Thomas More's Utopia - engagement and marriage

Their women are not married before eighteen, nor their men before two-and-twenty, and if any of them run into forbidden embraces before marriage they are severely punished, and the privilege of marriage is denied them, unless they can obtain a special warrant from the Prince. Such disorders cast a great reproach upon the master and mistress of the family in which they happen, for it is supposed that they have failed in their duty. The reason of punishing this so severely is, because they think that if they were not strictly restrained from all vagrant appetites, very few would engage in a state in which they venture the quiet of their whole lives, by being confined to one person, and are obliged to endure all the inconveniences with which it is accompanied. In choosing their wives they use a method that would appear to us very absurd and ridiculous, but it is constantly observed among them, and is accounted perfectly consistent with wisdom. Before marriage some grave matron presents the bride naked, whether she is a virgin or a widow, to the bridegroom; and after that some grave man presents the bridegroom naked to the bride. We indeed both laughed at this, and condemned it as very indecent. But they, on the other hand, wondered at the folly of the men of all other nations, who, if they are but to buy a horse of a small value, are so cautious that they will see every part of him, and take off both his saddle and all his other tackle, that there may be no secret ulcer hid under any of them; and that yet in the choice of a wife, on which depends the happiness or unhappiness of the rest of his life, a man should venture upon trust, and only see about a hand's-breadth of the face, all the rest of the body being covered, under which there may lie hid what may be contagious, as well as loathsome. All men are not so wise as to choose a woman only for her good qualities; and even wise men consider the body as that which adds not a little to the mind; and it is certain there may be some such deformity covered with the clothes as may totally alienate a man for his wife when it is too late to part with her. If such a thing is discovered after marriage, a man has no remedy but patience. They therefore think it is reasonable that there should be good provision made against such mischievous frauds.

Background

It is hard to know whether More was being witty or serious in his suggestion that the Utopians encourage bride and groom formally to meet naked before they are betrothed. It does raise the question, however, about the best way to approach marriage. The Utopians live out their lives within a coherent, clear and firm set of moral, practical, legal and spiritual requirements. This raises the question about how far in modern society it is possible for people to be fellow citizens when there is no such shared framework of beliefs, ideas and behaviour.

Image taken from: LUtopie de Thomas Morus
Creator: Thomas More
Publisher: Pierre van der Aa
Date created: 1715
Copyright: By permission of the British Library Board
Shelfmark: 232.b.20

Taken from: Sir Thomas More's Utopia
Author / Creator: Thomas More (translated by Gilbert Burnet)
Publisher: George Routledge & Sons
Date: 1885
Copyright: By permission of the British Library Board
Shelfmark: 12204.gg.1/23