Contagions of Love: Textual Transmission

  • Nancy Frelick


Pathologizing love is not new to this age of modern psychology and self-help books. Indeed, much was written about ‘lovesickness’ as a serious medical condition in the early modern period and many cures were suggested for those afflicted with this potentially deadly disease, which is described not only as a physical illness, but also as a disorder of the mind or imagination that afflicts the soul.1 Yet, one of the most curious aspects of European lovesickness is that it is subtly fostered, if not promoted, by the very texts that decry and pathologize it. As Wack explains: The growing body of medical discourse on love made it possible for the literary representations of erotic passion to be interpreted mimetically or realistically, as reflections of real life. The cultural authority of medicine may have in part enabled the poetic fantasies of the troubadours to become the social realities of the late Middle Ages and early modernity.’2 The discourses providing descriptions of causes and cures for the disease can be said to be its transmitters, the vehicles through which it spread like wildfire across Europe throughout the early modern period, creating and fanning the flames of this contagion. The creation and sanctioning of love as a disease — through the ambivalent language of medical, philosophical, religious and literary discourses — thus makes it possible for individuals not only to identify with the discursive models but also to fashion themselves and their behaviours after texts and, ultimately, to shape new realities: life imitates art.


Medical Tradition Medical Discourse Early Modern Period Literary Discourse Imaginative Faculty 
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2005

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  • Nancy Frelick

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