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Ian Frederick Moulton, Love in Print in the Sixteenth Century
by Catherine Bates

Moulton, Ian Frederick. Love in Print in the Sixteenth Century: The Popularization of Romance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. xi + 249 pp. ISBN: 978-1137392671. $100.00 cloth.


Setting out to study the cultural discourses of love in the sixteenth century, the area this book takes within its purview is dauntingly large. In the “postmodern era,” the author ventures, “scholars are more likely to write about ‘desire’ than ‘love’” (5), perhaps because—as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick reminds us—desire is a structure rather than a feeling and, for that reason, more amenable to analysis. Love, by contrast, is characterized by a maddening imprecision and indefinability that makes it—as Moulton readily acknowledges—“a complex subject,” its terminology “so vague as to make precise analysis difficult, if not impossible” (5). The critic presses on, however, his justification being that such elusiveness is precisely what gives love its historical specificity. Sexual desire may be a “biological reality,” but love—or “romance” as he calls it, an impreciseness of terminology manifesting itself from the title onwards—“is not” (2). Rather, as a cultural discourse—or set of cultural discourses—prone to different, often conflicting if not incompatible articulations, love is a “historically specific way of understanding and validating certain forms of sexual attraction” (2). It is this that makes it a legitimate field of enquiry for the cultural historian.

The book’s thesis, we are told, is “simple”: namely, that “the rise of a commercial market for printed books in the sixteenth century greatly facilitated the cultural dissemination of various conflicting ideas about romantic love and its significance,” leading to “profound transformations” in the rhetoric, ideology, and social function of love that continue to shape cultural notions of love to this day (2). A broad diachronic sweep is thus envisaged, connecting the popularization of love in the early modern period with its present idealization in contemporary popular culture as the sine qua non of bourgeois normativity, health, happiness, and attainment. Since, as Moulton stresses, in the Early Modern period romantic love was “not necessarily felt to be natural, good, pleasurable, or essential to a healthy life” (2, my italics), this line of enquiry promises a refreshing review if not demystification of the clichés and sentimentalities of contemporary popular culture in which those earlier complexities have been simplified or suppressed out of existence so as to present such love blandly and unquestioningly as “a Good Thing” (1). “By focusing on the ‘strangeness’ of love in the early modern period,” Moulton writes, “this study attempts to historicize and thus defamiliarize notions about love in contemporary culture” (2-3).

He embarks by proposing an analysis of four sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts: Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, Mario Equicola’s De natura d’amore, Giovanni Antonio Tagliente’s Opera amorosa, and Jacques Ferrand’s De la maladie d’amour. Each is carefully chosen to illustrate a different aspect of the Early Modern discourse of love—social, philosophical, rhetorical, and medical, respectively—while each text’s “popularity,” measured in the numerous editions, revisions, and translations they all went through after their first publication, is taken as evidence of the wide dissemination of their various constructions of love over a hundred-year period. What each text is argued to evince is how utterly confused love as a cultural category was at this time. Indeed, statements to this effect are reiterated throughout the book, as discourses on love are presented as “contradictory,” “complex,” “paradoxical,” “incoherent,” “ambivalent,” “ambiguous,” “inconclusive,” “unfocused,” and so forth.

This is a view of the Renaissance discourse of love with which I wholeheartedly concur. Unfortunately, however, this book fails to develop it: either to move beyond interpretations (of, for example, how “love” operated at court) that are now so well established as to be worn critical orthodoxies, or (as promised in the opening pages) to trace the ways in which “love” in contemporary popular culture emerges the product of or heir to the complexities and contradictions discussed.

In the first case, for instance, readings of Il Cortegiano and De natura d’amore argue that in those texts “love” becomes a proxy for self-advancement at court. The masculinizing, Platonizing, and desexualizing of love in Bembo’s famous closing speech in Castiglione’s text, or the presentation of love as essentially self-love or self-interest in Equicola’s, turns the courtier’s position of debasement and service into one of power and influence, teaching him how he might “most effectively navigate the new social environment of the Renaissance court” (90).[1] Really, given the welter of studies on courtship and courtiership since the work of Stephen Greenblatt and Louis Montrose in the late 1970s and early 1980s (much of it absent from the bibliography), there needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this, or not if it has nothing new to say or no engagement with studies that have.

In the second case, the interesting questions of how or why the sixteenth-century’s vastly mixed and conflicted discourse of love came to be the bland platitudes of today disappointingly go unanswered, even unasked. There might have been a narrative, for instance, of what was lost when the rich and multi-layered discourse of love of the Early Modern period underwent in the intervening centuries a successive and potentially sinister dumbing down so as faithfully to reproduce, in the knee-jerk and tear-jerk sentiments of today’s mass-marketed “thinking” about romantic love, certain prescriptions of bourgeois conformity. Certainly, that dumbing down is seen as part of the process of popularization that the book takes as its theme: prefatory letters, indices, and other editorial interventions in the texts in question, for example, are shown often to have simplified their otherwise subtle and complex arguments and reduced them to the packaged (we might now say bite-sized) wisdom of the manual or how-to book (see 23, 57-58, 174-75). Yet this decline is presented neutrally, and little or no comment is passed on the supposed “idealization” of love that manifests in popular culture at its most unexamined and generalized: “the phrase ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is familiar to millions of people all over the world who have never read the play, seen a staged production, or watched one of the many film versions or adaptations … They’re good kids, innocent teenagers who refuse to conform to the corrupt adult world that awaits them. They break the rules and follow their hearts” (183).

Readers coming to this book hoping for a diachronic account of “love” as it changes and develops (or shrivels) across half a millennium are likely, therefore, to be disappointed, although such an undertaking would admittedly have been a daunting one indeed and quite probably un-writable. Disregarding its claims to trace “profound transformations” in the rhetoric, ideology, and social functions of love over time, this book might be better taken as a synchronic account of four different articulations of love and their subsequent fortunes through the book markets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That is fine, and certainly a more doable project. It does raise the question of history, however.

Since whatever its ontological status, love (we are told) was generally believed to exist in the sixteenth century and was spoken of it as if it did, it becomes a legitimate topic for cultural history. The “cultural historian needs to take it seriously,” Moulton writes—“as seriously as astrological portents, magic charms, the four humors, and the music of the spheres” (14)— this being the motivation, presumably, that lies behind his aim to draw out the “strangeness” of love as articulated in the sixteenth century in order to “historicize” and “defamiliarize” it (3). Later, in the epigraph to chapter 2, he quotes Lorenzo Savino, the early twentieth-century editor of Equicola’s De natura d’amore, exasperatedly comparing Castiglione’s text with the chaotic aggregation of materials that constitutes the text he’s been editing: “‘The Courtier is a work of art; the Nature of Love is an arid tract, valuable only for cultural history’” (61). Between these two views—dated 2014 and 1915, respectively—falls, of course, the historicist movement that in the last thirty or forty years has revolutionized the way critics approach and interpret the cultural productions of the past. With this modus operandi now established, for good or ill, as the critical orthodoxy of the day, any incentive or inclination to think outside it has become vanishingly small. All the same, Savino’s dismissal of what might be found of value “only” to cultural history may, even if only as a spark all too soon extinguished, ignite a brief question, a brief thought. Which is not to promote some regressive or nostalgic return but rather to evaluate the current orthodoxy by judging—critically and on their own merits—the kinds of project to which it gives rise.

In the present case, then (although the same could be said of many others), what results is not so much a cultural history of love in the sixteenth century as a phenomenology of the same: “as a cultural and social phenomenon, love matters” (14). There is nothing wrong with this in itself, except that, since history effectively drops out of the picture, there is a danger that the book’s findings will lend themselves to mere iteration. Moulton reminds us that “love” was a wildly confused category in the period in question, but he explicitly states that he does not seek to clarify that confusion, just to draw attention to it, for “such confusion is an intrinsic part of love as a cultural phenomenon” (14, repeated 61-62). Regrettably, however, he does not seek to analyze it either, since his methodology apparently licenses him to list the phenomena of sixteenth-century love in all their myriad variety. As a consequence, the book is in large part descriptive, as one curiosity after another is held up to view, with no analysis and little comment except to note their oddness or lack of connection.

Of the grammar-school practice of imitating Ovid’s Heroides, for example, Moulton “marvels at the strangeness of a culture in which the first love letter a person encounters (or writes!) is a poem in a dead language written by a man pretending to be a woman” (119), as if marveling alone constituted the sum total of a literary or critical response (no mention here, incidentally, of much work on grammar-school practices, and their unintended consequences, from Richard Halpern on). Moulton frequently describes the texts he is considering as a “cabinet of curiosities” (24, 103, 177)—and it is fair to say that he treats his topic, in all its “strangeness,” in much the same way—but the result (for the present reader, at any rate) is frustrating and ultimately wearying, and it raises the inevitable question of whether the mere recording of phenomena, fascinating as they are in all their diversity, is, frankly, enough. At one point, Moulton takes at random entries from the 1554 edition of De natura d’amore (initially printed in 1525)—“Adonis according to the Assyrians means the sun,” “Africans are perfidious,” “Abstinance [sic] from coitus has caused some people to vomit,” “The Egyptians prohibited music,” “A child of Xenophon was beloved by a dog,” “Lovers have small feet” (103), and so forth—in order to show how the index (the brainchild, it seems, of Ludovico Dolce) might, like the text it references, qualify as a thoroughly “Borgesian delight” (103). But no attempt is made to examine the episteme in which such weird classifications apparently once made sense, nor to analyze or even to register the rupture that (according to Foucault’s celebrated account, absent from the bibliography) necessarily reveals such an episteme in all its historical specificity. That is to say, there is such a thing as a cultural history sufficiently interesting and valuable to reverse Savino’s low estimate of the form, but phenomenology—at least, as it is practiced here—is not it.

In sum, this book seems to me theoretically unmoored and, as a result, methodologically loose if not lazy. It is heavily reliant on secondary sources in some areas (e.g. Peter Burke’s magisterial The Fortunes of The Courtier, 1995) but strikingly thin on secondary reference in others (e.g. the history of emotion). When historical observations are made they are often so generalized as to be meaningless (“The social diffusion of love took place in a specific cultural context, and occurred simultaneously with other major ongoing cultural shifts that characterize the early modern period,” 18), while some of those major shifts—the Reformation, for example—go unmentioned (there is no reference at any point to the discourse of companionate marriage). The book’s arguments, where it makes them, are often circular (e.g. “The most basic answer to the question of why treatises on Neoplatonic love were so popular is simply the fact of the book market. These texts became popular among the reading public because they could be published and purchased and read in vernacular languages in large numbers,” 34). Its conclusions, where it makes them, are underwhelming (e.g. “ideas about love and courtly behavior similar to those espoused by Castiglione were a fundamental part of elite Elizabethan cultural discourse,” 60). And if, in spite of its claims that the “cultural formulation and significance [of love] demonstrably changes over time” (2), this book fails to be a historical study, then it cannot really be said to be a cultural history (except as Savino envisages it), or even a properly historicist account either, though of course it uses the historicist banner to abjure the need for any analysis of rhetoric or form (on the two occasions when a “close reading” is offered, for example, 35 and 109, all we get is a paraphrase of the passage in question—in English translation—or a summary list of its, very conventional, sources). At one point, Moulton describes Equicola’s De natura as “repetitive, contradictory, and unfocused,” with “no central thesis, just information” (61). I am sorry to say that in, my view, this book fits the same description.


Catherine Bates
University of Warwick 

[1] For instances from Bembo, see pages 27, 38-39, 44, 45, 48-49, 50-51, 52, and 56; for instances from Equicola, pages 65, 74, 75-76, 77, 79, 80, 90, and 91. 


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Cite as:

Catherine Bates, "Ian Frederick Moulton, Love in Print in the Sixteenth Century," Spenser Review 45.3.10 (Winter 2016). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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