Economic development, the key to love in literature

What is the connection between the heavy plow and courtly love? The prosperity created by the use of the first favored the flourishing of the second in medieval literature, according to a study linking economic development and the theme of love across cultures and ages.

The Swiss philosopher Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985) revealed the importance of the theme of love in medieval European culture. And the French historian Georges Duby (1919-1996) pointed out that this phenomenon coincided with an important movement of urbanization and agricultural activity in the central Middle Ages, from the 11th to the 13th century.

“In the 12th century, we went from a population that was destined to survive, and that fell almost until the year 1000, to another, which will triple in 300 years. Human psychology then changes: what was not possible before investing in your couple becomes possible, and this is evident in the literature, “explains Professor Nicolas Baumard, cognitive anthropologist at the École Normale Supérieure and lead author of the study.

Tristan and Iseult (12th century) in England or Roman de la rose (13th century) in France emphasize, narrated by the troubadours, a way of loving passionately, which sublimates the values ​​of fidelity, emotional attachment, idealization of the partner.

But this phenomenon, far from being limited to a well-defined period and region, concerned ancient Greece, Chinese dynasties, the Arab and Persian worlds, or even Japan, according to the study recently published in Nature Human Behavior. .

Impossible love

It covers 3,500 years of literary history, from ancient Egypt to the beginning of modern times in 1800. The work is based on a number of academic studies, workshops with specialists in the subject, a database consisting of 3,000 Wikipedia notes on literary fiction and a dataset measures economic development with criteria such as the rate of urbanization.

“We have a connection, we know that the economic level rises at the same time as the importance of romantic love,” notes Nicolas Baumard. But “this does not tell us whether the first is the cause of the second”.

Greek and Roman works of fiction, for example, are more romantic around the beginning of our era, a period of prosperity, than afterwards, with the decline of the lower Roman Empire, until about 500 of our era.

The themes are universal: forbidden or impossible love, love at first sight and suicide by despair, eternal union. The same story is “transformed by human mentality”, the researcher notes.

But when the theme of love imposes itself, what is the reason? The authors reject the thesis of a “national culture” and take as an example Greece, which will alternate non-romantic and romantic periods on two occasions, over more than twenty centuries.

Invest the couple

Nor does the thesis of a cultural transfer, as evidenced by the fate of Tristan and Iseult, who according to his “transmission chain” lose its love content – for the benefit of moral values ​​- in 15th-century Russia hold much poorer.

For Mr Baumard’s team, the real cause is to be found in the prosperity of a society. Like the one brought with the introduction of the heavy plow into Europe after the year 1000, which will favor the cultivation of clay soils, as difficult to break as they are fertile. Its use has benefited the northern regions of Europe, with a sharp increase in urbanization going hand in hand with an increase in love in the literature.

With this prosperity, which meets the first priorities such as having enough to eat and living in safety, “human psychology is changing”, the researcher sums up. “What was not possible before, like investing in your couple, will be possible. And it will show in the literature.”

Released from the constraints of survival, the couple can invest in their offspring. The theme of love acts as an “emotional instrument”, useful for tying the couple together and consolidating this investment.

The sacralization of monogamy and of a lasting union would thus be an adaptive response to a change in the environment. Where the church’s injunction, for example, would have only been echoed by what people think, and not the cause.

By Pierre CELERIER / AFP

What is the connection between the heavy plow and courtly love? The prosperity created by the use of the first favored the flourishing of the second in medieval literature, according to a study linking economic development and the theme of love across cultures and ages. The Swiss philosopher Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985) had revealed the significance of the theme …

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