One could argue that our entire world is centered on an ideal of Romantic Love. Our advertising, art, and dreams seem to revolve around the idea that the key to a happy and successful life is a romantic love between two equals. Romantic Love has become the basis of our lives. Not, as in so much of history, a wonderful hobby to play with and enjoy.
Today, we take this definition as a given, an obvious truth. But the fact is that this notion, particularly the equality part, is not only an invention, but a fairly late one at that. Of course, many strands of history combined to create this ideal, but I would like to outline one that seems to me to embody the lunatic nature of humanity.
Early societies were anything but lazy. Their life was hard. Judging from “primitive” societies of today, everyone, from the head of the household to the smallest child to the family dog, had daily duties to perform.
Most such societies were patriarchal. Some may have been matriarchal. But whatever their formal organization, societies where everyone performs an essential role tend toward a rough egalitarianism.
Oh, the males might run around, beating their chests (as is the male wont) and rejoicing in how wonderful it is to be masculine, or religious rituals may proclaim one sex as more important than the other, but if both are vital to survival a certain mutual respect (and mutual mockery) tends to prevail.
In human history, two things seem to have been most often responsible for wildly unbalancing the roles: War and Wealth. War because it exalts the male role beyond all reason while Wealth allows the female to be removed from the economy and relegated to some non-essential place (pedestal, brooder or brothel, usually).
Our own culture traces its main line back to the Greeks. Well, the Golden Age of Greece shines as a bizarre example of both.
The Hellenes appeared on the stage as a warlike, migratory people pushing into Greece from the north. They swept over and supplanted what had been the Mycenaean civilization with such thoroughness that we know little about the Mycenaeans and lots about the Greeks.
Picking up and marching your whole people over the horizon is a risky business. To make it a habit and become nomadic makes it riskier still. Above all it is risky to children, pregnant women, and babies. The nest, the creche, the incubator of the tribe is inevitably at hazard and exposed to destruction.
Because of this, migratory groups, if they are on the road for a few generations, usually evolve a society where the women and children become the innermost core of the migration. They are enclosed, isolated and protected. They are at once precious, to be protected at all costs, and weak, guilty of the gravest sin their harsh world admits.
What happens, then, when such an organization finds a stopping place and puts down roots?
In the case of the Hellenes, they found themselves in a world of comparative wealth, able to settle down and devote a substantial amount of their time to martial arts, such as improving their armor, developing the phalanx, etc.. The women were left at home, both protected and regarded with some contempt. [As a nice example of nascent misogyny, the Greeks offer us the story of Pandora.]
Through some peculiar chemistry no one understands, by the time the Golden Age rolled around, the Greeks had produced a substantial portion of society whose task it was to simply, well, think (There is that wealth thing again.). These philosophers created logical structures to explain the gods, the nature of man, and the hierarchies of nature. They held weighty discussions about things like Goodness, Virtue and Love.
And right at this point they hit a snag.
Their society had produced a necessary safety valve in the shape of the Hetaerae, high classed courtesans who were expected to be literate and able to discourse with men. But these women were very rare exceptions to the rule that left women sequestered, uneducated and unrespected.
Which created a small problem about Love. Here were all these noble Greek guys sitting around discussing Love, without any worthy targets on the horizon for their noble affections. What were they to do?
They looked around and suddenly saw absolutely the perfect targets for their refined passions: Each other.
This had two results: Homosexuality being exalted by them as the most noble kind of romantic love and the Greeks acquiring a most peculiar reputation in their neighborhood. One, I might add, that persists to this day.
Father along this strand of history we come to the Romans, about whom little needs to be said. They, too, were a martial society with the concomitant reduction in the status of women. Women had some legal rights, but they were secondary and remained so. In later Roman society women gained more public freedom, were able to go to the games and the like. The Empire was something of a high spot for women in our cultural lineage, but they remained legally subordinate till its end.
Next we come to the medieval period, and a dark one it was. First, it was an age that really exalted the warrior, with a parallel loss in female status. But it was also the age where Christian thought constituted the dominant ethos. In place of Pandora, it substituted Eve. Weak and deceitful Woman, they said, had led to the original Fall and all the woes of mankind.
It was not exactly a promising foundation for a women’s rights crusade.
Insofar as what we would call romantic love was concerned, the church simply circumscribed it. Harking back to the Greeks, they split love into Philia, Eros and Agape. Crudely put, Philia became the brotherly love of the Good Samaritan, Eros became the Adam and Eve sort of love that got us into so much trouble, while Agape became the truest and noblest kind of love. Since all of mankind was sinful and unworthy, this uplifting and emotionally passionate love could only be directed at God.
This, of course, was understood only by the educated few. With the wealth and agricultural skills of the Romans lost, the majority of mankind reverted to the hard life of being subsistence farmers. Once again everyone’s labor was essential to bare survival. Women regained their old position of being responsible for separate but vital tasks. Hence they reclaimed a measure of respect.
Among the aristocracy, their position was actually much worse. There was little wealth in the medieval nobility, but there was enough to seclude women. They had no vital tasks (beyond breeding) and were legally regarded as property. They only value was as pawns in the great game of alliances sealed by marriages.
As time passed, the new citified commerce began to produce what we would call wealth. In accord with this, feudal alliances reticulated into a hierarchy of counts and barons and dukes and princes. Women’s role as potential inheritors grew in importance, but only as place-holders to be married off as soon as possible.
The real change had to wait for the Crusades and a prime example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Among the many effects of the Crusades was a major change in the status of noble women. With their men away for successive extended periods of time, noble women became de facto executors, holding power and sway in their lords’ absences. Generations of women needed to be educated and responsible. When their lords were killed, many were able to retain that power, deciding whom, when and even if they would marry again.
The real climax of this effort came at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, where one of the great women of history held sway. Heir, in her own right, to a domain many time larger than the King of France, she was able to establish her own court and preside over the invention of Courtly Love. That invention redefined chivalry and began a Romantic revolution that we live with to this day. Our entire definition of Love descends from her revolution.
It happened that chivalry had a problem. With nation states being formed right across the loyalties of feudalism and the Crusades usurping the ideal of knighthood, the knights who stayed at home were losing their role. What, exactly, were they supposed to be doing? What now justified their existence as warriors? More importantly, what could give them an excuse to fight each other and demonstrate their warrior’s skills and manliness?
Courtly Love gave the answer. A knight in the throes of Love was motivated (and justified) to go out and perform heroic deeds like challenging other knights to battle to prove his worth to his lover. And, of course, a knight was always justified in attacking his rivals for love.
But with whom, exactly, was the knight supposed to fall in love? That unworthy creature, woman? This, remember, was the problem that led the Greek men to decide their only worthy love object was each other.
The Aquitaine solution was a lovely jujitsu on the male ego. The object of love, they were told, was not a mere woman but their exalted “Lady.” As they were noble knights, this target must be a very lofty kind of person. In fact, this “Lady” must be exalted more or less in proportion to the nobility of the knight! By making the nobility of the knight dependent on the nobility of his Lady, Courtly Love began to elevate the medieval status of women as a whole (and incidentally began the whole Mary cult in the Christian church).
Of course, one could argue that this wonderful inversion of male logic eventually raised women to the point that they were put on pedestals. And maybe that pedestal resulted (by Victorian times) in men thinking women weren’t able to do very much more than sit on pedestals.
But remember that the whole ideal of Romantic Love between the sexes as a worthy life goal did not exist before that time. Neither did any notion of women being equal to or even superior to men. The conventions of our time were inventions of that time. And our idea of Romantic Love between two equals is the lineal descendent of those inventions.
So on this strand of history, we owe these two dominant ideals of our time to Eleanor of Aquitaine. And, of course, to the male ego.