Love and Marriage on the Medieval English Stage: Using the English Cycle Plays as Sources for Social History
James H. Forse (Bowling Green State University, Emeritus)
Quidditas: Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, Volume 32 (2011)
Much scholarship concerning the concept of “companionate” marriage traces its origins to the early modern period as clergymen, especially Protestant ones, began to publish “guides” to the relationships and respective duties of husbands and wives in the 1500s and 1600s. Studies of marriage in the Middle ages concentrate on marriage among the nobility, since there is more documentary evidence about the medieval elites. Examinations of sermons reveal that the Church, especially after the twelfth century, stressed the sanctity of marriage as an institution created by God and blessed by Christ at the marriage at Cana, but sermons say little about the day-by-day relationship of husband and wife. Yet there are clues in the play scripts of the English cycle plays that some notion of marriage as a “companionate” relationship may have existed among the common classes during the Middle Ages.
Much scholarship about concepts of “companionate” marriage traces the origins of those concepts to the early modern period, when clergymen, especially Protestant ones, began to publish “guides” to the respective duties of husbands and wives.1 Printing records demonstrate the interests and concerns of the Commons in early modern England about the nature of marriage. Several “conduct books,” as we now call them, discussed, argued, and moralized about the marital bond and the respective roles and duties of husbands and wives towards one another. Some were reprinted several times, suggesting a wide circulation. Translations of Erasmus’ Encomium matrimonii were printed six times between 1525 and 1585, eight printings of Miles Coverdale’s translation of Heinrich Bullinger’s The Christen state of Matrimonye appeared between 1541 and 1575, and Edmund Tilney’s Flower of Friendship was printed seven times between 1568 and 1587. It is this sort of evidence that leads many scholars to assume that the notion of a loving and companionate marriage only began to become fixed in the popular mind-set in the early modern era.