The Rituals of Romantic Love

piere sala
Detail of a miniature of the allegorical personifications of Friendly Expression and Courteous Manner, catching flighty hearts in their net; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d’Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955, f. 13r Courtesy of the British Library.

By Katie Barclay & Sally Holloway

The study of romantic love is a flourishing field, with the foundation of the Love Research Network at the University of Hull, and the Love Research Cluster at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. An increasing number of works including Simon May’s Love: A History (Yale University Press, 2011), Katie Barclay’s Love, Intimacy and Power (Manchester University Press, 2011), William Reddy’s The Making of Romantic Love (The University of Chicago Press, 2012) and Claire Langhamer’s The English in Love (Oxford University Press, 2013) have scrutinised the historical, literary and philosophical dimensions of romantic emotion. These studies highlight how love is shaped by historical period, situated in geographical space, and implicated in the making of gender, society and culture.

The linguistic, material and emotional dimensions of ‘making love’ – meaning to court or woo – have evolved significantly over time. By the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language described suitors embarking on ‘lovesuits’ using ‘lovetricks’ and ‘lovetoys’, which shaped the expression, understanding and hence the experience of love itself. Loving relationships are documented at length in letters, diaries, literature, ballads, court records and extant objects. These sources highlight how men and women negotiated the process of falling in love and how this varied according to gender, rank, region, and over time. New studies of romantic love are exploring the contexts in which the rituals of romantic love were appropriate, in some contexts expanding the traditional boundaries of love between courting men and women to illicit love, romantic love within friendship, and romantic love as religious connection to God. Love was an encompassing and flexible emotion that provided space for reinterpretation and a variety of loving behaviours and relationships.

Fig. 1 – Thomas Rowlandson, The Sorrows of Young Werther – The Last Interview, London, 1786. Lewis Walpole Library.

A recent workshop at The University of Adelaide continued this discussion under the theme of ‘Romantic Rituals: Making Love in Europe, c. 1600 to the Present’. The keynote lecture by Clara Tuite (The University of Melbourne) used Goethe’s best-selling novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) to reflect on changing cultural codes of love. Tuite considered both the farcical nature of romantic love, as seen in parodies such as The Joys of Young Werther, and the growing influence of a culture of secular rather than divine love. ‘Werther-fever’ was perpetuated by female Werther lookalikes, and waxworks put on public display to memorialise the novel’s key scenes. Goethe presented love as a fetish, able to infuse both things and events with a special persuasive power. For example, Werther sends his servant to be near Charlotte, whom he was then near, writing, ‘I felt so happy in his presence’. Using this ‘circuit of Wertherian fetishes’, the lecture explored the changing rituals of unrequited, forbidden and sentimental love.

Wooden busk with inset paintings behind glass, England, 1796. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

The opening panel considered the role of objects in forming, negotiating and materialising relationships. Katie Barclay (The University of Adelaide) showed how ‘marriage lines’ – like modern marriage certificates – were implicated in the formation of married love in Scotland. ‘Lines’ often mentioned the equal status of a couple’s parents, and the consent of friends, even though this was not required by the church, in order to grant marriages greater legitimacy. These ritual objects stood for a marriage and connected a community to the law. With love felt as a form of security, the destruction of marriage lines could represent a removal of love and its assurances. Sarah Bendall (The University of Sydney) further considered the potential of objects to materially affirm a relationship, analysing the erotic meanings of busks in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and France. These love tokens both touched and disciplined the female body, itself a site of passionate love. Busks had phallic connotations, acting as material symbols of masculine virility. In the second half of the eighteenth century, busks evolved into consumer objects, produced on a larger scale and customised at the point of sale. Sally Holloway (Richmond, The American International University in London) took up this theme of the commodification of love, using Valentine’s cards to trace the commercialisation and modernisation of romantic customs over the long eighteenth century. The paper presented Valentine’s Day as part of eighteenth-century consumer culture, transformed by new technological innovations such as lithographic printing, and social changes such as the rise of shopping and the world of letters. In the final paper of the morning, Angela Hesson (The University of Melbourne) considered the mutable emotional meanings of love tokens, where items such as portrait miniatures could also represent the paradoxical joy of grief. Love tokens possessed many similarities to mourning tokens, as items designed for public display, to regulate emotion during absence and to preserve fragments of the human body. Across these papers, the panel demonstrated the ways that romantic love was not just a bodily experience, but was constructed through material culture and social conditions.

The afternoon session critiqued how the language of love has been used across space and time. Bronwyn Reddan (The University of Melbourne) explored gendered uses of love in seventeenth-century French fairy tales, highlighting how female expressions of devotion were more constrained than for their male counterparts, and were suggestive of the ways that patriarchal gendered ideals shaped how women and men expressed feeling. Mark Seymour (University of Otago) explored the love letters written by late nineteenth-century Italian women to a celebrity circus performer. Whilst some women had met the performer, others were conducting fantasy relationships by pen. In these letters, the women used various rhetorics of love, from spiritual devotion to romantic fantasy, to provide a discourse for their passionate engagement with a contemporary star. Laura King (University of Leeds) brought us up to the present with a paper on oral history interviews with fathers about their love for their children. She explored how the language of ‘romantic love’ could be applied by men to describe their feelings of excitement and joy at the birth of a new child. In doing so, she probed the boundaries of what romantic love is.

This theme was continued in discussion, where the question of ‘what love is’ provided a topic of lively debate. Is ‘romantic love’ a useful term; is it significantly different from other forms of love and, if so, in what ways and how did that change in different times and places? Across this event, the papers teased out how expressions and languages associated with romantic love were used in a variety of contexts, but also how other languages of love, such as spiritual devotion to God, could be reused within romantic contexts. Was love then about who was involved in the relationship? But if so, what place was there for unrequited love or love of celebrities in our understanding of romance? Discussion also asked whether we privileged love in romantic relationships; other emotions, such as grief, melancholy and pain, littered all of the papers – how do they become part of love? And if love is formed through material culture, then how do the multiple and complex meanings symbolised by objects – from law and religion to pain or sex – inform what love is? How does commodification change the emotional meanings of such objects? As this suggests, the workshop raised as many questions as it answered, highlighting the fruitful possibilities for further research in this area.

Sally Holloway completed her AHRC-funded PhD on romantic love in eighteenth-century England at Royal Holloway in 2013. She is currently an Associate Researcher at Historic Royal Palaces, and Affiliated Research Scholar at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions. Sally teaches at Oxford Brookes and Richmond, The American International University in London.

Katie Barclay is a DECRA Fellow at the Centre for the History of Emotions. After working in a number of UK institutions, she came to The University of Adelaide in 2011 to work with David Lemmings and Claire Walker on how the eighteenth-century press formed an ‘emotional public opinion’ around high-profile trials that focused on disruption in the family. Her current DECRA research looks at intimate relationships amongst lower-order Scots between 1660 and 1830, exploring the ways that collective emotion shape individual emotional practices and the implications for the nature of Scottish communities. More broadly, she is interested in gender, the family, and the making of the self.

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