Marriage is the toughest human institution — it’s always been pretty much the way it started out, no matter how much legendary claptrap is hung upon it.
Take the first marriage, the biblical story of Adam and Eve, a beautiful analogy to the life of a modern couple: they get hitched, sin against the laws of economics, load up their credit cards with debt, lose their clothes and wheels, and are finally kicked out of their condominium. In biblical terms they get off light. Nobody earns his bread anymore by the “sweat of his brow.” But our Generation X pair probably had to park their cat with a vet, and eschew fine wines, until things looked up again.
Writers with little first-hand experience would have us believe the wedded state was much different in olden days. They righteously point to Elizabethan statutes which permitted a husband to beat his wife, but with a stick no thicker than his thumb. They trumpet the power of ancient patriarchs who, when irked, were entitled to put anyone in the family to death. They wail over the plight of Victorian women stuck in their corsets and unable to vote. Their special bête noire is that royal freak, Henry VIII, who had six wives and beheaded two.
Yet despite these passing trivial anomalies, I maintain marriages then were basically the same as today. Chaucer, that clever teller of tales and observer of the medieval scene, put it into verse:
A knowing wife, if she is worth her salt
Can always prove her husband is at fault
There you have it, an immutable rule of marriage, which trumps changeable sticks, thumbs, corsets and death sentences. I defy anyone to prove it is not universally alive today and in action as we write. Beyond doubt Eve convinced Adam he was the guilty party in the apple controversy.
Nattering critics of ancient wedded bliss simply do not dig deeply enough into their subject. They ignore subtle clues such as the medieval seeksorrow husband, whom we today would uncharitably label “henpecked.” He was the target of another medieval custom, the curtain-lecture, delivered by his wife after the curtains were drawn and the couple was in bed. Author Douglas Jerrold recorded a typical curtain-lecture in 1866:
Well, if a woman hadn’t better be in her grave than be married! That is, if you can’t be married to a decent man. No, I don’t care if you are tired. I shan’t let you go to sleep. No, and I won’t say what I have to say in the morning; I’ll say it now. It’s all very well for you to come home at what time you like — it’s now half past twelve — and expect I’m to hold my tongue and let you go to sleep. What next, I wonder. A woman had better be soled as a slave at once.
Does this nagging sound familiar? Such lectures probably led to the sixteenth-century proverb: “A deaf husband and a blind wife are always a happy couple.” In 1715 the custom was set to music in this song, The Curtain Lecture:
You filthy beast, you have increased
My sorrow, grief and care
By drunkenness, I do confess
I’m almost in despair.
For you drink, and sure I think
You will destroy a woman’s joy
Which I should have, you drunken knave.
My very heart will rue….
Take it yourself, you wicked elf.
I am not bound to wait
Upon you here. Alas! I fear
You’ll ruin my estate.
Reach back in history as far as you can and marriage basically does not change in substance. In ancient Athens Socrates advised his students: “By all means marry; if you get a good woman you’ll be happy, if you get a bad one you’ll become a philosopher.”
And good can be found in every impossible situation. Socrates did have a nagging wife whose eternal scolding forced him out into public places where his wisdom dazzled listeners. Among them was an aristocratic intellectual named Plato, who jotted down every word Socrates spoke, making him famous. Without the nagging he would have stayed home to become doubtless merely a gabby neighborhood eccentric.
All this historical custom has drifted down to our modern world. Nowadays, nagging does not demand a respectful hearing in India’s courts. “From a legal point of view, nagging is considered a frivolous issue and cannot be a ground for divorce,” advocate Kranti Sathe says. “It has to be proved in court that the nagging was so bad that it amounted to cruelty.”
This persistent wifely trait is a surprising health benefit for their men, according to Canada based Heart and Stroke Foundation. A nagging wife, the Foundation says, may be good for a heart patient husband. A University of Chicago researcher believes married men should thank their wives for nagging them because it helps them monitor their health, encourages self-regulation and makes them live longer.