We have established that The Lovers card (VI) of the tarot is a visual representation of the classic story of the Choice of Hercules or Hercules at the Crossroads. Not only does the visual depiction of the card fit precisely with the story, but we know that the story was extremely popular during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, possibly inspired as early as the Carolingian period, and ultimately stemming from an intellectual resurgence in all things classical, including the Greek and Roman myths.
In contemporary tarot reading we are conditioned to understand that a card can have an unlimited number of meanings based on the emotional or memory triggers that any image might evoke from a querent. Why should we, then, somehow believe that cards didn’t have multiple meanings during their primary era of manufacture and utility? This might be a slippery slope to travel because as historians we want to be able to attribute something specific and concrete to a subject in order to affirm for ourselves its provenance. But the mind—as any tarot reader or psychologist knows—has its own prerogatives, and a seemingly endless limit to creativity and the ability to make connections between what would otherwise be incongruous elements of our environment and experience.
With that in mind, The Lovers card of the tarot may, in fact, tangentially represent another era-specific practice and its fallout—in other words, a historical phenomenon of the Renaissance—that had to do with moral conditioning, social standards, and social custom. Part of my thesis concerning the tarot playing cards is that they fit into a category of mass publishing and printing—thanks in part to the invention of the printing press—that can be classified as a form of propaganda. Mass publication was such a new phenomena that upper classes and the ecclesiastical classes used it to their own means in an effort to sustain the social order to which they were accustomed and which kept them at the top of the Wheel of Fortune (as it were). It didn’t always work out that way, and as with any new, social-changing invention, mass publishing and printing was abused and taken advantage of by all classes for all sorts of purposes, including less than morally-upright endeavors. Thus playing cards—a way to pass leisure times with game-playing—easily turned into an infatuation with gambling. While a plethora of sermons and legal decrees can be found denouncing, condemning, and criminalizing gambling, its pervasiveness exceeded the moralization of all sermonizing and criminalizing efforts (sort of, I suppose, like the way that prohibition during the early 20th century didn’t stop the consumption of alcohol, and the war on drugs hasn’t stopped the imbibing of marijuana in the United States).
And much the same way that government taxation and regulation of alcoholic and other addictive substances gives some oversight to the excesses of those substances, the nobility and ecclesiastical classes infiltrated the playing card and gambling communities with moralizing lessons printed right onto the cards. It didn’t stop people from playing games or from gambling, but it instilled a modicum of ecclesiastical authority, whether ignored or not by those playing with and viewing the card images.
With this in mind, I would like to present another possible interpretation of The Lovers card (VI), based on historical social precedent: that the image provides a condemnation of the social practice of charivari (also: charivaris, charivary), which is the French term, and known by other monikers in other various countries (scampante in Italy; skimmington in England; and shivaree as it was known as later when brought over to the Americas). Charivari was a folk custom in which the community gives a noisy, discordant, mocking serenade, frequently with the pounding of pots and pans (thus the practice was sometimes also referred to as “rough music”). It is a loud public ritual that evolved as a form of social coercion or intimidation and public humiliation in order to enforce standards of social custom.
Examples of unspoken “breaches” in social standardization for which charivari might be enacted might be a young courting couple who were considered too long bachelorized or maiden-ized; or a young couple cohabitating too long without marrying; or an adulterous couple caught coupling together; or to show disapproval of an “unnatural” marriage such as that between a much older man and a very young bride or widow; or a man beaten (abused) by his overbearing wife (in other words, a perceived discordance in domestic hierarchy); etcetera.
The two main purposes of charivari in Europe were (1.) to facilitate change in the current social structure and (2.) to act as a form of censure within the community. The goal was to enforce social standards and to rid the community of socially unacceptable relationships that “threatened” the stability of the whole. 1
Such public shaming events could range anywhere on the spectrum of decorum from subtle encouragement (of a couple to finally tie the knot in marriage), to violence and even death by hazing or intimidation (in response to sexual rape or abuse). Charivari is essentially where the early colonial American practice of tarring-and-feathering originated. Some charivari practices included the parading of effigies, which sometimes culminated in the effigy’s burning. As one can imagine, such a ritual might easily be associated with lynching, and the uncontrollable nature of mob-mentality and mob-mendacity must certainly have crossed lines throughout history.
Sometimes these social standards were formalized into concrete laws, such as in a 1375 court decree that stated: “Husbands who allow themselves to be beaten by their wives shall be obliged and condemned to ride an ass, with their face in the direction of said ass’s tail.” (No one said that Medieval populations weren’t sexist or misogynistic!) More frequently, however, such “infractions” were relegated to community intervention… which is where the practice of charivari comes into play. Because, in effect, the result of this sort of self-regulation by the lower classes assisted the upper classes in containing otherwise social disruptions to the “natural” order of the perceived universe. Achieving order through disorder—by mob actions, by the disruptiveness of charivari—was therefore generally tolerated by civil authorities.
But charivari had its dark side. Gangs are not just a contemporary 20th-and-21st-century phenomenon. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance had their gangs, too. Charivari became a way for gangs of young men to extort money from offenders who both refused to get married as well as those who did get married, taking advantage of the practice of bachelors paying ransom (or penalty fines) for the damage done or threatened by gangs as a ritualization of the passage from bachelorhood. Extortion, in fact, is what eventually encouraged civil authorities to intervene and increasingly restrict the practice of ritualized social-public humiliation. Local penal codes started to insist on more solemn spectacles, breaking the symbolic link between the “crime” and the “punishment.” With the adaptation of French penal codes and similar codes in other countries, a formal system of punishments began to triumph throughout Europe. Thereafter, little by little, the ritual of community-based public-shaming punishments were gradually discredited and declared firmly and unequivocally illegal. 2 (Note that I didn’t say “civil” or “legal authority”-based public shaming punishments were discredited…rather, the civil authorities took possession of public shaming over from the community.)
Some of this had to do with Church authority as well. One of the Church’s central tenets and uniformity of its moral view had to do with the family unit as the standardization of religious normalcy and path to morality. So…several social standards of public social standardization did not match the standardization philosophy of the Church—particularly those forms of charivari that sought to humiliate individuals for forming family units or marriage outside of what the community felt was acceptable.
For instance, the marriage of widows before the end of the customary social period of formal mourning was highly frowned upon by community members, and was ripe for condemnation through the practice of charivari. In the Church’s opinion, however, marriage was morally sacrosanct, culminating in the potential for new life and stability. Therefore, the Church took action against charivari practices by its parishioners in preference for its parishioners being able to get married—even if the union was between unsuitable partners by the standards of peasant citizens. In the early 17th century at the Council of Tours, the Catholic Church forbade the ritual of charivari and threatened its practitioners with excommunication. The Church did not want the community taking into its own hands the judgment and punishment of its parishioners. 3
The decree by the Council of Tours was unambiguous, but it wasn’t the first time that the Church announced its disapproval of community self-rule. The Church also made similar testaments as early as 1329 during the Council of Compiègne. 4
So now we come back around to our tarot card, The Lovers (VI) with its image of a gentleman at a crossroads between two women, one laureled and in regal robes, and one seemingly younger, more innocent and with flaxen hair and great beauty. Could this not be a widower being consoled by his deceased wife (in laurels and heavenly robes) encouraging her earthly husband to move on and consider happiness with a new earthly bride? Would this not comport with the Church’s sympathetic view that marriage and family are paramount even for those left bereft after the death of a spouse?
Further, to promote such an image, such a view, in the everyday tools of leisure—playing cards—used by the common man in his every day activities, might ingrain and reinforce the acceptability of remarriage. This is a form of propaganda, messaging and inferring a social change in the minds of the mass public through images that normalize the desired social change.
So in this interpretation of The Lovers card (VI), the image takes the definition of “choice” a step further than simply a crossroads between “virtue” and “pleasure”… The authority of the Church (card V as the Hierophant or the Pope) indicated to the lay populations that some choices were more righteous than others…that despite public persecution (public shaming through the ritual of charivari), true morality and virtuousness could be achieved through the stability of marriage and family, even if in contradiction to popular social custom.
 Alford, Violet. “Rough Music or Charivari.” Folklore, 1959, 70 : p. 510.
 Chartier, Roger (ed.). A History of Private Life: Vol. III, Passions of the Renaissance. (Cambridge, MA: The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press: 1989). p. 560.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charivari (last accessed 10/11/2016).
 Chartier. p. 557.