Nine centuries of how the French invented love

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Nine centuries of how the French invented love

A historical romp through romance and desire

by Adrienne Johnson on Monday, October 15, 2012 - 3:24pm

Yalom book cover

In the opening pages of "How the French Invented Love," author Marilyn Yalom introduces the iconic twelfth-century French lovers Abelard and Heloise who were ripped apart by a gruesome act of revenge. When Heloise’s uncle discovered the young woman had become pregnant, he had Abelard castrated. 

“Our worst-taste horror movies are reluctant to portray such a gory crime,” Yalom writes. Even so, the erotic delights of this twelvth-century couple still speak to contemporary concerns. In the macabre story handed down over nine centuries, Yalom finds certain universal and timeless matters of family, desire, and love. 

“(Heloise) speaks for all women who have loved without reserve and then found themselves deprived of the one they loved,” Yalom writes. Yet it would take the refinements of courtly love, also invented in the twelfth century, and the rules of gallantry developed in the seventeenth, for French love to take on the sophistication we associate with it today. Indeed, the promise and peril of love have remained – for better or for worse – very much the same over time.

Yalom weaves together autobiography, literary criticism, philosophy, and political theory with courage and finesse to illuminate tenets of France's gospel of love over the centuries. From the book’s provocative title to its cover showing a couple in the teeth-baring throes of passion, Yalom’s work dances through centuries and crosses continents.  It is a grand tour of all kinds of love – passionate, unrequited, literary, homosexual, comic, tragic, courtly, and, most of all, very French. 

image of Heloise

Though Yalom’s areas of scholarship are wide-ranging, her career is firmly grounded in her sensitivity to feminist issues and her commitment to the history of women, family, and sexuality. Yalom was instrumental to the development of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford (now called the Clayman Institute for Gender Research) and served as the institute’s Deputy Director from 1976 to1987. Since 1987, Yalom has remained active in the Institute by serving as a senior scholar. 

“How the French Invented Love” follows in the path of feminist scholarship laid by Yalom and her colleagues. This was the movement that introduced the study of gender into academic scholarship. Yalom will discuss “How the French Invented Love” at the Stanford University Humanities Center Nov. 15. 

“In matters of the heart,” Yalom writes, “we are all still kin to the storybook inhabitants of medieval France.” Yalom concedes that love did not singlehandedly emerge from a particular place and time. After all, the Bible, Quran, and many ancient myths are rife with desire, romance, and love.

Yet she insists that something peculiar did emerge from twelfth-century France:  a type of love that lives with us still.  A love that insists on its own expression.  A love that disregards the yokes of the marital contract, the stifling etiquette of the elite, the cuffs of religious comportment.  A love that is valued in itself. A love that is less the negotiation of property and more the eloquent torrents of desire. A love that feels, perhaps, more modern than medieval.

The development of desire

Though it may feel modern, the history of French love does mature across the centuries. Yalom makes a useful distinction between gallantry and love.  Where gallantry is a form of desire that attaches itself to all who are beautiful and charming, love can only be directed to one other – the beloved.

After Louis XIV’s death in 1715, gallantry bordered on seedy serial seduction without the devotion and permanence of unique love. Though gallantry persisted (particularly in many French king’s playboy habits), the novel and some fine art soon elevated the notion of love to a higher level sentiment. 

Though Yalom’s areas of scholarship are wide-ranging, her career is firmly grounded in her sensitivity to feminist issues and her commitment to the history of women, family, and sexuality. 

The only way to call a truce in the war between seduction and sentiment was, in Yalom’s words, found in “amour-passion.”  Amour-passion contained both the sensuousness of gallant seduction and the sentiment of heartfelt love. Amour-passion, Yalom writes, is “a special category, the kind of love you would hope to experience at least once in a lifetime.” 

Once defined, Yalom shows readers how amour-passion flits and flirts, denies and teases other historic lovers.   From the unlikely but iconic romance of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre to the tender half-century union between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, amour-passion can both drag lovers into the depths of despair and raise them to “bursts of creaturely happiness.”  

Amour-passion through the ages

Yalom proves that nothing is more relevant to the twenty-first century as amour-passion and these seemingly ancient distinctions. When Dominque Strauss-Kahn was accused of assaulting a housekeeper in 2011, the age-old tendency to ignore the womanizing habits of powerful men reared its ugly head.  Perhaps like Napoleon before him, Strauss-Kahn enjoyed the “conspiracy of silence surrounding the sexual indiscretion of [French] public figures.”  Yet Strauss-Kahn’s arrest demonstrated that feminism has worked to redefine gallantry not as the right of powerful men, but as potential infringement on the rights of women.  

“In matters of the heart,” Yalom writes, “we are all still kin to the storybook inhabitants of medieval France.”

From the twelfth century to the twenty-first, Yalom’s riveting account of the history of love in France demonstrates that love is both a historical invention and an enduring part of the human condition.  Love, as we now know it, is as uniquely French as it is broadly human, as specifically medieval as it is timeless.  Whether love takes the form of, in Yalom’s words,  “irresistible passion and mutual ecstasy, or mental understanding and sweet harmony, or disharmonious jealousy and rage,” love gives us, of course, much of the joy of being alive. 


The Clayman Institute is hosting
November 15, 2012  at  4:15pm
Levinthal Hall, Stanford HumanitiesCenter
424 Santa Teresa Street
Stanford, CA
The event is free and open to the public 
Yalom headshotMarilyn Yalom, is a Senior Scholar at Stanford, and served as the Clayman Institute’s Deputy Director from 1976 to 1987. Marilyn Yalom's other publications include "Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness" (1985), "Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women's Memory" (1993),  "A History of the Breast" (1997),  "A History of the Wife"  (2001), "Birth of the Chess Queen" (2004),  and "The American Resting Place" with photos by her son Reid Yalom (2008).   Her edited books --all published under the auspices of the Institute for Research on Women--include "Rethinking the Family" with Barrie Thorne (1982, 1992), "Women Writers of the West Coast" with photos by Margo Davis (1983), "Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century"  with Diane Middlebrook (1985), "Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography, and Gender" with Susan Groag Bell (1990), and "Inside the American Couple" with Laura Carstensen (2002). 
headshot Adrienne JohnsonAdrienne Johnson is a Ph.D Candidate, Modern Thought and Literature and a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team. She is the 2012 winner of the Clayman Institute's Lozoff Prize.