Valentine and the Christian Transformation of Marriage

saint-valentine.jpg

Saint Valentine is a Roman martyr of the early church, commemorated on February 14th at least since the 5th century. Little is known definitively about Valentine, for which reason the Church has in modern times distanced itself from formal celebration of his day. This has not stopped the celebration of Valentine in popular culture, however, where stories and legends abound.

The most common legend is that Valentine was a Priest (or Bishop) persecuted by Emperor Claudius II around 269. Claudius, the story goes, temporarily prohibited marriage, believing that marriage was dissipating the martial valor of the army, which was needed for an upcoming campaign. Contrary to Claudius’ decree, Valentine continued to marry young lovers, for which reason he was arrested and eventually beheaded. Before he died, however, he healed the blind daughter of his jailor, and left a note to her, signing it, “your Valentine.”

Though in broad outline this story is most likely fiction, its details convey significant truth concerning early Christianity and its relation to the Roman Empire. Most significantly, Christian beliefs and practices did present a real challenge to Roman religion and its authority structures. In the first place, Christians refused to worship the Roman Gods. For this reason the Romans called the Christians “atheists,” and believed that the Christians were both inviting the displeasure of the gods and undermining the social order. In the second place, and more to the point on Valentine’s Day, the Christians did have a radically different approach to love and marriage than was traditional in Roman society.

In Roman society, love and marriage were not strongly linked. Marriage was a largely economic and social arrangement, contracted between a man and the parents of a young girl. Plutarch reports that the Romans gave their girls in marriage at the age of twelve or younger. While Plutarch probably exaggerated the point, literary and archaeological studies conclude that half of Roman girls were married by age fifteen. Because brides did not choose their much older husbands, and were themselves early in their physical and psychological development, there would have been little of what we today recognize as courtship or romantic behavior in advance of the marriage.

Meanwhile, on the Roman man’s side, it was normal and expected that he would make use of prostitutes and slaves (of either sex) during the years before he was married. The Roman man did not marry until his mid to late twenties, and there was a large and very public sex industry to serve his needs. The Romans hoped that the familiarity of marriage would lead to greater romance and even love, but that was not of prime importance in the marriage. And if romance did not develop, it was normal and expected for the husband to continue to make use of prostitutes and slaves. The wife, of course, was expected to remain chaste.

The Christian approach to marriage was remarkably different. In the Church, women were free to choose whether and whom to marry. Parents were still involved in making a match, but the church required that the bride give her own personal assent. The cultural effect was that Christian women married much later than their pagan neighbors, a fact confirmed in multiple studies (this also gave the Christian women a longer life expectancy, since their bodies were better developed for childbirth). And the crucial requirement of consent created the conditions for romantic love to play a part in the decision to marry.

Moreover, the Christian man was expected not to make use of prostitutes in the years before he married. Though not all Christian men followed this teaching, those who did were thereby incentivized to marry at a younger age. The combination of women marrying older, and men marrying younger, meant that couples would marry at closer ages. This commensurability of age and life experience, together with the free decision couples made to marry, created an entirely new form of marriage. Though still concerned with political and social reality, and still concerned with childbearing, Christian marriage became also an expression of romantic love, of the union of commitment and pleasure.

The legend of Valentine is therefore remarkably accurate, if not about Valentine himself. It is accurate, rather, as a description of the new Christian way. For it was the Christians who had young people of similar ages, eager to get married. And it was the Christians who would not resolve sexual desire simply by use of prostitutes and slaves. And it was the Christian priests who presided over marriages of choice, where courtship and romance could precede union. And in the long term, this was gravely threatening to the Roman Empire, for the Christian way was simply a better way. The Christian women lived longer. The Christian men didn’t dissipate themselves (or contract venereal diseases) through prostitutes and slaves. The Christian marriages were happier and healthier. Romance begun in courtship could continue in marriage, producing lower levels of adultery and divorce, and a stronger focus on the family. In short, the Christian approach meant more love.

Peter JohnstonComment