During the Middle Ages in England and Europe a wife ‘belonged’ to her husband, who often locked her lower regions up in an iron ‘chastity belt’ when he went abroad on crusade. This ensured she remained chaste, and that the cultural, economic, political and legal supremacy of the man over a woman became written into law.
This was an idea that became entrenched in western societal memory.
Life in the Middle East where the knights were going life was very different. Many men practiced polygamy and had more than one wife, especially during the age of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) when Sultans ruled supreme. In the Harem, the part of a Muslim palace or house reserved for the residence of women, there was a strict hierarchical status where the chief wife, the Valide Sultan, mother of the reigning Sultan ensured that order prevailed.
In the Far East in China marriage evolved into a spectacular ceremonial ritual pre-arranged between high born families with monogamy the norm for ordinary citizens. For over a thousand years China was influenced by Confucian thought, laid down by the teacher, politician and philosopher Confucius (551-479 BCE). Following his age Chinese marriage became a custom and about the cultivation of virtue, as well as friendliness, love and harmony, which was considered a correct way of living.
From the Qin (221 BC – 206 BC) to Qing (1644 – 1911) Dynasties, a feudal system and patriarchal society dominated and the ‘bride price’ came to the fore, which was similar to the dowry that also emerged in other east and western cultures and societies where it took on a variety of forms.
In China a strict format of etiquette evolved and matchmakers were employed to ensure the couple were compatible and to settle all matters in relation to the marriage. It became more about family honour and needs of reproduction and some people were locked into a loveless marriage for most of their lives.
China became a republic in 1912 and the Neo-Confucian principles that had sustained the dynastic system were called into question.
Life for everyone changed dramatically, especially with the advent of Mao Zedong in 1949 when the Communist party he belonged to instituted new Marriage Laws, banning the bride price and giving women the right to divorce their husbands.
In the current reformed People’s Republic of China history is now revered.
Numerous elements of traditional Chinese culture have also been accepted as being integral to Chinese society and so Confucian wedding rituals have been revisited and revived and marriage ceremonies respecting tradition are now popular.
In Europe and England from the 14th to the 18th century arranged marriages between high born families were rarely a love match, but about acquiring land and possessions.
This was because along with the land came power; an association with the monarch and a focus on gender roles.
Women didn’t enjoy choice as to whom they would marry, and very frequently they did not know the man involved at all, never having met him prior to the wedding. This was the fate of many women in history, including Austrian princess Marie Antoinette.
Antoinette as a daughter of Austria attracted envy and hatred in France when she was betrothed to the Dauphin. This happened all before she set out to travel there aged 15. So we could say she started on the back foot.
On the way there in a ceremony as the party she was traveling with crossed the border into France she was stood in front of the assembled company, including the men, and systematically stripped naked. They disposed of her Austrian clothes and dressed her in French clothes.
This ceremony was meant to be symbolic of her leaving her old life behind to begin anew. It was a terrible ordeal for anyone to endure, let alone a girl of her age. It was an integral aspect of being royal. Her marriage and Louis XVI’s was to be a marriage that aided political causes. No one believed they would become great friends and like each other, but interestingly they did.
The Roman authors Aulus Gellius in the 2nd century and Macrobius in the 5th century had believed a vein ran directly from the fourth finger of the right hand so rings worn on that finger affect the heart.
This became the place to wear the ring that signified the settling of a marriage contract.
Along with the ceremony itself, came the pre-wedding nuptials, including formal betrothal ceremonies, supervised courtship, permissions being sought from the parents of the bride, the giving of a dowry and in some cultures, the setting of a ‘bride’ price, which has today been outlawed around the world.
Marriages of convenience and their settlement were brilliantly portrayed by London based artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) in his clever ‘Marriage a la Mode’ series, produced with great flair about 1743.
William Hogarth lived through the period that saw the monarchy in England reduced from absolute power to a parliamentary led democracy. This was when the growing middle classes was grabbing onto the idea that marriage should also be about love.
Hogarth’s north-country family had gone to live in London so that they could become part of the rising bourgeoisie of professional and literary classes. His father’s coffee house venture failed, but his son, after making a very advantageous marriage, was close to the literary and theatrical avant-garde. So we could say he had a first-hand view of life at the top.
He satorized the upper eschelons of the society head on, challenging the ideal view that rich people led virtuous lives. In a creatively imagined satirical series of witty engravings about arranged marriages, he made allusions to old proverbs, current expressions, and social graces. These conversation pieces were an indictment on the concerns and mores of the society of Hogarth’s time.
The story began in the mansion of the Earl Squander, who is busily arranging to marry his son to the daughter of a wealthy very mean city merchant. In the first scene the aged Earl is revealed holding and boasting about the extent of his family tree.
Alongside him are the crutches he needs because of gout, a condition brought about by too much good living. The new house he is having built for the couple is visible through the window and it is clearly evident the intended ‘bride and groom’ can’t stand each other.
The merchant, who is plainly dressed, holds the marriage contract, while his daughter behind him listens to her young lawyer, Silvertongue. The Earl’s son, the Viscount is busy admiring his own face in a mirror, and has a black patch on his neck hiding his ‘syphilitic sores’.
Two dogs, chained together in the bottom left corner symbolize what’s in store for them both. Hogarth’s details, especially the paintings on the walls, comment on the action taking place and the grand portrait in the French manner on the rear wall confronts the dreadful Medusa head, denoting horror, hanging on the side wall.
In the second scene we happen upon the now Lady Charlotte Squander in her boudoir, which is fitted up in the most luxurious and elegant manner.
She is, according to the fashion of the times, holding a morning levee, where people come to petition for favours while she undergoes the last operations of the morning toilette.
The French hairdresser is curling her hair in the most approved fashion, while lounging with intent on the ottoman is the handsome, unprincipled silver tongued barrister, who has succeeded in winning her affections. He is both leaning and lolling gazing at her in loose attire, which ‘may oft’ invite to loose desire.’ We are left to imagine what it is he wants!
We also have the famous Italian singer Farinelli chortling away, while an English musician accompanies him on the flute. Next to Farinelli is seated an “exquisite” of the first water – his hair in papers, sipping his chocolate, along with other notable guests. On the floor are scattered invitation notes and complimentary cards, the boudoir packed with the visitors who esteem it a high honour to be admitted to the toilette of the noble mistress of the house. The whole terrible tale ends with the murder of the son and the suicide of the daughter.
In England marriage only by consent and cohabitation was also valid during Hogarth’s time.
That is until the passage of Lord Hardwicke’s Act, an ‘Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage’ through the English parliament in 1753, a decade after Hogarth’s famous marriage commentary series. The Act tightened the existing ecclesiastical rules regarding marriage. After that time for a marriage to be valid it had to be performed in a church after the publication of banns and the obtaining of a licence
This is the point in our shared cultural history when certain requirements became noted as necessary for a marriage to take place legally. It became an institution and a new state; one that ensured that a religious ceremony always observed by witnesses took place.
Marriage was claimed as Christian union in the Church of England (Anglican), and became a legally binding ceremony, which took place between two people intending to live together forever as both domestic and sexual partners.
Is it any wonder after gazing at scenes like Hogarth’s, which with the advent of print became available to an earnest and eager for knowledge bourgeoisie, that a great deal about marriage in society changed.
Since that time in the 18th century, the presence of God has become far less important in many people’s lives. The church officiated over arranged marriages among the nobility and aristocracy for centuries and as the general population found out that they were often just a sham, the church came to be viewed by many people as being full of hypocrites. It was a case of not practicing what they preached.
There had also been for a long time an expectation that establishing personal relationships, or partnerships, was the only way to acquire happiness and for couples to fulfill the meaning of life. If you think deeply about it, this it is a big burden for those entering a married state to bear, whether man and woman or same sex couples.
We all need mutual forgiveness to thrive and have a reason to strive at making a good life together. If it is about give and take then it should be as ‘the Prophet’ Khalil Gibran so poetically and wisely worded
…but let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.
After the passing of the all new Marriage Act in England in 1753 couples who chose to get married in a church were committed to embracing a caring God in their marriage ceremony. Much like Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Edward Ferress (Hugh Grant) did in Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility.
That didn’t mean they had to avoid all the usual ups and downs of a relationship, after all we are all human. God had reputedly sent his son Jesus to find out what that we were all on about. And boy did he suffer. So anyone understood our human frailties Jesus certainly did.
The marriage ceremony, whether Christian or otherwise, should surely be just the beginning of a lasting relationship. The challenge for those involved is to live, honour and respect the love they proclaim to have for each other.
This also comes down to the nature of our understanding of what love really is.
All the changes influenced in western society by the revolution in France and then Napoleon’s empirical rout meant that from the nineteenth century onward the rapidly growing middle classes, who were expanding their knowledge, eagerly embraced the idea that marriage should be about love.
Napoleon had married his first wife ‘Josephine’ in a civil ceremony. However, after he had so publicly declared after years together that she wasn’t his wife any more, he married his second wife Marie-Louise of Austria by proxy first with other people standing in for them both, then in a civil ceremony, which was followed up by a religious wedding ceremony at Paris in the Salon Carré chapel in the Louvre.
This was presided over by the Cardinal, the Grand Almoner of France, the most important member of the church in the royal court. So his hypocrisy was ratified by the Roman Catholic church, who turned a blind eye to his previous marriage and divorce. It was again a marriage of convenience and all about begetting an heir.
Marie-Louise did not know anything about it at all until she was informed that a marriage by proxy had already taken place. She is reported as having said “I wish only what my duty commands me to wish”.
Impossible to see today’s royals putting up with such an idea ever again following the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales who was so unhappy after finding out about Prince Charles and his mistress. She made sure it became public knowledge, ensuring that society once again revisited and re-evaluated what marriage and commitment means.
In the Christian context if marriage is, as the Apostle Paul points out, to endure unto death it’s because true love is never self-seeking, but rather lives and works best if the focus is on the other person. It certainly won’t work if there is a narcissist involved.
Self-giving love is also about the self-giving nature of Jesus, who ultimately proved his love for everyone else by dying on the cross …my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you still holds true. Christian marriage in that context is really all about being a foretaste of the kingdom of God, a state where love rules eternally.
Now in the 21st century ‘love’ often seems to have almost become a catch phrase, used by people who have met only once or not at all.
Has it come to the point that the word love, so treasured throughout the ages has become an almost blasé term, best expressed accompanied by much hugging and kissing!
Sometimes there is lots of cheek kissing, which must not be confused with an old and traditional hospitality greeting, aptly demonstrated by the US President Barack Obama when he kissed the French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy as he arrived on June 6, 2009 at the Caen Prefecture in France.
This friendship ritual while not common in the USA and English speaking Canada is very common in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe, the Mediteranean region, the Middle East and Latin America and for many people socially acceptable.
Unconditional love, which is what a marriage should be all about, is meant to be shared by people in a long-term relationship, whether man to woman, woman-to-woman or man-to-man and, in any religious sphere.
It is deep and meaningful, a state that also involves friendship.
This means the love shared is never taken for granted and is valued. This is without doubt the hardest type of love for humans to sustain – why?
Well it needs a great deal of patience, an enormous amount of understanding, a great degree of tenderness and, some wisdom.
The phrase being ‘in love’ is based on a more immediate mutual attraction as we said before; one that once consummated doesn’t stand up to the test of time. This also involves falling ‘out of love’.
Thousands and thousands of people it seems do this every day, hence the high divorce rate.
This happens because they have not been about working on developing their marital relationship prior to marriage and during it.
For young people entering into marriage it is required by most churches today as well as some civic authorities, that couples now join a relationship-building program designed by marriage guidance experts.
It’s meant to be a considered aspect of their commitment to each other.
This helps couples openly discuss the well being of each other individually, the success of their marriage, as well as their hopes for having a happy and fulfilling future together. This includes having children.
To truly love someone unconditionally means putting up with all their faults, irritating habits and shortcomings, as they do with yours. When this happens it is possible to establish a lifelong relationship in any society or culture.
If the people involved have become soul mates then for them both surely this type of relationship would be very close to a type of heaven on earth.
The current debates happening all around the world about marriage equality has many facets and complexities because it is tangled up in defining the difference between sacred and secular unions in many different cultures.
Surely its about being an understanding, forgiving society, one I feel sure that Jesus the Christ would understand – ‘let he who is without sin, cast the first stone’.
So why does it have to be an issue that divides society into two camps? As we grow into a global society then we all need to be able to share in both society’s responsibilities and blessings. Surely it should not be a case of either or, but both and.
Love and marriage will never go out of style. The challenge for us all is to debate its values and virtues with those we love often, so that what a marriage is all about continues to be re-defined, understood and practiced in the generations to come.
Marriage today as an institution is really all about basic freedoms attached to liberty and a belief that everyone should expect the same basic human rights.
The family unit has certainly proved to be the best type of unit for a child to flourish in. That includes families of same sex couples, who have proven to be wonderful parents.
It’s important to be generous with our time, love and energy and even if we are busy each day, ensure that we keep an eye on what is important and real.
Today the majority of people require that their emotional and physical nourishment should take place within a marriage so that each party will feel that his or her needs are being fulfilled.
Science today is telling us what most of us intuitively sense that humans are a fundamentally social species and so it is an important issue and there should be an opportunity for everyone to celebrate and have their relationships recognized with equal respect.
Marriage should be about the human values we share; of not hurting the feelings of others, or making them feel inferior and allowing everyone to behave with ease and grace and experience joy in the wonders of true love and service one to the other.
Modern marriage gains its true sacramental nature through the love the couple have for each other and so what really matters is how that is played out over time.
Thankfully, much of our contemporary society has grown to understand that love and marriage today is all about being inclusive. After all, in the end as we eventually fade into dust, the only thing that remains is ‘love’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013