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Monday, 26 January 2009

Expressions of love

You'd think I'd be posting more whilst not working but it's amazing how everything slows down. Anyway...

The mainstream of emotion history suggests that in the pre-industrial period life was much more angry, with less love in everyday relationships, despite some wonderful art describing passion in many different amorous flowers. Rarely though is affection described for one's husband or wife and often violence seemed ubiquitous throughout Western European and American society.

However perhaps there was more love out there in the medieval air than early studies suggest. John Gillis has written eloquently on the subject in an essay entitled from 'Ritual to Romance: Toward an Alternative History of Love'. (from the book 'Emotion: Toward a New Psychohistory', edited by Carol and Peter Stearns).

His point is that love as it's defined now is about love as internal feeling and intimacy, when this is something from the beginnings of the 19th century. Francesca Cancian described it as the 'feminisation' of love, where emotion became to be associated with women in the domestic sphere and men lacked such things in their quest for rationality in the world of work and power.

It is a standard that exists today and is still recognisable though Gillis feels it inappropriate for judging emotions before the 19th Century. He suggests that love had many definitions and forms across cultures, classes and time we find a range of expressions of love that can surprise us.

In a sense it should come as no surprise. Psychologists viewed emotion as a private, internal matter and historians sought out historical examples of expressions of this through diaries and letters and the like. Yet anthropologists have for decades been studying emotion as a social construct designed to deal with the relationship between group and individual behaviour. Whilst both yield insight and have weaknesses, it is only recently that viewing emotion in the latter form has been applied to our own Western History.

The visible behaviours tell us much about love back then. For example kissing was not so private as it is now, and kissing as an expression of love was apparently more public, and more painful with a likelihood of blood being drawn. These were public marks and intended as such, as declarations of emotion felt. Bodily fluids were also key to this, as the body was not just expressing emotion but was the emotion.

Two examples, both astonishing to the modern heart and mind:

"In Wales, a young man proved his love to a girl by urinating on her dress, a practice known locally as rhythu." (p92)

And even in the 19th Century, courting in the French countryside was a violent affair.
"First they exchange glances, then casual remarks, then heavy witticisms. The young man shoves at the girl, thumps her hard on the back, takes her hand and squeezes it in a bone cracking grip. She responds to this tender gesture by punching him in the back." (p92)

As a physical and not psychic condition, love was treated to the same controls as other physical urges and love magic became immensely popular despite its pagan roots. And the major rituals of love were far more public affairs than they are now. These days we give lovers privacy to nurture private feeling. Then, love through courtship, betrothal and marriage was a far more social experience that the whole community engaged in and this was necessary to establish legitimacy in the absence of written contracts. Indeed the couple themselves were at the centre of a virtual festival of action that centred on them only partly.

Perhaps our assumption that certain things are constant and unchanging is the only constant in a world that has changed so much...


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