#245      27 min 11 sec
Inventing romance: A tangled history of love and desire

Medieval historian Prof William Reddy examines the conditions in Europe that led to the notion of romantic love. He also looks at the early constructs of love and desire in India and Japan. Presented by Jennifer Martin.

"This is a perfect fit with the age old tradition going back to the 12th century of love being something better than desire, something that makes us into better people, that we display, we prove we are motivated by something higher than desire by taking heroic action." -- Prof William Reddy




Prof William Reddy
Prof William Reddy

William M. Reddy is William T. Laprade Professor of History and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, where he has taught since 1977. He is the author of The Making of Romantic Love: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia, and Japan, 900-1200 CE, which was awarded the 2013 David H. Pinkney Prize by the Society for French Historical Studies, for the best book in French history by a U.S.- or Canada-based scholar.

He is also author of The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions, and other works on the history of emotions, including recent essays in History and Theory and Emotion Review.
A new essay will appear later this year, "Humanists and the Experimental Study of Emotion," in an anthology entitled, Science and Emotions after 1945: A Transnational Perspective, edited by Frank Biess and Daniel Gordon.

In his work on the history of emotions, Reddy has held fellowships from the National Humanities Center, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He was recently a distinguished visitor to the ARC Center of Excellence for the History of Emotions.

On March 14, he gave a public lecture at the University of Melbourne, entitled “Do Emotions Have a History? The Example of Romantic Love”.

Credits

Presenter: Jennifer Martin
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

 

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VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

JENNIFER MARTIN 
I'm Jennifer Martin.  Thanks for joining us.  Ten years ago medieval historian, William Reddy, was asked to give a keynote address on the topic of romantic love.  The self confessed sceptic thought it would be a simple matter because he knew it didn’t exist, but William, a Professor of History and Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, discovered romantic love not only existed, it was universal.  Even more surprising than the revelation that romantic love transcended cultures and in time was his discovery that sexual desire did not.  In fact, William found European society was unique in separating love from desire.  It saw sexual desire as an appetite, something to do with the body not the heart.  Professor Reddy's book, The Making of Romantic Love: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia, and Japan 900-1200 CE is published by the University of Chicago Press and it won the 2012 Pinkney award from the Society of French Historical Studies for the best book in French history.A recent guest of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, William joins us in the studio via Skype from Duke University.  William, or Bill as I know you prefer, welcome to Up Close.

WILLIAM REDDY 
Well, thanks for having me on.  It's a real pleasure.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
I would like to begin by asking you to take us back to that 10 years ago and describe for us what you expected to find.  What were your particular cultural assumptions as a medieval historian immersed in Western culture?

WILLIAM REDDY 
Yes, well at the time I thought, well there isn't any such thing as romantic love or there might be one separate version of it for each culture and some cultures there wouldn’t be any such thing.  So I thought it would be a fairly easy task to talk about the tremendous variety of ways in which sexual partners think about their partnerships in different cultures.  That was my idea at the beginning.Once I got into working up the material however, I realised that there were remarkable similarities between ways in which sexual partners thought about each other, behaved and acted in places that had no way of having direct contact with each other.   

JENNIFER MARTIN 
So Bill, what did romantic love between the tenth and twelfth centuries mean to non-Europeans?  Let's begin if we can with the example of India.

WILLIAM REDDY 
Well, if we look at India in the timeframe that I decided to focus on, we find there that a kind of romantic love was crucial both to the way of life of the royal courts of the Hindu kingdoms that existed at the time and also it was a crucial ingredient to the temple ritual and to the devotional practices of many, many people in a range of regions in the Indian subcontinent. In other words, we find very explicit romantic love poetry being sung in temples about love relationships between gods and goddesses, between gods and goddesses and human beings and other types of spirits.  And we find that romantic love practices are a crucial ingredient in the life of royal courts where most of the literature that's written is love literature and the love relationships are one of the most prestigious and elegant activities of those people who are considered to be aristocrats.  

JENNIFER MARTIN 
The story of Krishna and Radha comes to mind.  Would you use that as an example?

WILLIAM REDDY 
Yes, there are many stories about a love relationship between Krishna, one of the great gods and a lowly cow herd girl named Radha.  First of all, Krishna is considered to be very playful and as an adolescent he is said to roam the hills of certain regions, playing the flute and cow herd girls as soon as they see him fall immediately in love with him.  They are dazzled by him and he develops a special relationship with one of these young women.  All of them are married.  These relationships are adulterous but they can think of nothing else once they have glimpsed of the beauty of the god Krishna and by the twelfth century we have Sanskrit sacred scripture that is filled with very detailed descriptions of lovemaking between Radha and Krishna.  These kinds of stories are used in a temple ritual.  They are read by devotees who are attempting to develop their own relationship with Krishna and eventually Radha herself is considered to be a goddess of a certain kind.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
Now Bill, your study found that this unified notion of romantic love was captured in the literature of the time and it transcended the cultural and geographical boundaries.  We have just spoken about India.  Can you give us some examples of the stories told in places like Japan?

WILLIAM REDDY 
Yeah, the case of Japan in the Heian Period which went up to about 1180s or so was very, very interesting, that all literature developed in that period, most of it written by women and most of it concerning romantic relationships and what one discovers is that these relationships were viewed through [a] Buddhist lenss.  In a Buddhist world view this world we live in is a world of suffering, of frustration and desire.  All desire inherently leads to suffering, to frustration of one kind or another.  In fact, to be sad, to be melancholy is potentially a sign of spiritual superiority of spiritual involvement.  And the love relationships of the period are infused with melancholy.  Lovers offer each other a kind of compassion that I think they associate with the compassion that certain Buddhist and bodhisattvas offer to people still caught up in the world of rebirth.So there is this atmosphere of melancholy coupled with a kind of gentle loving compassion that lovers ascribe to express to each other through the use of little elegant five line poems.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
It's so interesting that most of those were written by women.  I was unaware of that.

WILLIAM REDDY 
Yes, it is very interesting.  The males were trained up to read and write in Chinese, classical Chinese.  Women were not expected to know Chinese, although many of them did learn Chinese somewhat surreptitiously. And they were able to claim as their own a certain kind of Japanese script.  And they took to writing in Japanese, first of all elegant poetry for the imperial court but then gradually this poetry evolved into long romantic fictions, most famous of all being that of Murasaki Shikibu, the Tale of Genji, which runs into many volumes in some translations.   

JENNIFER MARTIN 
And Genji gets in all kinds of trouble.  Give us some examples of what Genji goes through?

WILLIAM REDDY 
Yes, well Genji has many, many lovers and the immediate parallel one might think of from the European tradition would be Don Juan, but Genji is completely different from Don Juan.  Genji is not seeking to fool lovers into getting into bed with him in order to gratify his sexual desire.  He is quite innocently and sincerely fascinated with new people that he meets from time to time, all the time in fact.  His father warned him at one point, whatever he did never to make a woman angry at him, but he ends up making some of his partners angry because of his neglect of them as he becomes fascinated with someone new that he has met.  In one case a neglected lover by means of magic actually killed off his new lover while she was literally in his arms.  So he over time certainly learned to do better but he was still a source of great pain to many of the people he became involved with.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
This is Up Close.  I'm Jennifer Martin, and our guest today is medieval historian, William Reddy, from Duke University and we are talking about romantic love and how it has been interpreted across different cultures through different times.Now Bill, you have set the scene for what was going on in the hearts of the rest of the world during this time.  So can you now tell us what you discovered about European society?

WILLIAM REDDY 
Yes, well both in South Asia and in Japan I found plentiful evidence of sexual partners becoming preoccupied with each other, admiring each other profoundly, being unable to stop thinking of each other, seeking each other out, remaining loyal to each other across many difficulties, long periods of time and so on.  I also found this in twelfth century European literature, but there was a great, very sharp difference in the European case which was that in European love literature there was a constant attempt to distinguish love from desire.  And why was this the case, I asked myself?  It seemed to me that the most likely it was that the church at that time, the Christian church was attempting to impose much stricter regulation on the sexual behaviour of the laity.  This was a period when they first forbade priests to marry.  They also tried to, for the first time, eliminate divorce and they attempted to establish regulations inspired by the belief, well the belief that first of all sexual desire was an appetite of the body strengthened by original sin and secondly that to indulge in sexual pleasure of any kind was sinful and a grave danger to one's soul.So these ideas which had been around for a while were being imposed on lay society for the first time systemically and it's at this time that we first find the conception of love relationships developed amongst aristocrats and others engaged in literary pursuits in this period.  A conception of love as something that is different from desire, much better than desire.  This is the unique conception I couldn’t find anywhere else in the world. 

JENNIFER MARTIN 
So while we have this Gregorian Reformation in this mid to late eleventh century, you have this really interesting development that you have found and we can see it can't we in the French troubadours?  Tell me how they reacted to this strict religious separation between the heart and the flesh?

WILLIAM REDDY 
Starting sometime around 1110, 1120, this new kind of love song begins to be written in Southern France by aristocrats and others who call themselves troubadours and they sing the praises of what they call fin'amor, true love, which they insist is something very different from desire. What are the characteristics of true love?  It leads one to be completely loyal to one single beloved.  Generally the males are loyal to a beloved lady who is of higher rank than them. Secondly, these true love relationships if they are consummated are adulterous.  The ladies in question are married to great lords.  Thirdly, in proving that one's love is not mere desire or appetite one must display self sacrifice, heroism, loyalty, concern for the other's wellbeing, for the beloved's wellbeing of an unusual kind.  This requirement applies both to men and to women.So this special conception of romantic love first appears in troubadour songs of the early first half into the middle of the twelfth century.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
So Bill, there are those that argue that the principles extolled in these stories were just that, they were stories and that they weren’t followed by people in their daily lives.  So how do you respond to them?

WILLIAM REDDY 
Yes, well as I said, the idea of love relationship in twelfth century European literature is a secret adulterous one.  So naturally if there were actual secret adulterous relationships we would not expect to find much in the way of documentary traces of them, but we have found some traces of relationships that I argue look like they were inspired by these new ideas about true love.  I could mention one or two if you like.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
You must, you must tell us about Sybil of Jerusalem.

WILLIAM REDDY 
Sybil of Jerusalem was the widowed sister of the King of Jerusalem, a crusader state in the late twelfth century and she was living with her brother in Jerusalem in the royal palace and she got involved with a low ranking aristocrat, a knight named Guy de Lusignan and apparently they became very serious about each other in secret.  When her brother, the king, found out he was going to take drastic measures but apparently was prevailed upon to permit them to marry.So in 1181 they did marry and six years later her brother died and Sybil was in line to become the next ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  At this point the great lords of the court told her that she could not become queen with this rather lowly husband that she had.  Guy de Lusignan had no title.  He was from an upstart family of Poitou and was not considered to be the stuff of kingship, of royalty.So they said, you can become queen if you divorce him and she said, that would be fine.  She would divorce him on condition that she could then select anyone she wished to be her husband.  They agreed.  She was crowned and her first act as queen was to select Guy de Lusignan as her new husband.  And to the astonishment of her court she told them that he was in every way worthy to be the ruler of her kingdom and that she was delighted to approve herself loyal to him.So this a gesture that there is no self interest involved if you like other than imagining that she had a very deep relationship with Guy de Lusignan and it's one that when one looks at the trickery that's involved and perhaps the courage as well, it's one that fits the new model of romantic love that was being propagated at the time. 

JENNIFER MARTIN 
I'm Jennifer Martin and on Up Close this episode we are speaking with medieval historian, William Reddy, from Duke University about the different way European society sees the notion of romantic love compared to the rest of the world.  Now Bill, if we can leave that wonderfully rich timeframe behind and bring ourselves forward and look at what's happened to romantic love in more recent decades, can you chart for us the progress of romantic love?  In the '60s and '70s I'm thinking of the sexual revolution moving into the '70s and the '80s where romance took a bad turn.

WILLIAM REDDY 
Well, here I'm just relying on the work of sociologists and others, psychologists who have traced this story.  The sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s was a little tough on romantic love.  Many reformers felt that the behaviours, the practices of romantic love were simply a kind of window dressing for sexual desire and that once desire was liberated and our natural inclinations were no longer stigmatised, then we would drop these unnecessary refinements.  This is not at all what happened and by the mid 1980s it was becoming apparent that sexual desire had been to a considerable extent de-stigmatised and was much more openly expressed and accepted as an important part of each person's life, but in spite of that romantic love seemed to enjoy a comeback starting in the mid '80s.  We have a whole series of very successful romantic comedies that start coming out of Hollywood and not just Hollywood but many other centres of production of popular films.  We have the resurgence of the elaborate, of the lavish wedding which has been increasing lavish on average with each passing year ever since.  The United States latest figures I have seen the people spent on average $24,000 on a wedding and I saw a figure of £10,000 for the UK a couple of years ago.   Similar figures for some Western European countries.  This is all entirely new in the sense that in the 1970s or '80s marriage was considered to be a rather unfortunate institution by many. 

JENNIFER MARTIN 
Also too we had bridal magazines at that time going broke?

WILLIAM REDDY 
Yes, bridal magazines were going broke.  Bridal dress stores chains were going broke.  It was looking very bad for the wedding industry there from 1975 to 1985 or so.  One of the things I want to point out is that as I've looked at wedding after wedding, not just in movies but in weddings I've been present at, I find that the celebration focuses on in effect the courage of the couple in deciding to unite, so to speak, in spite of the odds against their marriage surviving, given the high rate of divorce.In the twelfth century stories about Lancelot showing courage in rescuing Guinevere from captivity would underscore the depth of Lancelot's true love.  Nowadays true love seems to be proven very often by the willingness to remain together, to promise fidelity to each other, perhaps even to have children and raise a family together.  

JENNIFER MARTIN 
You have some very interesting examples from contemporary culture that you say illustrate this premise, your premise, this split in Western society between the body and the heart.  Can you talk us through a couple of these?  You have some examples of some video clips.

WILLIAM REDDY 
Oh well, in popular music videos coming out of the United States, for example, one could contrast the song by Fergie called Fergalicious with the song by Fabolous called Make Me Better.  In Fergie's music video she literally swims in vats of candy, jumps out of cakes, dances with big candy canes floating behind her and in every way associates her sexual attractiveness with the idea of sweets, the satisfaction of hunger, a clear association of her sexual attractiveness with appetite.In the video by Fabolous, Make Me Better, Fabolous sings the praises of his girlfriend because she is constantly on guard about his behaviour and his love inspires him to be a better man in every respect.  So we have there the two strands of the romance configuration if you like that has been around since the twelfth century, that of sexual desire on the one hand and then in contrast to desire that a heroic romantic love that makes people better.  This polar opposition is exactly what one doesn’t find anywhere else in the world.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
That's so interesting and you have also looked at some examples of Hollywood movies that capture this duality really well.  What are those?

WILLIAM REDDY 
A good example would be the movie Pretty Woman about a business tycoon who hires a prostitute to be his escort for a week and before the week is out the couple are falling in love with each other and at the end of the week the tycoon offers to keep, you know, to provide a living to the prostitute and get her off the streets and provide her with an apartment and an income and he can then be able to visit her, stay with her when he is in town.  And she turns him down.  She tells him she wants the whole fairytale and leaves him and goes back to her rather dingy apartment.In the last scene of the film the tycoon decides to rescue her from the apartment.  In other words he has decided he is going to propose marriage to her and he comes in a big white limousine holding up his umbrella as if it was a lance and climbs the fire escape.  We all know by now that he is afraid of heights, but nonetheless heroically he climbs the fire escape in order to find her and get her out of her slum apartment and take her off to a better life.And there is very clear reference to rescue and the two kiss at the end of the film and here we have a plot that is very similar to that of the typical twelfth century rescue story, Lancelot rescuing Guinevere from captivity, but what we see is in effect the business tycoon is rescuing a prostitute from the world of sexual appetite, her involvement in merely gratifying sexual appetites and at the same time he has decided to stop engaging in hostile takeovers and go into boat building, a more useful activity.  So in effect their love relationship is making him a better person too.This is a perfect fit with the age old tradition going back to the twelfth century of love being something better than desire, something that makes us into better people, that we display, we prove we are motivated by something higher than desire by taking heroic action. 

JENNIFER MARTIN 
So Bill, I'm not expecting a simple answer to this question, but I'm just so interested to get your opinion on what do you think some of the ramifications are for a society that bases its notion of love on a template that sees desire as an appetite?

WILLIAM REDDY 
Well, this is a deeply ingrained attitude.  I wouldn’t expect there to be much change in the short run, although many things change rapidly in our societies today.  I suspect that if we weren’t involved in thinking of sexual partnerships in this polarised way it might be a little easier to navigate some of the difficult issues that come up in these complex relationships, maybe a little less heroism, maybe a little less raw desire.  A little more emotional involvement, a little more flexible emotional involvement might be possible if we had a heads up about this rather odd polarisation that structures so much of our behaviour.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
Bill, thank you so much for speaking to us about the notion of romantic love across culture and across time.WILLIAM REDDYOh. My pleasure.  Thanks for the opportunity.

JENNIFER MARTIN 
We've been speaking with William Reddy, Professor of History and Cultural Anthropology at Duke University.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is the production of the University of Melbourne Australia.  This episode was recorded on 9 April 2012 and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I'm Jennifer Martin.  Until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You have been listening to Up Close.  We are also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2013.  The University of Melbourne.


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