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A History of Single Life

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A series about hooking up through the ages.

The fundamental assumption of single life is that we’re free to date, sleep with, and marry whomever we choose. This idea is so ingrained in our culture that no one seriously questions it, no matter how much of an asshole we think our sister’s boyfriend is. Besides, without the fundamental right of choosing with whom we get romantically involved, we’d never have developed great social customs like Internet personals or rebelling against your parents by coming home at three a.m. on the back of a Harley-Davidson.
     Sometimes, though, our ideas of the way things should be done run headlong into other people’s customs. For instance, in 2002 Heshu Yones, a sixteen-year-old British girl of Kurdish ancestry, was stabbed to death by her father for dating an eighteen-year old Christian Lebanese boy. Similarly, Arash Ghorbani-Zarin, a nineteen-year-old student at Oxford University, was murdered in 2004 by his girlfriend’s brothers on the orders of her Bangladeshi-born father. When “honor killings” such as these take place in European countries, the perpetrators are treated like common criminals. Not so in other places in the world: In Jordan,

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for instance, men who claim the “honor killing” defense can receive as little as a six-month sentence and they’re treated like heroes when they’re released. In Pakistan, they usually get off scot-free. (I should add that such murders — about 5,000 a year, according to the UN — are by no means limited to the Muslim world. The “honor defense” is still common in South America, and it was only legally abolished in Italy in 1981. As a whole, though, they are far less tolerated in the West.)
     Compare what happened to Heshu and Aresh with what happened to Margery Paston and Richard Call in Suffolk, England in the late 1460s. Whereas Margery’s family had spent the last three generations clawing its way up from peasantry into minor nobility, Richard was the self-educated son of a grocer from the town of Framlingham. He was an ambitious young man, though, and on the recommendation of the Duke of Norfolk, the Pastons hired Richard on as their business manager. However, even though Richard was good at balancing the books, the Pastons were rather put out when Margery announced in 1469 that she had promised him her hand in marriage.
     Part of this, of course, was class snobbery. One doesn’t marry the help — or as Margery’s brother John said, he wouldn’t have Margery “made to sell candles and mustard in Framlingham.” (Modern young adults embarrass

For the barbarians, arranging three-ways was never a problem.

their families by being lazy good-for-nothings; the children of the medieval gentry, on the other hand, embarrassed their families by getting jobs.) Part of it, though, was that the Pastons had a lot invested in Margery’s choice of spouse. Marriage for the medieval upper crust wasn’t for love — it was for money or political alliance. Margery’s mother, Margaret, locked Margery in her room and administered regular beatings until she changed her mind. Margery, displaying remarkable chutzpah for someone born five centuries before the feminist movement, refused to give in.
     Finally, the Pastons were forced to haul their daughter and her beau into the court of the Bishop of Norwich, who, as ranking churchman in the area, was the ultimate authority on matters of marriage. The couple repeated the vows they had made to the bishop, and Margery added that if the words were not sufficient, “tell me what to say and I’ll repeat it on the spot.” The bishop replied that wouldn’t be necessary: According to church law, consent was what made a marriage, and a promise to marry was as binding as the ceremony itself. Margery’s family could beat her or disown her, but her marriage to Richard had to stand. (The whole bit about needing a marriage license and someone to marry you came in after the Protestant Reformation, though the medieval custom is preserved somewhat in our ideas of common-law marriage.)
     To us, the bishop’s decision seems counterintuitive: You’d think that the religious authorities would be more inclined to side with the parents rather than the rebellious children. However, the Church’s desire to meddle in everyone’s sex lives came to have the opposite effect from what you would expect. The reason why was money.
     The barbarians who took over the Western Roman Empire hundreds of years before Margery and Richard were born were more than hairy, smelly guys who drank their mead with their elbows on the table and never washed their chain mail — they

Laws limited your options for finding a date for the Saturday night heretic-burning.

were also sexist pigs. Arranging three-ways was never a problem: They took as many wives as they felt like or needed to secure their political situation, and, when they died, their sons fought over the bits of their kingdoms. It was a good time to be a barbarian king, at least until one of your half-brothers stuck a knife in your back.
     Around the year 1000, though, things began to change. Not only did families begin to name one son as an heir, but the Church began to crack down on polygamy. Also, Church lawyers (it’s always the lawyers who ruin everyone’s fun) began dredging up old rules forbidding divorce and marriage to relatives. In fact, you couldn’t marry anyone related to you by seven degrees of separation. This not only limited your options for finding a date for the Saturday night heretic-burning, but it also kept property from being re-circulated in the same family. (When a woman married, her father would usually give her a dowry to support her in the event of her husband’s death. Since she, in turn, would pass the dowry on to her own children, who were considered part of her husband’s lineage, this property was basically lost to her paternal family.)
     In addition, the Church leadership figured that if you were childless and not able to take another wife, you might leave all your stuff to the local monastery to pray for your soul when you died. Finally, the Church got to say who was “really” married and who wasn’t, which meant that if you wanted to get out of an inconvenient marriage, you had to fork over a chunk of change to the Pope for an annulment. Thus, monasteries and bishoprics quickly became the biggest and wealthiest landowners in Europe.
     Another thing the Church lawyers introduced was the idea of consent in marriage. This was not only justifiable on theological grounds, but it was in keeping with the Church’s general tendency of making the individual couple, not the family, the basic unit of society. After all, if your lands weren’t the collective property of your entire clan, but rather your own to sell or give away, then your uncles and cousins couldn’t do anything about the forest you just donated to the abbey down the road.

It’s why adultery became the French national pastime.

The fact that the doctrine of consent occasionally spoiled the social-climbing plans of families such as the Pastons was just a happy coincidence: By the time Margery promised herself to Richard, the idea that consent makes a marriage valid had become an immutable part of canon law.
     Conversely, land-holding ecclesiastical corporations such as monasteries and bishoprics never formed in the Islamic world. Religious leaders thus never acquired the economic power that they did in the medieval Church. Both religious laws and pre-Muslim local customs tended to favor arrangements that resulted in family property staying in the family. Even today, the story behind many honor killings is a woman refusing to marry a relative as part of a scheme to keep her dowry in the family.
     If we do something for long enough, we eventually forget why we began doing it in the first place. To be sure, the arranged marriage hung on a long time in the West. However, in general, the lower you were on the social ladder (and the less property your family stood to lose), the more freedom you had to choose whom you would marry. Eventually this came to be the “right” way to do things. As time went on, the idea of individual choice crept upwards and arranged marriages became rarer and rarer, until by the nineteenth century, they were only practiced by very conservative, very rich French families, which is possibly why adultery became the French national pastime. Today, they’re only practiced in the West among immigrants and ultra-orthodox Jews. (I once knew a woman who grew up in just such a family in Israel who had been married to one of her father’s friends at the age of twelve. She described her wedding night as socially sanctioned rape. Thankfully, she later ran off with a Lebanese Muslim who treats her like gold.)
     None of this would have happened, though, if it wasn’t for guys like the Bishop of Norwich deciding that the promise a noblewoman made to a commoner was as valid as any other. While the Church might have had an eye on their coffers rather than on our personal happiness, its rules incidentally helped to overthrow the power of the family in choosing whom we marry.  

©2006 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.