Saturday, February 02, 2013

Varieties of Marriage

When speaking of marriage at different points in human history, one must ever be aware of sampling errors. Considering the time span from the fall of the western Roman Empire to the invention of the printing press, one could easily gain the false impression that a huge number of marriages were arranged for political and economic reasons. Biographies from that era give examples of such unions.

But the misleading nature of both the evidence and the conclusion it suggests arises from sampling error. While the vast majority of people - in the entire world - at the point in time were peasants, serfs, or farmers, written biographies concentrate almost exclusively on aristocrats, clergy, and literate people. Narrowing the focus to Europe, one notes that the majority of people did not even have last names or family names as we now think of them. The only written records of their existence - at most - would have been single entries in the church's book: baptism, marriage, funeral. Even the rite of confirmation was often not recorded.

Given the skew in the evidence, we must re-think the concept of marriage during those years. Among landed gentry, marriages were indeed sometimes arranged for business reasons. Among aristocracy, matches were sometimes made for political reasons. The royals sometimes married for diplomacy or for the sake of alliances. But these would have been a small fraction of the marriages. The vast majority, one can state with certainty, were among the lowest classes of people, who would have married for none of those reasons.

It seems that the poorest people were free to marry for love. Leaving aside the exact definition of "love" - that question belongs more properly to the philosopher, to the theologian, or to the psychologist - those whose lives were deemed insignificant by the power structures of their day were free to choose a mate based on compatibility or on mutual attraction. They enjoyed very few other freedoms. They were not allowed to relocate: the feudal bonds often kept them living in the small village into which they were born. They had little choice in vocation: they were born to work the land. There was no participation in politics for them.

Georges Duby has edited, and Arthur Goldhammer has translated into English, a book titled A History of Private Life. Volume II of that book is subtitled Revelations of the Medieval World. The restrictions which limited marriages among upper classes did not affect the peasants:

The aristocracy, the ruling minority, behaved in characteristic ways designed to quell internal rivalry and ensure continued domination over the rest of society. For a fairly long period the noble kinship group was more affected by history than was the peasant family, as can be seen in the way the aristocratic kinship system responded to two major changes in forms of power and exchange. The first change occurred around 1000 and resulted in the unleashing of wars of unprecedented violence in the various regional societies that survived the breakup of the Carolingian Empire. The construction of a host of fortresses and fortified mounds was at once a cause and a symptom of this new kind of warfare. The "encastlement" of the aristocracy was accompanied by what can only be called its "enlineagement." Kinship became so important within the nobility that it resulted in the crystallization of highly structured groups known as patrilineages. These stood out against an undifferentiated background of cognatic kinship and for a time threatened to destroy the conjugal family. Politically, decentralized power proved more advantageous than centralized power and lineal kinship acquired, or reacquired, major social functions. For a brief time the nobility rose to the surface, like an archaic society erected on top of a more modern one, before it disappeared forever.

While it is true that feudalism allowed medieval culture and society to be a high point in civilization's long history, the aristocracy paid a price for feudalism's liberation of the human spirit: aristocrats were not free to choose their mates based on affection or compatibility.

Outside of Europe, women were bought and sold like cattle in parts of Asia and Africa; in other parts of those continents, marriages were arranged by parents, and spouses often met for the first time at their weddings. In some arranged marriages, the spouses did know each other, sometimes for years prior to the marriage, yet their lack of choice was the same. But in medieval Europe, marriages based on love - that ambiguous concept - were enjoyed more by the lowest classes than the highest.

Western Civilization, in the European tradition, manifests its value of the individual, and its value of personal freedom, in its concept of marriage. Ironically, these great cultural values - individual liberty and the dignity of each individual - emerged more potently among the serfs than among the nobles.

Although the unpleasant reality for upper-class individuals was that family and economic considerations were often decisive in choosing a spouse, the notion of marriage as a mutually supportive, respectful, and affectionate union became clearer during the Middle Ages. Crystalizing the concept

were scholastic meditations on marriage, which gradually accredited the notion that wedlock is achieved by mutual consent, hence that the personal commitment of both husband and wife takes precedence over the collective decision of families.

Ultimately, Europe would distinguish itself by formulating a notion of marriage: spouses who freely choose each other, care for each other, are faithful to each other, encourage each other, and help each other. Naturally, the reality often fell far short of the ideal: spouses were not always freely chosen, especially among the upper classes. Certainly, they were not always faithful to each other; adultery is a sad constant in human society. Tenderness and affection were not always the reigning tone in domestic relationships - abuse and violence existed then as they have at all times.

Nonetheless, it was a breakthrough to create, even if only in the abstract, such a formulation of marriage. Other parts of the globe still treated women as property, and ignored the concept of individual choice among both men and women.

Thus Western Civilization, in the European tradition, brought to the world a precious gift in the concept of a man and woman sharing an affectionate domestic existence. To be sure, we see this notion presented earlier in human history, among some of the nomadic Semitic cultures of the Ancient Near East. Europe cannot, therefore, claim exclusive credit for having invented this schema. Europe did however, succeed in formulating it, and setting it as a norm toward which all parts of society were to strive.