Marriage, a History | Stephanie Coontz

Summary of: Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage
By: Stephanie Coontz


Prepare to embark on a journey through the fascinating history of marriage, as presented in Stephanie Coontz’s ‘Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage’. In this summary, we will uncover how the concept of love has evolved over time, and how this emotion hailed as the cornerstone of modern marriage was once considered dangerous and irrelevant. Relish anecdotes from the past highlighting the importance of kinship, the political purposes of marriage, and explore the changing roles of men and women within these unions. As we stride through the pages, you will see how love gradually gained its prominence and transformed marriage from a practical institution to the emotion-driven one we recognize today.

The Historical Purpose of Marriage

Marriage, for thousands of years, had little to do with love. Instead, it was a means of establishing kinship and connecting potentially hostile groups through intermarriage. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors sought peace with other bands, and marrying a member of another group was one way to guarantee it. In medieval Europe, love was reserved for God, kin, or neighbors. In India, romantic love was once considered dangerous, as it was believed to lead to irrational decisions that challenged family authority. The old Anglo-Saxon word for “wife” meant “peace weaver.”

The Historical and Economic Foundations of Marriage

Marriage, as an institution, arose from the practice of growing the family through in-laws to ensure prosperity and survival. In ancient times, marriage served a peacemaking purpose that formalized peace treaties and military alliances, and in medieval times, it became a tool for extending power. Love was a side effect of marriage, and its role in matrimony was not emphasized until recently.

Love and Personal Liberty

For centuries, marriages were arranged by families for social and economic gain. However, the Enlightenment and emergence of wage labor in the late eighteenth century brought about major cultural and economic changes that freed the individual from family dictates and birthed the concept of personal liberty. Suddenly, people had the choice to shape their own lives, including the freedom to choose their own spouse based on love. This marked a shift in perspective and a turning point for the marriage institution. With the emergence of wage labor, young people (especially men) could support themselves and start their own households without the need for family wealth. As a result, marriage was no longer simply a strategic decision made by parents. Love became a legitimate reason for marriage, and the freedom of personal choice prevailed.

Love and Sex in Victorian Marriage

Marriage was traditionally viewed as a rational undertaking devoid of emotional fulfillment. But, during the Victorian era, people began to expect love and intimacy from their spouse. Despite this openness, sex was heavily regulated, with a stereotype that women were not supposed to have desire. This led to widespread sexual frustration and the booming of prostitution. Physicians treated women suffering from hysteria, a term used to describe their frustration, by massaging their pelvic area, which led to the invention of the mechanical vibrator.

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