- The History of Marriage through the Lens of Case Studies
Each of these four books treating marriage in diverse regions of the world and across a variety of historical periods focuses on the story of an individual couple. While concentrating on one relationship, the authors work to draw broader conclusions based on the single case under examination. Taken together, these quite different books lead to one overarching conclusion: marriage has always been a complicated and varied institution that can take a wide variety of forms and paths based on the desires and personalities of the two people involved, the people around them, and the political, economic, and legal contexts in which they led their lives. In our current period, with attention drawn to questions of gay marriage and other new and more flexible approaches to defining what marriage is or should be, it is worthwhile to examine how couples viewed their relationships in earlier periods and in different geographical, political, and economic contexts. The marriages examined in these four books stretch our assumptions about the nature of marital relations prior to the late twentieth century. In addition, the wives in these stories were all formidable women who managed to exercise considerable autonomy and agency within the patriarchal institution of marriage. Their lives and experiences help us to reconsider the power and limitations of institutions like marriage and demonstrate [End Page 157] the multiplicity of ways that women (and men) could push against them while constructing a sense of meaning for themselves.
In Two Troubled Souls, Aaron Spencer Fogleman traces the story of a Moravian couple, Maria Barbara Knoll (d. 1777) and Jean-François Reynier (1712–1775), who traveled from Europe to the Americas in the early eighteenth century, first to Suriname and eventually to North America, where they settled in Pennsylvania and then Georgia. Fogleman’s exhaustive research in multiple archives on both sides of the Atlantic allows him to tell an engaging tale that sheds light on religion, race, gender, and sexuality in multiple geographic contexts while exploring the experiences and concerns of one couple. This was a marriage that the couple had little control over: the Moravian leaders selected them for each other, determined how their wedding would be consummated (while watching!), and informed them where they would be living their lives and where to devote their energies. The husband, Jean-François Reynier, had a strong sense of himself as patriarch, expecting his wife to obey unquestioningly. In part because she refused to bow to his every whim, theirs was a deeply unhappy marriage. Yet it survived, and so did the two people involved in it despite rampant disease and tensions with indigenous populations in their first tropical destination, Suriname, and then many political and psychological traumas once they moved to the slightly less harsh surroundings of colonial North America.
According to Fogleman, Maria Barbara Knoll (Reynier) managed to exercise a high level of autonomy and “challenged male authority throughout her life,” first within her family and then with her husband (92).1 Searching to satisfy her desire for a spiritual life, she traveled without warning to the Moravian village of Marienborn near Frankfurt, where she thrived in the tight-knit and sex-segregated community. The man she married, Jean-François Reynier, had grown up in Switzerland and was the descendent of French Protestants who had settled in Vevey on Lake Geneva. It was there, prior to...