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The Modern Genius of an Ancient Rite

About The Book

From the bestselling author of Home Comforts comes the story of our wedding vows—what they mean and why they still matter.

In the West, marrying is so thoroughly identified with ceremonial promises that “taking vows” is a synonym for getting married. So, it’s a surprise to realize that this custom is actually a historical and anthropological oddity. Most of the world, for most of history, married without making promises. And there’s a reason for that. Marriage by vow presupposes free choice, and free choice makes a love-match possible. It is a very modern arrangement.

Vows is both a moving memoir of two marriages and a thoughtful meditation on marriage itself. Cheryl Mendelson tackles the sociology of commitment through our most traditional promises and shows why they endure. In considering the kind of marriage these vows entail, she helps answer some of life’s most urgent and personal of questions: Could I, would I, or should I make these promises to someone? Using history and literature, the book describes the parameters of the behavior that traditional vows promise and, in doing so, answers a whole series of other questions: Why did wedding-by-vow arise only in the West? Why are they recited in weddings around the world today? Why have these vows lasted for nearly a thousand years? Why does the kind of marriage promised in the vows survive?

About The Author

Sasha Erwitt

Cheryl Mendelson is a Harvard Law School graduate, a sometime philosophy professor, and a novelist (Morningside Heights and Love, Work, Children). In 1999, she authored the classic bestselling resource for every American household, Home Comforts. Born into a rural family in Greene County, Pennsylvania, she lives in New York City with her husband.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 7, 2024)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668021583

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Raves and Reviews

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.

—Publishers Weekly

"Written with a novelist’s empathy, in a lively style (“the anonymizing mists of history”), and with wide-ranging reference (one doesn’t often meet Bishop Thomas Cranmer and guests of Geraldo Rivera in the same volume), Vows is a fine marriage of author and subject. Whether or not you agree that marriage’s venerable vows still form “the world’s best blueprint for happiness,” you will be surprised and enlightened by Cheryl Mendelson’s new book."

—Thomas Mallon, author of Henry and Clara and Fellow Travelers

"What a magnificent book. It is about promises and the words that express promises. But it is also about love and marriage and the role they have played in our lives over the ages. The author’s learning is lightly worn, but it is profound. It is a long time since I have enjoyed a book this much and been as moved and affected by the wisdom behind it."

—Alexander McCall Smith, bestselling author of No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series

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