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Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England. (Reviews).

Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England. By Diana O'Hara (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000. xii plus 276 pp.).

This is a very fine book. It is certainly the most important work on courtship and matchmaking in early modern England to have been published since Martin Ingram's Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640 (Cambridge, 1987). Indeed, in many respects it is the most illuminating study of these issues known to me.

At first glance, one might expect a study of the deposition books of the consistory court of the diocese of Canterbury and the marriage-related provisions of wills from five sample parishes to be essentially a work of consolidation. Such material is familiar enough. If O'Hara had been content to pursue in Kentish sources the same issues that have already been explored for other dioceses, that alone would have been welcome. But she does much more. She offers both an extension and a genuine rethinking of the subject. She is dissatisfied with the way in which approaches to the history of marriage in early modern England have been shaped by the critical response to Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (London, 1977). (1) In her view the resultant interpretative preoccupation with familial control versus individualism in partner choice is "fundamentally misconceived" (237). She wants to start again by attempting a holistic approach to the processes of courtship which explores "the ful l range of constraints and considerations that might affect even the humblest" (3) and by focusing sharply upon the sixteenth century--the first period for which these matters can be studied in sufficient depth and detail.

She succeeds admirably. This is a short book, but it addresses aspects of the making of marriage never before explored so closely or with such imaginative insight. Only the first chapter, on the role of family, kin and community in the structuring of courtship, goes over really familiar ground and even here she persuasively reformulates the discussion. While never denying the existence of individual choice or the realities of romantic and sexual attraction, she insists upon exploring fully "the bounds within which they existed" (32). Courtship was "experienced on both a personal and collective level" (40). Individual initiatives were subject to the constraints of an "increasingly public series of examinations and meetings," (31) a set of ritual stages which provided a means of "facilitating harmony and the mutual protection of interests" amongst family, kin and community.

Thereafter, chapter after chapter extends the discussion into new areas, exploring original questions and presenting illuminating findings and stimulating arguments, which constitute cumulatively a resetting of the agenda. If some of the issues she addresses have been touched upon before, no one has previously focused upon them so sharply, explored them in such detail or with such insight, or brought out their significance so fully and clearly. Her analysis of the use of gifts and tokens as "a language for conducting and defining relationships" (57) is wholly original. Her chapter on the use of intermediaries illuminates the extent to which courtship was a "mediated and delegated joint effort" (118). The chapter on geographical 'courtship horizons' is novel in its analysis and scope and intriguing in its demonstration of the enlargement of the areas of contact in the course of the sixteenth century. Above all, perhaps, the chapters on notions of the appropriate age for marriage and on dowries are extremely im pressive pieces of research and analysis. They present fresh and potentially very significant perspectives on the dynamics of nuptiality in the sixteenth century, raising the possibility of rising age thresholds for marriage and demonstrating a massive inflation in dowries among the common people and the "pervasiveness of money matters" (215) in courtship negotiations.

In all these ways O'Hara elaborates her central theme of reasserting the significance of the various constraints which shaped marital decision-making. And she does it persuasively because of the consistently high level of her approach to the problems she tackles. She has a fine command of the literature in her field, and demonstrates a capacity for both effective synthesis of the existing contributions and close critical appraisal of particular arguments. She is both admirably scholarly and methodologically imaginative in her use of the sources. She is adept in the use of quantitative methods where appropriate, and also sensitive to the linguistic nuances of the deposition evidence. The interpretative argument is conceptually sophisticated, sharp and subtle, well supported, and frequently very powerful. In addition, the illustrative material is deployed in a manner that conveys vividly the texture of social relations in the period (including many insights on matters subsidiary to her main themes) and recaptur es the flavour of individual personality. She has succeeded in the difficult task of creating a study which is both intellectually and emotionally engaging.

Throughout the book she also keeps alive the implications of her work for the interpretative impasse in the history of marriage in early modem England. She anatomizes an enduring "culture of courtship" (237) but rejects Alan Macfarlane's highly individualistic interpretation of that culture. (2) She delineates a matrix of constraints, but one which provides no support for Lawrence Stone's "extreme, simplistic, modeling" (237) of marriage in the sixteenth century. She transcends the debate occasioned by the pioneering work of those scholars by providing at last a firm and convincing analysis of what might be considered the status quo ante. And through her chronological specificity, she lays the foundation for a fresh approach to both continuity and change in the marriage practices of early modern England.

Ideally, I would have liked her to pay more sustained attention to the distinction between courtship proceedings in first marriages and in remarriages. There is room also for consideration of the implications of the arguably more opportunistic courtships of the poor revealed by the evidence of illegitimacy cases. (3) But such points seem almost carping in the light of what O'Hara has achieved. Her book really makes a difference to one's conception of the subject, and her arguments may have implications that extend even further than the conclusions which she is prepared to draw at this stage of her work. She revitalizes a central issue in the history of the period. Hopefully, this represents a turning point in the history of the family in early modem England.


(1.) For a fuller discussion of the interpretative impasse afflicting the history of the family in early modern England, see K. Wrightson, "The Family in Early Modern England: Continuity and Change," in Hanoverian Britain and Empire. Essays in Memory of Philip Lawson ed. S. Taylor, R. Connors & C. Jones (Woodbridge & Rochester NY, 1998).

(2.) Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England. Modes of Reproduction 1300-1840 (Oxford, 1986).

(3.) See e.g. Richard Adair, Courtship, illegitimacy and marriage in early modern England (Manchester & New York, 1996).
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Author:Wrightson, Keith
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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