Im just reading James McCunes PhD thesis on Carolingian sermons (very useful if you want to know something about early medieval sermons without wading through excessively technical stuff), and I came across a phrase in a ninth century sermon hes editing (Sermonary of Salzburg Part 1 no 8):
Sicut enim qui coniugi copulatur festinat placere uxori,multo magis christianus omnino contendat ut Christo placeat suo creatori.
(For just as someone joined in marriage hurries to please his wife, even more let a Christian strive to please Christ his creator in every way).
James notes show this phrase is taken from Basil of Caesareas Admonitio ad filium spiritualem, though there its a monk, not just any Christian, who should strive to please Christ. And a similar phrase also turns up in Paulinus of Aquileas mirror for Eric of Friuli (again, presumably taken from Basils Admonitio). More distantly, theres an echo of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 7: 33 which in the Vulgate is:
qui autem cum uxore est sollicitus est quae sunt mundi quomodo placeat uxori et divisus est
(he who is with a wife is concerned about worldly things, in what way he may please his wife, and he is divided)
Four texts, two from around 800, one from perhaps around 400 in its Latin form, one from the first century AD, which take it for granted that husbands try and please their wives. Even if Paul is over-stating his case, the comparison in the other texts with how one should love Christ makes no sense unless it is routine for husbands to try and please their wives. How do we fit this into a model of patriarchy? Why would husbands be hurrying to please people who are in theory their inferiors and subordinates?
What follows is guesswork we dont know enough about actual relations within marriages until the late medieval period at the earliest to be sure. But one obvious reason why you might try and please someone who you dont need to, is that many people want to be liked. Its surprisingly unpleasant to be around people who you know dislike you, even if theyre people who dont really matter. Add to that that if you do have subordinates who are unhappy with you, they can make your life unpleasant in a number of practical ways: the subtle or less subtle sabotage of your comfort and plans, dumb insolence etc.
Theres also the issue that for most of Western history, wives tend to have a certain status, and also functions which are not replaceable very easily. Wives normally come from broadly similar social levels as their husbands and thus potentially have some useful protection by their families of birth. They are often responsible for domestic management, which offers great scope for minor acts of rebellion: if they cannot be trusted to do this management, a replacement must be found. The prohibition of polygamy, and relatively difficult divorce, make it harder to get a replacement wife if a man doesnt like the one he has.
Pleasing your wife, therefore, looks like a reasonable strategy for most men at least some of the time. Alice Rio, in her recent study of formularies and law, argues that we need to see penalties in law-codes less as evidence of what actually happened and more as setting upper limits on the most that might be demanded of someone a starting point for negotiation rather than a fixed penalty. The unfree were probably better treated in practice than in theory. In the same way, maybe we need to see the many patriarchal restrictions on women as revealing the limits possible on them rather than everyday reality. A husband in most periods before the twentieth century could legally make his wifes life a nightmare if he chose to but how many men chose to?
I dont want to overstate the possibilities here I dont in any way think that men always chose to do things pleasing to their wives. And part of womanly training too, once we have the educational manuals for girls that allow us to see it, and probably before, is being easily pleased, willing to respond warmly to even the most token gesture by a husband. But when we point out the patriarchal systems embedded in Western marriage until recently, maybe we have to consider more carefully that that is not the sole truth about husbands and wives in the past.