My wife and I are avid readers, and a frequent topic for dinner conversation is the books we are currently reading. A few nights ago we fell to discussing various histories and historical novels we've read, and the subject turned at one point to the place of romance, courtship, and marriage in various cultures down through the centuries. Louise mentioned some legendary romances, which in turn reminded me of some entirely mythical pairings, and it wasn't long before we found ourselves trying to reconcile these stories with a well known "fact".
This "fact", so often repeated that it is usually accepted without question, is that marriage for love is a relatively modern notion. In prior centuries marriages were mostly arranged by the families of the bride and groom - indeed, this is still the case in many parts of the world. The idea of love, from the lyrics of Catullus to the baroque excesses of Middle-ages troubadors, was mainly the idle whimsy of the nobility, and was kept separate from actual matrimonial bonds. Marriage for love would not even have occurred to our remoter ancestors. Or so we imagined.
Marriage, historians tell us, was an alliance of families and fortunes, and not a pact based on mutual regard and affection1, although there are those who acknowledge a secondary place for love2. Writers of historical fiction generally follow this line if they wish to be taken seriously or, if they do not, are often dismissed as mere "romance novelists".
Modern social commentators, when examining the concept of marriage for love, often arrive at the conclusion that the "ancient ways" of arranged marriages make far more sense than the maudlin romanticism of the present. Contrary to the belief of many, however, this is far from the first time in history that this clash has occurred. Today's religious moralists and social Darwinists approach the proposition from different directions, but tend to arrive at the same destination, using arguments similar to those made 500 years ago3.
Despite all, I can not help but wonder whether "the ways of our ancestors" are being clearly understood. If the ancients truly had such slight regard for love between a man and a woman as a reason for marriage, what was the purpose of the many myths, folktales and lyrics that dwell on the subject? Ovid was particularly fond of such tales, and preserved many:4
It may be true that marriages of alliance are more common throughout most of history than marriages for love, and that love in a marriage was only a fortuitous circumstance. It seems plain from the stories of the people, however, that marriage for love is the ideal, and is far more sympathetically regarded, even when the affair ends in tragedy. By the same token, one would be hard put to find stories of any kind that sympathetically portray marriages of alliance.
Perhaps marriages for love are indeed a 20th century phenomenon; it would be a mistake, however, to believe that they are purely a 20th century aspiration. Rather, it is only in the last couple of centuries that we have enjoyed the luxury of fulfilling this most ancient ideal on a wholesale level.