Historically Incorrect Canoodling
By STEPHANIE COONTZ
Olympia, Wash. 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
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 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 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 fiancée, Camilla
Parker Bowles, were prepared to accept 20 years ago (though presumably
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
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. "
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company