Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy

Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy

Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy

Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy


Marriage is often described as a melding of two people into one. But what--or who--must be lost, fragmented, or buried in that process? We have inherited a model of marriage so flawed, Frances E. Dolan contends, that its logical consequence is conflict.

Dolan ranges over sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritan advice literature, sensational accounts of "true crime," and late twentieth-century marriage manuals and films about battered women who kill their abusers. She reads the inevitable Taming of the Shrew against William Byrd's diary of life on his Virginia plantation, Noel Coward's Private Lives, and Barbara Ehrenreich's assessment in Nickel and Dimed of the relationship between marriage and housework. She traces the connections between Phillippa Gregory's best-selling novel The Other Boleyn Girl and documents about Anne Boleyn's fatal marriage and her daughter Elizabeth I's much-debated virginity. By contrasting depictions of marriage in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and our own time, she shows that the early modern apprehension of marriage as an economy of scarcity continues to haunt the present in the form of a conceptual structure that can accommodate only one fully developed person. When two fractious individuals assert their conflicting wills, resolution can be achieved only when one spouse absorbs, subordinates, or eliminates the other.

In an era when marriage remains hotly contested, this book draws our attention to one of the histories that bears on the present, a history in which marriage promises both intimate connection and fierce conflict, both companionship and competition.


“When you’re married, you want to kill your spouse. When you’re single,
you want to kill your self. Better her than me.”

—Chris Rock, Never Scared

“So you got yourself a partner. I’ve got a wife. Not exactly a partner. More
like a rival. A rivalry. I wish I could say ‘this is my partner.’”

—Larry David, “Mel’s Offer,” Curb Your Enthusiasm

Today, marriage is celebrated as the bedrock on which the rest of society builds. For instance, in his 2004 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush described marriage as “one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization.” As James Dobson puts it in Marriage Under Fire, “the institution of marriage represents the very foundation of human social order.” Yet this claim that marriage is a foundation almost always, as in these two examples, precedes the claim that it needs to be shored up. Marriage requires “defense” and “protection” in the form of educational programs and financial incentives that would promote “healthy marriage” and bans on same-sex marriage. For someone like Dobson, even the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, the first to define marriage at a federal level, is not enough. Dobson proposes a federal marriage amendment to the Constitution in order “to define this historic institution exclusively as being between one man and one woman.” Dobson urges his readers to “find the wisdom and strength to defend the legacy of marriage,” through political action and personal choice. But what precisely is that legacy? This book offers an inquiry into one important source of our ideas about marriage, arguing that we need to understand the provenance and content of this legacy before we can assess its value. Marriage is certainly “historic,” as Dobson describes it, but its history is one of constant, constitutive crisis and conflict; as a consequence, the legacy of marriage is a burdensome one.

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