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by Havelock EllisApril 8th, 2023
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The Absence of Romantic Love in Classic Civilization—Marriage as a Duty—The Rise of Romantic Love in the Roman Empire—The Influence of Christianity—The Attitude of Chivalry—The Troubadours—The Courts of Love—The Influence of the Renaissance—Conventional Chivalry and Modern Civilization—The Woman Movement—The Modern Woman's Equality of Rights and Responsibilities excludes Chivalry—New Forms of Romantic Love still remain possible—Love as the Inspiration of Social Hygiene. What will be the ultimate effect of the woman's movement, now slowly but surely taking place among us, upon romantic love? That is really a serious question, and it is much more complex than many of those who are prepared to answer it off-hand may be willing to admit.
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The Task of Social Hygiene by Havelock Ellis is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. THE EMANCIPATION OF WOMEN IN RELATION TO ROMANTIC LOVE


The Absence of Romantic Love in Classic Civilization—Marriage as a Duty—The Rise of Romantic Love in the Roman Empire—The Influence of Christianity—The Attitude of Chivalry—The Troubadours—The Courts of Love—The Influence of the Renaissance—Conventional Chivalry and Modern Civilization—The Woman Movement—The Modern Woman's Equality of Rights and Responsibilities excludes Chivalry—New Forms of Romantic Love still remain possible—Love as the Inspiration of Social Hygiene.

What will be the ultimate effect of the woman's movement, now slowly but surely taking place among us, upon romantic love? That is really a serious question, and it is much more complex than many of those who are prepared to answer it off-hand may be willing to admit.

It must be remembered that romantic love has not been a constant accompaniment of human relationships, even in civilization. It is true that various peoples very low down in the scale possess romantic love-songs, often, it appears, written by the women. But the classic civilizations of Greece and Rome in their most robust and brilliant periods knew little or nothing of romantic love in connection with normal sexual relationships culminating in marriage. Classic antiquity reveals [114]a high degree of conjugal devotion, and of domestic affection, at all events in Rome, but the right of the woman to follow the inspirations of her own heart, and the idealization and worship of the woman by the man, were not only scarcely known but, so far as they were known, reprehended or condemned. Ovid, in the opinion of some, represents a new movement in Rome. We are apt to regard Ovid as, in erotic matters, the representative of a set of immoral Roman voluptuaries. That view probably requires considerable modification. Ovid was not indeed a champion of morality, but there is no good reason to suppose that, before he appeared, the rather stern Roman mind had yet conceived those refinements and courtesies which he set forth in such charming detail. If we take a wide survey of his work, we may perhaps regard Ovid as the pioneer of a chivalrous attitude towards women and of a romantic conception of love not only new in Rome but of significance for Europe generally. Ovid was a powerful factor in the Renaissance movement, and not least in England, where his influence on Shakespeare and some others of the Elizabethans cannot easily be overrated. [69]

For the ordinary classic mind, Greek or Roman, marriage was intended for the end of building up the family, and the family was consecrated to the State. The fulfilment of so exalted a function involved a certain austere dignity which excluded wayward inclination [115]or passionate emotion. These might indeed occur between a man and a woman outside marriage, but putting aside the very limited phenomena of Athenian hetairism, they were too shameful to be idealized. Some trace of this classic attitude may be said to persist even to-day among the so-called Latin nations, notably in the French tradition (now dying out) of treating marriage as a relationship to be arranged, not by the two parties themselves, but by their parents and guardians; Montaigne, attached as he was to maxims of Roman antiquity, was not very alien from the ordinary French attitude of his time when he declared that, since we do not marry so much for our own sakes as for the sake of posterity and the race, marriage is too sacred a process to be mixed with amorous extravagance. [70] There is something to be said for that point of view which is nowadays too often forgotten, but it certainly fails to cover the whole of the ground.

It is not only in the West that a contemptuous attitude towards the romantic and erotic side of life has prevailed at some of the most vigorous moments of civilization. It is also found in the East. In Japan, for instance, even at the present day, romantic love, as a reputable element of ordinary life, is unknown or disapproved; its existence is not recognized in the schools, and the European novels that celebrate it are scarcely understood. [71]

The development of modern romantic love in connection [116]with marriage seems to be found in the late Greek world under the Roman Empire. [72] That is commonly called a period of decadence. In a certain limited sense it was. Greece had become subjugated to Rome. Rome herself had lost her military spirit and was losing her political power. But the fighting instinct, and even the ruling spirit, are not synonymous with civilization. The "decline and fall" of empires by no means necessarily involves the decay of civilization. It is now generally realized that the later Roman Empire was not, as was once thought, an age of social and moral degeneration. [73] The State indeed was dissolving, but the individual was evolving. The age which produced a Plutarch—for fifteen hundred years one of the great [117]inspiring forces of the world—was the reverse of a corrupt age. The life of the home and the life of the soul were alike developing. The home was becoming more complex, more intimate, more elevated. The soul was being turned in on itself to discover new and joyous secrets: the secret of the love of Nature, the secret of mystic religion, and, not least, the secret of romantic love. When Christianity finally conquered the Roman world its task very largely lay in taking over and developing those three secrets already discovered by Paganism.

It was inevitable, however, that in developing these new forms of the emotional life, the ascetic bent of Christianity should make itself felt. It was not possible for Christianity to cast its halo around the natural sexual life, but it was possible to refine and exalt that life, to lift it into a spiritual sphere. Neither woman the sweetheart nor woman the mother were in ordinary life glorified by the Church; they were only tolerated. But on a higher than natural plane they were surrounded by a halo and raised to the highest pedestal of reverence and even worship. The Virgin was exalted, Bride and Bridegroom became terms of mystical import, and the Holy Mother received the adoring love of all Christendom. Even in the actual relations of men and women, quite early in the history of Christianity, we sometimes find men and women cultivating relationships which excluded that earthly union the Church looked down on, but yet involved the most tender and intimate physical affection. Many charming stories of such relationships are found in the lives of the saints, and sometimes they existed [118]even within the marriage bond. [74] Christianity led to the use of ideas and terms borrowed from earthly love in a different and symbolic sense. But the undesigned result was that a new force and beauty were added to those ideas and terms, however applied, and also that many emotions were thus cultivated which became capable of re-inforcing earthly human love. In this way it happened that, though Christianity rejected the ideal of romantic love in its natural associations, it indirectly prepared the way for a loftier and deeper realization of that love.

There can be no doubt that the emotional training and refining of the fleshly instincts by Christianity was the chief cause of the rise of that conception of romantic love which we associate with the institution of chivalry. Exalted and sanctified by contact with the central dogmas of religion, the emotion of love was brought down from this spiritual atmosphere by the knightly lover, with something of its ethereal halo still clinging to it, and directed towards an earthly mistress. The most extravagant phase of romantic love which has ever been seen was then brought about, and in many cases, certainly, it was a real erotomania which passed beyond the bounds of sanity. [75] In its [119]extreme forms, however, this romantic love was a rare, localized, and short-lived manifestation. The dominant attitude of the chivalrous age towards women, as Léon Gautier has shown in his monumental work on chivalry, was one of indifference, or even contempt. The knight's thoughts were more of war than of women, and he cherished his horse more than his mistress. [76]

But women, above all in France, reacted against this attitude, and with splendid success. Their husbands treated them with indifference or left them at home while they sought adventure in the world. The neglected wives proceeded to lay down the laws of society, and took upon themselves the part of rulers in the domain of morals. In the eleventh, the twelfth, the thirteenth centuries, says Méray in a charming book on life in the days of the Courts of Love, we find women "with infinite skill and an adorable refinement seizing the moral direction of French society." They did so, he remarks, in a spirit so Utopian, so ideally poetic, that historians have hesitated to take them seriously. The laws of the Courts of Love [77] may sometimes seem to us immoral and licentious, but in reality they served to restrain the worst immoralities and licences of the time. They banished violence, they allowed no venality, and they inculcated moderation in passion. The task of the Courts of Love was facilitated by the relative degree of peace which then reigned, [120]especially by the fact that the Normans, holding both coasts of the Channel, formed a link between France and England. When the murderous activities of French kings and English kings destroyed that link, the Courts of Love were swept away in the general disorder and the progress of civilization indefinitely retarded. [78] Yet in some degree the ideals which had been thus embodied still persisted. As the Goncourts pointed out in their invaluable book, La Femme au Dix-huitième Siècle (Chap. v), from the days of chivalry even on into the eighteenth century, when on the surface at all events it apparently disappeared, an exalted ideal of love continued to be cherished in France. This conception remained associated, throughout, with the great social influence and authority which had been enjoyed by women in France even from medieval times. That influence had become pronounced during the seventeenth century, and at that time Sir Thomas Smith in his Commonwealth of England, writing of the high position of women in England, remarked that they possessed "almost as much liberty as in France."

There were at least two forms of medieval romantic love. The first arose in Provence and northern Italy during the twelfth century, and spread to Germany as Minnedienst. In this form the young knights directed their respectful and adoring devotion to a high-born married woman who chose one of them as her own cavalier, to do her service and reverence, the two vowing devotion to each other until death. It was a part of this amorous code that there could not be love between husband and [121]wife, and it was counted a mark of low breeding for a husband to challenge his wife's right to her young knight's services, though sometimes we are told the husband risked this reproach, occasionally with tragic results. This mode of love, after being eloquently sung and practised by the troubadours—usually, it appears, younger sons of noble houses—died out in the place of its origin, but it had been introduced into Spain, and the Spaniards reintroduced it into Italy when they acquired the kingdom of Naples; in Italy it was conventionalized into the firmly rooted institution of the cavaliere servente. From the standpoint of a strict morality, the institution was obviously open to question. But we can scarcely fail to see that at its origin it possessed, even if unconsciously, a quasi-religious warrant in the worship of the Holy Mother, and we have to recognize that, notwithstanding its questionable shape, it was really an effort to attain a purer and more ideal relationship than was possible in a rough and warlike age which placed the wife in subordination to her husband. A tender devotion that inspired poetry, an unalloyed respect that approached reverence, vows that were based on equal freedom and independence on both sides—these were possibilities which the men and women of that age felt to be incompatible with marriage as they knew it.

The second form of medieval romantic love was more ethereal than the first, and much more definitely and consciously based on a religious attitude. It was really the worship of the Virgin transferred to a young [122]earthly maiden, yet retaining the purity and ideality of religious worship. To so high a degree is this the case that it is sometimes difficult to be sure whether we are concerned with a real maiden of flesh and blood or only a poetic symbol of womanhood. This doubt has been raised, notably by Bartoli, concerning Dante's Beatrice, the supreme type of this ethereal love, which arose in the thirteenth century, and was chiefly cultivated in Florence. The poets of this movement were themselves aware of the religious character of their devotion to the donna angelicata to whom they even apply, as they would to the Queen of Heaven, the appellation Stella Maris. That there was an element of flesh and blood in these figures is believed by Remy de Gourmont, but when we gaze at them, he remarks, we see at first, "in place of a body only two eyes with angel's wings behind them, on the background of an azure sky sown with golden stars"; the lover is on his knees and his love has become a prayer. [79] This phase of romantic love was brief, and perhaps mostly the possession of the poets, but it represented a really important moment in the evolution of modern romantic love. It was a step towards the realization of the genuinely human charm of young womanhood in real human relationships, of which we already have a foretaste in the delicious early French story of Aucassin and Nicolette.

The re-discovery of classic literature, the movements of Humanism and the Renaissance, swept away what [123]was left of the almost religious idealization of the young virgin. The ethereal maiden, thin, pale, anæmic, disappeared alike from literature and from art, and was no longer an ideal in actual life. She gave place to a new woman, conscious of her own fully developed womanhood and all its needs, radiantly beautiful and finely shaped in every limb. She lacked the spirituality of her predecessors, but she had gained in intellect. She appears first in the pages of Boccaccio. After a long interval Titian immortalized her rich and mature beauty; she is Flora, she is Ariadne, she is alike the Earthly Love and the Heavenly Love. Every curve of her body was adoringly and minutely described by Niphus and Firenzuola. [80] She was, moreover, the courtesan whose imperial charm and adroitness enabled her to trample under foot the medieval conception of lust as sin, even in the courts of popes. At the great academic centre of Bologna, finally, she chastely taught learning and science. [81] The people of the Italian Renaissance placed women on the same level as men, and to call a woman a virago implied unalloyed praise. [82]

[124]The very mixed conditions of what we have been accustomed to consider the modern world then began for women. They were no longer cloistered—whether in convents or the home—but neither were they any longer worshipped. They began to be treated as human beings, and when men idealized them in figures of romantic charm or pathos—figures like Shakespeare's Rosalind or Marivaux's Sylvia or Richardson's Clarissa—this humanity was henceforth the common ground out of which the vision arose. But, one notes, in nearly all the great poets and novelists up to the middle of the last century, it was usually in the weakness of humanity that the artist sought the charm and pathos of his feminine figures. From Shakespeare's Ophelia to Thackeray's Amelia this is the rule, more emphatically expressed in the literature of England than of any other country. There had been no actual emancipation of women; though now they had entered the world of men, they were not yet, socially and legally, of that world. Even the medieval traditions still lived on in subtly conventionalized forms. The "chivalrous" attitude towards women was, as the word itself suggests, a medieval survival. It belonged to a period of barbarism when brutal force ruled and when the man who magnanimously placed his force at the disposition of a woman was really doing her a service and granting her a privilege. But civilization means the building up of an orderly society in which individual rights are respected, and force no longer dominates. So that as civilization advances the occasions on which women require the aid [125]of masculine force become ever fewer and more unimportant. The conventionalized chivalry of men then tends to become an offer of services which it would be better for women to do for themselves and a bestowal of privileges to which they are nowise entitled. [83] Moreover, this same chivalry is, under these conditions, apt to take on a character which is the reverse of its face value. It becomes the assertion of a power over women instead of a power on their behalf; and it carries with it a tinge of contempt in place of respect. Theoretically, a thousand chivalrous swords should leap from their scabbards to succour the distressed woman. In practice this may only mean that the thousand owners of these metaphorical weapons are on the alert to take advantage of the distressed woman.

Thus the romantic emotions based on medieval ideals gradually lost their worth. They were not in relation to the altered facts of life; they had become an empty convention which could be turned to very unromantic uses. The movement for the emancipation [126]of women was not consciously or directly a movement of revolt against an antiquated chivalry. It was rather a part of the development of civilization which rendered chivalry antique. Medieval romantic love implied in women a weakness in the soil of which only a spiritual force could flourish. The betterment of social conditions, the subordination of violence to order, the growing respect for individual rights, took away the reasons for consecrating weakness in women, and created an ever larger field in which women could freely seek to rival men, because it is a field in which knowledge and skill are of far more importance than muscular strength. The emancipation of women has simply been the later and more conscious phase of the process by which women have entered into this field and sought their share of its rights and its responsibilities.

The woman movement of modern times, properly understood, has thus been the effort of women to adapt themselves to the conditions of an orderly and peaceful civilization. Education, under the changed conditions, can effect what before needed force of arms; responsibility is now demanded where before only tutelage was possible. A civilized society in which women are ignorant and irresponsible is an anachronism, and, however great the wrench with the past might be, it was necessary that women should be adjusted to the changing times. The ideal of the weak, ignorant, inexperienced woman—the cross between an angel and an idiot, as I have elsewhere described her [84]—no longer [127]fulfilled any useful purpose. Civilized society furnishes the conditions under which all adult persons are socially equal and all are free to give to society the best they are capable of.

It was inevitable, but unfortunate, that this movement should have sometimes tended to take the form of an attempt on the part of women to secure, not merely equality with men, but actual imitation of men. These women said that since men had attained mastery in life, captured all the best things, and adopted the most successful methods of living, it was necessary for women to copy them at every point. That was a specious plea which even had in it a certain element of truth. But the fact remained that women and men are different, that the difference is based in fundamental natural functions, and that to place one sex in exactly the same position as the other sex is to deform its outlines and to hamper its activities.

From the present point of view we are only concerned with the influence of the woman's movement on love. On the traditional conception of romantic love inherited from medieval days there can be no doubt that this influence has been highly dissolvent. Medieval romantic love, in its original form, had been part of a conception of womanhood made up of opposites, and all the opposites balanced each other. The medieval man laid his homage at the feet of the great lady in the castle hall, but he himself lorded it over the wife who drudged in his own home. On his knees he gazed up in devotion at the ethereal virgin, but when she ceased to be a virgin, he [128]asserted himself by cursing her as a demon sent from hell to seduce and torment him. All this was possible because the woman was outside the orbit of the man's life, never on the same plane, necessarily higher or lower. It became difficult if woman was man's equal, absurdly impossible if she was of identical nature with him.

The medieval romantic tradition has come down to us so laden with beauty and mystery that we are apt to think, as we see it melt away, that human achievements are being permanently depreciated. That illusion occurs in every age of transition. It was notably so in the eighteenth century, which represented a highly important stage in the emancipation of women. To some that century seems to have been given up to empty gallantry and facile pleasure. Yet it was not only the age in which women for the first time succeeded in openly attaining their supreme social influence, [85] it was an age of romantic love, and the noble or poignant love-stories which have reached us from the records of that period surpass those of any other age.

If we believe with Goethe that the religion of the future consists in a triple reverence—the reverence for what is above us, the reverence for what is below us, and the reverence for our equals [86]—we need not grieve overmuch if one form of this reverence, the first, and that which Goethe regarded as the earliest and crudest, [129]has lost its exclusive claim. Reverence is essential to all romantic love. To bring down the Madonna and the Virgin from their pedestals to share with men the common responsibilities and duties of life is not to divest them of the claim to reverence. It is merely the sign of a change in the form of that reverence, a change which heralds a new romantic love.

It would be premature to attempt to define the exact outline of the new forms of romantic love, or the precise lineaments of the beings who will most ardently evoke that love. In literature, indeed, the ideals of life cast their shadow before, and we may surely trace a change in the erotic ideals mirrored in literature. The woman whom Dickens idealized in David Copperfield is unlike indeed to the series of women of a new type introduced by George Meredith, and the modern heroine generally exhibits more of the robust, open-eyed and spontaneous qualities of that later type than the blind and clinging nature of the amiable simpletons of the older type. That the changed conditions of civilization should produce new types of womanhood and of love is not surprising, if we realize that, even within the ancient chivalrous forms it was possible to produce similar robust types when the qualities of a race were favourable to them. Spain furnishes a notable illustration. Spanish literature from Cervantes and Tirso to Valera and Blasco Ibañez reflects a type of woman who stands on the same ground as man and is his equal and often his superior on that ground, alike in vigour of body and of spirit, acquiring all that she cares to of virility, while losing nothing feminine [130]that is of worth. [87] In more than one respect the ideal woman of Spain is the ideal woman our civilization now renders necessary. The women of the future, Grete Meisel-Hess declares in her femininely clever and frank discussion of present-day conditions, Die Sexuelle Krise, will be full, strong, elementary natures, devoid alike of the impulse to destroy or the aptitude to be destroyed. She considers, moreover, that so far from romantic love being a thing of the past, "love as a form of worship is reserved for the future." [88] In the past it has only been found among a few rare souls; in the future world, fostered by the finer selection of a conscious eugenics, and a new reverence and care for motherhood, we may reasonably hope for a truly efficient humanity, the bearers and conservers of the highest human emotions. It is in this sense, indeed, that the voices of the greatest and most typical leaders of the woman's movement of emancipation to-day are heard. Ellen Key, in her Love and Marriage, seeks to conciliate the cultivation of a free and sacred sexual relationship with the worship of the child, as the embodiment of the future race, while Olive Schreiner proclaims in her Woman and Labour that the woman of the future will walk side by side with man in a higher and deeper relationship than has ever been possible before because it will involve a new community in activity and insight.

Nor is it alone from the feminine side that these [131]forecasts are made. Certainly for the most part love has been cultivated more by women than by men. Primacy in the genius of intellect belongs incontestably to men, but in the genius of love it has doubtless oftener been achieved by women. They have usually understood better than men that in this matter, as Goethe insisted, it is the lover and not the beloved who reaps the chief fruits of love. "It is better to love, even violently," wrote the forsaken Portuguese nun, in her immortal Letters, "than merely to be loved." He who loses his life here saves it, for it is only in so far as he becomes a crucified god that Love wins the sacrifice of human hearts. Of late years, by an inevitable reaction, women have sometimes forgotten this eternal verity. The women of the twentieth century in their anxiety for self-possession and their rightful eagerness to gain positions they feel they have been too long excluded from, have perhaps yet failed to realize that the women of the eighteenth century, who exerted a sway over life that the women of no age before or since have possessed, were, above all women, great and heroic lovers, and that those two fundamental facts cannot be cut asunder. But this failure, temporary as it is doubtless destined to be, will work for good if it is the point of departure for a revival among men of the art of love.

Men indeed have here fallen behind women. The old saying, so tediously often quoted, concerning love as a "thing apart" in the lives of men would scarcely have occurred to a medieval poet of Provence or Florence. It is not enough for women to proclaim a new avatar [132]of love if men are not ready and eager to learn its art and to practise its discipline. In a profoundly suggestive fragment on love, left incomplete at his death by the distinguished sociologist Tarde, [89] he suggests that when masculine energy dies down in the fields of political ambition and commercial gain, as it already has in the field of warfare, the energy liberated by greater social organization and cohesion may find scope once more in love. For too long a period love, like war and politics and commerce, has been chiefly monopolized by the predatory type of man, in this field symbolized by the figure of Don Juan. In the future, Tarde suggests, the Don Juan type of lover may fall into disrepute, giving place to the Virgilian type, for whom love is not a thing apart but a form of life embodying its best and highest activities.

When we come upon utterances of this kind we are tempted to think that they represent merely the poetic dreams of individuals, standing too far ahead of their fellows to possess any significance for men and women in general. But it is probable that Ovid, and certain that Dante, set forth erotic conceptions that were unintelligible to most of their contemporaries, yet they have been immensely influential over the ideas and emotions of men in later ages. The poets and prophets of one generation are engaged in moulding ideals which will be realized in the lives of a subsequent generation; in expressing their own most intimate emotions, as it [133]has been truly said, they become the leaders in a long file of men and women. Whatever may yet be uncertain and undefined, we may assuredly believe that the emotion of love is far too deeply rooted in the depth of man's organism and woman's organism ever to be torn out or ever to be thrust into a subordinate place. And we may also believe that there is no measurable limit to its power of putting forth ever new and miraculous flowers. It is recorded that once, in James Hinton's presence, the conversation turned on music, and it was suggested that, owing to the limited number of musical combinations and the unlimited number of musical compositions, a time would come when all music would only be a repetition of exhausted harmonies. Hinton remarked that then would come a man so inspired by a new spirit that his feeling would be, not that all music has been written, but that no music has yet been written. It was a memorable saying. In every field that is the perpetual proclamation of genius: Behold! I create all things new. And in this field of love we can conceive of no age in which to the inspired seer it will not be possible to feel: There has yet been no love!

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