Love is a modern luxury that was often difficult and dangerous to pursue in premodern Europe. This article explores how geographic, social, economic, and physical factors limited and shaped romantic relationships among different classes of people. Drawing on historical sources and evidence, it shows how love was harder in premodern Europe than it is today.
Love is the most common reason Americans get married or move in together. With such overwhelming agreement, it’s easy to forget that love is a modern luxury. While humans have certainly always fallen in love, it was often difficult and dangerous to pursue.
At the most basic level, love was limited by geography. In early modern Europe, the royalty and upper aristocracy sometimes courted and married across great distances, but the romantic range for the vast majority of people was as far as they could walk or ride. In his book, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, the English Historian Laurence Stone notes that in 17th century England, almost eighty percent of local gentry married someone in their own county. Among the peasantry, ninety percent married within a ten-mile radius.
Ironically, the upper classes, who had the largest geographic reach, had the least control over whom they married. Stone writes that if wealthy parents did not select their child’s spouse outright, they would at least retain veto power over the relationship. The poorer the family, the less property the parents had “to withhold as a threat” if their children chose an unacceptable mate.
When choosing their child’s partner, wealthy parents, especially aristocratic ones, usually sidelined love and affection in favor of social and economic gain. In the marriage between Jemima Montagu and Philip Carteret, which Stone describes as “typical,” the two aristocratic families accepted the marriage and ironed out the financial details before even notifying the bride.
Not only did women have little agency before the marriage, but once married, they became their husband’s property. Peasant and, later, working class women could spend their entire lives in domestic drudgery, first for their parents, then for their employers, and finally for their husbands. Of those three stages, marriage was sometimes the worst. As late as 1869, John Stuart Mill wrote that:
Of course, not everyone pursued status through marriage, and some people were lucky enough to marry someone they loved. But regardless of the social circumstance, the physical side of love was, for the most part, dirty (in a bad way) and dangerous.
First of all, there was no privacy. According to Stone,
The poor often had to share a bed with two or three other people, leading to some awkward situations. Court records from Elizabethan-era Essex “turn up evidence of a man having intercourse with a girl while her sister was in the same bed and of a case in which the girl’s mother was in the same bed.”
Hygiene was terrible across all social classes, and among the poor, it was atrocious. Soap was too expensive to use regularly, and decent sanitation was basically non-existent. Stone writes that in 19th century Rennes, “there was a population of seventy thousand, but only two houses with bathrooms, and only thirty public bathhouses.”
Of course, people in premodern Europe were accustomed to strange-smelling lovers. But that doesn’t mean they liked them. Stone writes that the English diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was so opposed to bathing that his wife kicked him out of her bed. In the 1760s, the women at a Blenheim Palace Christmas party collectively protested that the aristocrat Topham Beauclerk was giving them all lice. And it wasn’t just women who complained—in the 1670s, the Earl of Rochester wrote this particularly revealing stanza:
But filth was the least of their problems. People suffered from all kinds of horrible sicknesses, and diseases of love were no exception. Using an 18th century English census, researchers at the University of Cambridge estimate that around eight percent of the population of Chester, a small English city, was treated for syphilis before the age of 35. In London, over twenty percent may have sought treatment. By all accounts, syphilis was common, and gonorrhea was rampant. The (admittedly libertine) Scottish biographer James Boswell (1740-1795) contracted gonorrhea at least nineteen times.
To treat syphilis and gonorrhea, which some believed were two versions of the same disease, doctors used mercury. Patients ingested it, spread it on their sores as an ointment, and were sometimes even blasted with mercurial steam in gigantic stoves.
While mercury did provide some relief from these diseases, it is highly toxic and builds up in the body over time, eventually causing permanent neurological damage.
In one way or another, modernity, which started with the Industrial Revolution, has solved all of these problems. Arsenical compounds and, eventually, penicillin provided safer and more reliable treatments for syphilis and gonorrhea. Even when HIV emerged in the 20th century, we dealt with it quickly by historical standards.
Hygiene is also rapidly improving. Worldwide, nearly eighty percent of people now have access to a basic latrine, and in the developed world, good sanitation services are practically universal. Thanks to skyrocketing incomes, disinheritance has become an increasingly empty threat, meaning we have more and more agency over our romantic relationships. And, with cheap air travel and widespread access to cell phones, there is little stopping us from having a fling on the other side of the world.
So, however you spent Valentine’s Day, be grateful we live in a time when we can search for love, cure our clap, and sleep, alone or together, in our own beds.