Katherine Clark on William Reddy

Dr Katherine Clark is a medieval historian at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. Here she reviews William Reddy’s new book for the History of Emotions Blog.

William Reddy ends his study of the emergence of romantic love with the observation that although the modern sexual revolution in the West hinged on the liberation (and validation) of desire, we would do well to examine how “the longing for association, its place in Western practices shaped by the evolving conventions of romantic love, has continued to move many individuals” (392).  Reddy focuses on three important trans-cultural moments in the history of the “longing for association,” a term he prefers to the more loaded “romantic love”: medieval Europe and Bengal and Orissa in the twelfth century, and tenth- and eleventh-century Heian Japan.  Reddy focuses on the persistent contest between love and desire in Western thought, and the burdens and costs this dualism has created.  Our modern obsession with love relationships and marriage as the ultimate vehicles for self-actualization, Reddy concludes, remains deeply constituted by (or more accurately, against) fears of sexual exploitation, as well as being perpetually entangled with social modes of norming and normativity even as we strive for authentic and personally fulfilling romantic connections.

Reddy unravels this problem via a tour-de-force through post-structuralist theory, Orientalism, and his own pioneering efforts (developed in his earlier book, The Navigation of Feeling), to investigate “emotives”—speech-acts that demonstrate the interaction between human agency and cultural socialization—as historical evidence.  Reddy asserts that while the Asian courtly and religious texts in his study dealt with the appropriateness and efficacy of physical pleasure in various situations, medieval European authors labored decisively within a “a polarity between love and lust drawing all details of sexual conduct and sexual partnerships into its field of force” (369).  Although the cultures under investigation shared similar socio-political structures—courtly culture, elaborate ecclesiastic or temple liturgies, monasticism, and significant reform movements—they produced strikingly different emotional landscapes for expressing both the longing for association and the fear of pollution.  The Making of Romantic Love examines the West’s problematic relationship with desire, both to itself in matters of the heart, and through its misapprehensions of love traditions in non-Western cultures, since the West’s obsession with “desire-as-appetite,” projected onto Asia, is a fundamental component of Orientalism.

Reddy’s interpretive model hinges on the idea that romantic love or “longing for association” is itself a deeply subversive response to social and political forces; he identifies “longing for association” as an expression of emotional autonomy for historical subjects, particularly for those living under oppressive social or moral regimes. Thus Reddy turns to the Gregorian Reform in Europe in the mid-eleventh century as a major driver of mind/body, love/lust dualism in European thought about romantic love, and a key force in its invention. Reddy accurately summarizes the sensibility of early Christian and medieval theologians who considered carnal desire as an “appetite,” and notes the persistent expression of this attitude throughout the Middle Ages.  Obsessed with fears of pollution and mistrust of desire, Reddy argues, the rising establishment of the medieval Church in the period of Gregorian Reform catalyzed a response among the European nobility that instituted fin amors, or “courtly love” as a rejection of the notion that love or “longing for association” must necessarily be construed as pure appetite, and thus inevitably devoid of virtue and sinful.

Many scholars have recognized the long shadow that Gregorian Reform cast over society in the later Middle Ages.  At the turn of the twelfth century, however, the Gregorian Reform movement did not primarily function as a philosophical campaign against the general concept of desire; rather, it had gained momentum as a ‘renovation’ of clerical practices (initially monastic, later engaging the secular clergy) whose “appetites” were more narrowly defined than Reddy suggests.  Reddy is right that Gregorian reformers, Peter Damian in particular, engaged themes of pollution and appetite in a new way and with an eye toward rebuilding the Church with greater rigor and asceticism, but Reddy misses the nuance (developed by scholars such as Dyan Elliott, for example, in her 1999 collection of essays Fallen Bodies) that these new and intense critiques concerning appetite and desire specifically targeted the clergy and its vices.  This intense focus on the disciplining of the clerical body, particularly concerning clerics’ proximity to the altar and the Eucharist, had significant ramifications as the Gregorian Reforms extended to the reform of lay practices towards the turn of the thirteenth century. Reddy’s claim that the Gregorian reformers were “sex-obsessed” as they attempted to strengthen clerical authority by purging its practitioners of sexual ‘contamination’ (by women and by homoerotic associations within clerical circles) is doubtless correct, but medieval reformers operated within a much different context from the nineteenth-century “sexologists” to whom Reddy compares them.

There is no doubt that the Gregorian Reform had far-reaching effects beyond the clergy, and scholars of the Middle Ages have amply demonstrated that its ripple effects fanned out in a gradual, complex, and contested fashion in many ways across the later Middle Ages.  Reddy sees a clear cause-and-effect between Gregorian Reform and troubadour response, particularly in the poetry of William IX of Aquitaine, but the courtly poetry of the troubadours and trobairitz of southern France flourished well before Gregorian reformers shifted from internal campaigns against clerical vice to a more global attempt to regulate lay morality and religious practice through a “reformed” clergy.  There also might have been some influence on Mediterranean love poetry from the Muslim courtly tradition, which would be worth investigating for the prominent roles that sexuality and desire played in the poetry of the caliphates’ courts.

Gregorian Reform did not have an instant impact on the noble courts of Southern France, either—the troubadours continued to develop until the Albigensian Crusade imposed more institutional ecclesiastical authority over the region, nearly a hundred years after William IX, making it a bit of a stretch to say that William of Aquitaine introduced all the “basic elements of courtly love” (92). The fin amors poetry he created was definitely a move towards the phenomenon that was termed “courtly love” in the nineteenth century, and provides many components of it, especially the public, performative interaction between high-status men and women that explores longing and desire for both sexes—the aspect that European courtly love shares most in common with its counterpart literature in Heian Japan.

The earliest troubadours, particularly William, were unabashedly carnal—fin amor had more to do with the privilege and nobility of the poet and the elevated context of the court than a sublime quality of amor expressed in their lyrics.  Over time, troubadour poetry became increasingly refined and even spiritualized, particularly as this form of court lyric caught on among the trouvères of northern France and the minnesänger in Germany in the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries, suggesting a displacement rather than incorporation of the physical consummation of fin amor in these genres.

Reddy’s identification of troubadour culture as a site for exploring the “longing for association,” however, is evocative and invites further contemplation. He is absolutely correct that complex social play, debate, and experimentation take place in the ‘speech acts’ of troubadour texts and that the struggle between the nobility and the clergy over the indissolubility and sacramental nature of marriage form a context for this literature.  These lyric poems, particularly William’s, however, are not easily isolated as a response to a Gregorian attack on desire-as-appetite.  Indeed, it would be instructive if Reddy directly engaged Stephen Jaeger’s contention in Ennobling Love (1999) that courtly texts failed to rehabilitate desire and establish a cult of ‘ennobling love’ (one that elevated and ennobled the lovers) by linking the physical and spiritual self.  According to Jaeger, Heloise was one of the few twelfth-century writers discoursing on love able to fully conceptualize “the union of body and soul in romantic passion” in a form that subordinated desire to love without vilifying it as a mere appetite (Jaeger, 164), whereas Reddy puts Heloise and William the Troubadour squarely in the same camp.

Concerning the relationship between fin amors and medieval French nobles’ longing for both lands and love, Reddy revisits George Duby’s dualistic church vs. aristocratic model of marriage to good effect (Duby, The Knight, the Lady, and The Priest:  The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France, 1983).  Reddy’s concept of “emotives”—the process by which individuals form their identity and experience emotions through the speech acts that express them—provides an interesting way to interpret the complicated changes in medieval marriage in the twelfth century.  Reddy notes that courtly literature unfolds in a “world in transformation” (165) in which “the game of fin’amors must have seemed especially worth playing to those twelfth-century men and women who could not recognize their own experience of ‘sexuality’ in the church’s harsh theology” (166).

I would have liked to see the medieval chapters of this book structured around this broader theme of social transformation rather than pinned so closely to Gregorian Reform as a war on “appetite.”  The early twelfth century was characterized by extraordinary intellectual exploration within the ranks of the clergy itself on the subjects of love, desire, and feeling. Religious men and women pushed back against various new strains of authority, only for much of this intellectual experimentation to be shut down when the institutional Church, effectively a papal monarchy, came to assert ever greater influence over laypeople’s lives in the thirteenth century.  Reddy would also do well to complicate Duby’s aristocratic vs. ecclesiastical models of marriage by noting that some articulations of courtly love eventually became useful to the ecclesiastical project of making sacramental marriage more palatable to the laity.

As Caroline Walker Bynum and other scholars of medieval culture and religious history have noted, there is a deep longing for association expressed in religious texts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that defies a strictly dualistic approach to the sacred vs. the secular; this point needs fuller recognition in Reddy’s discussion.  Likewise, Stephen Jaeger’s Ennobling Love provides ample evidence of “longing for association” in monastic and mystical texts expressing passionate friendship; these texts illuminate a long monastic tradition in which personal relationships were ennobled because they were infused with longing for both God and for other people as objects of spiritual devotion.  These texts offer quite a different perspective and tone from the writings of Gregorian canonists and reformers and provide excellent case studies for examining the dynamic relationship between rhetoric and feeling.  Bynum’s now foundational observation that twelfth-century mystical and hagiographical texts closely intertwined body and soul, employing the experiences of the flesh to allow both men and women to explore the “full sensual and affective range” of divine love, could yield new insights based on Reddy’s theory of emotives and their role in creating and expressing emotion.[1]

Reddy clearly finds a dualistic relationship between love and lust indispensable for a comparative framework that places Western romantic love in a global perspective, and in many ways his argument is persuasive and engaging. Other dualisms in The Making of Romantic Love are not quite as rewarding:  the lay/clerical binary that Reddy applies to the medieval West was almost certainly more ambiguous and complicated than he presents here, and this particular dualism forecloses some of the most interesting navigations of feeling that medieval European history offers.

Return to the Introduction to the William Reddy Round-table

Read David Lederer’s review.

Read Hera Cook’s review.

Read William Reddy’s response.


[1] Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast:  The Religious Significance of Food To Medieval Women (Berkeley, 1987) 275; also ibid., Fragmentation and Redemption (New York, 1992) and Jesus as Mother:  Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Los Angeles, 1984).