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Is Marriage Necessary?
 

Reflections on the History of Marriage

Here are the notes for the talk I gave on November 6, 2005. It includes 3 Appendixes, too, with some quotations, a quiz from about.com. If you want to see the basic points of the talks, look at the link in Appendix 3 to a radio interview with historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage: A History. I played the interview part at the end on the theory we learned in the Army: 1) tell 'em what they're going to learn, 2) teach it to them, and 3) tell 'em what they've learned!

Is Marriage Necessary?

or

Reflections on the History of Marriage

(Notes for a talk given by Pat Daley to the Unitarian Fellowship of Fredericton on November 6, 2005)


I am not an expert on the history of marriage. I became interested in it because of the recent debates concerning same sex marriage. I kept hearing an appeal to the traditional definition of marriage, something supposedly going back to time immemorial. But has it? Vague generalizations won't do. On the other side, proponents of same sex marriage also appealed to history more concretely, referring to anthropological and historical data showing that many societies had customary or formalized institutions for same sex relationships. My own Catholic Church opposed same sex marriages and to justify its position, and justify its positions logically, it had to set out its doctrines concerning the nature of marriage, which the Vatican said is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world. I wanted to see if this could be verified historically. I often feel there is an air of unreality about discussions about the nature of marriage, and not only in the Catholic Church.

One may wonder what an appeal to history could accomplish. Just because something has been done or hasn't been done in the past need not determine policies today. Maybe present circumstances justify something different --- and in fact, we have something different.

As well, there are philosophical difficulties. Catholic marriage is considered a contract including the couple, but, as I read as a child, also includes a third party, God. Well, why does it have to include God? Other contracts do not include God as a party. What if the couple wants some other sort of contract, for example, on that includes the possibility of divorce?

Catholic Definitions of Marriage.

Most of those who have mentioned the traditional definition of marriage just seem to be mouthing something they have heard. I will use part of a Catholic document because it's my Church and also because the Catholic Church documents usually try to give a clear and reasoned account.

No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman, who by mutual personal gift, proper and exclusive to themselves, tend toward the communion of their persons. In this way, they mutually perfect each other, in order to cooperate with God in the procreation and upbringing of new human lives. (Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith)

Catholic teaching on marriage is in many respects quite noble, and I don't want to suggest otherwise, although in parts it still retains its patriarchal structure. In theory, men and women are equal but have complementary roles with women in the subordinate position, but many priests and theologians and lay people do not accept that any more

Now, as I said, I am not an expert on the history of marriage, but I do know something about marriage in the Bible and it is quite clear that it was quite different from Catholic marriages in our time.

First of all, Hebrew marriage was a private matter, and the marriage contract was normally between the families of the bride and groom represented by the father, or if the father was dead, by the brothers. One can read this in the story of the marriage of Abraham's son Isaac to his cousin, Rebekah, in Genesis 24.

Second, Hebrew marriage was basically polygamous, more properly polygynous. In 1 Kgs 11:3, we find that Solomon's wives included 700 princesses and 300 concubines, surely a folkloric exaggeration, and there are a number of other examples.

There is no criticism of polygyny in the New Testament. John the Baptist criticized Herod the Great for marrying his brother's wife, Herodias, but said nothing about his other wives. (Mark 6:18; Matt. 14:3)

I should mention that it was only about the year 1000 that Rabbi Gershom decreed that polygamy was forbidden from then on and this was accepted by Ashkenazy Jews. However, it was not accepted by Sephardic Jews and polygamy was accepted among some Middle Eastern Jews in the 20th century. Of course, only a small percentage of men ever had more than one wife, even in Islam.

Moreover, many Christian kings and princes in fact practiced polygyny, making various alliances by marriage and having concubines in some form well into modern times.

Then, I had come across snippets of information from Church history. In the early Church, most people married according the local customs in the area where they lived. Romans often got married solely by consent. They said they were married and that was all that was required. Divorce was often equally simple.

I should point out that later there are some attempts to formalize marriage in the Church, but the so-called clandestine marriage was still being practiced during early modern times as in 1563 the Council of Trent felt in had to forbid clandestine marriages. While in the 4th century, historians say there is some record of the Church blessing marriages in the East, this only spread very slowly to the West. On the whole, divorce was equally casual and where the Church was involved, there were a number of acceptable reasons.

Father Barry Brunsman says.

The joining of two people in a Christian sacramental marriage first appears at this time in the Greek Church [7th and 8th centuries) of the East. Two centuries later, with far less theological prompting, in the West the priest was encouraged to perform the marriage on behalf of the state. This took place when civil governments so disintegrated that the clergy were generally the only qualified people to care of matters like marriage.

While the power of the Church to perform marriages grew steadily, its attitude toward remarriage after divorce was erratic, ranging from extreme strictness to extreme laxness. Here again there was a wide gap between Church proclamations and Church practice. For this reason, Church historians simply state that the Church permitted remarriage during the first millennium. (New Hope for Divorced Catholics, p. 36-37)

Stephanie Coontz, Marriage: A History, How Love Conquered Marriage

However, as I continued my reading, I decided I wanted to look at the history of marriage from a somewhat wider viewpoint than simply the limitations of Catholic doctrine or the controversies over same sex marriage. An internet search on `marriage history' doesn't get very far without coming across the work of Stephanie Coontz.

Stephen Coontz, who teaches family history at Evergreen State College in Washington, has written a fairly comprehensive book on the history of marriage. Her conclusions are quite startling to the layperson. While she goes over some speculation about family arrangements in prehistoric hunter-gather societies, in historic times, she thinks that marriage has passed through three basic stages. The changes tended to be gradual and were associated with significant changes in technology and economic production.

I chose the title of this presentation to be striking, but the question also has a serious intent. What is marriage for? Despite arguments that children are deprived if not brought up by a male and female parent, single parents are nothing new. High death rates and short life spans guaranteed that. And of course, there are many single parents today, whether widowed, separated, divorced, and never married. Indeed, many of the traditional functions of marriage can be taken care of otherwise. Many may recall that in Plato's Republic, a society without marriage is conceived in the abstract. The Guardian class was to live in common, there was no marriage, and all their children were to be brought up by the state. But in reality, is marriage universal across cultures? The answer is, not quite. This brings up the Chinese Na or Mosoh culture, apparently the only known culture in which there is no marriage. The Na have a matrilineal culture. The mother's children, both male and female, live in her house their whole life long. Sibling relationships are very stable and the siblings bring up any children the sisters have. There is a strict incest taboo. The women may have intercourse with any other man who desires to do so, usually in a furtive visit. The biological father is not known and in any case, has no obligation to support any children. In contradistinction to Aristotle, who felt that the woman provided a place for the seeds planted by the father could grow, the mythology for the Na was that the child is the offspring of the woman, analogous to a fertile field full of seeds, and the man simply waters the field so that the children may begin to grow.

The Na are a startling exception to what otherwise seems to be the historical universality of marriage. But this society makes one thing clear: Marriage is not the only way to impose an incest taboo, organize child rearing, pool resources, care for elders, coordinate household production, or pass on property to the next generation. It is, however, the only way to get in-laws. And since the dawn of civilization, getting in-laws has been one of marriage's most important functions. (Coontz, Marriage: A History, p. 33)

So, many of the traditional functions of marriage can and often are taken care of outside of marriage.

According to Stephanie Coontz, until the end of the 18th century, marriage was essentially a career path. Love had nothing to do with it, though it might develop as a side effect. But even in marriage, excessive attachments were considered suspect. Marriage was a means of exchanging and consolidating wealth, organizing work, and forming political and economic alliances. For the most part, allowing people to choose their spouses on the basis of something as variable and unreliable as love was considered radical and dangerous to society. Ms. Coontz points out that most ancient love stories ended in tragedy, either they had to marry someone else rather than the one they loved, or perhaps, they died, as in Romeo and Juliet.

The upper classes were very much concerned with economic and political alliances. Their sons and daughters often had little choice as to whom they married. But the common people were also interested in accumulating property, finding someone to share the work, producing children to take care of them in their old age. If one spouse died, there was, so to speak, a job opening, and the sooner it was filled, the better.

Although we have much different laws and conditions today, for some analogy, I suppose today we might think of a family farm, a mom and pop grocery store, or a family restaurant in which both spouses and the children work, to get some idea of what was involved.

The medieval troubadours presented romantic love as an ideal, but in reality, this had little to do with marriage. True love was something found outside of marriage.

The Enlightenment brought new ideas of equality and freedom and the right to pursue happiness, and many thought that the parents and other authorities should not interfere with marriage. The Industrial Revolution brought an increase in wage labour. The husband was no longer self-employed in the home but rather worked in a factory or for a business, becoming a wage slave like most of us. The middle classes developed a compromise between egalitarianism and patriarchy. The male breadwinner worked outside the home, which was his refuge against the harsh outer world. The home became the domain of the wife, who ideally did not work outside the home (where she would have been paid much less anyway). The mother now assumed the responsibility for monitoring the children.

For poorer people, the male-breadwinner marriage was not possible. Wages were too low, and women and children had to work to help support the family, often under very bad conditions. Thus, there was a long struggle for safe factories, unions to protect job security as the workers got older, affordable housing, and better educational opportunities. Of course, many employers argued this was too expensive and that it was up to the individual to adjust to the new work patterns, just as they argue today.

In the 20th century, safety practices, hours of work, welfare policies, tax laws, home financing, school schedules, business plans, expectations of workers and customers, our personal emotions, all adjusted to support this historically rare family type, where husbands support women and children, while wives take care of daily life and the socialization of youth, as Mrs. Coontz put it. Still, the love based marriage between equals had some remaining obstacles. Male dominance persisted, though in the 19th century wife-beating became socially unacceptable. One can see this change in attitude in some of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories such as The Adventure of the Abbey Grange. Head and master laws, which meant that the husband could choose where the family should live, were only finally repealed in the U.S. in the 1970's. Only in the 1980's did the law in most states come to recognize rape inside a marriage.

Nevertheless, although it took 150 years to develop to its culmination in the Ozzie and Harriet families of the 1950s, the male-breadwinner family was soon to dismantle. Real wages for unskilled labour and those without a college degree have declined, and even middle class families may find it hard to survive unless the wife works. But as women entered the work force, they became more independent of men. Finally, it became possible for women to actively pursue a real love relationship with a soul-mate. They do not need to find a man to support them, so they can wait until they find someone who seems right. If the marriage does not work out, people can leave the marriage

Many poor mothers do not want to get married to someone who has no steady work, who has alcohol or drug problems, and consider they are better off staying single.

Stephanie Coontz is the Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families and teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She believes that the various family types we have all need support, rather than just trying to force everyone into the same mold. Some seem to argue that if people would just get married, things would be hunky dory. But if a couple has serious problems, then a piece of paper is not going to solve them. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by the Bush administration to encourage people to get married, but his would not enable them to get proper health care, child care, paid parental leave, and decent welfare services.


Appendix 1--Marriage History Quotations

Between Man and Woman: Questions and Answers About Marriage and Same-Sex Unions. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. November 12, 2003 http://www.usccb.org/laity/manandwoman.shtml

Marriage, as instituted by God, is a faithful, exclusive, lifelong union of a man and a woman joined in an intimate community of life and love. They commit themselves completely to each other and to the wondrous responsibility of bringing children into the world and caring for them. The call to marriage is woven deeply into the human spirit. Man and woman are equal. However, as created, they are different from but made for each other. This complementarity, including sexual difference, draws them together in a mutually loving union that should be always open to the procreation of children (see Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], nos. 1602-1605).

These truths about marriage are present in the order of nature and can be perceived by the light of human reason. They have been confirmed by divine Revelation in Sacred Scripture.

Hesiod, Works and Days (trans. Dorothea Wender), Penguin Books.

First, get a house, a woman, and an ox for plowing --- let the woman be a slave, unmarried, who can help you in the fields . . .

John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible

Marriage in Israel was neither a religious nor a public concern; it is a private contract, and it is this conception which leaves so little room for it in Hb law, which deals only with exceptional cases. The contracting parties were not the bride and groom but the families, i.e., the fathers of the spouses; the brothers of the of the bride had the disposal of the girl if the father were dead. Thus in Gn 24 the slave acts as the agent of Abraham in selecting a wife for Isaac; and the brothers of Rebekah give her in marriage.

Historians of the Near East point out that the Babylonian marriage was basically monogamous, while the Assyrian and Hb marriage was basically polygamous. . . . The 700 wives and 300 concubines of Solomon (1 K 11:3) must, however, be an exaggeration of a popular tradition.

See Proverbs 31: 10:31 for an ode to the Perfect Wife, a real worker.

Father Barry Brunsman, New Hope for Divorced Catholics, p. 36-37

The joining of two people in a Christian sacramental marriage first appears at this time [7th and 8th centuries] in the Greek Church of the East. Two centuries later, with far less theological prompting, in the West the priest was encouraged to perform the marriage on behalf of the state. This took place when civil governments so disintegrated that the clergy were generally the only qualified people to care of matters like marriage.

While the power of the Church to perform marriages grew steadily, its attitude toward remarriage after divorce was erratic, ranging from extreme strictness to extreme laxness. Here again there was a wide gap between Church proclamations and Church practice. For this reason, Church historians simply state that the Church permitted remarriage during the first millennium.

Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History, Viking, 2004, p. 33

The Na are a startling exception to what otherwise seems to be the historical universality of marriage. But this society makes one thing clear: Marriage is not the only way to impose an incest taboo, organize child rearing, pool resources, care for elders, coordinate household production, or pass on property to the next generation. It is, however, the only way to get in-laws. And since the dawn of civilization, getting in-laws has been one of marriage's most important functions.

Only very recently have parents and other relatives ceased to have substantial material stakes in whether individuals get or stay married. As a result of this world-historic change, modern couples no longer have to let either partner's kin tell them how to run their lives. This unprecedented independence of the married couple from their relatives and in-laws has allowed many husbands and wives to construct more satisfying marriages than those of the past. But it has also played a critical role in creating the crisis of modern marriage.

George Bernard Shaw

Marriage: When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part. Angèle Arsenault

The man I make love to, I want to be in love with.

History shows people wed in many ways for many reasons

The Seattle Times Monday, March 29, 2004 History shows people wed in many ways for many reasons By Janet I. Tu Seattle Times staff reporter The Seattle Times Monday, March 29, 2004

Coontz, The Evergreen State College professor, places the current debate over gay marriage in the context of Americans having already turned our backs on thousands of years of history when we said women should be equal to men, marriage should be for love, and kids should have the right to choose who they want to marry.

http://www.contemporaryfamilies.org/subtemplate.php?t=inTheNews&ext=news084 http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/living/2001888924_marriagehistory29m.html

UNCLE SAM SHOULD GIVE WORKING FAMILIES A HAND, NEWSDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2005. BY STEPHANIE COONTZ.

Instead of passing more tax cuts for the top 1 percent of the population whose labors have been so generously rewarded over the past two decades, our political leaders need to rebuild the social safety net, introduce a system of universal health insurance and institute parental and family-leave policies that don't make spending time with your kids a privilege reserved for the rich. It's time to demand action, not empty rhetoric.


Appendix 2

Quiz

1. Which ancient law required a man to become the husband of a deceased brother's widow? Egyptian Greek Roman Hebrew 2. Which ancient civilization gave women equal rights? Egyptian Greek Roman Chinese 3. What does the roundness of an engagement ring represent? Hope Love Fidelity Eternity 4. Which civilization started the custom of giving an engagement ring? Egyptian Greek Roman Chinese 5. Who introduced the notion of romance into the marriage relationship? Women Court Jesters Troubadours Matchmakers

6. In what year did the Council of Trent decree that marriages should be celebrated in the presence of a priest and at least two witnesses? 1546 1563 1592 1574 7. Which Pope stressed the importance of a couple's consent to marriage? Pope John III Pope Nicholas I Pope Theodore II Pope Leo VIII 8. What is a dowry? Groom's family giving money or presents to bride or her family Bride's family giving money or presents to groom or his family Mother giving a hope chest to her daughter, the bride Father giving a monetary gift to his son, the groom 9. What is marriage-by-proxy? A wedding by video tape A wedding by telephone A wedding where someone stands in for either the bride or groom A wedding by email 10. Where did most Japanese Picture Brides arrive? Ellis Island Angel Island Castle Garden Knappton Quarantine Station

http://marriage.about.com/od/historyofmarriage/l/blhistoryquiz.htm


Appendix 3

Here is a link to a radio interview with historian Stephanie Coontz:

http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2005/06/20050623_b_main.asp