Is Romantic Love a Timeless Evolutionary Universal, or a Frankenstein Creation of The Middle Ages?

Addendum:

I’m suspicious of scholarly works which “find” romantic love all over the world, appearing seamlessly throughout all places and all periods of history. After reading many such essays I’ve come to the conclusion they confine their definitions of romantic love to biological universals such as the desire for sex, the need for attachment, limerence, social interaction and so on and so forth — all of which falls well short of the complex European-derived phenomenon known as courtly & romantic love.

Those academic surveys conveniently omit the idiosyncratic elements that might cast doubt on their universality thesis of romantic love – details like the inherent displays of male masochism, uniquely stylized feudal relationships borrowed from from French or German class conventions, the conceptualization of the Virgin Mary and her purity and how that plays into conceptions of gender and love, along with other complex behaviors and influences which make up the courtly love complex arising in medieval Europe.

When Gaston Paris first coined the phrase ‘Courtly Love’ (1883) he was referring precisely to those idiosyncratic elements that render the phenomenon distinct from the universals many scholars reduce it to.

Gaston Paris’ description of courtly love can be summarized as follows:

“It is illicit, furtive and extra-conjugal; the lover continually fears lest he should, by some misfortune, displease his mistress or cease to be worthy of her; the male lover’s position is one of inferiority; even the hardened warrior trembles in his lady’s presence; she, on her part, makes her suitor acutely aware of his insecurity by deliberately acting in a capricious and haughty manner; love is a source of courage and refinement; the lady’s apparent cruelty serves to test her lover’s valor; finally, love, like chivalry and courtoisie, is an art with its own set of rules.” 1

 Thus courtly love as defined by Paris has four distinctive traits;

  1. It is illegitimate and furtive
  2. The male lover is inferior and insecure; the beloved is elevated; haughty; even disdainful.
  3. The lover must earn the lady’s affection by undergoing tests of prowess, valor and devotion.
  4. The love is an art and a science, subject to many rules and regulations — like courtesy in general.

 
It’s clear that what we call romantic love today continues each of these conventions with the sole exception of illegitimacy and furtiveness. With this one exception romantic love can be regarded as coextensive with the courtly love described by Paris.

Many scholars researching this area conveniently overlook (or refuse to mention) the sexual feudalism inherent to the European-descended model of romantic love. Attempts to homogenize and cast romantic love as a global universal, while avoiding all mention of the unsavory sexual feudalism that might render it more problematic and complex, is unhelpful to say the least, and misleading at worst. European-descended romantic love, now the dominant version globally, deserves to be considered separately and need not be confused with more simple theoretical constructs on offer.

In summary, to reduce romantic love to a consistently and universally expressed set of evolutionary behaviors amounts to an attribution error.

Note:
[1] Roger Boase, The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love: A Critical Study of European Scholarship, p.24, Manchester University Press, 1977
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For more about romantic love as a confabulation of the middle ages, see the following video which explores the unique creation of supernormal sign stimuli which lies at the heart of the romantic love trope.

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