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February 11, 2020

This week, British men and women will spend upwards of £650 million in honour of a third century North African priest who had the ill fortune to annoy a Roman emperor.

Although there is almost no historical evidence of St Valentine, the most common tradition is that he was martyred for marrying couples illegally. Desperate for troops, the emperor Claudius Gothicus had prohibited young men from being wed — and therefore escaping military service. Poor Valentine was foolish enough to disobey the Roman Emperor, and that rarely ends well.

Unlike most feast days that grew in popularity during the Middle Ages, Valentine’s survived Reformation and secularisation because it came to celebrate a popular ideal: romantic love. Indeed, it is about more than that: the idea of love as a choice; a choice made by two people that no outside authorities — not even Roman emperors — can stand in the way of.

We take love for granted (it being all around) but marrying for romance is quite a radical idea — a fairly recent one and, from a point of view of outcomes, not a very successful innovation.

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That the West is quite unusual in this matter is largely down to the medieval Catholic Church, making it entirely appropriately that a saint’s day is still used to celebrate romantic love.

For most of recorded history, marriage was seen as a contract, largely for the creation of children. If love — agape — developed as a result, all the better, but romance was not a reason for marriage. The Greeks and Romans essentially saw romantic love as a mental illness — “a sickness, a fever, a source of pain” in the words of historian Nigel Saul — while the medieval aristocracy thought of marriages as more like business contracts. Kings used their children as assets with which to make deals, one of the most ruthless being the 12th century Henry II, who had his heir Henry wed when he was five and his bride, daughter of the king of France, just two.

It was Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who did more than anyone else to influence modern ideas of romance, introducing to England and northern France the love poetry of her native region in the south (which most probably originated in Islamic Spain, although no one can be entirely sure). Eleanor’s daughter, Marie of France, played a similar role as patron of Chrétien de Troyes, creator of many of the Arthurian romances.

This poetic tradition celebrated romantic love, but it was unattainable love, doomed by differences in social or relationship status. There was rarely a happy ever after, and no concept that people might marry because they were “in love”, which relies on an idea of individual freedom that didn’t exist. Eleanor’s own marriage was testimony to this ideal, ending with her imprisonment by her own husband for 15 years. Yet, producing four healthy sons, it was a success.

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One small illustration of the social values of the age comes via a poem celebrating William Marshal, a tournament star and member of Eleanor’s entourage. Marshal went on to serve four kings and helped save Magna Carta, becoming the epitome of medieval chivalry and also providing the inspiration for A Knight’s Tale and Ser Barristan the Bold in Game of Thrones.

Following Marshal’s death, his five sons commissioned a biographical poem to glorify their father, filled with his derring-do as loyal knight and all-round hero; it contains a passage that to modern eyes seems curious. On the road one day, our brave knight came across a young couple who had eloped because they were in love, but their families disapproved. Marshal, the poem boasts, simply robbed them at the point of the sword and, the reader is supposed to see, rightly so.

 This episode says much about popular attitudes at the time, when — like in most societies — marrying against your parent’s wishes put you beyond the pale. Marshal’s own wife, Isabel de Clare, had been awarded to him as a reward for his service to Henry II, when Marshal was 43 and his bride 17. Did she want to marry him? No one cared.

Yet four centuries later, attitudes had changed so much that William Shakespeare could write a play about star-cross’d lovers in which the audience’s sympathies were clearly with the protagonists — an attitude alien to Marshal’s world. Indeed, Karl Deutsch christened this change the “Romeo and Juliet revolution” and it was perhaps the biggest cultural shift in history.

That we came to think of marrying for love as normal is largely down to the Catholic Church. Christian theologians, following the thoughts of St Paul, saw marriage between man and woman as analogous to that between Christ and his Church. Marriage had to be consensual, willingly offered into — a rule the Church enforced with increasing determination from the 12th century.

As Tom Holland put it in Dominion:

“Here was a development pregnant with implications for the future. Opening up before the Christian people was the path to a radical new conception of marriage: one founded on mutual attraction, on love. Inexorably, the rights of the individual were coming to trump those of family. God’s authority was being identified, not with the venerable authority of a father to impose his will on his children, but with an altogether more subversive principle: freedom of choice.”

Western Europeans came to see marriage not just as a business deal between two clans, but a bond between individuals; increasingly, stories about romantic love saw it as likely to lead to not to disaster, but to “happy ever after”.

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Along with rules about consent and age, the Church also became increasingly strict about the marrying of relatives, which had a profound effect on wider society. Once people were forced to marry out, their loyalty to their family declined in relation to wider society and this fostered more radical ideas. Maybe Romeo wasn’t just a member of the Montague clan but an individual with his own desires? Maybe his individual happiness was more important than the extended family’s status? The effects have been long lasting, with various studies showing a link between the Catholic Church’s ban on cousin marriage with corruption and democracy.

Yet across the world, and among Asian diasporas, arranged marriage remains the norm, while marriages rates in the west have plummeted since the 1970s. Maybe western ideas of love aren’t the only way forward.

Poor St Valentine was unlucky enough to live under a rare leader who discouraged marriage, since throughout history most social pressure has been exerted the other way. In medieval England, in Great Dunmow in Essex, a side of bacon was given each July to a couple who had been married for “a year and a day” and could honestly say they had not regretted it. Most societies wanted marriage because they wanted children (the word “proletarian” stems from “offspring”, denoting the social class who had no property but served Rome by having children). But most societies also recognised that people had to be nudged into making the plunge.

Since the final phrase in this great love revolution in the late 20th century, when social pressure to marry early was relaxed, and with it the Church’s long-held prohibition against divorce, marriage rates have fallen dramatically.

There are now around a quarter of a million marriages a year in Britain, just over half the rate in 1969 when the Divorce Reform Act was passed. Marriage has also become a luxury good, with the gap between professional and working classes rising just this century from 22% to almost 50%. The results are huge numbers living alone, a figure that will surpass 10 million by 2040.

Many are happily single, but many others just don’t find the right person through a modern market that is far from efficient.

Maybe arranged marriage makes more sense. When westerners think of the practice they tend to think of forced marriages, and the horrific tradition of honour killings that often result, but arranged and forced marriages are not the same thing.

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In many traditional societies, arranged marriage takes the form of sons and daughters being given a short list of potential suitors from which they can choose (assuming the other person picks them, of course). Speed dating originated among Jewish communities in New York for this exact purpose, and mimics traditional practices in certain ways.

And arranged marriages do have better outcomes, on a purely measurable level.

Harvard’s Dr Robert Epstein analysed the phenomenon among south Asians and Orthodox Jews and, with an admittedly small sample, concluded that they were more successful than the secular western route.

There is certainly the argument — and the one made by matriarchs and patriarchs down the ages — that western romantics mix up love with lust, which is a reasonable criticism. There is probably something in the ancient Greek idea that being in love is a form of temporary insanity, and in no other area of life would we consider making a huge life choice during a period of temporary insanity a good idea. There is also the argument that even intelligent people make bad romantic decisions, taking a crazy salad with their meat, as that old romantic failure Yeats observed (bitterly).

Yet marriage survival rates do not necessarily reflect happiness levels, and even self-reported statements about happiness might just reflect rationalisation. Higher suicide rates among Asian women — as opposed to lower ones among older Asian men — suggest that strong families have their downsides, although suicide among western women has not declined since divorce was liberalised, while female happiness has overall declined.

And while marriage rates in the West continue to fall, especially in the US, young people in India are not spurning arranged marriages as that country gets richer. Likewise, in China and across the East “love” continues to play a far less important role in marriage than in Europe.

Western romantics might see that as cold or cynical, but then, perhaps our attitude is rather naïve and even silly. Love wins — but then sometimes it doesn’t.

Anyway, have a happy Valentine’s Day everyone; don’t forget to pick up some flowers at the petrol station.

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