Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Forbidden Fruit Syndrome

It's been an interesting phenomenon how the genre of historical romance (or, dare I say the genre of historical erotica?) has been steadily encroaching on the field of historical fiction over the past several decades. It is rare to read through a new historical novel without running into explicit sex scenes, most of them involving premarital or extramarital sex. Many of the discussions in historical fiction book groups revolve around the questions of how much sex is appropriate. My informal assessment is that a few readers and authors prefer the scene to fade to black while most enjoy sex scenes as long as they are "helpful to developing the characters." It seems that for many book lovers of today's generation "historical" and "racy" are two adjectives that go particularly well together. Lately, I have been pondering why exactly this is the case.

Perhaps for those interested in a racier brand of literature, historical novels have something to offer that contemporary novels do not. That something is stricter social mores. In Regency romances, part of the "thrill" of a sexual encounter comes from the knowledge that the heroine will actually become compromised--whereas a heroine "hooking up" in today's world would be as normal as working nine to five. In Medieval novels, part of the appeal of fornication and adultery is the condemnation it will receive from the narrow-minded and monolithic Church--whereas such deeds in a contemporary novel would only provoke jealous high school friends or unsympathetic parents.

One of the key components of the courtly love paradigm developed in the twelfth century (a paradigm, incidentally, that endorsed adulterous behavior) is that in a true love story there must be some obstacle separating the man and the woman. The greater the obstacle, the greater the desirability and the attraction. A love that was forbidden (by parents, by religious authorities, by social standing, etc.) was the most exhilarating kind of love. In many ways, this paradigm lives on today. And although obstacles between lovers can be found in a contemporary setting (e.g. He owns a big bookstore that wants to put her little bookstore out of business, a la You've Got Mail), these contemporary hurdles seem fairly easy to jump when compared to obstacles like "utter ruin and disgrace in the eyes of society," or "excommunication and certain damnation."

For fans of racy reading, the openness, ease, and acceptability of modern affairs cause modern novels to lose a little luster, but the strict moral code of past eras makes infractions of it that much more enticing. The barriers society and religion placed before immorality translate into exciting obstacles to be overcome. The secrecy needed to conduct such behavior titillates readers and adds intricacy to a plot.  As one wise man put it, "Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant." In an era where "everything is ok," it seems that novelists must return to a bygone age in order to find rules to break.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Judging only from what I have learned or heard in lectures, courtly 'love' was not necessarily sexual or adulterous in nature, and could be about the unattainable love, or far-fetched and adventurous deeds of derring-do performed to prove that love. Being in love with someone who was married was one thing, but actually committing adultery was something else in reality- at least as I have said according to what I have been told.

    Also, it was not a 'wise' person who spoke the proverb you refer to as the Bible passage it comes from actually puts in the the mouth of personified 'Folly', who says it to those who have 'no sense'.

    1. You are very blunt with your comment, so I'll be blunt with my replies.

      1) I completely disagree with your first point. Tristan and Isolt and Lanecelot and Guinevere are two of the most famous and paradigmatic stories of courtly love literature. Both involve adultery. Yes, you have some instances such as Dante idealizing Beatrice from afar, but I wouldn't exactly characterize this as healthy (or non-adulterous in intent) since he had his own wife.

      2) Point well taken about the Bible verse. However, I believe, even though it's spoken by folly, it still exemplifies a lot of (foolish?) people's attitudes towards love.

    2. I apologise if the bluntness of my comment caused offense, it just seemed as though this was a bit of a 'misquote', and it turned out that when I looked up the passage in context, it was presented as anything but sound and wise advice. I was not trying to imply that you were a fool.

      As to courtly love, you are right about adultery being seen as idealised and endorsed in the romances, but own could ask to what extent it really reflected reality?
      Maybe its application int the real world may have been a little more- restrained- shall I say as real people may not have been able to go as far as or get away with things that characters in romances could?
      So possibly the romantic ideal said one thing , but real people were not so free to act upon feelings of love in real life?


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