Peaceful or love-mad? Happy Valentine’s Day…

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 1484–1486. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

According to Wikipedia, St. Valentine’s day, possibly celebrating the early Christian Valentine who performed marriages for Roman soldiers who were forbidden to marry, first became associated with romantic love in the time of Chaucer; and in the Victorian period, in addition to the other tokens we would recognize today, lovers were giving each other keys meant to unlock the heart’s secret, as well as to children, to ward off Valentine’s malady – epilepsy. How did epilepsy come into symbolic contact with romantic love?

Plato’s notion of two loves, the good love—Urania, the heavenly Aphrodite—and bad love, Pandemia or earthly love—holds the key to two opposed concepts of love which are equally crucial for the thought and art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Western Europe. The first views love as a divine force and the only way for Man to transcend the limitations of this world; the second, as a dangerous physical, mental and spiritual condition, and a threat to Man’s sanity and salvation .This dichotomy runs deep in medieval and Renaissance thought and art, and it should come as no surprise that it is still with us today.

Clearly, love and loss of equilibrium go together, and not everyone was happy to idealise the spiritual rewards of love’s suffering. Fear of love is the second most important attitude to love in Medieval and Renaissance societies, diametrically opposite to the attitude which idealised it. Medieval Renaissance medical and theological treatises consistently portray love as a condition which can lead to weakness and death. Galen describes the symptoms in the second century AD and recommends sex as a cure, as does Constantine the African in On Melancholia and Sexual Intercourse in the eleventh century.  Andreas Capellanus, Bernard de Gordon, Timothie Bright, Jacques Ferrand, Robert Burton, Pierre Petit and other medieval and early modern thinkers also catalogue love’s torments and devote much attention to cures, some of which are quite outlandish, such as rubbing the patient’s genitals with gall of cramp fish, or beating him until he begins to rot.

Christian works on spirituality treat love madness as lust, one of seven deadly sins, which should be resisted rather than sought. And since the story of Genesis links women’s agency in the medieval mind, the joint workings of the medical and theological discourses contribute to love madness (and women, who cause it) becoming viewed as a source of danger that virtuous men should avoid. Early modern treatises on mental and spiritual health –Thomas Adams’ Diseases of the Soule (1620) and Mystical Bedlam, or the World of Mad Men (1621), Phineas Fletcher’s Joy in Tribulation (1632) or Richard Overton’s Man’s Mortalitie (1643) all treat erotic love of women as a thing of the Devil. This, of course, is in delightful contrast with the poetic discourse of courtly love and Petrarchism, which accord women beatific and salutary powers.

As a result, Renaissance love poetry is never at peace with itself and teems with frustration, pain and violence towards the woman it purports to adore. It is the vitality and power of this contrast that speaks to us of love across the centuries— and goes a certain way towards explaining love’s eternal relevance.

by Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr. Danijela Kambaskovic of The University of Western Australia.  For more information on work on the subject of ‘Love’ within CHE, visit the deliciously named ‘Love Cluster‘ of researchers working on this complex emotion.

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