château d'amour ca. 1300

The History of Romantic Love


New lecture-discussion course in preparation for Spring, 2008.

Lectures: MW 10:05 - 10:55 am (Room: TBA), sections meeting on Friday, 10:05 am

Instructor: William M. Reddy

This course examines the development of a "heroic" form of romantic love in Europe in the twelfth century, and traces its transformations through the subsequent centuries of Western history. 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. Why have heroic visions of love endured through all these centuries?

This is not just a question of literary images, because there is plentiful evidence that millions of people have experienced their love in this way.

During the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, it was thought that, when people were freed to pursue their desires without hindrance or moral condemnation, romantic love would fade out. The illusions and idealizations of love would no longer be needed to asuage feelings of guilt or selfishness. But the opposite occured. Since the 1980s, romantic love has regained its old salience. It may be more important now than it ever was.

Fabolous, Make Me Better (2007) 2004 Gays wed

Love now dominates the institution of marriage as never before. In recent years, Hollywood has been pouring out wedding movies, while the average cost of real weddings climbs higher every year--now over $25,000 in the U.S., over 10,000 pounds in the U.K., over 10,000 Euros in France. (Just paying for the wedding is becoming a "heroic" act today.) High divorce rates likewise reflect the belief that, if love goes, the marriage must end. Why this surprising aftermath to the sexual revolution?

Outside of Western industrialized countries, there is little evidence of love heroism. We will examine two instances in some detail--the Hindu tradition and the Japanese tradition. The evidence of these traditions suggests a possible explanation for the endurance of heroism in Western conceptions of romantic love.

Genji and Evening Faces, ca. 1650 Odissi dancer

Assignments and grading:

Reading assignments will be approximately a hundred pages per week.

Participation in class discussion will count for 20% of the grade.

There will be three paper assignments (5-10 pages in length)--each worth 20% of the grade. Students will be expected to rewrite two of these assignments, and the grade will be adjusted upward based on the second draft.

There will be a final examination, worth 20% of the grade.

Readings will be drawn from, among other titles (list still tentative):

Plato, The Symposium (late 4th century, BCE)

Plutarch on Antony and Cleopatra from Parallel Lives (1st century CE)

Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot or the Knight of the Cart (ca. 1170)

Jayadeva, The Gitagovinda (ca. 1050)

Frédérique Apffel Marglin, Wives of the God-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985)

Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji (ca. 1020)

Howard Hibbett, The Floating World in Japanese Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959)

Carol Kidwell, Pietro Bembo: Lover, Linguist, Cardinal (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004)

Dorothy Osborne (1627-1695), The Letters of Dorothy Osborne to William Temple, edited by G. C. Moore Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928)

Samuel Richardson, Pamela (1741)

Mary Lutyens, Millais and the Ruskins (New York: Vanguard, 1967)

Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)

Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (New York: Random House, 2002)

Dagmar Herzog, "Sexuality in the Postwar West," Journal of Modern History 78 (March 2006): 144–171

Lynn Jameison, "Intimacy Transformed? A Critical Look at the 'Pure Relationship,'" Sociology 33(1999):477-494