The Liberation of Love
A Brief History of Romance
by Jonn Salovaara
Nearly 2400 years ago, Aristophanes, the Athenian playwright, gave a
memorable speech. According to Plato, in the course of a discussion among
distinguished Athenians about the nature of love, Aristophanes created his
own myth. In the beginning, said the playwright, there were three types of
human creatures, one all male, one all female, and one half male and
half-female. At some point, these strange-looking creatures, each with
four legs and arms, two heads, etc., were split apart, and ever since,
they’ve been trying to get back together. When they are lucky enough to
find the part they were split from, they experience a sense of wholeness
and are overjoyed. Those couples who were originally all one sex become
gay couples in love, either lesbians or male homosexuals, while the
originally mixed-sex creature once "rejoined" is a straight couple.
In Aristophanes’ Athens, as so often happens, there was a wide
gulf between the vision of the poets and philosophers and the social
arrangement of everyday life. The institutions of marriage and family were
not geared to couples happily finding each other. Women were second-class
citizens, slotted by Aristotle into the same political category as slaves,
used as pawns in father-arranged marriages. Meanwhile, in the wealthier
segment of society, sexual relationships between married middle-aged men
and adolescent boys were part of the norm, considered beneficial to the
upbringing of the boy, who was introduced into society by his older lover.
For men, at least, Athens was an openly bisexual culture, but it was not a
culture of equal romantic opportunity.
Roman Empire showed a similar divide between love on an epic scale and
love from day to day. For the mythmaker, there was the dramatic,
ultimately tragic, love between Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas,
who left her at the gods’ command to become the founder of Rome.
the homemaker, love was nothing so essential. Women and men were more like
business partners than lovers, and women were still far from equal
partners. By the time of Seneca, a wife’s official status had increased
from that of servant to that of friend, but love in marriage would be a
bonus, and an unexpected bonus, at that. Wives were expected to be
obedient; husbands to be faithful, and the marriage bond a strong
institution to support Roman society.
Nor did the advent of
Christianity mark much of a change. Early Christian Europe inherited the
Roman institution, with new proscriptions against sensual and sexual
pleasure. Church teaching reflected the New Testament notion that celibacy
was ideal and marriage was preferred to freelance sexe. But, even within
marriage, sex must not become a primary object. That would put pleasure
above reason and passion above God. Strict moderation was the rule of the
day; and by the way, homosexuality, commonplace in Athens, and tolerated
in early Rome, officially became an abomination to God.
upon century, marriage continued to be a business proposition, an
opportunity to protect, gain, or augment wealth. A father and mother would
work diligently to make sure that their first son, at least, would marry
the daughter of a social and economic equal, if not a superior. Love, a
feature of storytelling and gossip, was still socially
Many writers on the topic of romantic love point to
12th century France as the birthplace of "the couple," that is, of a
socially-sanctioned male-female relationship that bears some resemblance
to Aristophanes’ vision. Practical, passionless marriage still
predominated, and the times were marred by rape and conquest of naive
girls. Yet the songs of the troubadours, perhaps inspired by European
contact with harem life during the crusades, helped to create and promote
a new romantic ideal. These songs included the image of women as objects
of veneration and even worship, an image eventually incorporated into a
sort of code of love for the knightly class. According to this code, then,
women were neither the subservient partners in a property-oriented
marriage, nor victims of rape or seduction, but rather a worthy, even
At first, at least, this romantic ideal was a
code for adulterous love, not love within marriage. The paradigm
prescribed that a knight should fall in love with a married lady of his
class or higher, and that he should pine away for her in silence for a
long time before revealing his feelings to her, and that he should prove
himself worthy of her by performing some feat in her honor, before
conummation at last took place. This somewhat incredible pastime for grown
men and women was developed at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her
daughter, where there were also debates about different kinds of love.
Though a new language about women in the songs of the troubadours
seems undeniable, some scholars argue that texts which elaborate the code
later referred to as "courtly love" should be taken ironically: those
persistent knights are just deluding themselves into sin. The implication
is that the social acceptance of Christian mistrust of sexuality and women
never wavered even this much. Certainly, for centuries after the
appearance of these songs and other works, marriages continued to be
arranged by parents with an eye more on the rational, sensible, economic
consequences of it than on the son’s or daughter’s romantic wishes.
Nonetheless, it does seem that notions from this so-called courtly
love were in some cases incorporated into marriage and that they also
filtered down through the various levels of society. By the time of
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it was not considered absurd
that marriageable children from two bourgeois Italian families should
express the same kind of passionate feelings for each other that were
earlier confined to knights’ effusions for their ladies.
was a trend in favor of romantic love beginning in the 12th century, it
ran into a definite roadblock in the 17th, in the shape of the Puritans,
those charming folk, who, when they weren’t closing the theaters where
Shakespeare’s plays had been performed, were busy colonizing Native
American territory. No matter how much one may applaud the virtues of
these persistent opponents of church ritual, it does seem fair to say that
at least as far as their ideas of love and marriage, they were a throwback
to the early Middle Ages. Puritans believed in tenderness and kindness in
marriage, but they were wary of what they called idolization, or putting
love for the spouse above the love of God.
Anyone who’s read
The Scarlet Letter can tell you what the Puritans thought of
romantic love outside of marriage, or at least what Nathaniel Hawthorne,
writing in the 19th century, thought they thought. It was bad enough to
wear a badge of shame, but adulterers were lucky if they avoided
execution. And you may remember that Hester Prynne’s marriage to the
elderly Roger Chillingworth had been arranged by her parents back in
England, out of economic necessity. Though the Puritans were not a
dominant power for long, their notion of marriage, really a much older
Christian notion, continued, and still continues, to color thinking in
America and elsewhere.
Nonetheless, much of Europe was untouched
by the Puritan ideal. The Age of Exploration inspired a sense of
adventure, and that came to include amorous adventure. Lovers influenced
by the troubadour tradition seemed to show greater respect for women.
Still, romance between equals was rare throughout Europe, and it carried a
negative connotation, as it seemed to suggest both extravagance and
brevity of feeling. Also remaining was a conviction that romance was one
thing, marriage another.
Not everyone became a Puritan, though,
and not even all Americans were opposed to romance. Ben Franklin, for
example, enjoyed the love life of a French aristocrat. For most Americans,
though, an agrarian life didn’t leave enough time or energy for adulterous
romance, even if a religious conscience could somehow manage it. And
marriage still was, by necessity, a practical matter; more than half the
work of the family farm was done by women.
And, in marriage, women
still were second-class citizens. They could not vote, of course. In most
cases, their property reverted to their husbands. And they often could not
seek divorce. Their trapped condition was conducive to obedience, perhaps,
but not ecstasy.
Those who escaped the Puritan revolution soon met
with another set of narrow ideals. In the aftermath of the French
Revolution, the English aristocracy gave up its mistresses and socially
sanctioned adultury; in combination with various evangelical religious
movements, they launched the Victorian period. The image of Victoria as
the good, faithful wife and mother, within a large, stable family, came to
dominate the private life of England and the United States. And certainly,
if ever a wife was in love with her husband, it was Queen
It is now commonplace to point out the hypocrisy of the
Victorian ideal. Alongside the wholesome family, with the angelic mother
and the strong, kindly father, there remained a vast array of secret
sexual outlets for "respectable" men, including, at least in Paris,
brothels, bordellos, street-walkers, courtesans, and mistresses.
Still, as pointed out by American Literature scholar Vicky Olwell,
of the University of Chicago, by the 1830s Americans were writing in their
diaries as if romantic, erotic love for a spouse was now a legitimate
feeling. They began to think of marriage as the "sphere where you gain
your full development as a person," through romantic love. Not only this,
but parents began to think that their children should be looking for this
sort of love when they considered marriage. Olwell adds that beginning
during the 19th century, "Romantic love [was] thought to be most authentic
when...divorced from consciousness, thought, and agency."
haste to remember the numbing sanctimony and the male hypocrisy of the
Victorian era, we often overlook its eroticization of marriage. Explaining
this development is not easy. Maybe the image of the English queen did
have something to do with it. Maybe the increased urbanization of America
made marriage less of an economic unit. Maybe the fiction of the era
influenced women’s thought.
Its early appearance in America, as
opposed to Europe, may have to do with the more realistic education of
girls and the more democratic fatherhood noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in
1835, which gave women a larger role in selecting a husband. Tocqueville
also commented that adultery was less common in America because men could
use the excuse of class difference as a reason for not marrying any women
they seduce, as they did frequently in France.
But, even in
France, this same eroticization of marriage eventually took place. By the
end of the 19th century, again according to Olwell, and on into the 1920s,
sexuality, and a good marital sex life, was thought to be not just a sign
of romantic love, but its foundation. And, without it, opined the new
social philosophers, a marriage would not succeed.
Not too long
after the Second World War, Americans seemed to be settled in a
mock-Victorian, nuclear family stability. The neo-Victorian father drove
off to the office, leaving the neo-Victorian suburban housewife at home.
Almost immediately, however, a revived women’s movement led by Betty
Friedan, asked "Is this all?"
Women, especially those who were
well-educated, began rejecting the one-sided nature of their role as "the
heart of the home."Armed with effective birth control, they began to
experiment with sexuality divorced from love and love unfettered by
domestic responsibility. For a time, in the‘60s and‘70s, young women and
men explored without much physical risk both the confluence and the
independence of romance, eroticism, and love. "Free love" was born; so was
gay liberation. Both men and women could actively pursue Aristophanes’
program of finding their "other half."
Still, the question remains
how to organize one’s life once this "other half" is found. For those who
attempt to set up a household along the lines of a traditional marriage,
the tension between the demands of tradition and the demands of equality
can create an almost intolerable strain. It’s easy enough to say, "50-50"
for everything: housework, career, childcare; it’s another thing for two
people to work that out successfully in practice, especially when the
whole attempt is haunted by the old image of the father going to the
office and the mother staying at home. And if physical exhaustion put a
damper on illicit affairs of the founding fathers, it doesn’t do anything
much for socially sanctioned householders today. On the other hand, those
who create their own alternative arrangements must invent their own
rituals, rules, landmarks, and supports. They forge their love
relationships with little or no help from the larger world.
Aristophanes’ story still rings a bell with us; it resonates
because romantic love has that quality Aristophanes describes. It feels
like the chance discovery of a whole new piece — of life, or love, or our
very selves. No matter how rational we might like to be, no matter how
hard-headed and self-sufficient, we still experience crushes, and love at
first sight, and inexplicable passion, and a longing to unite with
Some of us meet the challenges of love within the
confines of socially sanctioned marriage, while others struggle to make
our own way. Those of us who live independent and alone strain to hear the
tantalizing refrain, "there’s somebody out there for me." And all of us
travel an unmapped terrain when we find ourselves in love.