A Cultural History of Marriage in the Renaissance and Early Modern Age
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A Cultural History of Marriage in the Renaissance and Early Modern Age

Joanne M. Ferraro, Joanne M. Ferraro

  1. 224 páginas
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

A Cultural History of Marriage in the Renaissance and Early Modern Age

Joanne M. Ferraro, Joanne M. Ferraro

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Why marry? The personal question is timeless. Yet the highly emotional desires of men and women during the period between 1450 and 1650 were also circumscribed by external forces that operated within a complex arena of sweeping economic, demographic, political, and religious changes. The period witnessed dramatic religious reforms in the Catholic confession and the introduction of multiple Protestant denominations; the advent of the printing press; European encounters and exchange with the Americas, North Africa, and southwestern and eastern Asia; the growth of state bureaucracies; and a resurgence of ecclesiastical authority in private life. These developments, together with social, religious, and cultural attitudes, including the constructed norms of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality, impinged upon the possibility of marrying. The nine scholars in this volume aim to provide a comprehensive picture of current research on the cultural history of marriage for the years between 1450 and 1650 by identifying both the ideal templates for nuptial unions in prescriptive writings and artistic representation and actual practices in the spheres of courtship and marriage rites, sexual relationships, the formation of family networks, marital dissolution, and the overriding choices of individuals over the structural and cultural constraints of the time. A Cultural History of Marriage in the Renaissance and Early Modern Age presents an overview of the period with essays on Courtship and Ritual; Religion, State and Law; Kinship and Social Networks; the Family Economy; Love and Sex; the Breaking of Vows; and Representations of Marriage.

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Courtship and Ritual
One spring Sunday sometime between 1650 and 1670, a young woman, the stepdaughter of Moses the watchman, was to get married in the Jewish community of Worms. In that community, which was located in the Holy Roman Empire adjacent to the Rhine River, it was customary that on the day preceding the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom celebrate with their unmarried friends, after which the groom sent gifts to the bride in her home. After these two rituals, the sexton of the community called out in Yiddish, “The bride is going to the bath,” and the bride was accompanied to the bathhouse by several women in order to bathe before her upcoming wedding. The rabbi of Worms, Samson ben Samuel Bacharach, who had spent much of his life in Moravia, was opposed to holding the gift-giving and bathing procession on the Sabbath, even if the wedding was scheduled for the following day. According to Jewish law, it was not customary to receive gifts on the Sabbath, nor was it technically permissible to prepare during the Sabbath for anything that was to transpire after the Sabbath, including a wedding. Nevertheless, after consulting with the elders of the community, who assured him that “it had been that way for eternity,” even in the case of a wedding held on a Sunday, he relented and agreed to the local practice permitting both the giving of gifts and the procession to the bath on the Sabbath.1
This anecdote illustrates how marriage rituals in the early modern period comprised legal and theological components on the one hand, and popular elements on the other.2 This was not only true of Jewish weddings. Catholic and Protestant ceremonies similarly included both official confessional rites and popular practices (see also Cristellon and Plummer in this volume). The theological and legal frameworks of marriage differed among Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, and these differences were naturally reflected in the official marriage rituals of each faith. Yet as prior research on Catholic and Protestant marriage rituals have shown, the popular elements of these rituals were often quite similar. Many of these customs continued medieval practices symbolically enacting the transfer of property and acquisition of new kin.3
This chapter presents and analyzes courtship and marriage rituals in early modern Europe among Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish Europeans. This comparative analysis of three communities greatly enhances our understanding of how marriage was understood and celebrated in early modern Europe as a whole. As we shall see, the legal and theological dimensions of these rites clearly marked these three different communities as distinct, yet their respective popular features and practices indicate tremendous similarities between the groups, particularly those who were geographically proximate to one another. This chapter also discusses the inevitable tension between theological and popular elements of marriage, as is seen in the above example from the Jewish community, in which the local custom was at odds with rabbinic strictures of Sabbath observance.
As scholars have argued, popular practices varied widely along regional and even local lines. Providing an overview of these rituals among members of three different religious communities is thus a daunting task.4 The article will draw on specific cases and examples that illustrate broader patterns associated with early modern marriage rituals, while pointing to some of the most important and interesting distinctions between different locales.
One of the major historiographic debates about courtship in early modern Europe concerns the degree to which young individuals had the freedom to choose their own partners. In his monumental study of the family in England, Lawrence Stone argued that couples had little self-determination when it came to selecting a marriage partner.5 By contrast, Alan Macfarlane has argued that individuals in early modern England did have broad leeway to make individual choices.6 More recently, in her examination of marriage among more “humble” individuals in Kent, Diana O’Hara convincingly argues that the dichotomy between “constraint” and freedom in choosing a spouse is oversimplified. Rather, she examines marriage as taking place in an informal network of kin, friends, and community, all of whom had an interest in the match, as did the couple.7 As Susan Karant-Nunn has claimed in regards to Germany, the selection of a spouse involved a mix of the personal, emotional, and sexual preference of the couple as well as the practical, often economic concerns of the wider network of family and neighbors.8 Indeed, as Jutta Sperling has argued, the degree of personal freedom one had in choosing a mate was directly linked to local mechanisms for owning property. In Italy, where property was transferred via a dowry, marriages based entirely on personal choice were quite rare. Since such marriages involved the transfer of family property, matches were made with significant familial input. By contrast, in the Iberian peninsula, where joint ownership of property was extant, the family’s interests were protected, and marriage based on free choice was far more common.9 In those societies where marriage involved the transfer of property via a dowry, families and communities expressed their investment and involvement in the selection of a marriage partner in both formal and informal ways (see also Sperling in this volume). Jennifer McNabb has examined the role of family and friends in arranging marriages among wealthier families in sixteenth-century Chester, England.10 O’Hara’s work on Kent similarly demonstrates the importance of intermediaries, who often introduced young men and women to one another, and subsequently delivered messages and tokens between them. These rituals of gift-giving were central to the culture of courtship that she describes. Which gifts and tokens were given was dictated by both personal preference and socioeconomic status. A wide range of items, including money, clothing and leather, metal (including trinkets and rings), animals, foodstuff, household items, and letters and books, were exchanged.11 Women were often the passive recipients of gifts, with men frequently the active givers engaging in courtship. These gifts were often given to demonstrate intent to wed, and in some of the cases from Kent described by O’Hara, the acceptance of the gifts carried with it the assumption of an agreement to marry the giver. For example, Jane Bedford, who had accepted a bracelet, a gold ring, and other items from Oliver Symons, was forced to appear before a court and to restore the gifts she had accepted since she did not intend to marry him.12 Thus, the giving of gifts, though informal, was recognized as a ritual of courtship with a quasi-contractual dimension, reflecting a sincere intention to wed.
Aside from the gifts they exchanged, young couples considering marriage often conducted informal meetings with one another. In Kent, courting men and women often lived in relatively close proximity, a fact that allowed them to meet with one another. Fairs, markets, stiles and gates were among the informal and liminal places in which these young individuals would meet as part of their courtship.13
By contrast, courtship practices among Jews often differed, as they did not always wed individuals who resided in a proximate region. While we do have examples of Jews marrying local partners, marriage between partners residing in different regions was not uncommon, a fact that means informal gift exchanges and meetings before formal betrothal could not have been the norm. Roni Weinstein’s study of Italian Jewish courtship stresses letters as a key matchmaking tool, with kin and other intermediaries making discreet inquiries as to the suitability of a match.14 The practices among Italian Jews were similar to those of Florentine Catholics. These couples did not meet informally, as their contemporaries did in England but, rather, secret negotiations between families were conducted, often with the help of intermediaries. These negotiations were concluded with a handclasp, the impalmamento, or in some cases a kiss on the mouth between the parents or kin who had contracted on behalf of the couple.15
The next step toward marriage was the adoption of a formal betrothal agreement. In all three religious communities the shift from informal courtship to formal betrothal was marked by a public rite, though the venue and number of people in attendance varied extensively (see also Bayer in this volume). In Florence, a public male-only ceremony was held, in which the dowry was formally arranged and signed by a notary. This was followed by a festive party at the home of the bride, in which the notary formally solicited the couple’s consent to the marriage, an element that, as we shall see below, was deemed essential for the marital union.16 The formal betrothal ceremony, the sposalizo, included a nuptial ring, and the performance of this ceremony rendered the bride technically married, although the process was not considered finished until the public celebration, the nozze.
In Kent, by contrast, the formal expression of intent to wed was often marked by drinking toasts in the presence of witnesses.17 In northern Germany, there was also a transition from informal negotiations between the couple and their families to the formal announcement of the couple’s engagement. During the informal stages, a young suitor asked his parents or two male friends to visit the relatives of the woman he wished to court on his behalf. The formal announcement, the Bekenntniss, could take place as much as one to two years later. To officially mark the betrothal the father of the bride filled a brand new bowl with beer. The groom would toast his bride-to-be and drink the beer, after which there was a festive party that lasted through the night. Next, formal negotiations over the dowry would commence. Once these financial arrangements were completed, the families drank lövelbier from a new vessel after toasting the bride. The groom would present the bride with the cup, which she would include in her trousseau. According to some sources, a festive meal, the löbde, was hosted by the bride’s father for the groom and his relatives later that day or several days later.18
These symbolic acts solemnified the financial aspects of the marriage. They involved exchanges between the bride’s father and the groom, the active parties in this transfer of property. The transition from the informal negotiation to the formal announcement was enacted in the presence of family and community, who were interested parties. Moreover, their presence as witnesses ensured that this was a formal arrangement that could not be easily broken. The presence of a notary in Italy also served to formalize the contract.
In Augsburg and southern Germany, the transition from courtship to formal betrothal was of shorter duration, lasting from a few weeks to six months. The woman who was being courted was typically passive; thus, when a young man serenaded a woman he was courting, she was to stay indoors, lest her sexual status be questioned.19 In northern Germany, by contrast, women could be active during the courtship negotiations but were often more passive once they were formally betrothed.20 The bride’s virginity, discussed at length below, was also highlighted in the northern German ritual for formal betrothal. The bride would provide her groom with a wreath of gold or silk, popularly understood as a symbol of her virginity.21 The bride’s virginity also constituted part of what the groom was acquiring upon his marriage and was thus highlighted during the betrothal ritual. Indeed, in southern Germany, a groom did not inherit the property from his bride’s family until after the marriage had been consummated.22
A formal ceremony marking official betrothal was also celebrated in premodern Jewish communities. The ritual is described by Juspe Schammes, the sexton of the Jewish community of Worms, in his Sefer minhagim (Book of Customs), in which he documented the rituals of his community. During this ceremony, a formal document called tena’im (literally conditions [of the marital agreement]) was issued.23 During that ceremony, which often took place in the house of the rabbi, the tena’im were read aloud, and an item was ritually passed between the families, who then broke a cooking utensil to symbolize the severity of breaking the betrothal agreement.24 This ceremony was referred to in Yiddish as knas legen (literally the placement of a ...


  1. Cover
  2. Halftitle Page
  3. Title Page
  4. Contents 
  5. List of Figures
  6. Contributors
  7. General Editor’s Preface
  8. Introduction
  9. 1 Courtship and Ritual
  10. 2 Religion
  11. 3 State and Law
  12. 4 The Ties that Bind
  13. 5 The Family Economy: A Comparative Perspective on Legitimate Marriage, the Dispossession of Mothers, and the Displacement of Children
  14. 6 Love, Sex, and Sexuality
  15. 7 Breaking Vows: Adultery, Marital Ill-Treatment, and Divorce in England, 1450–1650
  16. 8 Representation: Art Celebrates Marriage in the Renaissance
  17. Notes
  18. Bibliography
  19. Index
  20. Imprint