren’t supposed to be able to have any say! I am being oppressed because I can’t have exactly what I want! How dare these objects reject me? The entire world is supposed to be set up to serve my every whim without me having to do very much at all!

In fact, Incels are pretty up front about the fact that they subscribe to a medieval idea of what sex and romance should be. That is why they are constantly making references to how ‘chivalry’ (a term which they have misunderstood, and by which they mean courtly love) is dead. They absolutely want the system where you get to just access women because you were in the same vicinity as them back. And they will tell you this themselves.

As Bridges and Pascoe have pointed out, this whole thing is of course, whack as hell because while these men are complaining that they are locked out of sexual contact because they are not masculine enough they are basically working ‘to conceal systems of power and inequality in historically new ways.’[7] They aren’t seeing women’s increasing ability to dictate their own lives as a reflection of women’s agency. Women aren’t people, they are objects that men squabble over. The answer then, is to create this new aggrieved form of hegemonic masculinity and get VERY ANGRY. Threaten these objects that have for some reason refused to obey you! Why not actually go and kill people for daring to live in a society and not provide you with sex at the same time?

And here is the secret of both the concept of courtly love and the entire Incel world view: none of it is actually about women. Capellanus is a dude writing to a dude about love. His entire philosophy has nothing to do with women. It’s something that you do at women.

Incels feel the same way. Women are certainly an enemy because they are refusing to have sex with them, but the real problem is that they are being muscled out of sex by other men. This is why Incels spend so much time focusing their anger at the theoretical Chads of the world. The objects have gone haywire and now other men are able to hoard them all for themselves! HOW DARE!

As regular readers know, I abhor the use of the word ‘medieval’ as a pejorative, as it allows us to distance ourselves from the horrors of our own time instead of fixing them. However, this is one instance where a section of our society is absolutely still locked into a medieval pattern, and it is an actual deadly problem. We need to interrogate the roots of our understandings of sex, love, and relationships and how the medieval conceptions of them are still influencing us today, or we’re going to keep having this problem. So long as we are still telling men that they are entitled to the bodies of women by virtue of being men (and more specifically, white men), we are going to face friction when hegemonic masculinities are disappointed to learn that women aren’t a participation prize they are assigned any more.

Could these guys just cultivate a nice life, learn to be kind, and get laid through being an interesting person who is genuinely interested in and kind to others? Of course. But we’re going to need to start telling men earlier that women are real humans in their own right, and do a better job of dismantling the system that tells them genuine human interaction is a secondary consideration first.

Good luck to us all.

[1] Debbie Ging, ‘Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere’, Men and Masculinities (2017), p. 3.

[2] Ging, p. 12.

[3] Abby L. Ferber, ‘Racial Warriors and Weekend Warriors: The Construction of Masculinity in Mythopoetic and White Supremacist Discourse’, Men and Masculinities (2000).

[4] Ging, p. 10.

[5] Ibid, p. 145.

[6] Ibid., p. 150.

[7] Tristan Bridges, C. J. Pascoe, ‘Hybrid Masculinities: New Directions in the Sociology of Men and Masculinities’, Sociology Compass (2014), p. 246.


For more on courtly love, see:
On courtly love, sexual coercion, and killing your idols
On Hotline Bling and courtly love
On power and the entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women, or, the thing that is actually ‘medieval’ about Trump

For more on sex, see:
On women and desire
The history of penis in vagina sex at Bish!
These hoes ain’t loyal: on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture
Sex and the (medieval) city: social hygiene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’

On how that is not chivalry, see:
That’s not what chivalry is, but ok

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Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kendrick Lamar enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “On Incels and Courtly Love”

    1. I think of it much as I think of Ovid – that there are satirical elements to it, but that it was taken seriously by quite a number of people, not least King Juan of Aragon and Violant de Bar who used it to set up a Court of Love in Barcelona in the fourteenth century. On the whole, satire requires a clarity of purpose in order to not become the thing that it is mocking, which I feel De Amore does not achieve. We have only to look at the people who tool is seriously to see that.

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