Suffering Love: The Relation between Religion and Bourgeois Experiences of Romantic Love in Late 18th and Early 19th Century Germany

The concept of romantic love underwent fundamental changes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as the newly evolving bourgeoisie began reflecting on and moralizing it. Romantic love thus came to be seen as the necessary foundation of romantic relationships, and the authenticity and individuality of love were valorized in the new bourgeois private sphere. At the same time, secularization processes in the Age of Enlightenment spurred extensive debates among contemporary bourgeois intellectuals on religion’s social significance.

Considering love's central role in religious traditions, this project analyzes the causal relation between romantic love and religion, and particularly focuses on suffering caused through love: How did religion shape the bourgeois experience of suffering in romantic love? Did suffering in romantic love have a religious dimension in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century? And to what extent was the topic of concern for religious institutions and communities? By researching these questions, the study aims to uncover the experience of romantic love of both female and male Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and atheistic bourgeois (non-)believers. Religion is viewed as a system of thought that undergoes change and that served as a moral resource for the bourgeoisie. As such, it shaped new forms of mental and physical emotion management. Their appearance makes it possible to examine continuities, discontinuities and differences in relation to specific beliefs about suffering in romantic love and their evolution over time. Apart from this, the project also seeks to better understand how religious ideas on romantic love were disputed or reinforced by other forms of knowledge, such as medico-scientific discourses, literature, and visual arts, all of which were consumed and produced by bourgeois individuals and thus contributed to their own experiences.

Letters and diaries were the emerging bourgeoisie’s preferred means of communicating thoughts and feelings. Such ego-documents as well as religious moral educational literature in the form of catechisms, sermons, visual illustrations and handbooks constitute the range of sources that this study draws on. These will enable the study to examine language, practices and the embodiment of suffering in romantic love and to show how religious doctrines were put into practice in the bourgeois private sphere. Consequently, this study does not just aim to contribute to the history of romantic love, but also to critically rethink debates on the history of secularization.



Prof. Ute Frevert