Thursday, November 06, 2008

Marriage – A Brief Historical Overview

Once upon a time I was a Deputy County Clerk for the County of Los Angeles. Part of my job was to issue marriage licenses. I think that was the best part of the job. There were specific tasks I had to perform, questions to ask and I watched as the couple swear or affirm what they said was the truth.

Sometimes I looked at a couple and thought “For the love of humanity dude, run, do not marry this chick!” or maybe “Hell, they don’t need a license, they are already married in their hearts.”

I did have one lady who I think was working on marriage number 14. I like persistence but at some point you got to give it a rest.  There was such a range of people. All with hope and expectations of what they thought marriage was or will do for them. One person loving the other more. Immigration marriages. Impulsive marriages. Love beyond measure so strong it was an honor to prepare the license for them.

Many people seem to conjure a culturally supported mythical image of what an American marriage looks like. I grew up on this particular version (in re-runs, I’m not that old.) of what a typical married household looked like when I was growing up.

This is the opening from The Donna Reed Show.

Definitions of Marriage

I’m going to start old school and open up my paper bound Webster new Explorer Desk Encyclopedia:

Legally and social sanctioned union between, usually, a man and one or more women that accords status to their offspring and is regulated by laws and customs that prescribe the rights and duties of the partners.(Page 759)

The online marriage'>Merrian-Webster dictionary has a slightly different meaning:

(1): the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2): the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.

And to be fair let’s put up a gender neutral definition from Cultural Anthropology, The Human Challenge:

A non-ethnocentric definition of marriage is a culturally sanctioned union between two or more people that establishes certain rights and obligations between the people, between them and their children and between them and their in-laws. (Page 208)

Not matching up to your definition?  Yeah, I know.  All I have been hearing for the past couple of weeks is one man, one woman. If I had know that I had options that I could marry more than one man at a time I might have been more open to the concept of matrimony. Go figure. Ignorance is definitely not bliss.

There is no one definition of marriage. It is dependent on the culture, the society and the needs of the community. Some of those needs are of commerce and business. In fact that was the driving factors in early marriages.  Love did not necessarily have anything to do with it.

In Ye Olden Days…

If people really want a traditional marriage you might have to start looking at your biological brother or sister in a new way. 2,000 years ago it was important for farm families to hold on to whatever resources they had. It was easier to marry within the family, the immediate family to maintain control over property.

There is an extensive historical article that goes in depth at the History of Marriage by the Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology. In this passage is an explanation of how Greek and Roman marriages were designed. A Greek or Roman man  could be married and still play both sides of the street:

A father arranged the most advantageous marriage for his son and then had a contract signed before witnesses. Shortly thereafter a wedding celebration was held and the young couple (who might never have met before) was escorted to bed. All marriages were monogamous. As a rule, the bridegroom was in his thirties and the bride was a teenager. In addition to this disparity in ages there also existed an inequality in education and political rights. Women were considered inferior to men and remained confined to the home. Their main function as wives was to produce children and to manage the household while their husbands tended to public affairs. For their erotic needs, men often turned to prostitutes and concubines. As Demosthenes, the orator, explained it: "We have prostitutes for our pleasure, concubines for our health, and wives to bear us lawful offspring." Many men also cultivated intense emotional and sexual relationships with male adolescents (paiderastia).

In a 2005 Psychology Today there is a brief article on what some ancient marriages were like. For example:

  • 6th-century Europe: Political polygamy—The Germanic warlord Clothar, despite being a baptized Christian, eventually acquires four wives for strategic reasons, including his dead brother's wife, her sister and the daughter of a captured foreign king.
  • 12th-century Europe: Marriage is good for loving...someone else—Upper-class marriages are often arranged before the couple has met. Aristocrats believe love is incompatible with marriage and can flourish only in adultery.

Stephanie Coontz in a2007 article in the New York Times explains how the Catholic church recognized non-church marriages:

In 1215, the church decreed that a licit marriage must take place in church. But people who married illicitly had the same rights and obligations as a couple married in church: their children were legitimate; the wife had the same inheritance rights; the couple was subject to the same prohibitions against divorce.

Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match.

I’ve only touched on a very brief look of monogamy type marriages. There certainly other kinds such as polygamy marriages that help to sustain cultures across the globe and endogamy, marriage within a certain group of individuals inside of a set community.

Contemporary Thoughts

Page at This Fragile Fortress

We questions its history of sexism and its emphasis on reproduction. We wonder why the state should even be involved in people's relationships in the first place, outside of the logistics of next-of-kin and that sort of thing. We believe in the importance of the ceremony, but question the relevance of insurance premiums or tax breaks. That being said, the reality is that we live in a culture where marriage - in that form - IS a part of our society. And if you, like us, are concerned with the values of marriage in this culture, than you should be very concerned about barring queer access to it.

Because queers can update this custom and infuse it with gender equality that will free men, women, and the rest of us from all of our historical attachments.

Misty at is wondering if government should get out of the marriage business altogether. Should there be a legal definition?  And at Philosophy Sucks ask the lyrical question, why not split the difference?:

So I say we should formally distinguish these two aspects. Let marriage be a religious institution and let civil unions be a secular institution. Let the church govern marriage and define it as between one man and one woman. And let the state govern civil unions and define it as they want; a loving commitment to partnership and family between two persons. That way religious people would get marriages and secular people would get civil unions.

My point in sharing this information with you is that it is not true that there has been only one form of marriage sanctioned for X number of years. Humans are too diverse with different social and cultural needs. Marriage adapts to what the society requires. It is not a finite condition. It is an evolutionary one.

More Resources:

Talking History interviewed  Stephanie Coontz author of Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage. This is an audio mp3 presentation.

Over at Garbled Noise is a review of the book "Uncommon Arrangements by Kate Roiphe on how of some literary famous in London conducted their lives around the constrictions of matrimony.

Susan Squire author I Don’t A Contrarian History of Marriage gives an interview on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC

This post originally appeared on BlogHer where I am a Contributing Editor.

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