Although the same-sex marriage vote just passed in the Assembly, it was vetoed by the DUP, as if same-sex marriage would seriously impinge on the sanctity of traditional marriage. Yet the concept of marriage—both the ceremony and the institution—has changed a lot throughout the millennia, and it continues to change. There’s a useful, broad summary here. Even within the Christian Church theological opinions have altered markedly over time, as have cultural beliefs. If being pregnant out of wedlock is unremarkable today, in the past she had to be pregnant for the marriage to be confirmed; and if she wasn’t pregnant after a year, the marriage could be void.
It’s commonly held that marriage began with settled agriculture, as a way of passing on property and wealth to legitimate heirs. No man wanted to work as a cuckold, so the fidelity of the woman was vital if his genes and property were to be inherited. He had to know, he had to be certain that the children were his. She had to be monogamous. Marriage of necessity had to be between a man and a woman, and to be recognised as such by the state.
The idea of property and inheritance was well established in Ancient Greece; men there had wives to provide heirs and to keep the household, concubines for the daily exercise of the body and hetaerae for pleasure. Women didn’t have much say then, nor in Rome, nor did they here until very recent times; they did as they were told by their husbands.
The Greeks had several words for ‘love’; they had Eros, what we might call lust, as well as Philia, a serene state, like friendship, reciprocal kindness, happy experiences, shared pleasures, and Agape, selfless love, wanting the best for the other person, the love of Christ. And the Greeks were well aware that Eros didn’t last beyond a couple of years, hopefully to be replaced gradually by the other forms.
Early Christianity didn’t concern itself with marriage; it was only in the 11th/12th centuries that the Church got really involved, when marriage began to be thought of as a sacrament; this had to be specifically recorded in the doings of the Council of Trent in the mid 16th century. Perhaps marriage was seen as a ‘nice little earner’ for the Church, more probably it was a method of control and to discourage fornication. Before then, if an ordinary couple wished to be married, it was enough for them to make a declaration, usually before witnesses. It’s disingenuous to say, as a Catholic Bishop recently did, that marriage had been a sacrament from ‘time immemorial’. The legalistic meaning of this is before the reign of the English king Richard I. The Christian church came to view purity as the easiest way to get to Heaven, and purity was synonymous with celibacy and virginity. However, recognising the weakness of the flesh, the Church permitted sex within a marriage—a ceremony of their own devising—and then only for procreation; fun wasn’t encouraged. Procreation was for the production of virgins, the better to populate Heaven. Thus came the syncretism of monogamy for legitimate inheritance with Christian purity and chastity. The Church at least permitted guilt-free sex, though it severely limited the days on which this was possible. (For changes in the Christian view of sex and marriage see here. For changes in the regulation of sex see here.)
For the elite, the 1%, marriage was a bit different. Marriage was about dynasties and political alliances—and dowries and property. Such marriages were arranged by advisers; the bride and groom didn’t have much say. As long as the couple performed their duty, producing a male heir, he could otherwise do as he liked. Henry VIII did have a ‘natural’ son, but no legitimate heir, hence his need for a divorce, the break with Rome, a new partner—who didn’t provide the wished for son and who paid for this dereliction of duty with her life. Until very recently, Royal Houses, such as that of Windsor, expected prospective brides to be of at least aristocratic birth.
In the later middle ages, marriage was seen by the commercial classes as a ‘business partnership’. Such merchants often had to travel far from home; and while he was away, she was fully able to run the business. Although this sounds like a rather sterile, functional arrangement, there’s no doubt that many such couples did feel great mutual affection; you get the distinct impression that it was a very successful arrangement, for the man and the woman knew exactly where they stood and what they could expect. It wasn’t based on what we know as ‘romantic love’, it was pragmatic, honest and robust, a true ‘joint enterprise’.
As marriage had been taken over by the Church, it came under canon law. Lord Hardwicke’s 1753 Act changed this. Marriage in England and Wales became a civil contract; and only marriages solemnised in an established church were legal. The Act introduced ‘banns’. This Act extended to Ireland after the Act of Union; at that time, even if both parties were Catholic, the only legally recognised form of marriage was in the Church of Ireland. (Quakers and Jews were exempted under this Act, Dissenters and Catholics weren’t.) Marriage in Scotland could still be by declaration. In England, if the woman was under 21, she required her father’s permission. Thus, in reality and in romance, English elopers headed to Scotland; the first hamlet there was, of course, Gretna Green. If her father hadn’t caught her before this, there was then nothing he could do; she was legally, traditionally, married.
The Enlightenment, from the later 18th century, was the start of the idea that ‘love’ should be the basis for marriage. We can see this in Jane Austen’s novels, where the girls are looking for a man of substance, but also a man they could love. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy rejects the odious toady, Mr Collins; but he rushes off to her friend Caroline Lucas, who afraid of being ‘left on the shelf’ accepts his suit, a traditional escape for spinsters. Lizzy marries FitzWilliam not just for love, but because he is a man of considerable means; two more traditional attitudes to marriage. At this time, a married woman was the property, the chattel of the man; she was a ‘thing’; she needed a proper protector, not a Wickham. At marriage all the woman’s possessions legally became her husband’s property; even if he gave her jewellery such presents remained his property.
As the property of the man, the woman had no legal existence; but as the law was now civil and not canonical, adultery as a means of divorce was much more difficult. So, the husband could sue the other man for damage to his property, his wife; such ‘criminal conversation’ trials were as notorious as they were salacious; the cuckold’s aim was often to reduce the ‘co-respondent’ to penury, as here.
The idea of a married woman as a chattel has only recently disappeared in the UK. I remember well at primary school hearing that ‘Miss so-and-so is leaving at the end of term to get married’. In those days, traditional marriage meant that the woman became a housewife; indeed, if she worked for the BBC, she found that when she married she became unemployed. And if her husband raped her, he could not be prosecuted for this; he was permitted to damage his property—though under the ‘rule of thumb’ with a stick no thicker than his thumb, or so it is commonly believed. Traditionally, a married woman needed her husband’s permission for the most trivial everyday activities, like having a bank account.
At a traditional church marriage today—and the Christian church is a parvenu in these matters—we would see the bride, in the virginal white of purity, of chastity (even if white was popularised by Queen Victoria), being led to the altar by her father, who then ‘gives’ her in marriage. We don’t see behind the scenes, where in the past, the father’s and the groom’s lawyers would have argued over the bride price, the dowry, the basis of the marriage contract. And by ‘giving’ her, the father recognises that his daughter’s safe keeping passes to another man, a man whom she might well promise to ‘obey’, for as the head of the house, he had absolute control over her. And does the traditional bride wear something old, such as the knickers of a fecund relative to ensure her fertility, a blue garter to guard against the evil eye, and has she a silver sixpence in her shoe in the hope of prosperity?
And after the celebrant has done his thing—women priests having been airbrushed out of the church by the 4th century—comes the signing of the register. This is the actual, legal bit of the ceremony; the celebrant acts as an agent of the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths. As they leave the church, they might well be showered with confetti or rice, a symbol for ’seed’, to encourage fertility. And this ’seed’ was symbolic of semen, which having its origin in the testicles, was clearly ‘purified blood’, and thus through its action continued the ‘bloodline’.
Of course, same-sex marriage isn’t anyway traditional, is it? Well, actually it is, if not so obvious or well known; try this link for more details, though it’s a long read. Are humans distinguished from animals by being on an elevated moral plane? Many animals are gay, and monogamy is very much the exception; DNA testing has shown, horror of horrors, that those ultimate symbols of fidelity, the swans, are anything but. Necrophilia was first seen in penguins a century ago. Oh, and don’t lets think about brother-sister marriage amongst the pharaohs, arranged and forced marriages, polygamy, ‘temporary marriages’, or the ability to marry the dead in China; things are complicated enough here as it is.
What then is marriage today? Is it some concatenation of tradition involving dynasty, politics, business, love, a ceremony based for many on the Book of Common Prayer with the officiant wearing a Roman collar (a mid-Victorian Presbyterian invention), the production of offspring—or not, property and inheritance, the prevention of sin, tax-efficiency, furtive elopement, a shotgun, a big party, soulmates, trashing the dress, a statement of wealth and power, a ‘starter’, a simple declaration, permanent or serial monogamy, somehow Biblical (which Bible)? Is marriage now a traditional arrangement, where the tradition depends on your interpretation of the past and what you wish to believe and see as proper and appropriate? Is today’s paradigm of marriage something based on ‘tradition’, yet founded on the modern ideas of love or Eros; do Agape and Philia make an appearance? Or is marriage now something different, has it continued to evolve, becoming something fluid, a civil right, something to be entered into freely and without restriction by all those couples who so wish?
Robert Campbell is a retired surgeon.