Term Paper: Social Construct of Prenuptial Events

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[. . .] (Ruggiero, 1985, p. 10)

In addition to this illicit form of sexual expression it is also clear that the length of time it took to actually determine the state of marriage including a rather loose identification of what constituted legal marriage add to the confusion about just what was prenuptial and what was postnuptial.

It was really only with the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century that the matter would be definitively settled. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the issue remained problematic. Jean-Louis Flandrin sums up the Church's position: "From the twelfth century, the Church had held marriage to be a sacrament which spouses administered to themselves by exchange of consent." This could be and was frequently done in secret and without witnesses. The possibilities for problems in such a situation were clearly myriad and only compounded by an urban environment, where family and peer pressure were weakened by the scale and fluid anonymity of daily life. (Ruggiero, 1985, p. 26)

It was also around this time that some cultures embraced and earlier idea of proof of consummation sometimes going so far as to have the wedding party present during the first sexual act between the new couple and in some cases the public display or at least a record of the virginal blood on the bedclothes. Though it may seem very public it was a very serious matter not a matter of frivolity or freedom. A very astute teaching assistant in an Introduction to Art lecture might point out the internal ideas of a very famous Flemish painting titled The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini & His Bride by artist Jan van Eyck painted in 1434.

Most people probably have a mental image of the work just from the title. Yet, not many would know that the painting was probably posed for in preparation for a part of the wedding ceremony that included the bridal parties presence in the nuptial bedroom as proof of legal consummation, hence the very elaborate red velvet canopied bed in the. This Flemish couple celebrated real twist on the modern Bachelor party.

Comparing the results of the direct public expression of sexuality and the earlier social representation in a broad sense is hard to do in isolation. Yet, one aspect of the two differing cultural norms can be addressed through female body image issues as they relate to the idea of marriage and commitment.

In a modern situation the accepted and open representation of sex for sale, such as female or male strippers at a premarital celebration might be said to have some negative effect on the psychological ideas of body image and this is most assuredly true yet, as you will see body image has been an issue for much longer than just the last 200 years.

In modern society the youth centered thin woman with large breasts is seen by many as detrimental to the reality that is both male and female. A man might feel disappointment when he is disillusioned by the more typical and natural physical state of a woman in and outside of marriage (Shackleton, 2002, pp. 4-5). This can of coarse effect how he feels about commitment and also how he feels about the reasons he should have a bachelor party, possibly to say a sad goodbye to the perfect image of the stripper who's g-string he might be sliding money into. Furthermore, the disappointment and body image obsession that a woman might feel when facing the true nature of her own more normal body form (Gerhart, 1999, pp. 393-397) are two modern examples of this idea that have been repeatedly addressed and readdressed in both popular works and scholarly works. A good resource to refer to on this subject crosses the lines between popular and scholarly. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolff or a later work by the same author entitled Promiscuities, which has a more direct correlation to the ideas of sexuality and its development in young women. The first book is almost a household name but the studies regarding body image and its evolving effects on our culture are extensive, cross-gendered and cross-cultural.

It must be made clear that though women and men today clearly have distorted body images it is also clear that under all the heavy dresses and hidden sexual expression women may not have been fat obsessed before 1900 but the body image that produced corsets and bum rolls and the like are arguably equivalent to those of today. Additionally, the image of the female body as weak in comparison to the male was foundational. A most famous quotation from Elizabeth Queen of England gives us an example of the kind of fight a woman might have to wage to receive acceptance without the famous real and literary tactic of cross dressing, like the likes of the popular Joan of Arc:

know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.... [R]ather than any dishonor shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field." (542)

She is able to transcend the limitations of her ordinary woman's body and act with the spirit of a king, the highest of men. Because of this male spirit within her she will not engender the typical female offspring -- dishonor; she will function successfully as a man. (Benson, 1992, p. 233)

This idea of a woman's body as weaker than an man's made the at least literary envy of a woman for an actual male body an accepted idea. Building on these challenges of the image of the female body as less than perfect or abnormal, the body image issue was not necessarily healthier than it is today, just simply different.

Pre-1900 women sometimes resorted to extreme methods in an attempted to attain an ideal "female" image. The issue of the corset for example, a clear extreme in some cases because its constant use severely altered the shape of a woman's body. Though this is truer of the Victorian corset a version that covers the waist as well as the rib cage, most previous models were bodice style and only went to the waist, the physical constriction of the upper body will alter the real shape of the body. A modern person might think of this as the pre-anesthesia version of cosmetic surgery or liposuction. These body image issues surely altered the cultural expectations of prenuptial expressions as well as expectation of marriage, commitment and marital sexuality. In the case of Queen Elizabeth she took her role as a surrogate man so seriously that she never married and never bore an heir, some would say in an attempt to retain all power over state affairs.

As you can see there have been many changes to the social constructs that govern premarital celebrations and social norms in western civilization. Though, of coarse some changes dictating moral conduct are linear and will probably never return to the extremes of say Victorian Europe, the cyclical resurgence of moral conservatism repeats itself throughout history. I have addressed several factors that have effected premarital celebrations and standards over time, including evolving public sexual expression based on religion, legality, concepts of marriage, social standard and also female body image. The conclusion based on my findings is that change is evident and will continue indefinitely, as it does on nearly every level of social and moral norms.


Benson, P.J. (1992). The Invention of the Renaissance Woman: The Challenge of Female

Independence in the Literature and Thought of Italy and England. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Fordham, J. (Apr/2000):. "Death of a Porcupine: DH Lawrence and His Successors."

Literature and History. Vol. 9 Issue 1, pp.56-67.

Gerhart, A. (June 23, 1999). "Nipped in the Bud: More and More Young Women Choose

Surgical Perfection." Washington Post.

Ruggiero, G. (1985). The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice.

New York: Oxford University Press.

Schultz, J. (1995), "Getting off on Feminism." from Rebecca Edby Walker (ed.) To be Real:

Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism. New York: Anchor Books.

Shackleton, D. (September 9, 2002) "Husband to Be- from I to We: Everyman interview with Warren Farrell." Everyman: A Men's Journal.Vol. 56 p. 4.

Slade, J.W. (1999). "Inventing a Sexual Discourse: a Rhetorical Analysis of Adult Video Box

Covers." In Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender, and Identity,

Carstarphen, M.G., &… [END OF PREVIEW]

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