Marriage a Malleable Institution Throughout History

Roundup: Media's Take

Mike Anton, in the LAT (March 31, 2004):

Throughout most of human history, a man married a woman out of desire -- for her father's goats, perhaps.

Marriage was a business arrangement. The bride was a commodity, her dowry a deal sweetener. And the groom was likely to be an unwitting pawn in an economic alliance between two families.

A church may or may not have been involved. Government was out of the loop. There was no paperwork, no possibility of divorce, and -- more often than not -- no romance. But there was work to be done: procreation, the rearing of children and the enforcement of a contract that allowed for the orderly transfer of wealth and the cycle of arranged matrimony to continue.

In the debate over same-sex marriage, each side offers competing ideals that they claim hark back to the historical essence of matrimony.

In calling for a constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriage, President Bush has described contemporary heterosexual marriage as "the most fundamental institution of civilization," forged during "millennia of human experience." Thousands of gays and lesbians who have married in defiance of state law in San Francisco and elsewhere maintain they possess what has always mattered most in a relationship: Love.

But marriage, it turns out, has never been that simple. For much of its history, matrimony has been a matter of cold economic calculation, a condition to be endured rather than celebrated. Notions of marriage taken for granted today -- its voluntary nature, the legal equality of partners, even the pursuit of happiness -- required centuries to evolve.

"We live in such a chaotic world, the idea of a relationship that is constant -- not only in our own lives but historically -- is something we want to invest in," said Hendrik Hartog, a Princeton University history professor who wrote a book on the legal evolution of marriage. "It's natural to romanticize the history of marriage, and advocates of gay marriage are as invested in this as conservatives are."

Marriage as Americans know it today didn't exist 2,000 years ago, or even 200 years ago. Rather than an unbending pillar of society, marriage has been an extraordinarily elastic institution, constantly adapting to religious, political and economic shifts and pliable in the face of sexual revolutions, civil rights movements and changing cultural norms.

"It's extremely malleable," said Thomas Laqueur, a history professor at UC Berkeley who has studied marriage and sexuality. "Historically, anthropologically, the word 'marriage' needs to be placed in quotation marks." One reason that marriage seems so unchanging is that it has evolved glacially, inching forward on many paths at once.

In Greek mythology, Zeus created Pandora, the first woman. Then he made her the first bride and gave her as a gift to the Titan Epimetheus. The union ended poorly when Pandora opened the wedding gift she came with, unleashing from the box all of the evils of mankind.

And some newlyweds today complain when they get a toaster.

Like Zeus, Greek fathers considered their daughters property and essentially bartered them for the purpose of cementing an economic or political alliance.

The Romans codified marriage, introducing the idea of consent and setting the minimum age of grooms at 14, brides at 12. There were three types of union, and which one you got depended on your social class. The rich got a confarreatio, which included a big celebration, a special cake, maybe an animal sacrifice. The masses simply shacked up, and after a time they were considered married. A woman in a coemptio was essentially sold to her husband and had the same status as a child.

Arranged marriages remained common in Western societies into the 19th century. It is still the rule in parts of central Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It's a practice replete with abuse, from female infanticide by parents fearful of having to pay for a marriage someday to "bride burnings" of women whose families provide an insufficient dowry.

The Romans promoted monogamy at a time when polygamy was common throughout the pre-Christian world. The ancient Chinese had their concubines, and from David to Abraham, the Hebrew scriptures read like Utah in the mid-19th century, full of men who had dozens, even hundreds, of wives.

"Now King Solomon loved many foreign women: the daughter of Pharaoh, and Moabite, Ammonite, E'domite, Sido'nian, and Hittite women ... ," reads 1 Kings 11:1, in the revised standard version of the Bible. "He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart." Add a pickup, and it's a country song.

In fact, polygamy has been more common than monogamy over the full sweep of human history. The Roman Catholic Church would take up the push for monogamy, and through the centuries it overtook polygamy as the standard worldwide.

But polygamy is stubborn. Though the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed it in 1879, polygamy survives in the shadows of the Mormon West. And, while waning, it is still practiced in the Muslim world and illegally in Israel by some ultra-orthodox Jews, among other places. Polyandry, marriages involving one woman and more than one man, have cropped up among Eskimos and, even today, in Tibet.

Even where there have been clear rules about marriage, there have been more loopholes than there are in the U.S. Tax Code.

King Henry VIII famously broke from Catholicism and started his own church largely so he could divorce and marry again -- and again. European commoners who couldn't legally divorce sold their wives.

The Muslim tradition of a temporary "pleasure" union, which dates to the days of Muhammad, is still used to legalize sex under Islamic law.

Its Western counterpart: the Vegas quickie wedding, sometimes sanctified at a drive-through chapel or presided over by an Elvis impersonator. Impassioned couples began to flock to Nevada in the 1920s, after California imposed a three-day waiting period in an attempt to keep drunken lovers from the altar.

What constitutes a marriage is so fluid that many anthropologists sidestep the word altogether, preferring "unions" or "alliances," said Roger Lancaster, a professor of anthropology and cultural studies at George Mason University in Virginia. Other scholars refer to same-sex unions throughout history -- in cultures as varied as ancient Greece, tribal Africa and native North America -- as marriages.

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