How do we know romantic love is only 800 years old?


    We look for signs of romantic love in earlier times and other cultures.

    One of the most controversial claims
of the first chapter of New Ways of Loving
is stated in the title: "Romantic Love is a Hoax!
Emotional Programming to 'Fall in Love' ".
    Most of us were raised assuming
that romantic love is a natural occurence,
something that arises from 'human nature'.

    Much of our confusion about this question
arises from imprecise definitions.  
If "romantic love" is defined very broadly,
to include almost any kind of 'loving' relationships between people,
then, of course, people have been having relationships
ever since there were human beings,
for the last 7 million years or so
ever since our species branched off from the other large apes.

    Thus, before we can even ask about the age of romantic love,
we must define exactly what we mean by romance
and separate romantic love from other forms of 'love'.

    "Love" is one of the most ambiguous and flexible words
in the English language.
It means so many different things
that we cannot be sure what someone means
when they use the word "love".

    "Romantic love" is somewhat more narrow than simply "love",
but we often lack precise meanings when we use it.  

    Perhaps we can begin to clarify our concepts
if we think of our own relationships.  
We are easily able to imagine interpersonal relationships
that do not include romantic feelings.  
Even being married and/or having sex
does not always include the emotion of romantic love.

    The conclusion of cultural historians
who have looked for the eariest manifestations of romantic love
is that there was a long period of human history
(and pre-history) during which no one experienced
what we now experience as romantic love. 


    This is the place where it would be very convenient to offer
a brief definition of romantic love.
But romantic love is far too complex to be defined in one sentence.
Nevertheless, I have offered a long definition-and-description
in a small book entitled:
The Romantic Love Test:
How Do We Know if We Are in Love?

This test consists of 180 questions,
organized into 26 sections
the A-Z of romantic love.
Each of these sections describes one feature of romantic love
and asks 5-10 questions, which further illustrate
what it means to experience that feature of romantic love.

    Here is a sampling of these features of romantic love:
A. Romantic love arises from pre-existing yearnings.
D. Romantic love is often one-sided; it loves from afar.
G. Romantic love is a fantasy-trip,
a prefabricated emotion projected onto others.
J. Romance is being in love with love
attempting to actualize a feeling learned from others.
L. Romantic love is like watching a movie.
M. Romantic love is an ecstatic feeling.
X. Romantic love is temporary
lasting 18 months to 3 years.

    If you would like to read all 26 features of romantic love,
go to the web version of this small book:

    This link also includes the introduction to
The Romantic Love Test,
which discusses three other phenemena
that are frequently confused with romantic love:
1. Sexual attraction;
2. Mate-selection & Marriage;
3. Familiarity.
    These other phenomena obviously have been around
since before the beginning of recorded history.
Read that introduction for a careful account
of what each of these other forms of 'love' includes.  

    The fact that people have been happy to see one another,
that they have been having sex and creating on-going relationships
is not being denied when we say
that romantic love is a recent invention of the Western world.

    In case any readers might raise the doubt
that the definition and description of romantic love
behind this claim of a recent origin is arbitrary and capricious,
they should read several books in the Romantic Love Bibliography:
http://www.tc.umn.edu/~parkx032/B-ROMC.html ,
especially the first book: Love and Limerence.
These writers are attempting to describe
what is actually happening in the emotional lives of real people alive today.

    Of course, if we start from a different definition of romantic love,
we will get different results
when we ask when romantic love first appeared on the Earth.  


    The claim that romantic love (as carefully defined and described)
was invented in the Middle Ages
will be refuted if anyone can discover
evidence of romantic love any earlier in human history.
And the claim that romantic love originated in the West
will be refuted if any non-Western culture can be discovered
that shows clear signs of romantic love
before that culture was affected by Western culture.  

1. Old Testament, especially the Song of Solomon.

    The book of the Hebrew Bible known as the Song of Songs
is a collection of erotic poetry from very ancient times,
certainly several thousand years before the present.  
The author(s) describes his attraction to the beauty of his beloved.
But is most of this fascination with her body
a part of his sexual attraction?
Sexual attraction and sexual behavior
have been part of the human experience
ever since the beginning of the human race,
about 7 million years ago.
Without sex our ancestors would have had no descendents.
(We are the direct result of an unbroken chain of living protoplasm
that extends back to the beginning of life on the planet Earth,
about 3.5 billion years ago.)  
The challenge to the careful reading of the Song of Solomon
is to find any expression that corresponds
with one or two of the 26 features of romantic love.  

    When we read ancient literature,
we need to be very careful not to impose our own feelings on the text.
Because romantic love is such a deep part of our own emotional make-up,
we will sometimes 'find' these romantic feelings where they do not exist.
This problem of reading something into the text  
that is not really there is also a problem for translators.
For example, because the early translators of the Bible
knew that they were translating holy scripture,
they had to tone down the sexuality of the text
of the Song of Solomon whenever possible.
Modern translations are more honest
about the erotic nature of these poems.

    Other parts of the Old Testament also reflect
the times in which they were originally composed.
Sexual attraction and sexual behavior are common events.
The people of the Old Testament got married and divorced.
They had affairs beyond their marriages.
And the men often had more than one wife at a time.  
Solomon himself is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines.
Many forms of family life are reflected in the Old Testament.
But is there any romantic love?
I do not see any.

    Careful readers of the Old Testament are hereby challenged
to point out a specific text
in which anything suggesting romantic love occurs.
If you decide to accept this challenge,
please be sure to specify which of the 26 features of romantic love
you see in the text you quote.

2. Helen of Troy, "the face that launched a thousand ships"

    Helen of Troy is a character of Greek mythology,
whose story was told by Homer about 3,000 years ago.

    Altho the historical Helen of Troy (if she was historical)
lived thousands of years ago,
the phrase "the face that launched a thousand ships"
was created by Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare,
in his play "Doctor Faustus", which is only about 400 years old,
well within the period of romantic love.  

    Does it really seem likely that the Troyan wars were fought over a woman?
And even if there is some historical basis to that claim,
would we really think that the sailors on those thousand ships
were romantically in love with Helen?
Even if the king really just wanted to reclaim his wife,
does that seem like romantic love?
On the surface, it seems more like a case of wife-stealing.

    Scholars of Homer are challenged to find passages
that suggest any of the 26 features of romantic love
as defined in the Romantic Love Test .

3. Catullus, Roman poet of the first century before the common era.

    The collected poems of a Roman have come down to us.
They were probably preserved
because they reflect the sexuality of his sub-culture,
especially the homosexual behavior of the poet and his friends.
This is all very interesting, but where is the romantic love?
Catullus did have an on-going affair with a married woman,
which is reflected in his poems,
but that also seems to have been mainly sexual
rather than romantic.
Anyone who finds romantic love in Catullus
is challenged to correlate a specific poem or section of a poem
with one or two of the 26 features of romantic love
as experienced by teen-agers today.  


    If you are still inclined to believe that romantic love
has deep roots in human nature
and therefore should manifest itself in every era of human history,
please take up the challenge to find examples
in history and literature from before the Middle Ages.  
I will be happy to read all of the counter examples you can discover.  

    If you are a cultural anthropologist
or a scholar of some form of ancient literature,
your views will be especially respected.  

    But if you take this challenge seriously,
you will take the time to read the complete definition
and description of romantic love contained in
The Romantic Love Test: How Do We Know If We Are in Love?

You can get a printed copy of this 12-page book for just $1,
plus postage and handling.

    Another text you might consult is
"Romantic Love is a Hoax!
Emotional Programming to 'Fall in Love'",
which is Chapter 1 of New Ways of Loving:
How Authenticity Transforms Relationships

You can get a printed copy of this chapter
(along with Chapter 2 "Loving from Authenticity")
for as little as $2.50, plus postage and handling.
Just follow the link above.

    This chapter gives a careful explanation
of how romantic love is inculcated
(by peer pressure and the mass media)
into each generation of human beings.

    Of course, after you have examined
this definition, description, & discussion of romantic love,
you may still disagree with it.
And then you are encouraged to provide your own alternative.
Would a different definition and description give a better account
of how romantic love is actually experienced by people today?

    In my view, romantic love continues to evolve.
For example, over a hundred years ago,
women used to swoon when they were overpowered by romantic feelings.
Such events were common in the novels of the time.
If fainting were depicted as a response to romantic love in a movie today,
the audience would merely laugh.

    Perhaps you will note that one or two
of the 26 features of romantic love as I have described it
is already passing from our collective imagination.
If so, the description needs to be modified for the 21st century.

    Please send your counter examples to:
James Park, e-mail: PARKx032@TC.UMN.EDU
Any other comments will also be welcome.

draft begun 10-12-2002, revised 2-18-2003; 7-10-2004; 8-5-2007; 8-27-2007
to be placed in this file: Q&A-ROMC.html
Questions & Answers about Romantic Love
when completed, this file will be linked from NWL1.html
and other appropriate places where romantic love is introduced.

Go to the Romantic Love Portal ,
which collects many Internet resources
critical of the myth of romantic love.

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.