cover image Vows: The Modern Genius of an Ancient Rite

Vows: The Modern Genius of an Ancient Rite

Cheryl Mendelson. Simon & Schuster, $28.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-668-02156-9

Coming skeptically to the topic in light of a recent divorce, bestseller Mendelson (Home Comforts) takes an illuminating deep dive into the meaning of wedding vows that reveals these binding phrases to still be “exactly what love... wants to say.” Though vows were an ancient form of contract law, they did not enter into wedding rites until the Middles Ages, for the simple reason that marriage contracts were between heads of families. For example, in ancient Rome, while the marriage rite itself involved the couple, the contract was made between the groom and the father of the bride. In medieval Europe, Christian ideas about free will and choice in marriage led to the adoption of ceremonial wedding vows that resembled feudal fealty oaths, but­­—in what Mendelson suggests was a radical innovation—were “identical for man and woman.” Mainly consisting of a promise to “keep” the other spouse “in sickness and health,” these vows made “a dramatic statement... of real equality between the couple.” While reactionary variations that differentiated women’s role in marriage as subservient emerged almost immediately, Mendelson tracks how vows continued to stand as a popular symbol of free choice, free love, and gender equality through subsequent centuries. The wide-ranging narrative draws on an impressive array of sources, from Ovid to the polyamorous Oneida community in 19th-century New York. It’s a hugely informative history of the very idea of what makes a marriage. (May)