I wanted to start with an entry about daily life that was cause for joy, and there’s no doubt that Puritan women married for love, and experienced great marital contentment. But often it was not for the reasons of romantic love in the way their modern sisters think of it. Love amongst the self-proclaimed “Saints” was as much the product of marriage as the cause of it. A New England minister wrote “the happiness of marige life consists much in that Persons being equally yoaked draw together in a holy yoak. . . ” (spelling from the original). And also, “the Husband is to be acknowledged to hold a Superiority, which the Wife is practically to allow.”
Oh, dear. The day to day life of the Puritans, and their rituals, were proscribed, controlled and maintained by the ministers and the town patriarchs of the day. But contrary to a lot of contemporary marriages in America today, and surprising for such a religious community, most early Puritan marriages were a civil concern, not a religious one. Marriages were performed by a civil magistrate until 1686 when ministers were also empowered by the New England Charter to also oversee matrimonial affairs.
As far as we know, no written copy of a seventeenth-century New England marriage ceremony, or covenant as it was called, exists. The marriage itself was publicly announced, but the promises were made orally. For a marriage contract to be considered legitimate, however, certain events had to unfold: a promise to marry (what we would call an engagement), publishing of the banns, the marriage ceremony, a celebration in public of the event, and finally, sexual intercourse. We take the last as a given, but perhaps it’s often difficult to remember that the Puritans were not as buttoned down as we like to believe they were. They were in fact closer to the Elizabethans in their perspective of the homely comforts of the marriage bed, than to the Victorians, from whom we have been given the idea that the Puritans were prudes and—as we tend to believe our parents were—sexless.
On the wedding day a bride and groom were forbidden dancing and unseemly merry-making, but they none-the-less were encouraged to feast, and even drink ale and rum. They were also allowed a wedding cake. The bride would have no special dress, no elaborate hair styles; she would appear in her daily clothes, with perhaps a clean collar, cap and cuffs. But she would have had her family, and her husband’s family, there to celebrate the beginning of a life that would, hopefully, be long, prosperous and blessed with many children. By their community they were encouraged to “please, gratifie and oblige one another, as far as lawfully they can.”
“It’s the covenant of marriage, Reverend. Not a contract. You’re not tradin’ for livestock.” Thomas Carrier to the Reverend of Billerica, Massachusetts—The Traitor’s Wife