Marriage then and now: marital union through the ages and how it’s changed.

By Hayley White

Reading time: 8 minutes

It is hard to tell when marriage officially became a thing humans did, because people, and most of the animal kingdom, have been forming partnerships throughout history. Defined as the legally or formally recognised union of two people as partners in a relationship, the word ‘marriage’ comes from Middle English mariage, which appeared as early as 1259 to 1300 B.C. - but it’s been happening way before that.

Different cultures all have their origins for how marriage was created and because of that, marriage has developed in different ways. In the Indian epic poem Mahabharata, it says that women were formerly unconfined and roved around however they wanted. Doing this even while married, they broke no rules and were not guilty. That was until the son of the Rishi Uddalaka, Svetaketu, established that husbands and wives should remain faithful to each other.

By Hayley White

Reading time: 8 minutes

It is hard to tell when marriage officially became a thing humans did, because people, and most of the animal kingdom, have been forming partnerships throughout history. Defined as the legally or formally recognised union of two people as partners in a relationship, the word ‘marriage’ comes from Middle English mariage, which appeared as early as 1259 to 1300 B.C. – but it’s been happening way before that.

Different cultures all have their origins for how marriage was created and because of that, marriage has developed in different ways. In the Indian epic poem Mahabharata, it says that women were formerly unconfined and roved around however they wanted. Doing this even while married, they broke no rules and were not guilty. That was until the son of the Rishi Uddalaka, Svetaketu, established that husbands and wives should remain faithful to each other.

In China, it was believed that until the Emperor Fou-hi instituted marriage, men wandered around like animals and women were so common that children did not know their own fathers. The ancient Greeks were said to do as they pleased, too, and whatever children were born often took their mother’s name. That was until Cecrops, founder and king of Athens, showed the Athenians how inconvenient this practice was and established laws and rules of marriage (Westermarck, 1891).

The roles of the mother and father are as old as time, with the mother overseeing the care of the child and the father providing for them both. A strong bond was formed which had the family staying together pretty much until their child was able to live on their own. And this is something reflected in much of the animal kingdom too, where two (animal) parents would stay together to look after their offspring until they were ready to leave.

So, while it was not officially marriage, people were already starting families and settling down when the words “I do” were perhaps even invented.

In the Middle Ages, marriage was mostly seen as a political and economic transaction. We often see movies about how kings and queens get married because they were in love, but this is not necessarily or historically accurate. Especially among the wealthy, a dowry was super important and could determine whom a woman could marry and, in the case of royalty, princes and princesses got married to whomever the best alliance would be for their kingdoms. Coontz (2006) even says that this was common in the lower classes; that their marriages were also a transaction but more in the sense of physical labour.

Photo: Neal E Johnson, unsplash

Could a person marry someone who had a farm close to theirs? Would the person’s in-laws help or hinder them? Or did they have the skills and resources that were just as important as personality and attractiveness?

Today, we believe that love is an essential part of marriage but, depending on the culture, love was not always required. For years it seemed that love in a married union was impossible and incompatible with marriage.

The Greeks viewed love as a sickness and type of insanity. Some Greek and Roman philosophers even claimed that to love one’s wife was adultery. In ancient India, it was seen as disruptive and antisocial. In China, a married couple could be split up by the son’s parents if the love between them was seen as a threat to the extended family. The parents could force their son to divorce his wife if they were not happy with her behaviour. They could also make him take a concubine if the wife failed to produce a son. In some instances, they might even send their son’s wife back to her own parents.

Medieval Muslim cultures approved sexual passion between married couples, but also believed that too much love weakened devotion to God (Coontz, 2006). And in our present time the Fulbe people of northern Cameroon in Africa do not believe in love in marriage, with Fulbe women vehemently refusing to admit emotional attachment to their husbands.

There were also beliefs that love was an added benefit in marriage, but not a necessity. In Kenya, love is celebrated but love marriages are generally only found after a first few wives.

In ancient Rome, Statesman Cicero exchanged many love letters with his wife but did not hesitate to divorce her when she no longer catered to his needs.

In Hindu, ‘first we marry, then we fall in love’ was the formula. Love and sexuality are celebrated in Hindu tradition, but they are not essential for marriage in a culture where arranged marriages are still alive today. Quite a lot of cultures still arrange marriages at present; countries like China, Japan, Pakistan, and Israel to name a few.

While arranged marriage exists within Asian cultures such as Indian and Chinese, it was phased out within Western cultures because of the right to choose to marry the person one loves. Of course, this does not mean that arranged marriages are loveless, rather they can grow into love.

As time went on, arranged marriages became less compulsory and more of a choice. Yet a study of Hindu couples and individuals by Bowman and Dollahite (2013) says that some of their subjects still preferred an arranged marriage chosen by their parents, due to the belief that their parents knew what was good for them.

The institution of marriage itself has been in constant evolution. When the church started to become more involved with marriage, marriage became sacred in Western culture and moved away from the idea of union being solely for gain. It was not until the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century that the pursuit of happiness became central to the narrative of life.

Enlightenment thinkers started to advocate marrying for love rather than status. This helped young men select their own brides in the 19th century when people took more control of their love lives.

Gay pride parade
Photo: Gerhard Lipold, pexels

The concept of marriage evolved even more with the feminist movement, when women moved away from being expected to be the ‘homemaker’, and more towards equality within marriages. And again, when some cultures around the world legalised gay marriage, celebrating the love that exists between all genders.

Out of these old ways and customs, we now have an institution that is constantly in flux and has grown for millennia.

 

Sources: 1. “Why would such a person dream about heaven?” family, faith, and happiness in arranged marriages in India. 2. Marriage, a history: How love conquered marriage. 3. The history of human marriage.

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