Love: A History in Five Fantasies 
by Barbara Rosenwein.
Polity, 220 pp., £20, October 2021, 978 1 5095 3183 7
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Poor Emma Bovary​ , nourished on stories of ‘love affairs, lovers, mistresses, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely country houses … dark forests, palpitating hearts, vows, sobs, tears and kisses … gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as lambs’, fancied her husband-to-be a ‘white-plumed rider on a black horse’. He turned out to be dull as dishwater. Emma’s imagination was held hostage by the 19th-century bourgeois ideal of revelatory, eternal love within marriage. She was enmeshed in a particular set of historical circumstances – a flourishing letter-writing culture, burgeoning female literacy, an emerging awareness of urban bourgeois fashion among the professional classes – which created an especially wide gulf between women’s expectations of love and its realities. ‘To be in fantasy is to live “as if”,’ according to Denise Riley, but life may become intolerable when a metaphor collides with the facts.

So love has a history. Does knowing that make it survivable? ‘In my view,’ Barbara Rosenwein writes, ‘knowing love’s history may also be – is – a kind of therapy, helping free us from stories that appear to be fixed and true for all time.’ Such stories are the terrain of the history of emotions, which is concerned with people’s emotional lives; with the changing historical expression and understanding of emotions; and with the ways in which emotions have shaped historical change. Rosenwein, a medievalist, is one of the pioneers of this approach. She edited one of the earliest volumes to trace the history of an individual emotion, Anger’s Past (1998), and in Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (2006) examined the emergence of groups – readers of Gregory the Great, or the elites at Merovingian courts – who shared a particular view of the emotions, focusing on the language they used to express their emotional expectations and values.

Rosenwein was reacting against the dominant paradigm for understanding emotion in the premodern past: Norbert Elias’s The Civilising Process. For Elias, the Middle Ages were a time of uninhibited feeling, before regulation and refinement were introduced at the courts and dinner tables of early modern Europe. Rosenwein challenged the idea that emotion is an inalienable psychic drive (though one that could be tamed), arguing instead that it is always culturally constructed. This insight – that emotion is itself an artefact of history, subject to change – has been critical for the field.

Rosenwein’s scholarship affirms the possibilities and the limits of language as the medium of historical practice. She has meticulously pieced together the webs of meanings of emotional vocabulary – of anger, grief, love – and the ways those meanings were negotiated over the centuries. She insists that we can’t discover what people’s feelings were, only the way those feelings were expressed in historical texts – mediated, compromised, qualified. ‘We cannot know how all people felt, but we can begin to know how some members of certain ascendant elites thought they and others felt or, at least, thought they ought to feel,’ she’s written, conscientiously.

More recently, historians of emotion have been reluctant to remain so circumscribed by a poststructuralist emphasis on the textual. Monique Scheer and others have argued that emotions are felt and expressed in movement, gesture, in voluntary and involuntary actions like blushing or crying or fainting. Rosenwein has been sceptical of this, arguing that embodied emotion can’t be studied if there is no writing to represent it. Historians have read up on neuroscientific studies of emotion too: Rosenwein can’t resist discussing the mirror neurons of monkeys in an otherwise textual history of the idea of the soulmate.

What part of emotion is biological, and what cultural? To what extent are emotions subject to historical change? Can historians adjudicate this boundary between biology and history without training in the neurosciences? How are they to understand ephemeral and material expressions of emotion if they were left unrecorded? The history of emotions has provided an occasion for historians to debate some thorny problems, to examine our desire to attain proximity to our subjects, and prod at the impossibility of ever doing so.

There is something touching about a bunch of nerdy historians inventing a whole methodology to justify their desire to see people in the past as people. Historians are people too. It’s as well to keep that in mind when reading studies of the history of emotions, because – tangled in knots over these methodological questions – its practitioners can sound like robots. One recent textbook, The History of Emotions, begins: ‘Emotions are at the centre of the history of the human being, considered as a biocultural entity that is characterised as a worlded body, in the worlds of other worlded bodies.’ One person’s biocultural entity is another person’s person. Methodology is necessary, of course, but as the cultural theorist Lauren Berlant writes, ‘there is nothing more alienating than having one’s pleasures disputed by someone with a theory.’

Rosenwein has identified five central ‘fantasies’ of love that have had particular staying power, even as their meanings have changed. These fantasies are not feelings but ‘narratives that organise, justify and make sense of experiences, desires and feelings that are otherwise incoherent and bewildering’. These are the stories people tell themselves and others about love: about like-minded friendship, the transcendent love of God, love as obligation in marriage, obsessive unrequited love, and the insatiable love of eros. Rosenwein argues that we need these cultural scripts – about the need for total authenticity in marriage, say, or the consequences of unrestrained lust – to help us make sense of emotions that are by their nature inchoate and confusing.

‘Fantasy’ carries with it a suggestion of the irrational, of something before and beyond language. This is the concept of fantasy that allows Joan Scott in The Fantasy of Feminist History (2011) to investigate what is not captured by cultural construction, everything that eludes the conscious expression of ideas in language. By describing historical scripts about love as ‘fantasies’ Rosenwein seems to promise ambiguity, ambivalence and messiness. But for her, a fantasy is a way of naming familiar stories about love that have held particular power over our imaginations. She admits an allergy to the latent.

This means that her love fantasies follow a predictable pattern. Each chapter begins with some combination of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero or Augustine. As we might expect from a medieval historian, she then looks at texts from early Christian martyrs, monks, Abelard and Héloïse, the troubadours, Dante. Next she moves on to David Hume, Goethe, Byron, Casanova, before concluding with a smattering of Netflix scripts and YouTube comments. Is this a history of love? Or a history of certain ideas about love? As the historian of China Eugenia Lean has argued, the ‘single emotion’ approach risks landing us with an intellectual history of Christian, white, European, mostly male, mostly straight authors.

So we learn that Plato says humans were once shaped like a perfect sphere, each with two faces, two genitals, four legs, four arms, until Zeus cut them in two and doomed them to spend their days seeking out their lost half: a foundation myth of the soulmate. This ideal of like-minded love was applied to friendship centuries later in Montaigne’s writing about his best friend, Étienne de la Boétie: ‘It is no special reason, nor two, three, four, nor a thousand; it is I know not what quintessence of the entire mixture that, having captured my entire will, brought it to plunge and lose itself in his; and that, once it captured all his will, brought it to plunge and be lost in mine with a like hunger, a like convergence.’ In the early 19th-century United States, intimate male friendship was a source of passion and pleasure before marriage. Daniel Webster wished he could return to the days of his youthful friendship with James Hervey Bingham, imagining that they would ‘yoke together again; your little bed is just wide enough, we will practise at the same bar and be as friendly a pair of single fellows as ever cracked a nut.’

One fantasy about love is that it allows us to transcend whatever it is that keeps us shackled to the mundane. This idea was especially powerful for medieval religious women. Perpetua was imprisoned for her conversion to Christianity in third-century Carthage. Her father begged her to recant, reminding her of her infant son, who would die without her. But then Christ appeared before her milking a sheep, and offered her a gift of cheese – at which point her baby was spontaneously weaned, allowing her to die free of earthly obligation. The 14th-century French mystic and poet Marguerite Porete devised a visionary ladder of meditation and self-mortification that allowed her to obliterate her selfhood in loving union with God. The idea of the transcendent power of love was perfected by Dante: Beatrice was both a real person and a miracle, the promise of salvation in the form of a beautiful woman. For medieval writers, the love of Christ offered a way to escape the earthly bonds of motherhood, or selfhood, or secular beauty.

Obsessive love, too, has its own genealogy. The ancients despised the powerlessness that came with desire, and prescribed baths and sleeping around and general debauchery to counter the vulnerability of obsession. For the troubadours intense desire was an organising philosophy: their poetry elevated love to the highest of virtues, to be tamed with elaborate rituals and courtliness. Obsession was given a new form in the Romantic novel. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther was a cultural phenomenon, with Werther’s obsessive love for Lotte becoming a model for desiring and being desired. When Werther first meets Lotte he is wearing knee breeches, a yellow waistcoat and blue overcoat, and after they become threadbare he buys another outfit just like it. Goethe’s male readers dressed in replicas of Werther’s outfit, and women daubed themselves with Eau de Werther. After Lotte marries another, Werther shoots himself with her husband’s pistol; a rash of copycat suicides followed the book’s publication. Rosenwein is pretty cool-headed about all this, comparing such obsession to contemporary talk about love addiction. The cure? Get a hobby.

For the writers in Rosenwein’s chapter on insatiable love, sex was the hobby. Pietro Aretino, the Renaissance poet and pornographer, wrote that the penis should be celebrated, ‘worn around the neck as a pendant, or pinned onto the cap like a brooch’. His emblem was a satyr’s head composed entirely of phalluses. The Enlightenment licensed a new libertinism, especially for the aristocracy. Giacomo Casanova slept with a whole family of sisters, and opened his autobiography: ‘In this year 1797, at the age of 72 … I have delighted in going astray and I have lived constantly in error.’ Rosenwein argues that the fun came to an end with the domestication of love into marriage in the 19th century. But there were refuseniks like Flaubert: ‘I want to cover you with love when I next see you, with caresses, with ecstasy,’ he wrote to Louise Colet. ‘I want to gorge you with all the joys of the flesh, until you faint and die.’ Promises, promises. He only saw Louise a handful of times, and admitted: ‘I enjoy debauchery and I live like a monk.’

Rosenwein’s discussion of marital love centres on the shifting patterns of obligation. In the Middle Ages, she argues, marriage became the only relationship in which earthly love was permitted by the Church. Popular religious dramas taught their audiences to find happiness in domestic obligations, as in a German version of the nativity play:

Joseph (carrying the cradle): Mary, I have considered it well and brought you a cradle in which we can lay the little child.
Mary (sings): Joseph, dear husband mine, help me rock the little one.
Joseph: Happily, my dear wife.

During the Enlightenment, obligation was no longer thought of as sufficient to secure a marriage: love became necessary too. But that didn’t mean it came naturally. Men and women bought copybooks filled with models for declarations of love to help them compose their letters. The exemplary vied with a new need for authenticity in emotional expression. Courting Sophia Peabody in the 1830s, Nathaniel Hawthorne told her that her letters ‘introduce me deeper and deeper into your being, yet there is no sense of surprise at what I see, and feel, and know, therein. I am familiar with your inner heart, as with my home.’ The expectation of total obligation and total transparency made marriage a hard sell to some young women. ‘What an unlucky letter “M” is,’ Violet Blair complained to a friend in Gilded Age Washington, ‘to begin medicine, martyrdom, murder and matrimony.’

‘Always, the examples are all wrong, which is why love theory tends to be so conservative – ProustProustProustBovaryBovaryBovaryAbelardEloiseCourtly,’ Berlant argued in a 2012 lecture. It’s true that the examples given are less interesting than the fact that they can be strung together so seamlessly, less interesting than the fact that there is so much that is mutually intelligible between a 12th-century troubadour’s songs and Taylor Swift’s. It’s not that the scripts and their meanings don’t change: of course they do. Rosenwein’s chapter on marriage, in particular, shows the ebb and flow between obligation and freely given love across centuries of writing about marriage. But these narratives remain troublingly sticky variations on a theme. We are constantly reminded just how conservative the examples are, how repetitive, how unlikely it is that we will be surprised by any of them.

Fivefantasies are not very many, really, when we’re talking about ways to organise the imagination. The available plots weren’t enough for Eliza Moode, an 18th-century Philadelphian who wrote to a female friend about a man they knew: ‘Does he think that all the business of our lives is only to learn how to make a sausage or roast a joint of meat and take care of a house and practise in short good economy? All that is necessary, I avow it. But can’t we be that and take charge of our spirits at the same time; must we neglect the most valuable part for fear of offending our masters?’

Rosenwein argues that there is a radical power in writing the history of love, and that it might help us escape such constraints on our emotional imaginations. She urges us to ‘strive to change the narrative we cling to as individuals’, arguing that history’s great power is its ability to show that what we consider natural, inevitable, the only way of telling stories about ourselves, is historically contingent. If those old stories don’t work for us, ‘we may find – or create – new ones.’ The book begins under the sacred sign of Joan Didion’s most famous sentence, understood as an aphorism about the therapeutic value of writing: ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’

But history isn’t therapy. A different critical history of love might account not only for the stories and the fantasies, but for their failures, and for the costs of those failures, for all the ways of loving that can’t be reconciled to a handful of narratives. It might explain how the love plot has diminished what is universal and collective to the scale of an individual drama, rather than reaffirm that it is up to the individual to change the story. And anyway, Didion’s sentence begins an essay that excoriates the sentimentality of our narrative impulses: she thought it more honest to look coldly on the irreconcilable and reject the urge to tidy it up into a plot. After a banal rendezvous with her lover, Emma Bovary thinks: ‘It didn’t matter. She was not happy and had never been.’ She wonders: ‘Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust?’ A history of love can suggest some answers to her question. But history can’t stop our attachments turning to dust.

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