Modern vs. Medieval Marriage

What are the differences between a formal union of man and woman in modern day United States and Medieval times? Much of what we learn about both modern and Medieval marriage the relationships between husband and wife is found in literature or modern day media. Examples from literature such as Tristan and Isolde, Sir Gawain, and Arveragus and Dorigen illustrate relationships that are as varied as those seen in modern times (Berenboym).

John William Waterhouse: Tristan and Isolde Sharing the Potion - 1916

In today’s society it goes without saying that, in a relationship, we expect to love and be loved in return, especially before committing to marriage. Love is considered essential in creating a successful and enduring relationship, but was insignificant in Medieval marriage contracts. Today we see most lackluster marriages coming to an end with a divorce rate in the United States of almost 50% (Worldwide Divorce Statistics).  However,  it is made apparent through literature that in medieval times loveless marriages were common, and love usually existed outside of marriage. In the legend of Tristan and Isolde the lovers are separated by the betrothal and marriage of Isolde, a beautiful Irish princess, to King Mark who is Tristan’s uncle (“Tristan and Isolde”). Although tragically their true love is denied them in life, they are united in death never to be separated again (“Tristan and Isolde”).

Literature also suggests that, although it was less probable, there was the chance of finding love  after marriage (Berenboym). In The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle we see a repulsive hag transformed into a beautiful lady, and a marriage changed from a chivalrous agreement to a marriage where love does indeed exist between husband and wife ( Hahn). While not many couples in modern society fall in love with their spouse after marriage, the plot of Gawain and Ragnelle’s romance is a motif in fairy tales like “The Frog Prince,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and others (Hahn).

Perhaps the ideal marriage is seen in “The Franklin’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s collection of stories The Canterbury Tales. The love between Arveragus and Dorigen was not dictated by domination, jealousy or mastery, but humility, obedience friendship and faithfulness (Chaucer ch. 45).

Literature is a reflection of reality, both past and present and through literature we see that all marriages have some problem or difficulty. Literature also demonstrates that, in any time period, love is a rare gift and should be cherished and treasured by those who receive it (Berenboym).

Works Cited:

Barenboym, Marina. “Reflections on Love and Marriage in Medieval Literature.” Web. 17 Apr 2012.

Chaucer, Geoffry. “The Franklin’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales. 1392. Web.  18 Apr 2012.

Waterhouse, John W. “Tristan and Isolde Sharing the Potion.” 1916. Web. 18 Apr 2012.

Hahn, Thomas. “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle: Introduction.” Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Medieval Institute Publications. Michigan: 1995. Web. 18 Apr 2012.

“Tristan and Isolde.”  Myths Encyclopedia: Myths and Legends of the World. 2012. Web. 18 Apr 2012.

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