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on 7 November 2013
This is a book which shows how history was affected by the rules governing marriage and how the rules governing marriage were affected by history. It consists of a collection of history stories, quotations and opinions which shows the changing relationship between marriage and the social/economic structure of society. In other words, if you don't want the rules of marriage to change, don't change the economic structure of society. What is very clear from ploughing through all this information is the way the middle/upper classes use the law/church/media to brainwash/bully the working-classes as to how they should lead their lives. Marriage is a legal system of rules which govern inheritance. What is surprising about the book is that so much information was needed to prove that the modern view of marrying for love is a modern invention and has no historical basis. The problem with the book is that it makes its point about the `nuclear family' myth in the first chapter and them spends the rest of the book making the same point over and over again. What is noticeably missing from this book is the psychology of people. Can divorce be explained away simply by economic/job security; the book never nails this particularly well. What is not discussed is whether people are psychologically suite to lifelong marriage to one person; this is probably too controversial for academics to discuss. More and more people live alone and this book merely attributes this behaviour to the fact that humans are living longer and are now capable of surviving without a lifetime mate. Is this an adequate explanation? I think it's too simplistic; you read it and form your own conclusions.
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on 25 January 2013
This is a fascinating and comprehensive look at marriage in (mostly) the Western world over the last two millennia, with most of the attention reserved for the last 200 years.

I do have a problem with the scope, though. There is so much information and so many factual references in here that it can sometimes read as if they have been jumbled together, without elegantly leading to a conclusion. It can dip in and out of different cultures in different periods to make a point, which is useful to substantiate her argument that humans aren't bound by one form of marriage or another, but can be confusing to follow. The author has enough content to make the book twice as long and maybe it would have benefited from either being cut down and focusing more, or extended into two volumes - it is certainly interesting enough.

With a book that covers so much ground, it is hard to be an expert in every culture or period and her brief treatment of Classical history makes me wonder how much depth of attention she was able to pay to periods outside the early modern and modern. It is interesting (if not surprising) that Athenians had a democracy but that it did not extend to slaves and women. The same was true of the US and French revolutions. However I think a comparison with Sparta - a mere 100 miles away and flourishing at the same time - would have been really valuable, since despite the fact they were a monarchy, they treated marriage completely differently and the status of women was far better. For example, women were not secluded, they were not veiled, they could own property and keep it after divorce, they sometimes practiced polyandry. Athens is certainly the more representative culture from that period in history but not every ancient culture oppressed and restricted its women in that way. You could write a book of this length just about marriage in the Classical period (see Debra Hamel's excellent 'Trying Neaira' for one example of how family life worked in Classical Athens).

So I feel the 'pick and mix' approach, while fascinating to someone with no background in the sociology or history of marriage, gives the book a lack of coherence. This is a real shame, as there is so much research in here, the references are a treasure trove and it's a very readable book.
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on 25 May 2015
This is a very accessible and enjoyable romp through the history of marriage. In particular, Stephanie Coontz demonstrates how the definition of marriage has constantly fluctuated. There has never been a time when people could confidently say, 'This is what marriage is". The 'traditional marriage' is less easy to identify than you might think. Few cultures have ever managed to make it universal. America in the 1950s perhaps came closest, with maybe as much as 95% of the population entering into a registered marriage. A third of those marriages, however, ended in divorce and a kind of deep, stifling unhappiness that is still being explored in films and novels about the era. Yet Coontz also clearly shows how marriage has been an aspiration for people throughout the centuries and across many different cultures. She is at her best when describing the quirks and peculiarities that have come under the notion of "marriage" - Cleopatra married both her brothers! - but she also ultimately conveys great affection for the institution that still has room to grow now that love has been recognised as its most essential element. Highly recommended.
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on 19 March 2013
this book makes you see how arbitrary marriage really is and how it changed in meaning over time and cultures.
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on 1 November 2013
may itself be in the grip of it's own time and culture more than it wants, but nonetheless a deeply interesting attempt to look at how marriage dynamics and models have changed over time
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on 5 February 2011
A friend recommended me this book and I eagerly read it whilst on assignment in Copenhagen. Overall it is an easy read even if the subject is complex. Learned a lot from it.
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on 5 February 2010
Just when the clamor over "traditional" marriage couldn t get any louder, along comes this groundbreakingbook to ask, "What tradition?" In Marriage, a History, historian and marriage expert Stephanie Coontz takes readers from the marital intrigues of ancient Babylon to the torments of Victorian lovers to demonstrate how recent the idea of marrying for love is - and how absurd it would have seemed to most of our ancestors. It was when marriage moved into the emotional sphere in the nineteenth century, she argues, that it suffered as an institution just as it began to thrive as a personal relationship. This enlightening and hugely entertaining book brings intelligence, perspective, and wit to today s marital debate.
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