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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Love and marriage, English-style


The opening of the fourth book of the service of betrothal and marriage
Italian manuscript c. early 14th Century
Tempera, ink, and gold leaf on parchment,
13 3/8 X 5 5/8 inches.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In the above image, the prospective bride and groom kneel in front of a tonsured priest, to whom they are presented by four relatives or friends, among them a Franciscan monk on the right.

A scholium, or commentary on the text is written in the margins of the page.

Such a richly decorated book would be kept in the church's sanctuary, its treasury, or the library depending on the character of the establishment.

A new book by Maureen Waller, THE ENGLISH MARRIAGE: Tales of love, money and adultery 419pp. John Murray. £25. 978 1 84854 054 5 has just been published. It is reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement.

In her review, Professor Amanda Vickery writes:

"Despite the title, this is not an investigation of marriage per se, nor indeed a history of love, but a descriptive narrative of marital making and breaking, told through a tapestry of individual stories, from Margaret Paston in 1465 to Heather Mills McCartney in 2008. ...
The slow evolution of the laws determining the institution of marriage and its dismemberment provide the arc of this sobering chronicle, while ghastly individual experiences provide much of its colour. ...

Waller slyly notes that if two-thirds of the British population today think there is little difference between being married and living together, we are returned to the status quo ante. However, she regrets what has been lost in the modern pursuit of self-gratification. “In a throwaway society we ignore the wisdom and experience of our forebears at our peril. For them marriage was for life. They had to work at it and find the means of living together in harmony.” She especially deplores the rise of the idle “toxic wife” who spends her wealthy husband’s money for a few years, before she takes him for half his yacht in the divorce courts – “about as far from Margaret Paston, Mary Verney, Emma Darwin, Mollie Butler and all the other loyal and devoted wives of the past few centuries as it is possible to imagine”. ...

The challenge now, of course, is to find lifelong love within a framework of equality. It may be true that the cult of self is at odds with the “forbearance, consideration for another and unselfishness” that marriage demands – but it is worth remembering that for centuries women were trained up in self-denial and kindheartedness, yet had no grounds for complaint if these sterling virtues were missing in their men. Tabloid journalists may complain that greedy hoydens have made London the divorce capital of Europe, but it seems unlikely that female selfishness is the taproot of our malaise."