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I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage by Susan Squire

By Jen K. | Books | January 30, 2011 | Comments ()

By Jen K. | Books | January 30, 2011 |


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I feel kind of bad saying this, but I was a bit disappointed by this book. The author writes in a humorous fashion, gives a nice overview of the ways people's views of marriage changed over the years, but she concludes in the 16th century with Martin Luther. In some ways, it is really less of a history, and more a series of snapshots of famous and influential people's opinions. This is unfortunate, because Squire mentions that she spent 13 years working on this book, and while looking through her bibliography, I noticed quite a few interesting sources - she had a lot of information, but I wish more of it had been included in the book. I was also surprised to note that she didn't include Marilyn Yalom's A History of the Wife as one of her sources. I'm not sure if it was due to the fact that I've already read that, but I don't necessarily feel like this book presented that much new information.

In some cases, the information she presented focused more on men's views of women without really discussing these effects on marriages too much. One chapter that was particularly guilty of this was when she talked about the Malleus Maleficarum, "The Witches' Hammer," which was the infamous guide used to find witches from the late 15th century onward. It basically tells men that women are evil and to beware, but I felt like something else was needed to really tie it into the rest of the book a bit more (in her defense, I was slightly jetlagged while reading this, so I may have just missed that part), especially since this wasn't exactly new information to 15th century men.

Having recently read Guns, Germs and Steel, I felt she described how people settled down and started developing agriculture a bit simplistically, but that really isn't the point of the book. After that she begins with looking at gender roles in the Bible with Adam and Eve, and how the creation story will be used time and time again to justify women's position as inferior to men. At this point in time, the basic point of marriage is to "be fruitful and multiply" - she also analyzes the text and shows how Eve has been portrayed as an evil temptress though the text doesn't say anything about her tricking Adam despite popular belief (I guess we can partially blame that on Milton as well as centuries of sermons). The book was strongest in this part where she was analyzing the text and how its interpretations would later justify the dominance of men over women in all life and particularly marriage. She then moves on to the Greeks, who had a very divided system - there were wives for reproduction, courtesans of a sort for sex, prostitutes for other types of sex, and then men for platonic love and intellectual conversation since women obviously couldn't fill this role.

Comparatively, Roman wives have more rights, but both Greek and Roman writing shows plenty of misogyny, and when people rediscover these texts during the Renaissance, they also rediscover justifications for looking down on women. From this point forward, the book shifts to the Christian perspective, and with this, there is also a shift in the reasons for marriage: it stops being about reproduction per se, and starts being about lust control, leading to such common sayings as "it is better to marry than to burn." Over a millenia, the men of the Church, some of whom have never had sex, become more obsessed with sex and with regulating sex. For example, Paul thought it was best to not have sex, but if someone was going to have sex, they should do it in marriage. He didn't really elaborate too much. As the years go on, priests, monks and churchmen would limit the types of positions that were appropriate, the times of day, and finally declare that sex should only be for reproductive purposes. Of course, some beliefs from back then were nice to hear about, such as the belief that women had to orgasm for conception to occur.

Another topic she discusses throughout are the ideas of the ideal wife, and how some men would illustrate these examples to women. Squire also mentions that most men liked to marry younger women because they believed they would be easier to control and mold into proper wives. However, this came with its own risks because the literature of the time demonstrates that many men were afraid of being made a fool or a cuckold. Chaucer, for example, used his stories to poke fun at old men married to lusty young wives.

Eventually, however, the idea of love is introduced. At first, it isn't within marriage, but as part of the chivalric tradition, there are finally stories about men and women dying for each other in honorable ways. Previously, most of the stories concerned men dying for other men, such as in the Greek traditions. With this introduction of love and sex, it opens the door for this to later be incorporated into ideas of marriage, and it is Martin Luther that partially does this. Additionally, she argues that the plague made people more willing to question the church so his timing was perfect. His wife is his helper in the traditional manner, but he doesn't try and dictate people's sex lives, and writes of a loving partnership, which Squire argues is the beginning of modern love and marriage even if there some hick ups after.

As I said, it's a great overview, though in some cases I think it can be deceiving, because the book starts out in chronological order, but then the last few chapters tend to be more by themes since many of the things she discussed and addressed happened around the same time. And while Luther may have been the start of modern day marriage, it didn't just happen that quickly. I definitely would have liked to read about what happened after Luther, and up to today even. Additionally, it was Western-centric, so it only addressed the history of marriage in Europe. I wonder how much of the current book was the author's vision and how much was an editor telling her to cut it down. I guess my one other problem with the book had more to do with expectations: since she used the word contrarian in the title, I think I was expecting more of a polemic, such as Laura Kipnis's Against Love, but I don't feel like anything she argued was necessarily that extreme or contrarian. Still, as a quick overview with some humor, it is good. It is just necessary to look elsewhere for more something more in depth.


For more of Jen. K's reviews, check out her blog, Notes From the Officer's Club.


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