Stanford scholar examines origins of romance
Professor of Italian literature Robert Pogue Harrison talks about the foundations of romantic love and chivalry in Western civilization.
People celebrating Valentine’s Day can thank Plato for the notion that their partner is their soulmate and other half, says Stanford scholar Robert Pogue Harrison.
Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature in the School of Humanities and Sciences, co-teaches What Is Love?, a popular Stanford humanities course where students trace the classical roots of contemporary, romantic love and read the Aristophanic myth in Plato’s Symposium that has since inspired people on the romantic search for the person to make them feel whole.
Here, Harrison discusses the origins of romance. Harrison, a scholar of romance studies, has researched and written about death, literature, religion and mythology, among other topics. One of his books, The Body of Beatrice, explores medieval Italian lyric poetry with a focus on Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nuova, a 13th-century work of the medieval courtly love genre that emphasizes chivalry and nobility.
What are some of the major origins of romantic love?
Romantic love, as we understand it today, has several historical origins. One of the oldest is the speech that comic playwright Aristophanes gives in philosopher Plato’s Symposium, a dialogue about Eros, a Greek god of love and desire, which dates to the 4th century B.C.
In his speech, which takes the form of a myth, Aristophanes suggests that humans were originally sphere-like creatures complete in themselves. They came in three genders – male, female and androgynous – but the gods divided them in half. Ever since, human individuals feel incomplete and long to restore that lost unity. Love is that yearning, as well as the sense of well-being that comes from finding that other lost half of oneself. I think much of our current ideas of romantic love are Aristophanic.
Another important source for our ideas about love is medieval Arab lyric poetry, which found its way into Europe and got Christianized in the 11th century. It led to the great tradition of courtly love and the extraordinary flourishing of troubadour love poetry in the 12th and 13th centuries. Courtly love poetry became the basis for much of subsequent Western love poetry – a tradition that has carried over into the lyrics of pop music.
Can our current representations of love, such as gifting flowers or chivalrous acts, be traced to particular historical sources?
Chivalry, gifting, kindness: These all have courtly origins, hence go back to those 12th and 13th century courts in the south of present-day France where Western lyric poetry first originated.
Could you give an example of a Western lyric poem?
The following verses, composed by a female poet around the beginning of the 13th century, showcase the troubadour tradition. The poem was originally written in Occitane, a Romance language of the south of France that has since gone defunct.
If he wants me to give my love,
he will have to be cheerful, worthy,
open and humble; let him argue with no one,
and respond to every person kindly;
because what suits me is not a mean or prideful man
who would harm and diminish my worth,
but a free and true, discreet and amorous man
if he wants me to let him be in love with me.
The whole poem can be found in Songs of the Women Troubadours. Female troubadour poets, many of them anonymous, were called trobairitz. The poems of about two dozen trobairitz have survived.
How do you think our ideas about romantic love evolved over time? What do you say to people who argue that chivalry is dead today?
Chivalry is not completely dead if one takes the verses above as an expression of what chivalry means in the realm of love. Kindness, gentleness, humor and a lack of arrogance are still very desired qualities these days, I hope. They may take different forms, but the ideal is still alive.
I think that our ideas about romantic love have evolved very little over time when it comes to the essentials – we still think of love as ennobling and intimate, a deeply personal form of spiritual transcendence.
Are there any examples of interesting representations of romantic love that can be found in medieval times or in our earlier past that would seem surprising to our culture today?
What is wholly foreign to us today is the prevalent medieval assumption that romantic love is not possible within the confines of marriage. We tend to believe that love finds its consummation in marriage, whereas in the past marriage was seen as a contract with strict obligations between husband and wife, where the wife was subjected to the authority of the husband. It was incompatible with love because love must be wholly free – freely given and free from the social hierarchies that govern human and gender relations in the real world. It is hard for us to understand why love was almost by definition adulterous back then.