The Making of Romantic Love: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia, and Japan, 900-1200 CE

William M. Reddy

forthcoming from University of Chicago Press, fall, 2012

By 1100 CE, Christian experts had long regarded sexual “desire” as the manifestation of an appetite of the body, strengthened by original sin, inherently sinful, and the most important threat to salvation of the soul. In their view, “desire” (libido) and the “pleasure” (voluptas) that desire aimed at provided the only real motivation for sexual behavior.

In the twelfth century, for the first time, church authorities attempted a thorough-going reform of marriage and sexual behavior aimed at extirpating sexual “desire” from Christian lives. “Courtly love,” the medieval form of romantic love, William Reddy shows, was devised as a response to this campaign. Relying on a courtly culture that was already preoccupied with honor and secrecy, poets, romance writers, and lovers devised a vision of love as something quite different from that desire which the church so vehemently condemned.

Casket, Limoges, 1180. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

This love was a profound devotion that could regulate selfish desire and render it innocent; proof of such devotion could be found in heroic acts of self-sacrifice or self-denial. However, such heroic acts included heroic adherence to gender norms and gendered ideals of self-presentation and self-discipline. This was a high price to pay for the legitimacy lovers sought to win. Nonetheless, it was a price that generations of lovers and would-be lovers did pay.

Relying on a wealth of recent research into the social and cultural history of the lay aristocracy in the period, Reddy is able to show that courtly love smoothly integrated existing aristocratic values, and permitted aristocrats to legitimate at least some sexual practices long familiar to them. Courtly love, romantic love, was born as a movement of covert resistance.

These facets of the twelfth-century making of romantic love in Europe are much more evident when one sets European developments in a comparative framework. As Reddy shows, in twelfth-century Bengal and Orissa, and in eleventh-century Heian Japan, there was no doctrine of desire, no notion of sexual “appetite,” as the Christian theologians called it. As a result, there was no need to elaborate a heroic vision of a love capable of regulating appetite and cleansing it. Whether one looks at the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva, the bhakti temple worship practiced at Puri, the multiple love affairs of Heian aristocrats, or the timeless classics of love literature, such as The Tale of Genji, penned by Heian women, one finds no reference to sexual desire as a bodily appetite or drive. In some Orissan temples, sexual love, shringara rasa, which culminated in divine sexual play, was regarded as the most sacred facet of the relationship between humans and the gods. In that strain of Buddhism most popular in Heian Japan, all wishes and longings were regarded as frustrating, as the very cause of suffering. Like Amida Buddha, Heian lovers sought to offer each other compassion and a taste of that elegance that shone in the court of the semi-divine emperor.

These points of contrast permit one to identify the peculiar features of Western practices more accurately, and to show that the form of heroic mutual devotion characteristic of Western romantic love was made, at a specific point in time, by individuals seeking a refuge from the blanket condemnations by the Church of a kind of “desire” which, itself, did not admit the possibility of love. If romantic love lives on in a similar form today, it may be in part because various doctrines of desire continue to deny its possibility.





Part I. The emergence of courtly love in Europe

1. Aristocratic speech, the Gregorian Reform, and the first troubadour

2. Trobairitz and troubadours and the shadow religion

3. Narratives of true love and twelfth-century common sense

Part II. Points of Comparison

4. The bhakti troubadour: Vaishnavism in twelfth-century Bengal and Orissa

5. Elegance and Compassion in Heian Japan


Appendix. Transliterated South Asian Words Bibliography