Wife - Differences in Cultures - Christianity - Historical Status

Historical Status

Christian cultures are guided by the Bible in regard to their view on the position of a wife in society as well as her marriage. The New Testament condemns divorce for both men and women (1 Cor 7:10–11), and assumes monogamy on the part of the husband: the woman is to have her "own" husband, and the husband was to have his "own" wife (1 Cor 7:2). In medieval Christianity, this was understood to mean that a wife should not share her husband with other wives. As a result, divorce was relatively uncommon in the pre-modern West, particularly in the medieval and early modern period, and husbands in the Roman, later medieval and early modern period did not publicly take more than one wife. However, since the New Testament made no pronouncements about wives' property rights, in practice these were influenced more by secular laws than religion. Most influential in the pre-modern West was Roman law, except in the English-speaking world where English common law emerged in the High Middle Ages. In addition, local customary law influenced wives' property rights; as a result wives' property rights in the pre-modern West varied widely from region to region.

In pre-modern times, it was unusual to marry for love alone, although it became an ideal in literature by the early modern period. Roman law required brides to be at least 12 years old, a standard adopted by Roman Catholic canon law. In Roman law, first marriages to brides aged 12–25 required both the consent of the bride and her father, but by the late antique period Roman law permitted women over 25 to marry without parental consent. The New Testament allows a widow to marry any Christian she chooses (1 Cor 7:39). In the 12th century, the Roman Catholic Church drastically changed legal standards for marital consent by allowing daughters over 12 and sons over 14 to marry without their parents' approval, even if their marriage was made clandestinely. Parish studies have confirmed that late medieval women did sometimes marry against their parents' approval. The Roman Catholic Church's policy of considering clandestine marriages and marriages made without parental consent to be valid was controversial; in the 16th century both the French monarchy and the Lutheran church sought to end these practices, with limited success.

Because wives' property rights and daughters' inheritance rights varied widely from region to region due to differing legal systems, the amount of property a wife might own varied greatly. Under Roman law, daughters inherited equally from their parents if no will was produced, under the English common law system, which dates to the later medieval period, daughters and younger sons were usually excluded from landed property if no will was produced. In addition, Roman law recognized wives' property as legally separate from husbands's property, as did some legal systems in parts of Europe and colonial Latin America. In contrast, English common law moved to a system where a wife with a living husband ("feme couvert") could own little property in her own name. Unable to easily support herself, marriage was very important to most women's economic status. This problem has been dealt with extensively in literature, where the most important reason for women's limited power was the denial of equal education and equal property rights for females. The situation was assessed by the English conservative moralist Sir William Blackstone: "The husband and wife are one, and the husband is the one." Married women's property rights in the English-speaking world improved with the Married Women's Property Act 1882 and similar legal changes, which allowed wives with living husbands to own property in their own names. Until late in the 20th century, women could in some regions or times sue a man for wreath money when he took her virginity without taking her as his wife.

If a woman did not want to marry, another option was entering a convent as a nun. to become a "bride of Christ", a state in which her chastity and economic survival would be protected. Both a wife and a nun wore veils, which proclaimed their state of protection by the rights of marriage. Much more significant than the option of becoming a nun, was the option of non-religious spinsterhood in the West. As first demonstrated quantitatively by John Hajnal, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the percentage of non-clerical Western women who never married was typically as high as 10–15%, a prevalence of female celibacy never yet documented for any other major traditional civilization. In addition, early modern Western women married at quite high ages (typically mid to late 20s) relative to other major traditional cultures. The high age at first marriage for Western women has been shown by many parish reconstruction studies to be a traditional Western marriage pattern that dates back at least as early as the mid-16th century.

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