‘He hastens to please his wife’

I’m just reading James McCune’s 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 he’s 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 Caesarea’s ‘Admonitio ad filium spiritualem’, though there it’s a monk, not just any Christian, who should strive to please Christ. And a similar phrase also turns up in Paulinus of Aquilea’s mirror for Eric of Friuli (again, presumably taken from Basil’s Admonitio). More distantly, there’s 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 don’t 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 don’t ‘need’ to, is that many people want to be liked. It’s surprisingly unpleasant to be around people who you know dislike you, even if they’re people who don’t 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.

There’s 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 doesn’t 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 wife’s life a nightmare if he chose to – but how many men chose to?

I don’t want to overstate the possibilities here – I don’t 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.

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13 thoughts on “‘He hastens to please his wife’

  1. Well said! I hate ‘throughout history’ generalisations, but one I might risk is: despite power imbalances, patriarchy, gendertyping and inequality generally (and sometimes probably because of those things), here and there some men and women seem to like each other.

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  2. In this context, could ‘to please’ have a sexual connotation, in that married people (both wives and husbands) were obligated by the ‘marriage debt’ to have sex with their spouses in order to keep them from worse sins? This is something I’ve researched a bit in the late medieval context, where chaste marriage became a formal alternative for those who wanted to pursue an ascetic lifestyle for religious reasons (I’ve just written a post related to this, in fact).

    I think Alice Rio makes an important point about law codes and penalties. We do have to view these as indicating the theoretical limits of the law rather than the standard ‘real world’ reaction to various infractions (just as with modern day law codes, where maximum sentences are very rarely handed out). With penitential manuals at least, repeated exhortations against certain behaviours can be read as much as a marker of general cultural indifference (amongst people who are not clergy, at least) as of horror and condemnation.

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  3. Bavardess said:

    In this context, could ‘to please’ have a sexual connotation […] ?

    I admit, that was my first thought too.

    Thank you for the useful (and timely) reminder about law codes. Now I’m off to read Bavardess’s post.

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  4. 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.

    I’m not sure how men being encouraged to please wives counts as ‘another’ truth, separate from patriarchy. The point about the latter is that it’s the men who have the options, including the option to be nice to their wives. What wouldn’t easily fit into our model of patriarchy would be wives having the option of not pleasing their husbands.

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  5. Great post: very interesting. Although I did have the same thought as Bavardess,About it being “pleasing” in a sexual way. However, I read something similar recently: in Jerome against Jovinian (might have been in Helvidius too) and that was (sort of) his argument for living an ascetic life (Ie: man can’t please humans AND god) and why virgins and the chaste were able to get closer to god than the married (although his focus was primarily women and the perpetual virgin!) but perhaps pleasing means more in a spiritual/platonic sense, and means to devote one’s time and care for or look after– a man’s role? Just an UG idea, sorry if it’s way off!

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  6. The big problem with assuming that ‘please’ means please sexually is that several of these writers were writing against a background where it was automatically wrong to take pleasure in sex, even with one’s own spouse. That certainly the position of the western church in late antiquity (not just Jerome, but Augustine as well). It’s only really from the twelfth century onwards, for example, that the idea develops that it’s better to have sex with your husband on a prohibited day than have them tempted to have sex with other women.

    I think there are a lot of different stereotypes floating around in the idea of ‘men pleasing their wives’. There’s the classical idea of the wife as nag (seen in the portrayal of Socrates’ wife Xanthippe). There’s a Roman satirical tradition (Juvenal etc) which sees upper class Roman women as spoilt and ‘high maintenance’ – lovers and husbands are always having to do things at their whim.

    There’s also a classical civic tradition which links taking a wife precisely with settling down in a worldly sense: devoting yourself to the good of the (earthly) city, which includes keeping it populated. Samanthabella makes an interesting point about Jovinian: there are attempts to turn this civic tradition into a philosophical or Christian ideal, in which part of a husband’s role becomes the moral training of his wife. It’s visible in Clement of Alexandria, Plutarch’s ‘Advice to the Bride and Groom’ and a few other late antique texts. Arguably, the main difference between such views and those of Jerome, in fact, is that Jerome thinks he ought to be the one giving moral instruction to wives (and getting subisidised for this by them).

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  7. 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 wife’s life a nightmare if he chose to – but how many men chose to?

    I don’t think we have to assume that patriarchy is the sole truth. However, we still need to account for the nightmare that many women endured. This is from Augustine’s Confessions,

    “Brought up thus modestly and soberly, and made subject rather by Thee to her parents, than by her parents to Thee, so soon as she was of marriageable age, being bestowed upon a husband, she served him as her lord; and did her diligence to win him unto Thee, preaching Thee unto him by her conversation; by which Thou ornamentedst her, making her reverently amiable, and admirable unto her husband. And she so endured the wronging of her bed as never to have any quarrel with her husband thereon. For she looked for Thy mercy upon him, that believing in Thee, he might be made chaste. But besides this, he was fervid, as in his affections, so in anger: but she had learnt not to resist an angry husband, not in deed only, but not even in word. Only when he was smoothed and tranquil, and in a temper to receive it, she would give an account of her actions, if haply he had overhastily taken offence. In a word, while many matrons, who had milder husbands, yet bore even in their faces marks of shame, would in familiar talk blame their husbands’ lives, she would blame their tongues, giving them, as in jest, earnest advice: “That from the time they heard the marriage writings read to them, they should account them as indentures, whereby they were made servants; and so, remembering their condition, ought not to set themselves up against their lords.” And when they, knowing what a choleric husband she endured, marvelled that it had never been heard, nor by any token perceived, that Patricius had beaten his wife, or that there had been any domestic difference between them, even for one day, and confidentially asking the reason, she taught them her practice above mentioned. Those wives who observed it found the good, and returned thanks; those who observed it not, found no relief, and suffered.”

    From this it seems that it was commonplace for wives to be treated as servants, and for husbands to be unfaithful and beat their wives.

    This is not the only truth, but certainly enough women lived this way as to make patriarchy somewhat unattractive. I hope that this discussion will not be used by those who wish to perpetrate patriarchy today. I am sure that some fortunate women in antiquity were happy, but those those who suffer under patriarchy then or now, deserve to be freed from it.

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    • There’s a very interesting recent article by Leslie Dossey, ‘Wife beating and manliness in late antiquity’, Past and Present, no. 199 (2008), 3-40 that compares attitudes to wife-beating in classical and early medieval Greece and Rome. According to Dossey, domestic violence against wives was far less acceptable in the Eastern Empire than the West, despite Greek women generally having more restrictions on their behaviour than Roman ones. Augustine may report violence against wives and justify it, but John Chrysostom is appalled by such behaviour.

      Dossey suggests that the difference may be actually due to the more fluid status of Roman women – they have to be kept in their place, while Greek women are ‘naturally’ inferior, so that it’s demeaning for Greek men to descend to the level of getting violently angry with them.

      The most striking thing historically about patriarchy is how long it has endured. One of the reasons it has done so is how flexible it is: forms of patriarchy change, views of women can shift 180 degrees, even while men as a group still predominate over women as a group. So I am particularly interested in the leeway that patriarchal systems offer, the safety valves that may be essential to the continued survival of the overall pattern, while allowing individual women the chance of power or a reasonable life. All women always being crushed by all men always is not how the system works and if we pretend it is we are lying to ourselves and others. I want patriarchy to be ended, but I don’t see how misunderstanding it, or failing to recognise the advantages it offers to some women some of the time is going to help eliminating it.

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  8. I understand what you are saying, but I came here by following a link from a site that appears to claim that patriarchy is equally fulfilling as a way of life for women as gender egalitarianism.

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    • I can’t control who links to the site or how people read my posts. But I can say that someone who comes to the site and reads my collected posts on patriarchy (or on Christianity or feminism) will find a lot of things I’ve written that challenge traditional views.

      As for the specific question of whether patriarchy is fulfilling for women, any discussion is complicated by variability and subjectivity. Look at more or less objective measures of difference between societies. It’s not controversial to say that British women are better educated now than in Tudor times. Yet there are very few modern women who are as educated as Elizabeth I. Average life spans have increased greatly, yet Charlemagne lived longer than my mother did (and possibly than my father did).

      Studies of happiness in contemporary societies, meanwhile, have shown how complex subjective feelings of contentment are, not obviously related to people’s actual circumstances. People can be happy in what others would consider the most appalling circumstances and unhappy when others would consider they ought to be delighted.

      So I am quite willing to accept that some women can be fulfilled in patriarchal societies even while arguing that most women are more likely to be fulfilled in egalitarian societies. This is particularly the case because Western patriarchies (I’m less sure about other cultures) have tended to use carrots as well as sticks in enforcing patriarchal norms. A minority of ‘good’ women who abide by such norms get celebrated by patriarchal culture in order to encourage other women to adhere to such behaviour, and to condemn other women who don’t ‘behave’. As a divide and rule strategy it’s proved very effective.

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      • Western patriarchies (I’m less sure about other cultures) have tended to use carrots as well as sticks in enforcing patriarchal norms. A minority of ‘good’ women who abide by such norms get celebrated by patriarchal culture in order to encourage other women to adhere to such behaviour, and to condemn other women who don’t ‘behave’. As a divide and rule strategy it’s proved very effective.

        Especially when that ‘celebration’ consists of granting the ‘good’ women power over the ‘bad’. I don’t think we can understand patriarchy (and especially Bennett’s patriarchal eqilibrium) if we don’t take into account how it gives some women an interest in collaborating, so long as they’re willing to accept the overall patriarchal conditions.

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