A Brief History of Marriage


big girlMuch discussion and drama about the Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage, as may be guaranteed in the Constitution, is based on religious prejudices and faulty (or false) information. Scientific experts can be consulted for an explanation of gender and sexual orientation, and the consensus is that some people are born gay or bisexual and others are born heterosexual. For those getting their panties in a twist about this issue, I say, deal with it, cookie.

Personally, I don’t care what people are into sexually and emotionally, as long as they are consenting adults and do not harm others. It’s no one else’s business, neither the government nor some so-called righteous people who use the Bible or Koran as a bludgeon against others with whom they disagree. Morality is an issue between the individual and his/her God (or no one, if they are atheists); ethics alone is an issue between individuals and society. Once you understand that basic tenet of philosophical discourse, reasonable people can communicate, educate, and make the world a better place.

For those who wish to point to passages in Deuteronomy and Leviticus as excuses to condemn others, I would remind you that, according to those books, most of society today qualify as sinners deserving hell-fire and damnation. When those rules were written down, the Hebrews were in danger of dying out and had assumed strange rites and activities that were harmful to individuals and their society (worshiping false idols, human sacrifice, widespread sexual promiscuity, etc.). To encourage procreation in a paternalistic society, leaders sought to condemn any practices that prevented survival—homosexuality, masturbation, anal intercourse, and even contraception were viewed as evil for that reason.

Remember that when you allow menstruating women into your church or synagogue, or you have Sunday morning bacon and eggs, use condoms, and enjoy lobster and crab—all condemned as evil by the ancient Hebrew leaders. We must put scriptural injunctions in the socio-historical context of their creation or risk seeming hypocritical and mean-spirited.

My view is that

  1. God must allow or be ok with homosexuality because He is the Creator and He doesn’t make mistakes. We are all God’s children and deserve respect and compassion, for none of us is without sin or perfect. It is present in nature and has existed since we crawled out of caves (or, crawled around IN them!). Life is hard enough without forcing your ego-driven image of God down everyone else’s throat.

  2. The Ten Commandments, which laid down the absolutely most important tenets of the Jewish and Christian (and Muslim) faiths, says nothing about this issue. The most important instruction about marriage is “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” because it undermines the marriage contract (which is the foundation of society). Period.

  3. Jesus told his Apostles to follow the law of their fathers (the Moseic code, which includes the Ten Commandments), but he adds that the most important is what people now call the Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt love each other as God loves you.”

That said, I hereby offer some facts about the history of co-habitation, pair-bonding, and marriage. You might want to fasten your seat belts, ‘cuz we’re in for a bumpy ride (as Margo aka Bette Davis said in the classic film All About Eve).

According to wikipedia and various English dictionaries, the term marriage derives from Middle English which comes from the Old French marier (to marry) and has its roots in the Latin marītāre which means “to provide with a husband or wife; marītāri is a verb meaning “to get married.” A relative, “matrimony” derives from Old French matremoine from Latin mātrimōnium which is a combination of “mother” and “action, state, or condition.” In other words, the term is rooted in the condition or state of a mother who has a partner to care for her and her children. These terms do not make their appearance until 1250-1300 AD (or CE, as the PC police dictate).

So, this condition did not even have a name for 1000s of years. Anthropologists explain that prior to farming communities and civilization, people simply lived together. They call it pair-bonding which is a term defining two people who bond to assist each other in the raising of their (presumed) children. In agricultural (rather than hunting or herding) communities, men and women worked side by side, working the same tasks except for those requiring exceptional physical strength or childbearing. These were mostly egalitarian arrangements between equal partners, with no need of state or religious sanction and was probably not restricted to opposite-sex relationships.

Many ancient and some modern people, such as Native Americans, some African tribes, Muslims, and Mormons, also recognized other arrangements, such as polygamy (several wives), polyandry (several husbands), “ghost marriages” (where another woman assumes the role of husband), homosexual bonding, and other relationships. While many anthropologists define marriage as a union between a man and a woman so that her children are recognized as legitimate offspring of both, this “definition” is focused on the narrowest meaning to benefit a paternalistic society that values men more than women and still views female adultery as far worse than males’ betrayals.

Based on her research in Sudan and India, anthropologist Kathleen Gough argues that marriage should be defined as “a woman and one or more other persons.” She later added the construct of legitimacy to agree with other scientists who assume that marriage is not about sexual access but is rather a method of caring for helpless offspring who require many years of dedicated service by a parent or parents. Legitimacy seems a result of ego, not wanting to raise another man’s child.

Edmund Leach sees marriage as conferring certain rights, summarized here:

  1. To establish a legal father and mother to the children.

  2. To give husbands and wives a monopoly on the spouse’s sexuality.

  3. To give partial or monopolistic rights to the partner’s services.

  4. To give partial or total control over property of the spouse.

  5. To create a joint fund of property, a partnership to benefit the children.

Following a sociological view of marriage negates any notion that it must be between a man and a woman exclusively. Modern science and adoption agencies have made possible a variety of marital and parental arrangements never dreamed of hundreds of years ago. If the modern concept of marriage is that it is a mutual agreement between two people who love one another and who wish to live together “’til death do us part,” with parenting as an option rather than as a requirement, I see no reason it should prevent gays from following a normal human urge that straight people have enjoyed for centuries.

The concept of marrying for love (companionate marriage) is a relatively new phenomenon, emerging about the time that concepts of individual human rights, middle-class, and capitalism in Europe and America emerged. Some argue that industrialization broke down the ties between extended families, necessary in an agricultural society, and encouraged the nuclear family as a norm. So, notions of romantic love first began to appear in Medieval society, with knights and ladies, but this was always adulterous by nature. Women then were married to men chosen by their fathers or rulers, to procreate and to enhance family land holdings. Romance only entered the picture if a married woman caught the eye of a “knight in shining armor” who would write her poetry, sing her songs, give her gifts, and woo her. These romances were not necessarily consummated, and the consequent anguish of this fact made them all the more enticing.

It is interesting to note that the Catholic Church began to insist on priests officiating at weddings around the same time the Age of Chivalry introduced notions of romantic love. For centuries, marriage was not “officially” sanctioned by church or state; two people agreed to marry and that was all that was required. This was always true in pre-Christian eras and continued to be true for poor people. For those with property and money and for those deemed nobility or royalty, however, marriage was settled between the heads of families with appropriate documents. Up until the 20th century, daughters were considered the property of their fathers until they married, at which time they became the property of their husbands. Women did not even have rights to their own children.

Christian Views of Marriage

The more “civilized” people became, the more restricted life became for girls and women, as paternalistic societies used government and religion to control them. Even now, many so-called Christians argue that women should be subservient to men, as they are lesser beings! That attitude comes from the writings of Paul, not Jesus Christ, who saw women as equals to men. These are the same “believers” who castigate gays, yet Jesus never denounced anyone. I don’t understand this irrational fear of others’ love lives.

Those against same-sex marriage argue that marriage has ALWAYS been a SACRAMENT* established by God between one man and one woman, but that is not historically accurate, as I’ll show. Marriage was not considered a sacrament until 1184 when the Council of Verona decided to make marriage dependent on church sanction. For thousands of years before the time of Jesus and for over a thousand years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, people followed the custom described in this article, often without parental consent. Nevertheless, churches throughout Europe in the Middle Ages were the only authority recording marriages, along with births and deaths.

Because so many people were marrying and re-marrying without divorce or the death of spouses, the 1563 Council of Trent decreed that the validity of marriages depended upon the wedding taking place before a priest and two witnesses. They permitted divorce in the case of adultery, but denied the innocent party the right to re-marry until the other spouse died! The Counter-Reformation Catechism of 1566 for the first time defined marriage as “’the conjugal union of man and woman, contracted between two qualified persons, which obliges them to live together throughout life’” (wikipedia). How odd they failed to mention children in this authoritarian prescription. (2015-1566= 449. So this “universal” view of marriage, for thousands of years, is actually only 449 years old…).

Prior to the 16th century, the church performed weddings in the vestibule+ of the church, emphasizing the marriage contract and betrothal as legally binding. Following the Council of Trent, the ceremony was moved inside the sacristy> in order to affirm the belief that the partnership of a man and woman for life, to procreate and educate children, symbolizes the mystical marriage of Christ to the Church. The mutual love between spouses was/is viewed as a replica of God’s eternal love for mankind. For Catholics, then, divorce violates a sacrament ordained by God. Religious scholars point to Hosea and other prophets of the Old Testament for examples of adultery, which violates the marriage bond, as a metaphor of those who are not faithful to God (yet He forgives them).

One effect of the Protestant Reformation was that the role of recording details and setting rules for weddings was taken over by the state, although churches continued to express their ongoing part in this endeavor. Following the Reformation, most Protestants saw/see the purpose of marriage as a vehicle for intimate companionship, rearing of children, and mutual support—not as a SACRAMENT but rather a COVENANT between spouses before God. Some competing notions of marriage (bold emphasis mine):

  1. The Protestant Reformationists followed Martin Luther’s vision of marriage as a “social estate of the earthly kingdom…subject to the Prince, not the Pope.”

  2. John Calvin taught that marriage was a covenant of grace that required the power of the state to preserve its integrity. His view required state registration and church consecration.

  3. Anglicans (in America, Episcopalians) believed marriage was a domestic commonwealth (a common good) so that state, church, and family were inter-connected as “an earthly form of a heavenly government.” This was valid until Lord Hardwicke’s Act of 1753 requiring a formal church ceremony (to curtail Fleet Marriages<).

  4. The 18th century Age of Enlightenment returned to the pre-Christian view of marriage as a contract “to be formed, maintained, and dissolved as the couple sees fit.” This was also the era when individual rights and the notion of equal rights for women became popular.

  5. In the 19th century England, Wales, and Germany recognized civil marriage as an alternative to church weddings. By the 20th century, marriage is a private, voluntary contract and the role of churches is diminished. Now, most Protestants permit divorce and remarriage.

Eastern Religious/Philosophical Views

In Judaism, marriage follows the laws of the Torah which dictate that it is a contractual bond between a man and a woman, one which requires the woman to be with one man exclusively. Unlike Catholic views, procreation is not the sole function of marriage, but Jews are expected to follow the command to have children. The biblical tradition of polygamy was banned officially in 1040. Hinduism sees marriage as a sacred duty entailing both religious and social obligations, and ancient Hindu literature recognized many types of marriage, from impulsive elopement to “normal” marriage to demonic abduction. The Buddhist considers marriage a secular affair, not a sacrament, and followers are expected to follow civil marriage laws of their own governments. Some followers of Islam still practice polygamy, marriage to child brides, and other customs at odds with western beliefs, although many Muslims have accepted monogamy as the “norm.”

The Ancient World

The ancient Hebrews saw marriage as a domestic affair and not a religious one, so priests or rabbis were not required. A wife was highly valued and well cared for, and when the Hebrews were nomads, husbands often allowed wives to retain their independence with their own tents. Although the Old Testament is replete with polygamy, the Talmud required that when a man took another wife, he still had to provide for his first wife—food, clothing, shelter, and sex. If he didn’t provide these things, she could divorce him. As a paternalistic society, the Israelites imposed fidelity on wives, but not husbands. Adulterers were subject to the death penalty.

Ancient Greeks had no civil ceremony but a mutual agreement and living as husband and wife were sufficient (we also see this in English common law). Men tended to marry in their twenties, after military service and becoming financially sound, while girls married in their teens. Aristotle thought that the prime of life for men was 37, while for women it was 18. Life expectancy was much lower than in the present day, so marrying a young girl ensured time for childbearing. Women had few rights and had to maintain house and children, yet these offspring were considered the property of the husband. Love between equals for the Greeks meant between men, since women were viewed as inferior creatures to be used for childbearing and maintenance of a household.

The Romans had conventional marriages with witnesses at a ceremony, and even divorce had the same requirement. By marrying, a woman lost all inheritance rights from her own family but gained them from her husband’s. Wives were under their husband’s authority in this type of marriage. The option of “free marriage” allowed a woman to retain her family rights of inheritance but she was subject to her father’s authority. Men tended to marry after their military service and when financially secure, but girls as young as 12 were given in marriage to these older men. As in ancient Greece, life expectancy was short, so younger women had a better chance of producing the requisite heirs. I suspect that another reason to choose 12-year-olds and teenagers was to ensure obedience and malleability.

Same-sex marriages have taken place for thousands of years, and Emperor Nero married two men, Sporus and Doryphorus, during his reign. This practice was not outlawed until about 342 CE. Roman laws also began requiring consent of both bride and groom, leading to a better status for women. Many Christian rulers were just as promiscuous as the Romans—Charlemagne had many marriages and concubines and only married his then-lover in time for the Pope’s visit, when he was crowned The Holy Roman Emperor. The founder of the Macedonian dynasty, Basil I, married three different men—a monk, a son of a wealthy widow, and Emperor Michael!

The ancient Germanic and Celtic tribes surprised their Roman counterparts by practicing some degree of equality—the bride and groom were the same age, with the same maturity and full growth (no pre-pubescent weddings), so the spouses were equally matched and robust, according to Tacitus. Recent archaeological research has revealed that the Vikings were more egalitarian than previously thought. The 7th-century Visigothic Code of Law declared that the prime of life for men and women was 20, and they were expected to marry at that age or later.

The spread of Christianity across Europe did not halt political polygamy, the practice of warlords and princes marrying several wives to acquire property, seal a treaty, prevent war, and so on. The practice of arranged marriages made love incompatible with marriage (as seen in the courtly love tradition). This attitude continued even into the New World. Church leaders considered passionate love between spouses as unseemly and called the husband’s authority into question. However, the Enlightenment tended to encourage married love.

The earliest Christians (1st century CE on) were opposed to marriage because it distracted one from the path to salvation. The ideal Christian would be like Christ, according to these believers, remaining single and virginal. Paul was a staunch defender of this view, although admitting that it was “better to marry than to burn” (1 Corinthians 7:9). He did not see the double meaning of that statement, I’m sure. Married couples were on a lower rung of the salvation ladder. Later Christians, like the Shakers, attempted to live according to these early dictates, but they tended to die out after the first generation, because they had not allowed for the fatal effects of non-marriage and non-childbearing!

St Augustine, who had been a lusty libertine par excellence in his youth, sternly ordered that married couples should have sex only to make babies and should avoid sex for pleasure.

From the early Christian era (30-325 CE) and among non-Christian tribes in Europe, then, marriage was essentially a private matter with no ceremony required. By the 12th century, women were expected to take the surname of their husbands. That custom is often followed today, and most people would be surprised to learn that it is not a law in the US and never has been. It wasn’t until the end of the 16th century that parental and church consent were required for binding marriages. Those areas of Europe with strong ties to classical Celtic and Germanic cultures, which were not as rigidly patriarchal, allowed women a higher status than they had in Eastern Europe where the Judaeo-Roman traditions were stronger.

In the last few hundred years, as universal education and equal rights under the Constitution have enlarged our understanding of life, love, and marriage, once-entrenched attitudes have changed. Women are no longer seen as the property of men, science has established that homosexuality is not a mental disease but a natural phenomenon, not a choice but a genetic condition, and our society has matured beyond the anti-miscegenation laws banned in 1967. The Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex unions should be accorded the same rights as opposite-sex unions, so why not focus on your own salvation, as it were, rather than attempting to dictate how others should live?


*Sacrament: A formal Christian rite such as baptism and the Eucharist instituted by Jesus as a means of grace. This original definition logically leaves out marriage because Jesus never identified it as a sacred rite.

#Covenant: A binding agreement made by two or more persons or parties. A formal sealed agreement or contract. This reference to a legally binding contract retains the historic origins of marriage.

+Vestibule: A small entrance hall or lobby of the church.

>Sacristy: An interior room that houses the sacred vessels of the church and vestments of the priest.

<Fleet Marriage: A clandestine or irregular marriage (involving under-age spouses or bigamy, for example) performed at Fleet Prison, Gretna Green, and other places.

Select Sources:

Code of Hammurabi (1700 BC).

Confessions of St Augustine.

Council of Trent: http://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/TRENT24.HTM.

The American Heritage Dictionary.

The Holy Bible.


©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD


6 thoughts on “A Brief History of Marriage

  1. What else is there to say. I think that marriage is a red herring, not that the poor souls that call themselves Christians but that can’t seem to incorporate the New Testament into their theology are not convinced that they are fighting a ‘noble cause.’

    What I find shocking is the selective outrage.

    We must save our children from married homosexuals but not the rich sociopaths that send them into wars for personal profit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And this latest ‘savior,’ the KY clerk who ‘found’ God 6 minutes ago feels justified in judging gays, ignoring her own behavior–4 marriages, multiple affairs, children out of wedlock…Give me a break! A new Tide TV commercial has a scene of two men climbing steps into the courthouse, presumably to get married. They’re stopped by an obese woman shouting, ‘Stop! You shall not stain the blah blah proceedings of a sacred event…’ She’s not the KY homophobe, though. She whips out the new Tide stainlifter pen and removes stains from one guy’s jacket and then ushers them into the courthouse…Hilarious!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I gotta say; once they’ve lost the moneybags…it’s over.

        There is no group of people more merciless when they don’t need you anymore.

        She wipes off their stain. It’s really too rich on so many levels.

        Thanks for letting me know. I’m surprised there are no orgy pictures floating around…


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