How Romance Became Part of Our Culture

This post is an introduction to my class on Romance: Outlining and Creating at Bellevue College. During the duration of the course I will focus on the craft of writing and will not have time to discuss history of Romance. However, I think it's important to understand the background and history of Romance and what part it plays in our life in order to have a better understanding of this literary genre. For people who are interested in the subject but cannot join the class, please follow this blog for class summaries.

There are several perceptions in the Western culture that we take for granted and think of them as the most natural human behavior, while history shows us otherwise. Take for example our perception today of A Mother's Nature that  we consider the most natural thing for a mother to bond with her child, sense his needs, and want to care for him. History shows us of no such “nature”; in the past, upper class mothers, after providing an heir to their husbands, sent their babies to a wet nurse in the country while they hurried to go back to their social life. Also, the way we see Children today, as vulnerable human beings that need special care and special attention is very different from the way humanity treated them in the past when children were simply considered as little people. There was no such thing as “children's clothing”, boys and girls were dressed in small women’s dresses. Poor families looked at children as a source of income –  they sent them to work as soon as they were old enough. Children were exposed to violence, whether they were drafted to the military at a young age or stayed at home and read Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It wasn’t until Sigmund Freud had determined that a child’s early experience affects his psychology that humanity started to understand that children should be treated as, what we now recognize as, “Children”.  By the same token, our current western perception of Romance is very different from its perception in the past. 

Portrait of a Two-Year-Old Boy, 1664 Caesar van Everdingen
Portrait of a Young Boy, 1620s Thomas de Keyser

In the past when women were considered to be assets of their fathers or their husbands, women entered married life because of an economical or political bargain or because of sexual desires of a man.  When a woman was considered in society to be an object she had no place to want or desire anything for herself. There are many stories that demonstrate this kind of a reality. The one that comes to my mind is the biblical story of King David and Bathsheba; King David saw Bathsheba taking a bath and desired her. He sent her husband Uriah knowingly to die in the battlefield and took her as his wife. Their story does not mention anything about Bathsheba’s own desires, just the fact that she became the mother of the next king in line – Solomon.

Bathsheba with David's messenger, as the king
watches from his roof, 1562 Jan Massys
Romantic Love, as we know it today, stems from the culture of Chivalry in the 12th century in Europe, in which we call today Courtly Love, when knights expressed their admiration and devotion to ladies with courting and poetry. This love rarely materialized, since the women were married to other men. The most famous story of this era is the love story between Sir Lancelot and Lady Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife. In Courtly Love the woman is still passive and is the object of the knight’s passion, but it was the beginning of the relationship between a man and a woman that was based on ‘love’, ‘admiration’, and ‘fascination’, rather than possession. The Jungian Analyst Robert A. Johnson explains in his book “We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love” the religious source behind the culture of Courtly Love: Catharism was a religious movement in Europe that worshiped a feminine savior whom they believed was the mediator between God and man.  As Christianity took over Europe and banned the practicing of other religions, the Cathars kept practicing their religious worshiping by projecting their spiritual love on women, flesh and blood. From this era, we still maintain the habit today of a man kneeling in front of a woman when proposing to her. Kneeling is a way to show respect and humility in different religions and in front of authority. The Cathars used women as an excuse to kneel in front of their spiritual feminine savior without being spotted by the church for pagan worshiping. 

Kneeling then and now
When Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet at the end of the 16th century he contributed another advancement to the concept of Romantic Love – where both man and woman desired each other equally. The story of Romeo and Juliet showed the world how strong Romantic Love can be and how an elusive emotion such as love can give people meaning in life as well as destroy them.  

Romeo and Juliette, 1884 Frank Bernard Dicksee

But it took humanity another 200 years to make something out of this understanding. That was when the Romantic Era started in Europe by the end of the 18th century. Romanticism developed as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment that emphasized rational and scientific thinking. The Romantic Movement put emphasis on emotions and aesthetics. Famous novels from this era are Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (Russia), Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo (France), and Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice (England).

For many people the horrors of World War I (1914-1918) caused a deep disillusionment from the high ideas of the Romanticism or the Enlightenment movement.  The world and humanity could no longer be seen as rational, enlightened, beautiful, or kind and Modernism began. Modern art and literature were free to explore the ugliness of human existence.  

The Lovers by Rene Magritte, 1928
It seems like the human spirit is always longing for beauty, aesthetics, and love. Despite the modern era of social sobering from any human idealism and despite what people knew about the grim facts of history, there was still a desire to believe in beauty and love. There is an existential need for that. The Great Depression, starting from 1929, made people want to escape the harsh reality and crave for happy stories and seeing beauty. It was a golden time for Broadway shows and Hollywood movies. In the UK at that time the publishing house Mills & Boon shifted from publishing fiction to solely publishing romance. The company has been noticing for years that they made more profits from selling Romance than any other fiction.  Today Mills & Boon is part of the Canadian Harlequin Enterprises – an international Romance publishing house. 

Today it appears that the human craving for Romance is greater than in any other time before. People are aware of the existence of Romantic Love and its ability to transform life and infuse it with meaning and happiness. Scientists and intellectuals are trying to understand this phenomena, as Helen Fisher’s book “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love” or Richard David Precht’s book “Liebe: Ein Unordentliches Gef├╝hl” (Love: a messy feeling – not yet translated to English) demonstrate.  Movies and books try to explore Romantic Love in different ways, as seen in the many versions of the Cinderella story. The success of the movie Pretty Woman or the novel (that became a movie) The Notebook are just two examples of how people crave and react to good love stories. The widespread use of dating-websites on the Internet shows that people believe in love and search for it, even if they have never experience it before. 

What does it say about us? Has humanity lost its mind searching for a feeling that no one can really understand? How is it that in an era of Data we are so obsessed with a phenomena that is so abstract, evasive, and so illogical? The answer to that, in my opinion, is simple – because of Human Evolution. As human beings we have evolved and developed not just physically, mentally, and socially, but also spiritually. Believing in love simply means believing in a higher power that we all want to be part of.

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