Were They Happy?

We tend to think of arranged marriages as generally bad things, as they often only present in the news as involving kidnapping or some sort of abuse, but, even now, these are a minority, and as with most things, they happened differently back then.  The world was much smaller and much more dangerous, so people had to help each other, and were constantly having to compromise. The marriage contract specifically stated that conjugal rights were very much at the heart of it, so if you didn’t fancy your partner, then it was more than personal. There was an episode of Northern Exposure where Hollings talked of looking for a helpmate, rather than someone to love, as love fades, but couples had to work together till death did they part. In the ages when there were no banks, no welfare state, and everyone had to contribute to the family economy, women’s main role was to produce children, but the timing of this was often fitted in around their work. Here is Barbara A Hanawalt from her wonderful book, The Wealth of Wives :

“To our modern thinking, arranged marriages are inconceivable and marriages for property rather than love are out of the question. Even in arranged marriages, there was time for courtship, and ecclesiastical law did not permit couples to be forced into a marriage they did not want. Marriage by consent of the parties was encouraged and happened in most cases. A period of courtship, exchange of gifts, and shared meals in the company of others permitted the couple to become acquainted if they had not met before. Marriage  was based on the assumption that it would be a partnership, starting with the initial marriage contract and continuing with the division of tasks in the household. The partnership was not equal, because he woman became ‘femme couverte’ on marriage – that is, her husband became responsible for her finances and her behaviour. But the husband could not alienate her inheritance, nor could he sell property promised in dower without his wife’s permission. Were the marriages happy? Probably most marriages brought satisfaction to the couple, and some were very loving, as we know from a few letters,, bequests in wills, and directions to be buried next to a spouse. A good helpmate was very desirable, as shown by the number of men and women who remarried.


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