by Fiona McMurrey

Paris, often christened the “City of Love” has an amorous history stretching back through the centuries that has propagated this venerable reputation of romance. While there is no coup de foudre in French history that explicitly marks the emergence of France as a bastion of love, there are a myriad contributing factors from its rich literary history dating back to the 11th and 10th centuries, to the Libertine movement of the 18th century, and the romantic movement of the 19th century. As Paris is inextricably synonymous with arts, culture, this also perpetuates this notion of Paris as a site of romance. But where to begin and with who?

“Mensonges et Trahisons,” (2004) Courtesy of France Channel

During le Moyen Âge, known in English as the Medieval period, French romance was popularized in the form of l’amour courtois, defined in an 1883 essay by literary historian Gaston Paris, as the love of a knight for a woman of higher birth and nobility and presumably married to his master. Through his love to this untenable woman he idolizes, the knight strives to improve and ennoble himself but must always content himself with the satisfaction of becoming someone remotely worthy of her and her station but without ever actually achieving her love or seducing her. This illicit love exalted by poets and that, in some ways radically humanized the desires of women, as evidenced by the emergence of some female poets and depictions of a more complex femininity that contrasted with the impliable Catholic doctrine of the time. In the 16th century, the Church even went so far as to condemn this clandestine, adulterous love which focused on love as the act of yearning, romantically and sexually.

The humanist tendencies of courtly love were not impeded by the tantrums of the Church whose power in France began to wane as the monarchies of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries established la Sorbonne and sponsored new programs of learning that were not purely scholastic and biblically focused and invited students from across Europe to attend and in return popularize Paris when said students went back to their home countries equipped with not only their newfound knowledge but romantic learnings as well.

The advent of the Renaissance in the late 15th century enhanced the French reputation for romance as well as love was installed as a facet of the humanist doctrine. Many poets and scholars discussed the subject and canonized it through such writers as Louise Labbé whose romantic sonnets are still widely read in France. Following the Renaissance and the age of Enlightenment, irrational romance once again took center stage in the 18th century with the coquetry of painters such as François Boucher and his protégé Jean-Honoré Fragonard whose erotic paintings earned him ire and admiration during the time of libertinage. In literature, the violent sexuality of le Marquis de Sade, and epistolary love-triangle of “Les liaisons dangereuses,” published in 1782 and written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos occupied public imagination at home and abroad.