Great Moments in the (Premodern) History of Marriage

Jan Van Eyck, 'Arnolfini Wedding'

"Portrait of Arnolfini and His Wife,'' by Jan van Eyck , 1434. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource)

Way Back Whenever: God sends the parents of us all packing from paradise and dooms humanity to hard labor for eternity--"because," he tells Adam, "you listened to your wife."

About 330 B.C.: Aristotle "proves" that females are males interrupted, born with deformed sexual organs, a theory taken as fact all the way to 1800 or so.

195 B.C.: Roman wives take to the streets en masse in the first women's-rights march known to Western history, forcing the Senate to repeal the law forbidding women (but not their husbands' horses) to wear gold and purple.

Mid-first century: The New Testament line "it is better to marry than to burn" (with lust) is crafted, insuring marriage's second-class status beneath celibacy--for the next 1500 years.

About 420: The former sex addict Augustine (he's the guy who said, "God, give me chastity, but not just yet"), now a powerful bishop, decrees that conjugal sex is sinful unless the couple's sole purpose is to accomplish the "task of propagation", hopefully in the absence of passion. And, of course, pleasure.

Late 1300s: In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer expresses what seems to be on every medieval husband's mind--"it’s he who has no wife who is no cuckold."

1520s:  After years of lecturing his fellow monks to abandon unholy celibacy for holy matrimony, Martin Luther reluctantly weds a runaway nun, fathers six children (as per God's command to "be fruitful, and multiply"), and spends the rest of his life lecturing the world about the unexpected emotional rewards to be found in married life--companionship, contentment, and love--thus jumpstarting the modern ideal.

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