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Friday, 22 May 2009

Enduring love and the curious gift of Eleanor of Aquitaine

I was looking at a course William Reddy teaches on the History of Romantic Love at Duke University in North Carolina.

This caught the eye:

"Before the twelfth century, in Europe, love between men and women was not regarded as heroic; it was instead considered a sign of weakness, the preoccupation of a person without character. Why this change? Since the twelfth century, lovers have been consistently considered heroic in Western countries. The plot of the story of Lancelot and Guinevere written about 1170 and the plot of the famous movie Casablanca (1942)--perhaps the most admired Hollywood film of all time--are virtually the same."

It should be noted that the romantic love of the twelfth century mostly revolved around the unconsumated love of a man and a married woman and is somewhat different to our modern notion of Romantic love but the relationship is clear. However, it did appear a genuine innovation in European thought and idea that two souls united in physical and emotional union could be an elevated form of existence.

Though it may have evolved since those courtly days, Romantic love has been an enduring feature both in its celebration and its supression in the intervening centuries. This obviously begs a few questions, not least:

Why it should have been then and not before that such a feeling arose, given its hold upon Western society suggests that it speaks to (or perhaps created) a very powerful need within us?

Why has it had such a powerful grip on Western imagination and identity?

Why has this not appeared with such force in other cultures?

For those that didn't know - there are roots to the ideas and songs of those troubadours wandering round southern France who entertained Eleanor of Aquitaine and gave birth to Romantic love. From the Greeks philosophers like Socrates and Plato, Roman writers such as Ovid to Islamic lyric poetry (many strands of which also contained some homosexual elements) was the notion born.

So why did it arise then and not before? Perhaps part of the answer lied in the Christian notion that divine love was the primary form of expression of love and that sexuality, especially female sexuality which was associated with paganism was not to be celebrated. Christ took no bride according to the orthodox account and those considered most religious were celibate monks, priests and nuns, the latter of whom were and in some ways still are considered brides of Christ. That does not create a climate conducive to encouraging a taboo breaking spritually blessed union between man and woman.

Why then did it not arise before Christianity? The axial sages and prophets (Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tse, the Judaic prophets) had already forced much of the world to recognise that compassion and individual morality were crucial to our relationship with the world and those around us, and even the teachings of Jesus and Mohammed were developments upon these themes rather than entirely new ideas. In other words we had the mental, emotional and philosphical potential to create Romantic love before. We just didn't.

This makes me wonder, and it is only speculation upon my part - more learned readers feel free to correct - that the social fabrics of those societies was enough to either not feel the need or actively prohibit its development.

Was it only the gap left by lords, knights and others fighting in the Crusades that gave the space for their ladies to encourage such ideas instead of the more usual litanies of battle and male valour. Did this space (perhaps not unlike the political strides made by women during the two World Wars) allow women to encourage the troubadours in their creation of something to the benefit of men and women?

As strange as it may seem, could it not be down to the curious fortune of Eleanor of Aquitaine's encouragement of such tales when she was mistress of the household without a father or husband to do the medieval equivalent of hogging the remote control that night? And having done so, to persuade the returned Duke, William IX, that he too might enjoy their equivalent of a rom-com instead of a war film?

Why has Romantic love held such a grip on the Western imagination? A tricky one this and so again I am forced to speculate. (a familiar problem as regular readers know)

Our concept of the soul (and the ego?) is unusual in global mythology and perhaps romantic love tapped into those notions to create an unusually powerful attraction between the individuals of the time and the concept of Romantic love, when perhaps other societies had stronger notions of social bonds that were less dynamic and therefore less receptive to such a potentially disruptive influence such as a love that breaks marital bonds and involves individual choice over group benefit and stability.

Perhaps as I mentioned above, the social dislocation caused by wars such as the Crusades allowed a freedom to innovate that might not otherwise have been possible, and that once this had been done, men recognised the benefit of this to themselves, speaking as it did to their ego.

And held fast it has upon the imagination and identity of the West. Like the American Dream, of a better material life being yours for the taking if you are prepared to strive for it, so it is with romantic love. A better life for one's soul if one falls in love. It is, if one excuses the pun, a seductive notion.

I am very conscious these ideas reflect the rise of romantic love within a certain class of people in medieval times and not the ordinary peasant folk who lived then too, so all thoughts on their conceptions of love at such times most welcome. I wrote about some of those from a later time here.

It also begs the question are we the better for romantic love, and that i think is another rich vein for another post.

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