Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Why Romance Is a Modern Phenomenon

Many people like to read the opening chapters of the Iliad as if it were a romance. Achilles falls in love with his war bride Briseis and is heartbroken when Agamemnon takes her from him. But, as my college literature professor pointed out, the text shows that Achilles is heartbroken about something else entirely. He's heartbroken because Agamemnon has made him look bad. The loss of Briseis is nothing compared to his own loss of face before his fellow Greeks.

The ancient world was obsessed with glory and the importance of being remembered by posterity. "My fame will be secure to all my sons," is the constant refrain spoken by Gilgamesh, one of the great heroes of Mesopotamia. But in our culture--where romantic love is celebrated in nearly every song, book, and movie--such a worldview is entirely alien. One has only to look at the 2004 film Troy starring Brad Pitt to see how the ideal of romantic love has been foisted on the ancient epic. Either the screenwriters were oblivious to the worldview of Homer's contemporaries or they recognized it and "fixed" it so that the story would appeal to moderns.

Katharina Von Bora
(Martin Luther's wife)
How did we get from here to there? When did romance become so important? A couple years ago I heard Rich Bledsoe give some lectures, and in one of his tangents he mentioned that the Reformation was instrumental in developing the idea of romantic love between husband and wife. Before that, marriage was seen as much more of a "business".
The Reformation put marriage at the center. I suspect that Luther’s marriage to Katie is one of the most important and central relationships in the history of the world. Beyond Luther and the Reformational emphasis on the centrality of marriage, C.S. Lewis makes the case that it was the Puritans who virtually “invented” or made normal the very idea of “companionate marriage.” Indeed, the affection and love between husband and wife in Puritan and Reformed households was quite remarkable. Jonathan Edwards' famous marriage is only one outstanding example.
Martin Luther
Bledsoe's assertion is one that I would like to explore further someday. The chivalric romances of the Middle Ages definitely placed importance on the love between a man and a woman, but most of the relationships sung by the troubadours tended to be outside marriage and adulterous in nature. The pages of nearly every novel set during the Middle Ages dwell upon the fact that marriage of that time period was generally not undertaken for the sake of love. Yet nowadays, it would be hard to find two people who married for some reason other than love.

Was it indeed the Reformation that began to normalize romantic love between husband and wife? When Martin Luther rescued his future wife from a convent in a fish barrel, was he beginning the great romance that would change the modern world forever?


  1. Well, if Achilles was in love with anyone other than himself it was Patrocles :P But seriously, I absolutely believe that most marriages in history have been for business reasons and that love as a primary motivator is a relatively new idea. However, the concept of romantic love has been around for quite a long while. I write about the daughter of two of the most famous lovers in history, so I'm apt to think so ;)

    1. Thanks for commenting! I agree that there were some romantic relationships in the ancient world, buy I don't think it was the norm, and romantic love definitely wasn't exalted the way it is today.

      In Greek literature, we have Odysseus longing to go home to his Penelope, but there is no criticism of his relations with Circe and Calypso in the story. If you can't be with the one you love, then love the one you're with?

      Virgil portrays passionate love as a bad thing in his epic. Aeneas' relationship with Dido is holding him back from his duty and his destiny. The sooner he gets over that phase, the better.


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