As more states struggle to legalize gay marriage, there also increases the opposition of the side arguing that marriage is a “sacred” institution that could be compromised in the event of an unfortunate redefinition. Well, there is some flaw in this logic, because even though the formal union of “soul mates” existed as a central element of life in almost all cultures in human history, its definition and essence have changed significantly, but above all, constantly.
Long before legal systems and world economy, the nobility and ruling classes used marriage as diplomatic or commercial treaties, “secured” by family coagulation. Until recently, the idea of “kinship” was almost invariably characterized by such advantageous partnerships.
So, things are not as firmly defined, romantic and “traditional” as we would like to imagine. Let's take a look at some of the examples through which the concept of marriage has metamorphosed over time.
Ancient Greece: The purpose of marriage was to make children and preserve property.
As in most forms of ancient social organization, Athens did not legislate clearly the marital association for its citizens. Procreation was almost the only reason why Greeks decided to enter into such a “business”. At the time, they said: “We have hetaerae (courtesans) for pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our bodies and wives for the birth of legitimate children or home safety” (due to the fact that the state controlled the movement of wealth through inheritance). It was so important to preserve ownership within the family that a girl whose father died without leaving behind a male heir could be forced to marry her closest male relative, even if that meant divorcing her own husband.
Marriage was not even considered an ideal “approach”, at least according to the elite members of society, since mixed couples had no emotional duties towards each other mentioned in their “job description”. This honor was attributed -drum roll, please- exclusively to homosexual partnerships.
The archaic tribes: “Life is tough, so marry whom you want.”
In some cultures, men had several wives in order to help each other in every task to support the family. For example, African women had a saying: “No more wives, work never ends”. Also, in Australia's harsh natural environment, aborigines organized multiple marriages for their boys, based on strategic accessibility to lands, so that “clans” would have food and water wherever they traveled.
Some indigenous American tribes had a special respect for “two-spirited” individuals or those who could do both men's and women's work. The “two-spirited” persons were allowed to live with someone of the same sex, because all the tasks required to take care of the household could be done easily, making the life together become a matter more related to mentality than to gender.
Ancient China: Why limit marriage to the living?
Followers of Confucianism believed that the strongest family ties exist between fathers and sons or siblings. Matrimonial ties were by far secondary to paternal or fraternal ones up to the point where a son could be harshly beaten for taking his wife's side (forced to live with her husband's family) and not that of his father or brother.
Another Chinese matrimonial tradition, stranger and less common, was the ghost marriage. What did that mean? If in a family, there was a dead unmarried relative during their lifetime, in order for him or her not to feel alone in the afterlife, family members decided to unite them through marriage to another deceased person. The two had a ritual held at the tomb and the people who became “relatives” remained in touch after that. Despite being forbidden in today's China, ghost marriages are still practiced, reflecting both the strong belief in the afterlife and the care for the souls of the loved ones, no matter how weird this custom would seem.
Ancient Egypt: Marriage in search of indubitable genetic lines.
The rulers of Alexander the Great’s divided empire used the matrimonial phenomenon as a political instrument, living with more than one wife to establish solid alliances with other states. Unlike the African co-wives, the Hellenistic co-wives hated each other, as each was considered a threat to the other's ascension to power. Children plotted with their mothers against the other “pretenders”, brothers plotted against the other stepbrothers, and often, in the struggle for the primacy and legitimacy of potential heirs, there also took place marriages between brothers and sisters.
Lower classes, without too much wealth to put on the line, enjoyed more freedom in choosing their male or female partners. Even so, marriages were considered more of a business contract, as “independent” life was almost impossible to sustain under the pressure of fieldwork and housekeeping. Slaves were forbidden to marry because they did not have a “stable residence”.
Ancient Rome: Using wives as political currency.
The finality of a Roman marriage, as in many other cultures, was oriented towards procreation. Men were seen more as family managers than as members of it. Apart from the fact that official permission was required in the case of marriages with foreigners, the state was not concerned about these holy unions. The elites of the time were even willing to renounce to their own wives in favor of other influential men in order to form alliances (Marcus Porcius Cato did precisely that when he divorced his wife Marcia and arranged her marriage with his friend Hortensius). Some kind of swing, albeit more mercantile.
First Christians: Marital sex is a necessary evil.
People contemporary to early Christianity believed that marriage undermines the rigorous self-control necessary to obtain spiritual salvation. Celibacy was therefore preferable, while sex tolerated only for the purpose of procreation and as long as it was not made with too much aplomb. How was evaluated the aplomb? Only they knew!
Medieval Europe: Marriage has a commercial meaning.
For the rich, marriage had again become an arrangement between two families that were seeking to consolidate their ties and join their wealth. At a high level, queens were arranging the marriages of their more or less close relatives in order to create bonds of international support for personal interest. The 12th and 13th centuries brought a new concept among humankind, namely that: “love cannot exert its power between two married people”, as the countess of Champagne herself said. Adulterous relationships, however, represented the culmination of romanticism.
For the Catholic Church, marriage simply consisted of a mutual consent (between a man and a woman), manifested only with the imperative approval of their parents.
Plebes used marriage as a method of joining their plots of land. It was much more convenient for the land strips to be side by side, so you could only hope that your daughter would marry your neighbor's son. Traders and craftsmen of the same guild did the same in order to share their own resources.
16th Century: Marriage becomes a holy union.
In 1563, the Catholic Church decreed that marriage is a sacred ritual that must be held in a church. This issue had been discussed a few centuries prior to that, but the possibility of invalidating many marriages held outside religious places led to dropping this decision. However, that year, priests considered that the huge financial and ideological profit of the initial process was much more important than the possible “collateral effects”.
The Protestants proclaimed the right of clergy to marry, provided they did not love their wife too much. Many of them were still had reserved about showing affection in marriage. A settler in Virginia was writing at one point that a female friend of his was bizarrely attracted... far too much to her husband than would have been appropriate in those days. Strange, is not it?
Enlightenment: Love in marriage still has its importance...
Salon thinkers began to meditate on marriage and decided that the apathy of partners reflected a sad thing. Two lovers should have the freedom to decide their union, contrary to the decisions planned by their parents instead of themselves, underlining the importance of friendship, affectivity or empathy. Marriage has therefore begun to become some sort of private partnership, which we also know today.
Of course, critics argued that equality between spouses would lead to the gradual degradation of the matrimonial edifice, as it was known and accepted at the time, for it undermines masculine authority (an essential element in social construction).
The Victorian Age: Good wives belong to the “cult of purity”.
When Queen Victoria stepped to the altar dressed into her “virginal” white lace dress, it helped changing the perception of women as a source of sensual sex into that of asexual innocence. It was the dawn of a new era! That of strong moral principles. When the sex itself was considered too indecent for the good ladies, being encouraged to suppress their sensuality and desires, the men felt free and entitled to regularly (and gladly) turn to prostitutes' services.
Beginning of the 20th century: Married people should enjoy sex.
The youngsters rebelling against the dusty old people of the Victorian age showed youth and sex appeal, so that, besides love, non-conformist couples were enjoying a satisfying sex life, and that was the case at the beginning of the last century.
After 1920, intimacy between two spouses became even more important than the relationship with their parents. Meanwhile, critics were stigmatizing these “bad manners” in the columns of newspapers with titles such as “Marriage in bankruptcy?” and predicting the destruction of morality in less than 50 years because of too much focus on the fascination of sex. Here, they might have guessed correctly, but who guarantees that morality was built on infallible principles?
The 1950s: Nuclear families are the most successful.
Before World War II, there was a certain fever of marriage that led to the post-war obsession for the “nuclear family”. The typical marriage consisted of a male head of the household, a housewife and a few children. A small social core. These marriages were more durable than their historical predecessors.
Also, at the time, the laws that prevented marriages with persons having mental disabilities remained valid (as it is currently the case), although they were largely ignored in practice after the mid-twentieth century.
End of the 20th century: Marriage is a human right.
Feminist groups have fought for the freedom of women to seek a husband to ensure their well-being and have contributed to cementing the structure of marriage as a partnership between two equal people. Domestic rape was outlawed. Successively, the states of the world began to abolish laws prohibiting certain types of marriages: inter-racial, inter-incarcerated or same-sex couples (in 2001, the Netherlands became the first country to grant homosexual couples the right to marry) and, as humankind fought for the idea of a perfect couple, everything perfidiously turned into million-dollar businesses.
And if the historical evolution of inter-human relationships seems to you bizarre, immoral, hilarious or meaningless, just think about the fact that the people who have been involved in such archaic marriages are the same ones who have discovered the wheel, metal crafting or the sundial, have created artworks hard to match today, built pyramids, invented printing, the steam locomotive, the automobile, the atomic energy and more recently... the Internet. Not to mention the fact that they were moving from one place to another without having a clue what the GPS means.