Romantic Love – It’s Origins and Flaws

When we speak of globalization, we target at present ‐ depending on the location and cultural background ‐ a variety of topics that lie at the interface between migration, trade agreements, the internet and the spread of disease. If one focuses a little closer on the effects of globalization, one meets also the question of the moral import, which heats the minds at many places, although in very different ways.

Especially one Western export is on an unstoppable triumphal march through all cultures and religions on the whole planet. We call it ‚Romantic Love’. It doesn’t matter whether it is in India, where it started to replace as ‚Love Marriage’ the arranged matrimony, in mainland China, where it goes hand in hand with the consumption of trendy brands or even in Muslim countries where young people nowadays strive to find justification of romantic love in the Qur‘an. The idea of romantic love in the sense of a monogamous, life long, emotional contract has been spreading like a virus through the minds and hearts of (young) people worldwide.

All exports change once they leave their place of origin. But also all imports carry the seeds of their beginnings in them. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that one knows what one is dealing with before the metaphorical DNA of romantic love unfolds in unexpected ways.

So, let’s jump back mentally to the early Middle Ages in Europe long before the origin of the concept of ‚romantic love’. That was roughly before the first millennium, before the Catholic Church had enforced the ban on marriage for priests. Celibacy back then was only required of monks and nuns. One was still free to be sexually active even without the sacrament of matrimony without facing punishment in hellfire as a consequence. We are in the era of the crusades and the feudal system, after the Roman Empire had finally disintegrated. At that time, three types of heterosexual relationships had emerged and existed side by side. They didn’t exclude each other and some were even in a position to practice all three of them simultaneously, even if this was not the rule. Let’s start with


Marriage in Europe of those days had not the same meaning and scope nor the same content as it has today. Marriage mostly was arranged by the family, as it is the case in many cultures until today. Love had nothing to do with the matter. It was about possession! It was a question of who inherits what. How to pass on possession within the family without splitting it up. Therefore in the Middle Ages there was almost no marriage outside the nobility. For only the nobility owned property. So marriage was only necessary for the making of heirs to maintain and preserve the assets. To ensure this preservation one had to pay attention to two things:

One had to make sure that the marriage was consumed so the bride and the groom could not annul it afterwards. Therefore the consummation of the marriage was the central public (!) event at the wedding party. Everybody – or at least the important figures as the bishop, the fathers and mothers of the couple and the attending dignitaries – accompanied the newlywed to the marital bed and watched the first coitus.

Until the bride was actually and unquestionably pregnant and had given birth to a legitimate child, she was under strict observation. The groom was entreated, not to waste his seed with other women until the matter of succession was settled. Once this was secured, no one cared about marital fidelity anymore. Both the man and the woman in these marriages could then pursue their carnal desires, without being bound by any oath of allegiance. Marriage was there so the property remained within the family. Other emotional and sexual needs were not met in most marriages of these days.

Erotic Relationship

The second type of relationship was erotic in its nature. As mentioned above in marriage back then nobody pledged fidelity. Every nobleman had many so-called bastard children by other women. But the noble women also did not lead lives without lust. If you read, for example, descriptions of the festivities at the French court even in later times, it must be noted that these were basically large-scale orgies. The married women entertained themselves at these occasions as well as their husbands. There are descriptions of feasts at the French court, where the gentlemen at dinner publicly wore the garters of the ladies they intended to seduce as headdress to give weight to their enterprises. These women were mostly married and their husbands were sitting at the very same table. Of course these erotic affairs also produced offspring. This was the reason why second‐, third‐ or fourth-born children were only reluctantly admitted as heirs or legatees: Their descent was simply not backed up. The bathhouses that existed in most European cities of the Middle Ages were actually more comparable with the ‘swinger clubs’ of today. Spouses went there together to have fun sexually. However, the cleanliness was certainly conducive but not the main thing in the tub. In the monastic library of St. Gallen (Switzerland) you can find, for example, multiple episcopal edicts in which the nuns were exhorted to dress neatly on the way to the bathhouse, because the public nudity of religious women provoked criticism in the population. Bear in mind that not the visit of these establishments was held against the nuns but only the way they dressed on their way there! The end of sexual freedom came only after 1492 when sailors brought back the syphilis from the New World. This sexually transmitted and usually fatal disease came just right helping the Catholic Church in their campaign against fornication. The bath houses were closed and sex was restricted to procreation.

Courtly Love

The third form of relationship is probably the least known: the courtly love. Minstrels – noblemen usually without fortune – roamed the country traveling from court to court, from castle to castle and proclaimed sublime love for their lady in poems and songs. They sang for their beloved and let the world know about her grandeur and virtue. Nowadays such a public idealization of a person is difficult to understand. This raises questions about the meaning and purpose of such actions. Courtly love was a complicated ritual of worship. From that time and from this form of love the notion of ‘worshiping the beloved’ derived. The term ‘worship’ points out a spiritual intention, in which the woman was deified as a kind of saint. This usually had nothing to do with the (outer) reality. Often the minstrels and their ladies knew each other only fleetingly on a personal level. Both parties took part in some way. The passive form of ‘allowing-to-be‐worshiped’ was just as important as the active part of poetry, composing songs and presenting them. The minstrel elevated the woman by projecting the female part of his own psyche on her. The lady on her side projected her own inner masculine essence on the knight. The goal of this extreme form of polarization was a state of high, spiritual androgyny, a typical path of spiritual realization of this time and environment.

If you look at these three structures the result is a very complex set of possibilities that one could use in the early Middle Ages to realize one’s relational needs. To understand this era, it is very important to comprehend that we look at the time before the widespread oppression of women by the Catholic Church and the patriarchy. In the period described herein women were legally competent. There were women guilds and midwives and female healers were not burned as witches yet. Ultimately, it was the oppression of women, which assisted at the birth of the monogamous illusion.

Romantic Love

As the European bourgeoisie rose to become the third class in addition to the nobles and the clergy starting at the end of the middle ages, it took little by little the same rights as the nobility. Wearing a sword, for example, was only allowed for free men (as opposed to serfs). Therefore it became a status symbol for the citizens of the towns. Its function as a weapon receded for that reason alone into the background since the citizens were not trained to handle arms. The bourgeoisie now acquired possessions and therefore adapted formal marriage from the nobles as an inheritance mechanism. Drive, lust and reproduction always have been known in all social classes as they arise from seemingly uncontrollable instincts (erotic love). In Christianity the virgin Mary had been the focus of devotion as a kind of divine, feminine aspect. St. Mary provided the means for the projection of the inner female, which can be observed in believers up to this day. For real courtly love the citizens lacked tradition. From ignorance therefore the philosophy of romantic love evolved.

Here I would like to note that the term ‚romance’ as it is used today has only little to do with the concept of romantic love as it originated in the artistic style period of ‚romanticism’. However a romantic atmosphere that is caused for example by candlelight and music with certain emotional characteristics, somehow is a soft, modern replica of an artistic mood which the musicians and painters of the Romantic era (18th and 19th century) tried to produce. Although this seems to be quite harmless, the underlying concept of romantic love has psychologically and socially (to this day) very questionable effects. It is one of the foundations of the Western monogamous thought which demands the impossible of the partners in a relationship.

Originally romantic love was the attempt of some artists to experience the three basic aspects of relationships namely marriage, eroticism and spirituality simultaneously. It was kind of a copy of the noblemen’s and noblewomen’s practice as described above. (To what extent this was a conscious effort or a subconscious copy is not clear.) However, only very few nobles ever had been able to achieve all three aspects. Usually only one or two were realized. As the citizens wore a sword without being able to really fight, they adapted in ignorance of the partial aspects all three relationship types. In contrast to the nobility the bourgeoisie had to earn their property and resources themselves. The outcome of this was from the beginning a pragmatic way of restraint. In economic terms this led to the rise of the prosperity and growth, which are attributes of the occidental society to the present day. But concerning the philosophical ideals this mindset has many disadvantages. Utilizing frugality and constriction on a philosophical level it will result in narrow-mindedness and pettiness. The three forms of relations of the Middle Ages were not spread among several people but one sought to cover all aspects in one single person. The wife was supposed to be saint (courtly love), whore (erotic love) and mother (marriage) – the husband philosopher (spirituality), perfect lover (eros) and legal father (inheritance). This concept was doomed to fail from the outset because nobody can fulfill all three roles simultaneously for another person in a satisfying manner. The wisdom of the noblemen’s method was that they did not demand just that. It was polyamorous in its basic features. If you actually felt the desire to live various aspects of relationships you could choose different partners. The bourgeoisie had neither the economic fundamentals to take care of illegitimate children and to finance concubinage nor the intellectual freedom to distribute different needs on different people. Of course there always has been extramarital sex, illegitimate children, platonic love, cuckoo eggs and inheritance disputes. But all these things officially were not granted any right to exist. The result was the increasingly drastic suppression of women since one wanted to make sure that all children were actually conceived within a valid marriage. Women and men suffered from the situation equally of course because many times they had to live their sexuality with unloved partners. Men could resort to prostitution which again is in most cases a violation of women. For all parties the result was mostly frustration. However, this romantic basic claim that a single partner must be responsible for all needs, prevails up until today. Not the conjugal morality, not Christianity, not patriarchy but this emotional sickness, called romantic love, is poisoning our relationships. Romantic love is a very strange thing, because it has to my knowledge never worked … not even in the painful emotional fantasies of the artists of the Romantic era. Nevertheless, the whole world seems to crave just that. The divorce rates rise and online agencies for cheating boom … worldwide … but still everybody is looking for fulfillment in the romantic ideal of love; in absolute, sexual fidelity and preferably until death.

As this ill‐conceived concept spreads into countries which have their own traditions worthy to be renewed it will become even more treacherous than it is already in the West. Young couples especially in the Eastern cultures are now resorting to romantic love as if it was a magic bullet against their own decaying and malfunctioning customs.

We are living in times of change. The change itself is inevitable in all parts of the planet … for better or worse. But here we have something which can be changed according to the actual needs,  for each individual couple everywhere.

Romantic love is originally a heterosexual concept. But even the LGBT-community seems to adapt it in their strife for equality. Therefore I address all people who are falling in love, who are craving physical, emotional or/and mental fulfillment with a partner: Don’t think that romantic love is a good alternative to what you already have. It might seem so in the beginning. But it is as ill as all outdated concepts which we have nowadays. Be courageous! Find something new! Walk on your very own road! That is what love ultimately asks of you: To be true to what you really want! And romantic love mostly is the exact opposite.