I wanted to post this yesterday but was sidetracked by the horrific bombing in Beirut. So here it is, reprinted from the New York Times (registration may be required). You can draw your own conclusions and parallels....
Historically Incorrect Canoodling
By STEPHANIE COONTZ
FOR all the hand-wringing about how modern Americans have separated sex from love and devalued marriage, Valentine's Day is a reminder of just how romantic we are. Restaurants are reserved months in advance for romantic dinners for two. Thousands of lovers use the occasion to "pop the question." Married couples vow to renew their ardor. The focus is on passion, sure, but passion in a marriage or a long-term relationship.
Such expectations of married bliss would have appalled the people who invented Valentine's Day - and baffled couples steeped in the rules of traditional courtship in the West before the 1800's.
For thousands of years, love, passion and marriage were considered a rare and usually undesirable combination. Valentine's Day was originally envisioned by the Roman Catholic Church as a check on sexual passion. Even though young people centuries later turned the holiday into an occasion to celebrate romantic love and sexual attraction, few of them expected to marry on the basis of such irrational emotions. Almost no one believed that falling in love was a great and glorious thing that should lead to marriage, or that marriage was a place to achieve sexual fulfillment.
Before he was either a saint or a holiday, Valentine was a Christian priest martyred in the third century. Some legends said he was executed for defying an edict against conducting marriages for Roman soldiers, whom the emperor believed would fight better without family ties. In one account, Valentine fell in love with his jailor's daughter and wrote her a poignant goodbye letter signed "from your Valentine."
But when the church declared Feb. 14 St. Valentine's feast day in 498 A.D., it was not trying to celebrate romance. Rather, the Church wanted to replace the existing holiday, a festival honoring Juno, the Roman goddess of love and marriage. Church fathers probably hoped as well that a Valentine holiday would undercut the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, which began each Feb. 15. According to Roman custom, on Feb. 14 - the night before Lupercalia - boys would draw names from a jar to find which girls would be their sexual partner for the rest of the year.
The church roundly condemned such pagan practices, but not because it idealized love-based courtship.
In fact, Christian veneration of married love is hard to discern in the first 1,500 years of church history. As one 12th-century authority wrote, no one "disapproves" when "a gentle and honest sentiment" softens the bonds of a marriage, but "it is not the role of marriage to inspire such a feeling." Similarly, it was not the role of such tender feelings to inspire marriage.
Although the early church forbade divorce - and even prohibited engaged couples from calling off a match - theologians believed that marriage was only one step above pagan sexual license. In the early sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great wrote that while marriage was not technically sinful, the "carnal pleasure" that husband and wife derived from sex "cannot under any circumstances be without blame." For the church, the message of Valentine's Day was that while marriage had a place in society, although not the highest place, romance had no place in marriage.
In the Christian hierarchy of respectable womanhood, the virgin ranked highest, the widow next and the wife last. The church upheld the authority of men over their wives, but husbands took their lumps too. One medieval church pamphlet tried to encourage young women to take vows of celibacy by warning them that marriage would drag them down "into the thralldom of a man, and into the sorrows of the world," locking them to a husband who "chideth and jaweth thee and mauleth thee as his bought thrall and patrimonial slave."
Most young people, then as now, ignored such dire warnings about the pitfalls of sex and love. During the Middle Ages, they gradually adopted Valentine as the patron saint of romance - and symbol of its all too frequent tragic ending. But few expected their passion or love would necessarily lead to marriage. Until 200 years ago, courtship was not typically conducted at dinners by candlelight or trysts under the moon, but negotiated by parents, cousins, neighbors and lawyers in the light of day. People married to consummate a property transaction or political alliance, or to work a farm together. A wedding was not the happy ending to a passionate romance. It was often the unhappy ending to one partner's romance with someone else.
Popular celebrations of Valentine's Day gained ground in the late 17th century, but not until 100 years later did most Europeans and Americans begin to agree that marriage should be based on love and young people should freely choose their own partners. Even in the 19th century there were still many defenders of traditional marriage who predicted that the new vogue for "marriage by fascination" instead of hardheaded negotiation would undermine the social order, and that high expectations of marriage would lead only to discontent.
They had a point. High expectations of married love can lead to huge disappointments, and free choice means that an individual can refuse to settle for a marriage where love is absent. Thus modern marriage almost inevitably brings higher divorce rates. Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, for instance, could have had a very stable marriage if she had not refused to live with the traditional disconnect between love and marriage - a disconnect that both Charles and his new fianc?e, Camilla Parker Bowles, were prepared to accept 20 years ago (though presumably not today).
But today's high expectations are a monumental improvement over the past, when violence, adultery and day-to-day misery were considered normal in a marriage. So when couples look soulfully into each other's eyes tonight over a romantic Valentine's dinner, they might take a moment to remember that despite the risk of divorce today, never before in history have people have had so many opportunities to make marriage fulfilling.
Stephanie Coontz, a history professor at Evergreen State College, is the author of the forthcoming "Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. "