by The Week Staff
Ron Royals/Corbis June 1, 2012
Since the ancient world, marriage has evolved from a preservation of power to a personal contract between two equals seeking love, stability, and happiness.
Has marriage always had the same definition?
Actually, the institution has been in a process of constant evolution. Pair-bonding began in the Stone Age as a way of organizing and controlling sexual conduct and providing a stable structure for child-rearing and the tasks of daily life. But that basic concept has taken many forms across different cultures and eras. “Whenever people talk about traditional marriage or traditional families, historians throw up their hands,” said Steven Mintz, a history professor at Columbia University. “We say, ‘When and where?'” The ancient Hebrews, for instance, engaged in polygamy — according to the Bible, King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines — and men have taken multiple wives in cultures throughout the world, including China, Africa, and among American Mormons in the 19th century. Polygamy is still common across much of the Muslim world.
The idea of marriage as a sexually exclusive, romantic union between one man and one woman is a relatively recent development. Until two centuries ago, said Harvard historian Nancy Cott, “monogamous households were a tiny, tiny portion” of the world population, found in “just Western Europe and little settlements in North America.”
When did people start marrying?
The first recorded evidence of marriage contracts and ceremonies dates to 4,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia. In the ancient world, marriage served primarily as a means of preserving power, with kings and other members of the ruling class marrying off daughters to forge alliances, acquire land, and produce legitimate heirs. Even in the lower classes, women had little say over whom they married. The purpose of marriage was the production of heirs, as implied by the Latin word matrimonium, which is derived from mater (mother).
When did the church get involved?
In ancient Rome, marriage was a civil affair governed by imperial law. But when the empire collapsed, in the 5th century, church courts took over and elevated marriage to a holy union. As the church’s power grew through the Middle Ages, so did its influence over marriage. In 1215, marriage was declared one of the church’s seven sacraments, alongside rites like baptism and penance. But it was only in the 16th century that the church decreed that weddings [need to] be performed in public, by a priest, and before witnesses.
What role did love play?
For most of human history, almost none at all. Marriage was considered too serious a matter to be based on such a fragile emotion. “If love could grow out of it, that was wonderful,” said Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History. “But that was gravy.”
In fact, love and marriage were once widely regarded as incompatible with one another. A Roman politician was expelled from the Senate in the 2nd century B.C. for kissing his wife in public — behavior the essayist Plutarch condemned as “disgraceful.” In the 12th and 13th centuries, the European aristocracy viewed extramarital affairs as the highest form of romance, untainted by the gritty realities of daily life. And as late as the 18th century, the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote that any man who was in love with his wife was probably too dull to be loved by another woman.
In many societies, both ancient and modern, levirate marriage was practiced. Among the Hebrews, a levirate marriage is literally a “marriage with a brother-in-law.” The word levirate, which has nothing to do with the tribe of Levi, comes from the Latin word levir, “a husband’s brother.” In ancient times, if a man died without a child, it was common for the man’s unmarried brother to marry the widow in order to provide an heir for the deceased. A widow would marry a brother-in-law, and the first son produced in that union was considered the legal descendant of her dead husband.
We see a couple of examples in the Bible of levirate marriage. The first is the story of Tamar and Onan in Genesis 38. Tamar had been married to Er, a son of Judah. Er died, leaving Tamar childless (Genesis 38:6–7). Judah’s solution was to follow the standard procedure of levirate marriage: he told Er’s brother Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother” (verse 8). Onan was more than willing to sleep with Tamar, but, unfortunately, he had no desire to have a child with her: “Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother” (verse 9). In other words, Onan was taking selfish advantage of levirate marriage. He wanted sex with his sister-in-law, but he purposefully avoided impregnating her. God called Onan’s actions “wicked” and killed him (verse 10). Onan was also aware that, if Tamar became pregnant, her child would claim a portion in the family inheritance. Thus, the inheritance coming to Onan would be diluted.
Levirate marriage became part of the Law in Deuteronomy 25:5–6. There, the Israelites are commanded to care for women whose husbands died before they had children. An unmarried brother of the deceased man bore a responsibility to marry his sister-in-law: God called it “the duty of a brother-in-law” (Deuteronomy 25:5). God’s purpose for levirate marriage is stated: “The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel” (verse 6). In ancient Israel the passing on of the family name and the inheritance within a tribe were vitally important (see Numbers 36:7 and 1 Kings 21:3).
Notice that levirate marriage was a match not born out of affection but out of duty. Deut 25:7-10 illustrates this very well:
7 However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” 8 Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” 9 his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” 10 That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.
The social pressure specified here was enormous. The village elders, meanwhile, were intent upon providing for the widow from the resources of the family into which she married in the first place. If that family failed to care for her out of obligation and if her parents were unwilling to allow her to return home, then the community had another charity case to attend to.
In India today, widows are often expelled from the family home and left to languish on the streets and alleyways. This is done because the widow is held responsible (due to bad Karma) for the early death of her husband. In older times, the widow threw herself on the burning funeral pyre thus eliminating any need to take care of her. Today, along the shores of the Ganges River, communities of forsaken widows can be found. The women here learn to chant sacred pujas and are given meager food and lodging in exchange for their prayers. It is not a happy situation, to be sure.
Notice that levirate marriage allows for loveless unions and for polygamy. Perhaps this explains why Jews have long ago abandoned levirate marriage, and even the most devout Jews are not anxious for its return even though Deut 25:5 makes it clear that this is God’s will. The existence of levirate marriage in Deut 25:5 also makes it clear that, when Gen 1-2 speaks of one-man-one-woman marriages, this does not mean that this precludes the mandating of one-man-two-women marriages in Deut 25:5.]
When did romance enter the picture?
In the 17th and 18th centuries, when Enlightenment thinkers pioneered the idea that life was about the pursuit of happiness. They advocated marrying for love rather than wealth or status. This trend was augmented by the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the middle class in the 19th century, which enabled young men to select a spouse and pay for a wedding, regardless of parental approval. As people took more control of their love lives, they began to demand the right to end unhappy unions. Divorce became much more commonplace.
Did marriage change in the 20th century?
Dramatically. For thousands of years, law and custom enforced the subordination of wives to husbands. But as the women’s-rights movement gained strength in the late 19th and 20th centuries, wives slowly began to insist on being regarded as their husbands’ equals, rather than their property. “By 1970,” said Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Wife, “marriage law had become gender-neutral in Western democracy.” At the same time, the rise of effective contraception fundamentally transformed marriage: Couples could choose how many children to have, and even to have no children at all. If they were unhappy with each other, they could divorce — and nearly half of all couples did. Marriage had become primarily a personal contract between two equals seeking love, stability, and happiness. This new definition opened the door to gays and lesbians claiming a right to be married, too. “We now fit under the Western philosophy of marriage,” said E.J. Graff, a lesbian and the author of What Is Marriage For?
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