Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What Has Marriage Always Been About?

A painting commissioned from Jan Van Eyck in 1424 to commemorate the betrothal of Giovanni Arnolfini and a woman long thought to be Giovanna Cenami, the children of wealthy Florentine banking agents in Bruges and Paris (this identity is now controversial). If this is Giovanna Cenami, then the marriage ended childless and in annulment after only about 3 years.

I say let's return to traditional marriage as it was always understood for centuries and centuries. Let's drop all this love nonsense. Marriage was always about property and inheritance. It was about producing sons to continue the family name and the family fortune. It was about producing labor to help out with the family farm or the family business. It was about security in old age. It was never about a pair of simpering juvenile delinquents gratifying themselves.

Most marriages in the ancient world were polygamous, all the better to increase the chances of producing sons. Why run the risk of monogamy with one infertile wife?

Young people could never be trusted with an important decision that would affect the entire family. Marriages were arranged. They were the result of careful negotiations between families for an alliance of mutual benefit. The young people did as they were told. If they didn't like it, then they could grin and bear it. Love was for children anyway, not for spouses. If they still weren't happy, then that's what mistresses and lovers were for. Marriage was about betrothal contracts and dowries. It was business.

And what did Christianity bring to marriage? The Christians found marriage and the messy irrational biology at its heart to be revolting and preached celibacy. St. Paul grudgingly accepted marriage as a concession to human need when it appeared that God would be very slow about ending the wicked world.

People began marrying for love in large numbers in the late 18th century, and only in the West. And look at the predicament we are in now!

(sarcasm off)

The sarcasm is aimed at all those who insist that this is timeless and eternal. It was not. It was one moment in one place, and it wasn't even real.


Speaking of the predicament we are now in, marriage rights for same sex couples survives in the New Hampshire legislature. A bill to mandate a public referendum on the issue also was defeated.


rick allen said...

My objection, and my evidence:

Soft and fair, friar. Which is Beatrice?
[Unmasking] I answer to that name. What is your will?
Do not you love me?
Why, no; no more than reason.
Why, then your uncle and the prince and Claudio
Have been deceived; they swore you did.
Do not you love me?
Troth, no; no more than reason.
Why, then my cousin Margaret and Ursula
Are much deceived; for they did swear you did.
They swore that you were almost sick for me.
They swore that you were well-nigh dead for me.
'Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?
No, truly, but in friendly recompense.
Come, cousin, I am sure you love the gentleman.
And I'll be sworn upon't that he loves her;
For here's a paper written in his hand,
A halting sonnet of his own pure brain,
Fashion'd to Beatrice.
And here's another
Writ in my cousin's hand, stolen from her pocket,
Containing her affection unto Benedick.
A miracle! here's our own hands against our hearts.
Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take
thee for pity.
I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield
upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life,
for I was told you were in a consumption.
Peace! I will stop your mouth.

[Kissing her]

How dost thou, Benedick, the married man?
I'll tell thee what, prince; a college of
wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour. Dost
thou think I care for a satire or an epigram? No:
if a man will be beaten with brains, a' shall wear
nothing handsome about him. In brief, since I do
purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any
purpose that the world can say against it; and
therefore never flout at me for what I have said
against it; for man is a giddy thing, and this is my

JCF said...

[@ rick. My wee brain's too small. Your point? O_o (I'm assuming that's Will the I.B.?)]

TBTG for VICTORY in New Hampshire! :-D

Paul (A.) said...

And here I always thought that traditional marriage was a sacred covenant between one man and . . .

his daughter's suitor.

rick allen said...


"Your point?"

A small one perhaps. I don't know if the following were encompassed in our host's sarcasm alert:

"People began marrying for love in large numbers in the late 18th century"

...but it has become rather a commonplace on the web to claim that marriage for love was rare, if not entirely absent, prior to the last few hundred years.

I never know quite how to react to that. I obviously wasn't around then. And, even today, people appear to marry for mercenary reasons, quite frequently, though I have no idea how one can tell how much calculation and how much love goes into the equation, short of personal knowledge.

And yet, looking at the literature I am familiar with, there is plenty of "romance" prior to the 18th century, yes even ending in marriage. Shakespeare's comedies almost all fit the pattern, but it's there in Chaucer's Knight's Tale, and the Mabinogion (the first two places I thought of), and, rather than start making lists, I thought the most effective way to make the point was simply to quote our W.S., in this very touching scene where love is at last declared.

But I have always doubted that we moderns are essentially different from the ancients. The "rom-com" only comes into literature late. But, say, the scenes between Odysseus and Penelope convince me that we moderns didn't invent marital tenderness.

Counterlight said...

We may not be different from the ancients (I would say most likely not), but we live in profoundly different circumstances. In the 11th century, a journey to Jerusalem was an uncertain and probably final journey. Today, we can fly there from almost anywhere, and be reasonably certain of return within a relatively short amount of time.

I should point out that most of the medieval romances are adulterous, including Dante's yearning for Beatrice Portinari.

Peter Paul Rubens' grief over the death of his first wife Isabella Brandt was considered very unusual in the 17th century, and he was reproved for it by fellow Neo-Stoics and by clergy.

Royalty and nobility were certainly not the only ones making marriages of advantage between their offspring.

Counterlight said...

I don't mean to cynically disparage matrimony, far from it. I mean to point out that the institution and our expectations of it changed many times over the ages. The Victorian ideal of family life which focused on the immediate biological family of parents and children bound by mutual affection and obligation was never the timeless norm that some make it out to be. Marriage and family life were shaped by culture, by class, by economic circumstances, by technology (has anyone ever examined the impact of the invention of the telephone on family life?), and by the expectations of the individuals involved. There was never a one-size-fits-all template.