Does Society Influence Love? The Cultural Development of Romantic Love and Sexual Desire

I came across this presentation on the cultural history of romantic love and sexual desire by Professor of history and of cultural anthropology William Reddy over on the Theory Types website [see bottom of post for video of the lecture]. It seems fitting to post an excerpt from this lecture in time for that insulin-spiking, flower-murdering, commercialization of romance they call Valentine’s Day. The piece assembled provides a summary of Reddy’s central finding on how the dual categorization of sexual appetite and romantic love is solely a development of European history. He found the notions of romantic love to be a historical universal occurrence, however it appears that only in Europe after the 12th century was the distinction made (obviously sexual desire is universal too but its categorisation as distinct from romantic love seems historically not to be the case). He offers 12th century changes orchestrated by the Christian church as an explanation for the origins of this cultural development.

The excerpt begins at 48:05

In Japanese love stories, in Bollywood films, in traditional Arabic romances and in many other stories of many other traditions it is love itself that is the transgression. There is no need to distinguish love and desire; no need to prove by heroic action that one’s love is true. Only in Europe is there a Don Juan tradition, for example the tradition of fictional characters who pretend to love only to rack up conquests and maximize appetitive pleasure …

It seems evident from non-western cultural material, however, that there is nothing inevitable about categorizing …certain aspects of our response patterns as an appetite or drive. Only in western cultural contexts has such categorisation been made. This is the startling discovery I made in 2003 and which I then attempted to prove in a project that took up the better part of ten years. Romantic love or what I call the longing for association is very common in the world and may well be nearly universal. ‘Sexual desire’ on the other hand is not. Only in Western context do people routinely consider certain aspects of our sexual responses to be an appetite or drive. Only in western context do they routinely contrast this drive with an emotion called romantic love.

Universal perhaps! romantic love certainly has a distinctive European history. It was transformed into a positive admirable emotion in the twelfth century and experienced very differently ever since. Why did this happen? Scholars have been arguing about every aspect of the question for over a century.

To me the answer seems simple. It was in the twelfth century that the church first tried to reform all the sexual practices of the laity in line with Christian theology. It was in the twelfth century that new laws concerning marriage, fornication, divorce, incest and sodomy were imposed on all of Christendom. However imperfect and spotty, this reform campaign was unprecedented, the new laws were inspired by the doctrine that all sexual pleasure was sinful. The idea had been around for centuries but only in the twelfth century was it made into a principle for disciplining all the laity. Romantic love as it was understood in the story of Lancelot and Guinevere [earlier his lecture used this story to illustrate a narrative of where sexual desire is treated separately from romantic love and is rejected in favour of the latter] … was a response to the Christianisation of European society in the middle ages. The men and women of the warrior elite it appears often felt a longing for association with each other but now they were confronted with the harsh fact that the church condemned all such feelings as the manifestations of a sinful polluting appetite. Previously great men and women were able to divorce at will, the great men often took secondary wives, sexual partnerships were constantly formed and dissolved just like other political relationships but now the church outlawed divorce, concubinage, consanguineous marriage. Only a first legitimate wife could produce legitimate heirs. The elite complied grudgingly, partially and simultaneously their courtly entertainments began to glorify something called fin’amor – refined or true love – a longing for association which they insisted had nothing to do with appetite. The fashion for this new idea of love.spread rapidly and irresistible. In 2003 I was forced to the conclusion that it new and unique Western idea of a romantic love was born in the twelfth century precisely because the elite of the period was very familiar with the longing for association and could not accept the church’s claim that such longing was the manifestation of a mere appetite.

In addition an interesting analysis that discredits the research behind neuroscience and biological deterministic explanations of human emotions (including Dr. Paul Ekman’s who inspired Lie to Me’s Dr. Cal Lightman) can be found starting at 08:30. The link to the lecture here follows:

Professor William M. Reddy is the author of the seminal work on the History of Emotions, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions. (Cambridge University Press, 2001). His most recent book is The making of Romantic Love: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia and Japan, 900-1200CE (University of Chicago Press) was published in 2012.

This lecture is presented by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and the University of Melbourne


3 thoughts on “Does Society Influence Love? The Cultural Development of Romantic Love and Sexual Desire

  1. Thanks for your comment. Reddy doesn’t provide much evidence in his presentation regarding the 12th century impact of the church, however, of interest to this blog is his evidence to support cultural differences regarding the love/sexuality distinctions. The history of sexuality is not my area but I will continue to blog about societal explanations and influences where I encounter them. I find such explanations are dangerously undervalued in public academia at the moment. I state dangerous because individual explanations limit possibilities and recognised avenues for social change.

    Your post offers an interesting dilemma on feminism and the charge of objectifying. Might return to that in the future – something along to lines of Bourdieu’s symbolic-objective anti-dichotomous view of objects. After all feminism as an ideal is about gender equality but how is that possible if one side is depersonalised as an object of sexual gratification while the other is not. Thanks again for your analysis.

    • I think this is the key problem in feminism. Patriarchy demands assimilation, and it is inflected by what it assimilates but it is not undermined, or if so then only very slowly. Feminism is also typically an assimilationist discourse; in order to gain social power it cuts a deal with the status quo, and that truce can last for decades or generations. This is why I think that the next stage in feminist thought, which I have termed post-patriarchalism, has to abandon the man/woman dichtomy for a dichotomy of dominant/dominé(e). For all the problems in Masculine Domination, Bourdieu has allowed us to make huge leaps forward in how we understand the problem conceptually. For me, although he remains it seems to me little known in mainstream thinking, his intellectual stature is easily the equal of Marx, Weber and Durkheim and his thought is really a key to unlocking numerous contemporary social problems, and this is going to become increasingly evident in the years ahead. Great to meet a fellow fan!

  2. Thanks for raising this fascinating and topical subject. Reddy’s interpretation seems to me, though, to lack historical depth. What we see in C12, I would argue, represents the first stage in the breakdown of the patriarchal bifurcation of the female between madonna and whore and the displacement of the bonding instinct into homoerotic love and the love of philosophy which characterized classical Greco-Roman civilization, and which already implied at that time a distinction between love (eros) and pleasure (aphrodisia), whereby the latter were to be mastered but the former was given full rein: as Foucault has shown. I do not at all think that there was such a development led by the church, which had no such power – in fact I very much doubt that what we now think of as the repressive sexual teachings of the church were successfully foisted on the vast mass of the peasantry before the nineteenth century. This needed the industrial revolution and the age of empire.

    Some related thoughts at

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