How did marriage, considered a religious duty in medieval Europe, become a venue for personal fulfillment in contemporary America? How did the notion of romantic love, a novelty in the Middle Ages, become a prerequisite for marriage today? And, if the original purpose of marriage was procreation, what exactly is the purpose of marriage for women now?
Combining "a scholar's rigor and a storyteller's craft"(San Jose Mercury News), distinguished cultural historian Marilyn Yalom charts the evolution of marriage in the Judeo Christian world through the centuries and shows how radically our ideas about marriage have changed.
For any woman who is, has been, or ever will be married, this intellectually vigorous and gripping historical analysis of marriage sheds new light on an institution most people take for granted, and that may, in fact, be experiencing its most convulsive upheaval since the Reformation.
The voices of ordinary women speak volumes in this sweeping history of women and marriage in the Western world. As with her well-received A History of the Breast, Yalom, a scholar at Stanford's Institute for Women and Gender, moves easily among several fieldsAfeminist history, religion and myth, anthropology, personal narratives, literature, pop culture and sociologyAto trace the changing role of wives from ancient times to the present. The general direction of changeAfrom subordinate toward more egalitarian rolesAcomes as no surprise. What may be unexpected, however, is Yalom's evidence that, while generally conforming to cultural norms, individual marriages throughout history have been more complex than law and tradition may have dictated. Barren wives were sometimes favored over fertile ones, arranged marriages sometimes encompassed deep love and wives' personal "power" could vary considerably. Nevertheless, marriages were hardly egalitarian, even after late-18th-century political ideals proclaimed women to be "co-creators of... new republican societies" in America and Europe. Wives had little legal autonomy; they could not control their own money or even have access to their children in the event of separation or divorce, until equal rights began to be won during the 20th century. Yalom discusses the push for birth control rights, the impact of the depression and World War II and today's two-spouse-income economy and 50% divorce rate. She excels in presenting personal perspectives, including those of working-class wives, immigrants, African-Americans and lesbians. Yet she is less successful in examining wider societal effects, including the impact of high divorce rates. "To be a wife today when there are few prescriptions or proscriptions is truly a creative endeavor," she concludes; true enough, but it's an insufficient explanation for how egalitarian marriages might actually work. (Feb.) Forecast: Stunning cover art, a topical subject and the title's echo of Yalom's previous book should attract many readers in addition to this book's obvious audience of women's studies majors. If Oprah did history, this might be her kind of book.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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February 04, 2002
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Excerpt from A History of the Wife by Marilyn Yalom
Wives in the Ancient World
Biblical, Greek, and Roman Models
Why should we begin with biblical, Greek, and Roman wives? Because the religious, legal, and social practices of those ancient civilizations provided the template for the future treatment of married women in the West. The wife as a man's chattel, as his dependent, as his means for acquiring legal offspring, as the caretaker of his children, as his cook and housekeeper are roles that many women now find abhorrent; yet certain aspects of those antiquated obligations still linger on in the collective unconscious. Many men still expect their wives to provide some or all of these services, and many wives still intend to perform them. Those women today who rebel against such expectations are, after all, rebelling against patterns that have been around for more than two millennia. It's important to understand what they are rebelling against, and what some of their antagonists-for example, certain conservative religious groups-are trying to preserve.
The charter myth for the Judeo-Christian wife is the story of Adam and Eve. Ever since their story was written into the Bible (around the tenth century B. C. E.), Adam and Eve have been designated, first by Hebrews and later by Christians and Muslims, as the progenitors of the human race. From the start, Eve has been honored as the foremother of humanity and simultaneously reviled as the spouse who first disobeyed God.
Initially, as related in Chapter One of Genesis, God created man and woman at the same time. "And God created the human in his image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."' But by Chapter Two, a new version of human creation had found its way into Scripture, which suggested that Eve was something of an afterthought. In this version, God created Adam first, from the dust of the ground. Then, reflecting on His handiwork, He declared: "It is not good for the human to be alone. I shall make him a sustainer beside him."
The subsequent account of Eve's creation from Adam's rib has fueled the age-old argument that woman is intrinsically inferior to man and dependent on him for her very existence. Even the Hebrew word icha, or "woman" -- from man-suggests this one-down position.
Eve's story then goes from bad to worse. She follows the serpent's advice to eat from the Tree of Good and Evil, contrary to God's commandment, and then tempts Adam to eat of it as well. These acts have permanent consequences for both sexes: God punishes Eve by inflicting the pangs of childbirth on all mothers and the burden of sweatproducing labor on all men. In addition, it is decreed that the female will be in a subordinate position to her husband for eternity. As God tells Eve after the Fall, "Your urge shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you." Like most myths, this one sought to explain a cultural phenomenon that had been entrenched for so long it seemed to be the will of God.
But there are other ways of looking at this story, which put Eve in a more favorable light. Some feminists have suggested that Eve was not just an afterthought, but an improvement over Adam. And even conservative commentators recognize that she represented more than a biological necessity The notion of the wife as a man's companion, "sustainer" or "helpmeet" (from the Hebrew word 'ezer) has had a long and meaningful history among Jews and Christians. Indeed, one later commentary in the Talmud (the code of Jewish religious and civil law) sees the 'ezer as providing a moral check on her husband: "When he is good, she supports him, when he is bad, she rises up against him. ,2 And most of all, those arguing for the equal partnership of husband and wife can cite the moving last words of Chapter Two of Genesis: "Therefore does a man leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they become one flesh."
In biblical days, a Hebrew husband was allowed to have more than one wife. For each, he had to give his father-in-law a sum of money, the mohar of fifty silver shekels (Deut. 22:28-29) and then he had to provide for her upkeep. This probably meant that only the affluent could afford more than one. 3 In addition, the groom or his family was expected to give gifts to the bride and her family. Once the mohar had been paid and the gifts accepted, the marriage was legally binding and the bride effectively belonged to her husband, even if they did not yet live together.
A bride's father would generally give her a chiluhim, or dowry. The dowry consisted of material goods to be used in the future household, including servants and livestock, and even land, as well as a portion of the mohar that reverted to the girl "as payment for the price of her virginity,,4 The specific sum of the dowry would be written down in the marriage contract, or ketubah, as well as the sum of money that would revert to the wife in the event of divorce or widowhood. Jewish marriage contracts going back to the eighth century B.C.E. Usually contained a ritual formula pronounced by the groom to the bride in the presence of witnesses: "She is my wife and I am her husband from this day forth and forever."
The last stage of the marriage was the banquet that preceded the wedding night. These festivities could go on for as long as a week, though the marriage was consummated the first night. If, however, the husband found that his bride was no longer a virgin, he could have her killed according to the words of the Torah: "then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her..."