How Marriage Evolved: Thanks Martin Luther?

Well, what more can I say? I read the book (I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage in case you missed that memo). I didn’t find it to be controversial or contrarian or shocking or even subversive. I think Susan Squire presented the history of marriage in a straightforward and informative fashion. I enjoyed the book. It made me think a lot about what marriage means to me, but it didn’t ever really get under my skin or make me want to talk about it with other people. It was just sort of there.

What would have really interested me would have been a continuation of this narration to the present-day and an expansion that would include a look at marriage in other cultures and how our cultural intersections have changed the face of marriage in modern life. I understand that this book focuses on the West and the history of marriage, but I thought that Squire prematurely terminated her narrative. I find it particularly hard to swallow that she believes marriage hasn’t changed that much between now and the 16th century. But, let’s not be totally negative…

As a woman who grew up in the Christian church, I sincerely appreciated some of Squire’s observations about major tenets of the faith that I just took at face value and never questioned. Like, why do the Gospel writers make such a big deal about Jesus’ lineage through Joseph, if, as they assert, he was born of a virgin and his father is thus God? Shouldn’t that immediate lineage trump Joseph’s heritage, even if he was descended from Adam? In addition, since Jewish lineage is traced matrilineally– shouldn’t the writers have been more concerned with Mary’s ancestry?

And then there was her refreshing interpretation of the creation myths; it can be very tiring to constantly defend your sex against those who decry the inherent inferiority of womankind and use Eve as exhibit A. I have to thank Squire for giving me a bit of ammo the next time I become embroiled in a Fall debate. She asserts that we, as women, should be proud of Eve because “only Eve shows signs of inner conflict before the serpent allays them– but there’s no indication that Adam struggles with his conscience or with Eve.” He was “with her,” and knew full well what tree they were standing under, and just took it and ate it. But I digress, that wasn’t a typo: I did say myths. In case you’re a little fuzzy on the details, the Adam and Eve story isn’t the only story about how and why we came to be on this planet. Squire is very clear to point that out,

“Genesis 1 tells the story that no one remembers, but then there’s no story here to tell. There’s no action, no conflict, no characters to love or hate, zero emotional content, nothing to inspire middling works of art, let alone great ones–in short, nothing to compel remembrance. Once God tells the humans to fill the earth and so on, that’s it; he doesn’t make rules that can be broken or set limits that can be exceeded, not here. The human event boils down to “male and female He created them”: a single statement, a summary of what happens after it happens. Which is probably just as well, because that statement undermines the sexual status quo. Combine a politically untenable message with lack of narrative punch (lack of narrative, period), and no wonder this account induces historical blindness. Without a hook, you can’t even hang a Sunday sermon on it–a major issue in the medieval world to come.”

Looking at Genesis 1, one could interpret the second myth as an extrapolation of the first, but I think that is a stretch. Verse 27 clearly states “male and female he created them;” in the same clause men and women were created, but in Genesis 2, God stresses over what kind of “helper” would be best for Adam. He first thinks that an animal may be a suitable friend for Adam. Adam shoots him down after kindly naming all of the animals, so God steals one of his ribs and forms Eve. Here’s my dilemma: why would God make 2 sexes of everything and only make one human? Was the same process followed for the other animals–were female sheep made from male sheep ribs, for example? Probably not, so why create a single creature unable to reproduce on his own?

I did learn some interesting tidbits from this book. Like, did you know that the Israelites described in the Pentateuch lived under the Code of Hammurabi? Or that the tradition of throwing the bride’s bouquet comes from the Roman practice of throwing a torch into the throng of people who abducted/escorted the bride-to-be to her new husband’s home? Or that a bride who is walked down the aisle pays homage to the custom known as in manum, or “into his hand,” which transfers a bride’s dependency and servitude from her father to her husband? I was also intrigued by the study conducted regarding boy’s names in Florence following the Black Death. It surprised me that the names which became popular back then are still in vogue, names like Antonio and Christopher.

I guess what perturbed me most was that Squire closed her research with Martin Luther, a man with a less than stellar reputation when it comes to women. There are a few soundbites attributed to Luther that are positive when it comes to women and marriage, but there are more examples of less than flattering quotations. The book left me with a semi-bitter taste in my mouth; it gave me the impression that women have always been mere chattel in the marital transaction and that men will always come out on top when it comes to marriage. Why are women still expected to give up their identity when they wed? Why are these archaic customs still adhered to, no questions asked; perhaps to harken us back to simpler times when “men were men and women were women”? Why are the “good girls” the ones who wait to have sex? When children enter the picture, why are women still doing the lion’s share of the child-rearing and housework, and are the first ones expected to sacrifice their careers? Upon divorce, why do men retain a higher standard of living? These were the less than optimistic questions I was left to ponder, which in turn made me ponder what I really got out of this book? A healthy dose of cynicism? Thanks, I think I’ve got enough already.


5 responses to “How Marriage Evolved: Thanks Martin Luther?

  1. I didn’t read the book. I am struck, however, by your apt comments: why would god create an unsustainable species; and the focus on patrilineal lineage measurements by the writers of the bible when they were, in fact, in a matrilineal society. Those are both really good points. They fit in perfectly with my feelings about this subject.

    Everytime I look at the bible now (which isn’t much), I’ve been trained to look at it from a much more gendered perspective. I understand that it was written by men, passed down by men, and edited by men in a male-dominated society. This to me, seems old news. So, everytime I read something in the bible, or hear of something in the holy book that is sexist, I disagree with it, but historically speaking, I understand why it’s there.

    My question is, and it fits in with Spitfire’s comments, why have people continued to interpret the bible in such sexist ways? We know the history of the bible, who wrote it, etc., and we no longer worry about heating hooved animals, resting on Sundays (does anyone think it’s a sin – although it is weird – to boil a goat in its mother’s milk anymore???) and all the other random archaic rules, yet as a society, we haven’t adapted, updated, or disregarded the stupid stuff about women’s submission to men, etc. This bothers me. We know Jewish culture is (and was) matrilineal – yet we still do our own measures patrilineally. We know Eve wasn’t created from Adam’s rib, yet it is still said that she was, and women are treated differently because of that.

    Am I making sense? I am terrible at being coherent sometimes. Anyway – this is an interesting topic…

  2. Like, why do the Gospel writers make such a big deal about Jesus’ lineage through Joseph, if, as they assert, he was born of a virgin and his father is thus God?

    Wow. Just wow. I think you just solved the ‘one iota’ problem…

    Now I want to read the book, which is odd considering you seemed so unimpressed. The highlights reel you provide is just so interesting though.

  3. i totally felt the same way as spitfire. i was glad i read the book, it was entertaining and a good read…but it didn’t make me want to debate or discuss or anything, it was just too straightforward.

    although i did absolutely LOVE the looks on the faces of people in the subway. (if you haven’t seen the cover, check it out. huh-LARIOUS.) totally would recommend this book as a commute read–light and easy to start/stop/drift/chuckle at softly even though someone’s umbrella digs into your back.

    oh and i too was confused as to why she chose to end her book at martin luther. i mean, come on! that’s when the good stuff starts!!

  4. habladora: i definitely recommend reading the book– it was highly informative and pretty good read that i just chugged right on through. i realize that i come off highly negative here, but that was unintentional. i think that ocurred because, to me, this was so uncontroversial. i finished it and was at a loss for what to say. it’s sort of like reading a really fascinating excerpt from a well-written and -researched history book— astoundingly informative, but not a great conversation-starter. Most conversations have since gone like this “did you know that [insert example from text]….” “wow, no i didn’t!” “yeah cool right?” “yeah” “so… have you seen the new bond flick yet?”
    perhaps i was hoping for something a little more explosive?

  5. JACK: good question!
    i think the answer is, to put it simplistically, patriarchy. why would men change those interpretations that afford them the most power?
    and if we knew how to dismantle patriarchy, we wouldn’t be having this discussion

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