A Brief Commentary On Jankowiak & Fischer’s Misreading Of Romantic Love

The following elaborates on a common misrepresentation of what romantic love is. – PW

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It’s amazing to observe how many academics have adopted a flawed idea of what romantic love is – all because Jankowiak & Fischer1 claimed to both define, and then find evidence of romantic love in 147 out of 166 cultures. However their definition does not match the romantic love construct from Europe which rested squarely on a feudal template of men serving elevated ladies – a template that is missing from Jankowiak & Fischer’s definition. As the most popular kind of love in the world today, this is no small oversight.

Romantic love is, in fact, different from the more generic form of love they describe.

Even the great Steve Stewart-Williams uncritically accepts Jankowiak & Fischer’s romantic love construct which omits the feudal template (ie. man as vassal, woman as lord), an omission that results in their construct not being romantic love at all because it is lacking its most definitive element.

Jankowiak & Fischer defined romantic love as based on intimacy, passion, commitment, idealization, limerence, and so on, and omitted the central relevance of the feudal template. But no feudal metaphor = no romantic love. Academics relying on such misinformation overlook the novelty of romantic love as does Stewart-Williams in his otherwise wonderful book on evolutionary psychology titled ‘The Ape Who Understood The Universe.‘ There he writes:

The question all these findings raise is a straightforward one: If romantic love is an invention of Western culture, why is it found in every geographical region, historical period, and ethnic group? The simplest and most plausible answer is that romantic love is not an invention of Western culture. Instead, the idea that romantic love is an invention of Western culture is itself an invention of Western culture, and a rather implausible one at that. Human beings were falling in and out of love for hundreds of thousands of years before we ever had Hollywood blockbusters or knights in shining armor. We’re just that kind of animal – the kind that falls in love from time to time.

Its clear that some academics are attempting to universalize a medieval phenomenon that is not, in fact, universal. And many subsequent academics are simply quoting, without checking, the robustness of the earlier study by Jankowiak & Fischer. Have they never read pre-medieval European literature, or perhaps Chinese history for alternative descriptions of love?

For example, the following quote is from the book Love and Women in Early Chinese Fiction By Daniel Hsieh (2009),2 which describes an absence of the European template in China:

The idea of a purely romantic hero, a man as both an amorous and exemplar figure, is almost unknown. Most modern readers would react to the Chinese romances with sentiments akin to E. D. Edwards who declared, “Of all characteristics of Chinese fiction which are foreign to European ideas none is more striking than the inadequacy of the hero of love stories. The nominal hero is generally a quite unheroic person….”. Given the norms of the culture this was inevitable. Romance ordinarily had little place in the life of a wenren, and any attempt to raise its position is problematic. A “real” man was not a lover. Earlier we saw an example from the Shishou xinyu where an individual was laughed at  for his excessive devotion to his wife. In “Diao Wei Wudi wen”, Lu Ji (261–303) writes, “As for entangling one’s emotions on extraneous objects or setting one’s thoughts on women (gui fang), these are things that a wise and outstanding man had best avoid.” In a Confucian world, feelings for the opposite sex were sublimated. It is not that women were necessarily seen as “evil.” Rather, having little place in moral and philosophical realms, they threatened to hinder a person from higher pursuits. One’s “passion” should be for ruler and state, and very early there evolved the model of the wenren official assuming the role of lover with the ruler being the object of his devotion. Some of the most passionate poetry in the tradition – Qu Yuan’s verse in Chu ci – is based on this idea. As Arthur Waley noted when discussing the “Li sao” (Encountering Sorrow), “In this poem, sex and politics are curiously interwoven, as we need not doubt they were in Chu Yuan’s own mind. He affords a striking example of the way in which abnormal mentality imposes itself.” In the West there occurred an interesting reversal of this notion. The rise of courtly love involved a kind of “feudalisation of love” in which man devoted himself to a lady in the way a vassal devoted himself to his lord.

It’s revealing to contrast the Chinese position that, quote “a real man was not a lover” with the opposite convention coming out of 12th century Europe where, “Here the truest lovers are now the best knights.”3 

This error of claiming romantic love as universal is akin to saying all four-legged animals are horses because horses have four legs. This kind of logic is relevant to hippophiles, but it isn’t science……. even if horses do, in fact, have four legs. Same with romantic love – it needs to be differentiated from more generic love constructs and not blurred together.

C.S. Lewis rightly defined courtly & romantic love as “a feudalisation of love.” Again, if there’s no feudal template (eg. is absent in many other cultures’ version of love), there’s no romantic love. So-called research that omits this point is an attempt to universalise a novel social construct. The feudal factor permeates the phenomenon of romantic love, and must be included as a guiding factor in any attempts at a cross-cultural study on romantic love. However, because this factor was omitted by Jankowiak & Fischer it renders their study misleading if we consider that the Europe-derived model has become the dominant format in many cultures today; if we are going to use the exact phrase romantic love it deserves a more detailed description.  

The kind of love that Jankowiak & Fischer do end up describing and then sampling in 166 cultures is more accurately phrased as pairbonding love, which does indeed exist in all cultures. To (mis)use the European phrase romantic love leads to confusion; so I would recommend they, and all researchers who have followed them, consider making this terminology change. 

The feudal metaphor is symbolised in this image of a man going down on one knee in a pledge of lifelong service to a woman considered elevated. This is a continuation of the commendation ceremony of the Middle Ages.



[1] Jankowiak, W. R., & Fischer, E. F. (1992). A cross-cultural perspective on romantic love. Ethnology, 31(2), 149-155.

[2] Hsieh, D. (2009). Love and women in early Chinese fiction. The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press.

[3] Wollock, J. G. (2011). Rethinking chivalry and courtly love. ABC-CLIO.


See Also:
Is Romantic Love a Timeless Evolutionary Universal, or a Frankenstein Creation of The Middle Ages?
A comment on Don Monson’s ‘Why is la Belle Dame sans Merci? Evolutionary Psychology and the Troubadours’

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