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Love and Marriage

Love and Marriage

During the Renaissance, Europeans saw love and marriage as two important, but very different, parts of life. Poets described love as an overpowering force, both spiritual and sexual. For most people, however, marriage was a more practical matter. As the basic building block of society, it involved the expectations of families and communities, not just the wishes of two individuals. Although marriage was the normal state of life for most people, many remained unmarried for either practical or religious reasons.


Renaissance Ideas About Love. The idea of romantic love took shape in the centuries leading up to the Renaissance. The literature of the Middle Ages developed the concept of courtly love, which treated the beloved as a pure ideal. Two Italian writers of the 1300s, Dante Alighieri and Petrarch, drew on this tradition in their poetry. Each of them presented a beloved woman as a source of inspiration and a symbol of female perfection. European poetry in the following centuries followed their lead, treating love as an experience above and beyond ordinary life. Some poets saw sexual desire as a vital part of love, while others presented love as a pure and selfless emotion.

Renaissance thinkers viewed "platonic" love as the highest and noblest form of love. This concept of love was based on the ideas of the Neoplatonists, a group of philosophers who had given new interpretations to the works of the ancient Greek thinker Plato. They saw love as a path to the divine, which was the source of the beloved's beauty. Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione discussed Platonic love in the fourth part of The Book of the Courtier (1528).

Another idealized view of love appeared in pastoral* poetry, which focused on the loves of shepherds and nymphs*. Poets presented the countryside as a place of simple pleasures and honest feelings, far removed from the ambitions and deceptions of urban life. However, not all Renaissance literature portrayed love as idealized or romantic. Opposing views appeared in bawdy* stories, which focused on crude sexuality, and in writings that attacked women as wicked temptresses who led men astray.

Sometimes, various conflicting views of love appeared in a single work of literature. The Decameron, a collection of short stories written by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio around 1350, contains many tales about love, ranging from stories of deep devotion to lively accounts of sexual affairs. In a similar collection from the 1500s called the Heptameron, by Margaret of Navarre, the storytellers reflect on the meaning of love, its effect on Christian virtue, and its relationship to marriage.


Making Marriages. The Renaissance view of marriage had little to do with love. Most people believed that the perfect love of the poets could not exist alongside the everyday concerns of marriage. The reality, of course, was more complicated. Although practical matters played a major role in marriage, some rebels insisted on marrying for love.

At the highest levels of society, a marriage was not just a bond between two people but a union of two families and their fortunes. Marriages between ruling families could seal political alliances and even unite empires. Therefore, among the upper classes, parents took the lead in arranging marriages. The feelings of the bride and groom were rarely considered unless one of them very strongly opposed the marriage. Families might spend weeks or months negotiating over such matters as the bride's dowry* and what would happen to the couple's property after one of them died. Marriage contracts spelled out these details.

Arranged marriages also occurred among peasant families, especially when power or property was at stake. In general, though, members of the lower classes mingled fairly freely, and courtship arose out of the contacts of daily life. Parents could veto their children's choices, but they rarely did so. Although society generally frowned on sex before marriage, many women of the lower classes were pregnant at the time of their weddings. Communities tolerated sexual contact between couples if they seriously intended to marry—and if they were well matched. Local youth groups discouraged what they viewed as mismatches, such as unions between people of very different ages or between locals and outsiders.

Courtship led to betrothal, which until the late 1600s was an important step in the process of getting married. Betrothal bound a couple in a relationship that could only be broken if both parties agreed. Couples often pledged themselves to each other in a formal ceremony, which might take place in front of a priest at the church door. The legal difference between betrothal and marriage was not entirely clear, and church lawyers wrestled with cases in which one party wished to break a betrothal. In some cases, women claimed that men had promised to marry them and then had sex with them, and authorities had to decide whether the couple was legally married. Eventually both Protestants and Catholics tried to do away with formal betrothals, focusing instead on the public exchange of vows at the wedding.

The legal requirements for a marriage were a confusing mix of church law, local rules, and custom until the mid-1500s. After that time, the church became a legal part of the marriage ceremony. Most Protestant governments passed laws requiring weddings to take place in churches with ministers, and Catholics defined legal marriages as those in which the couple exchanged vows before a priest and other witnesses. Other wedding customs, however, remained unchanged. Couples typically exchanged vows and signed a marriage contract, if there was one. Marriage celebrations often included processions to or from the church, traditional foods, music, and dancing.


Married Life. After marriage, couples were expected to abandon the romantic behaviors of courtship. The relationship between a husband and wife focused on companionship, rather than passion. Most people saw sexual relations in marriage as a "debt" that the partners owed to each other. Some people even brought their spouses before church authorities to complain that they were not paying this debt. However, religious writers warned that an excess of sex within marriage was sinful.

Renaissance society gave husbands authority over their wives. Married women generally could not act for themselves in law or commerce. However, women did have some rights in marriage. Although husbands controlled their wives' property, they also had to support, protect, and provide for their wives. Moreover, many husbands admired their wives and secretly relied on their judgment. In some cases, a husband's will left considerable power in the hands of his widow.

Divorce was not a real option for most couples, even where it was technically legal. Couples could legally separate, and occasionally marriages were annulled, or declared invalid. An annulment might take place if one partner had never consented to the marriage, if the couple had never had sexual relations, or if there was some legal reason why the marriage should not have taken place at all. Most marriages did not end until one partner died, but the high death rate meant that many marriages were short. As many as 25 percent of all brides and grooms were marrying for the second or third time because death had ended earlier unions.

Celibacy and Virginity. A fairly large portion of the population of western Europe was celibate, or unmarried. Roman Catholic priests, who were forbidden to marry, made up the largest group of celibates. However, many priests who were celibate according to the letter of the law openly kept concubines, women who were their wives in all but name.

Other people remained celibate for only part of their lives. Although early marriage was common among the upper classes, especially for women, Europeans in general tended to marry later than people elsewhere. Late-marrying adults, along with widows and widowers who hoped to marry again, were temporary celibates. So were soldiers and servants, who generally could not marry while they held those professions. The younger sons of wealthy families often had to live unmarried lives because the oldest son inherited all the family's property, leaving his brothers to enter careers in the church or the military. Similarly, parents of daughters sometimes splurged on large dowries for one or two girls and sent the others into religious orders.

Celibacy was a matter of public knowledge. Virginity, the state of sexual innocence, was a more private matter but one of considerable importance to society. Western Christianity placed a high value on lifelong virginity. Many Catholic saints were men and women who had preserved their virginity in the face of temptation or threats. For most Christians, however, the way to observe the ideal of virginity was to remain chaste* until marriage. Single women, in particular, had to be virgins in order to be suitable for marriage. On the other hand, church law allowed a man who had sex with a virgin to make up for his fault by marrying her. A young woman who wanted to marry a man against her family's wishes might force them to allow the marriage by announcing that she had lost her virginity to him. This legal loophole provided a strategy for couples who wanted to marry for love.

(See alsoFamily and Kinship; Sexuality and Gender. )

* pastoral

relating to the countryside; often used to draw a contrast between the innocence and serenity of rural life and the corruption and extravagance of court life

* nymph

in ancient mythology, a nature spirit who takes the form of a beautiful young woman

* bawdy

indecent; lewd

* dowry

money or property that a woman brings to her marriage

Runaway Lovers

A few Renaissance couples, faced with opposition from their parents, ran away to be married in secret. The Roman Catholic Church did not require the parents' consent for a marriage to be legal; until 1563 it did not even require that a priest perform the ceremony. Protestant couples faced greater obstacles to elopement because many Protestant communities required parental consent, especially for couples below certain ages. No matter how strict the rules, however, there were always some clever couples who managed to bypass them.

* chaste

sexually pure

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