I find myself perhaps disproportionately frustrated when my students come into a medieval literature class with the idea that “in the olden days, people got married for money, not for love.” I mean, it’s true to an extent, right? But it had mattered so much to me when I first started reading literature from “the olden days” and discovered that although marriages may have been based on economic and lineage concerns, people did indeed feel romantic love – though that romantic love may have been for someone other than their spouse…
Why does it matter so much to me? Well, remember when I confessed to that conversation I had with college friends where I claimed that Orthodox relationships are based on more than just physical lust, as if all non-Orthodox relationships are purely physical with no emotion? Yeah…. Okay, here’s some more about that.
I was always a bookworm. And I always reacted very viscerally to what I read. I identified strongly with characters, and I threw myself into the emotional turmoil and triumph of each story.
As I grew up and started reading more grown-up books, my mother grew concerned with my strong attachment to fiction (and fantasy). More than once, she told me quite clearly that romantic love as it’s portrayed in books and movies is a fiction of the modern age – that before the loss of all semblance of morality, people knew that love is based on mutual trust and working to make a marriage work. But with the loss of morality (beginning in about the late nineteenth century, with industrialization and… wait for it – America…), people wanted to indulge their lust. So they created a fiction called “romantic love” and whenever they felt lust, they called it love. And of course, that leads to the “revolving door” of sexual partners and the promiscuity and “sexual deviance” that is apparently the root cause of so many of society’s problems…
Which is why I was so excited when I began to read books and texts older than the nineteenth century and saw that in fact, these ideas of lust and romantic love being intricately intertwined existed long before industrialization and the “loss of morality…”
Last year, I took a graduate class on “Bastards, Kingship, and Kinship,” taught by a professor who studies the history of bastardy – ie when did the idea of a legal bastard develop, what were the practices associated with allowing a bastard to inherit, etc. And it turns out that’s a very important piece to understanding how the concept of marriage and love develops, influenced by economic, legal, and religious interference in emotional relationships… (Here’s a link to her book that’s been recently published, in case you want to check it out.)
The idea that lust and love are not necessarily two completely separate things (though they can be) is a revelation I’m going to cling to for quite a while still. I’ll never attempt to convince those who still think romantic love is just a fiction of the immoral world to allow them to indulge themselves. But I know for myself, and that’s enough.