Love, Actually

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St Valentine’s Day is a bitter-sweet occasion. Singles wait expectantly for that surprise message from a secret admirer while women in relationships expect to be wined, dined and showered with tokens of love. It doesn’t always happen, of course… So, were men more chivalrous in days of old? Belinda Beckett presents a retrospective on romance.

If prostitution is the oldest profession, love is one of the oldest emotions although it hasn’t always played the lead role in relationships. The ancient Greeks regarded love as a sickness sent by the Gods as a punishment, while the Romans often valued courtesans more highly than the women who lived with them as their wives.

In fact, the concept of romantic love as the basis for sex and marriage is quite recent, while modern relationships have only just arrived back at the point they’d reached before the fall of the Roman Empire, when women were economically and legally emancipated, children were a luxury rather than an asset and sexual enjoyment deemed the right of all.

Christianity must take most of the blame for plunging the world into a Dark Ages of guilt-laden or joyless sex, where women were chattel. Typical of the dual standards of those times, women were expected to be virtuous but noblemen were given the right to ravish any peasant woman on the road and to deflower all brides of their vassals.

Christian marital sex was supposed to be performed only in the ‘missionary position’, never during Lent or holy days and then, only to conceive a child. The church even sanctioned wife beating. For the clergy themselves, ‘sex without value’ (rape, orgies or with a prostitute) was not regarded as such a serious offence as sex involving love.

Courtly Love Rituals

Many of the courting rituals that still exist today, such as buying a woman jewellery, sending her flowers or a romantic Valentine’s card, stem from Medieval times, an age of chivalry when society broke out of its moral chastity belt to follow a romantic ideal previously unknown to Western civilization: ‘courtly love’, a reaction to loveless arranged marriages which were purely financial or political alliances.

It developed in the castle courts of France from around the time of the First Crusade (1099), finding its expression in lyric poems written by troubadours such as William of Aquitaine, a pioneer of this New Romanticism…

Words Belinda Beckett

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