The Transition of the Institution of Marriage, from the Middle Ages to Present

The institution of marriage from the Middle Ages to the contemporary era has seen a drastic transformation of the institution’s position towards women — arguably from one of utter repression to one of legal, social, and economic egalitarianism respectively. The notable transformation of marriage prompts historical analysis of the institutions of marriage and gender relations as they have changed over time.

Early medieval beliefs on marriage — passed down from Catholic teachings such as 1 Corinthians, written circa 50 A.D. — deemed the wife’s legal and individual identity as controlled by her husband: “The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband.” 1) Early Catholic teachings dictated the wife to be wholly inferior and thus that her legal, economic, and marital role was to be one of submission and obedience to her husband. Divorce and marital separation were virtually impossible prior to the late Middle Ages and beyond — husband and wife were seen as joined by a sacrament insoluble by man. Widowed women — like married women — faced legal barriers as well. Barred from inheriting their husband’s property personally, widowed women also faced losing their children to the husband’s family.

As a sacrament, marriage could not be prevented by parents except through the substantial dowry that women were required to supply upon marriage. Among wealthy families, marriage was seen in the Middle Ages as a social and economic alliance, so parents cut one who married without permission off from their dowry — “a key commodity in the definition of a woman’s honour and often her sole means of subsistence in widowhood.” 2) Lack of economic opportunity forced middle and lower class women into marriage by economic necessity — rich women might afford life in a convent — which in turn deemed women to subservience and dependence on their husbands.

Later Middle Age works shed light on the familial responsibilities of husband and wife as well as on their personal relationship. The anonymously authored “Manual for His Wife,” written circa 1392 on French marital conventions emphasized the wife’s responsibilities to serve and please her husband. The author upon chastising his wife, notes that she must “strive to amend [herself]…according to my teaching and correction, and to serve my will in all things.” 3) The husband goes on to explain the significance of her principal responsibility to the family — to manage the family and household. A wife’s place in relation to her family and society was to be one of domestic duty in an effort to please and not impose on her husband.

Views towards marriage during the Renaissance — a period overlapping the later Middle Ages — remained similarly conservative, limiting the family role of the wife to domestic duties that precluded her from the public eye. Renaissance legal views towards women were very pervasive, inherited from tradition Middle Age views of woman’s necessary subservience to men. For example, adultery “was a crime of wives. Husband’s infidelity…was considered of little significance, while that of wives was deemed a most serious offense.” 4) The subservience of women in virtually all aspects of marriage would continue into the early 16th century as the Protestant Reformation took hold in Europe. Shifting religious emphasis from virginity to marriage, the Reformation is posited by some “to have led to greater friendship and more equal partnership between Protestant spouses than was possible between Catholic spouses of the same period.” 5)

However, in reality very little changed for women under Protestant conventions. While Protestant marriage laws arguably offered potential divorce initiated by either sex, divorce legislation was still extremely limited as marriage was seen as too central to society for radical changes. Cases of adultery, life-threatening spousal abuse, and other similar causes for separation were also by the late Middle Ages cause for Catholic annulments. Protestantism did constitute marriage courts and civil legislation to regulate Protestant marriages as they were not considered sacraments, but the Reformation did very little to change the relative positions of husband and wife.

The European Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th century too did little to change attitudes towards marriage. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influential writings on women initiated a shift in thinking on the wife’s familial responsibilities towards an emphasis on maternal duty — child-rearing and breast-feeding — along with his view on spousal relationships that the wife must render herself agreeable to her husband, always charming and satisfying him. These notions served only to reinforce traditional views on women’s subservient place in marriage as women continued to lack rights to personal property or as entities separate from their husbands.

The 19th century continued to repress European women in marriage. Frances Cobbe notes the lack of civil and property rights for women and the economic dependence on men that marriage dictated: “By our law it is her goods and earnings, present and future, which belong to him from this moment.” (Cobbe, Frances Power. Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors. Dodo Press, 2008)) While very few rich families had marriage settlements that protected the wife’s property, the vast majority of women had no protection. In terms of family responsibilities, the Victorian wife — as a status symbol expected to fit the ideal of leisure — was crucial in making her husband’s way in the world, and she was expected to complete a slew of domestic duties such as properly entertaining house guests.

French women in the 19th century were also subject to repressive positions in marriage despite post-Revolution conditions favorable to women in marriage — widows able to be guardians of their own children, marriage contracts that dictated the wife to have first claim on her husband’s property, and consensual divorce laws from 1792. Napoleon’s Civil Code, promulgated 1804, severely restricts conditions for divorce and took away the wife’s right to sue for custody of illegitimate children or to be first paid if her husband died. Wives were subjected to the regime of marital authority — owing their husband obedience and submitting to him control over her property, choices, wages, and virtually every aspect of her life. The Civil Code remained after Napoleon’s deposition and the right to divorce was subsequently taken away entirely.

The 20th century has proven to be the period in which issues of equality in marriage were finally brought to the forefront of social issues. After Russia’s February Revolution of 1917, the state passed radical egalitarian-leaning laws — with liberal mutual consent-based divorce laws and full legalization of abortion on demand among them. Alexandra Kollontai writes of Russia’s egalitarian view of marriage as “a union of two equal members of the communist society…No more domestic ‘servitude’ for women. No more inequality within the family.” 6) Though the Russian system was not perfect and women continued to be subservient to men in many respects, notions such as a women’s legal and economic independence from the necessity of marriage and alternatives to the traditional views of wives’ familial duty of domestic subservience began to take hold.

Europe’s post-war years saw the emergence of women’s issues such as suffrage and equality in the workplace as well as the rise of welfare states that began to provide necessary social services for married and working women and their children — such as public childcare, paid maternity leave, and family allowances. Europe saw a marriage boom as the triumph of modern femininity led to new expectations for women’s pleasure and satisfaction in marriage, which in turn saw a divorce boom — consensual divorces, which by the late 20th century often even indicated pecuniary relief for divorced parties.

The late 1960s to the early 1980s saw the emergence of the Women’s Liberation Movement, which accomplished — among other precedents — women’s legal and financial independence from marriage. Contemporary women possess educational and occupational opportunities that starkly contrast traditional notions of the woman’s economic and familial dependence on the husband. Women today possess rights over their own bodies — abortion and contraception rights, choices over marriage and children, and protection from gendered violence such as rape and wife-battering — a stark contrast to medieval notions of the husband’s ownership of his wife. Extensive social reforms such as public childcare have shifted the wife’s family responsibilities as wives are increasingly expected to enter the workforce unfettered as men do.

The institution of marriage has experienced drastic transformations between the Middle Ages and the contemporary era. Marriage today in western liberal democracies no longer dictates that the husband controls virtually all aspects of his wife’s life as in the Middle Ages. Women — deprived of legal and financial independence from men prior to developments of the 20th century — possess significant rights to property, educational and job opportunities, and social services as mothers that they have otherwise never had. Women can today assert their sexual rights in marriage as never before and wives are no longer subjected to the traditional ideal of domestic and maternal duty — though this transformation is still incomplete as women are still largely seen as having larger household and childcare responsibilities than men. Nevertheless, it is clear that attitudes towards the institution of marriage between the Middle Ages and the contemporary era have drastically shifted to a far more liberal and egalitarian position regarding women.

1 Corinthians 7
2) , 4)
Rocke, Michael, “Gender and Sexual Culture in Renaissance Italy,” Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy. Ed. Judith C. Brown and Robert C. Davis. Harlow, 1998: 199
Anonymous, “Manual for His Wife,” Tr. Eileen Power. The Goodman of Paris. George Routledge and Sons, 1928: 318
Davis, Natalie Zemon. “Society and Culture in Early Modern France,” Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays. Stanford University Press, 1975: 68
Kollontai, Alexandra. “Communism and the Family,” Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai. Tr. Alix Holt. Allison & Busby, 1977.

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