Fall 2014

Old Love

Mores and amores

John V. Fleming

At an emphatic moment in Troilus and Criseyde, one of the greatest love stories in all of world literature, Chaucer draws an arresting comparison between the changes to be perceived, over a period of a thousand years, in language and in amatory practice. Words that once had force now seem to us terribly quaint and strange, he observes, but there is a history of love no less surely than there is a history of language. All of us know that when it comes to individuals, it’s different strokes for different folks. Chaucer applies the same rhyming principle of “alterity” to different epochs of love:

…for to win love in sundry ages
In sundry lands sundry been usages.

His formulation, though elegant, does lack a certain accuracy. The English language didn’t even exist a thousand years before he wrote those lines, whereas there must have been quite a bit of love around, at least enough to keep the European population on its very gradual rise through late antiquity. Otherwise, his point is very well taken, and it tends to subvert the axiom of the Unchanging Human Heart. Though there are certain biological constants concerning sex, conceptions of human love have varied considerably through the ages.

The term “Old Love” used in this essay claims no technical precision. It refers broadly to a large body of amatory, social, religious, and ethical doctrine characteristic of the Western cultural tradition of the “Old World”—roughly the premodern, preindustrialized, pre-Romantic, and prerevolutionary European Christian culture before the eighteenth century. Old Love, though crucially augmented by the Christian doctrine of “love of neighbor” (caritas), was in many respects the heritage of the pre-Christian classical culture of Greece and Rome, and its assumptions are widely reflected in the Roman writers (especially Virgil, Ovid, and Horace) who are the models for the major genres of premodern European poetry.

Perhaps the last time that Old Love made a serious bid for the popular attention of modernity was in 1939, when Denis de Rougemont published L’Amour et l’Occident (Love in the Western World). The book became famous overnight, and for more than three decades underwent adjustments and revisions that kept it in the public eye, finding its definitive form only in 1972. There were many reasons for the book’s success, some of them having little to do with its erudition or argumentation. In retrospect, the book was rather strangely found by some to have been a prophetic diagnosis of the two great totalitarian pathologies of the last century, and of such excesses of “passion” as the bombing of Hiroshima. His main thesis began with an exegesis of the opening line of the medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde: “My lords, will you hear a beautiful tale of love and of death?” Therein de Rougement thought he found, distilled, an expression of the inevitably fatal end of sexual desire in the Western consciousness.

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.