The best available evidence suggests that marriage, as an institution is about 4,350 years old. The first recorded evidence of marriage ceremonies uniting one woman and one man dates from about 2350 B.C., in Mesopotamia. Over the next several hundred years, marriage evolved into a widespread institution embraced by the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans.
But, back then, FAR from being a “spiritual union between one man and one woman”, as the fundamentalist wing-nuts of today insist, marriage had little to do with neither love NOR religion.
Rather, marriage’s primary purpose at that time was to bind women to men, and thus guarantee that a man’s children were truly his biological heirs. Through marriage, a woman became a man’s property. In the betrothal ceremony of ancient Greece, a father would hand over his daughter with these words: “I pledge my daughter for the purpose of producing legitimate offspring.” Among the ancient Hebrews, men were free to take several wives; married Greeks and Romans were free to satisfy their sexual urges with concubines, prostitutes, and even teenage male lovers, while their wives were required to stay home and tend to the household. If wives failed to produce offspring, their husbands could give them back and marry someone else.
So much for commitment!
So, then, when and why did the concept of marriage start morphing into a religious institution between one man and one woman? For that, we can thank none other than the (gasp!) Holy Roman Catholic Church.
As the Roman Catholic Church became a powerful institution in Europe, the blessings of a priest became a necessary step for a marriage to be legally recognized. That’s because, back then, there was little difference between the “Church” and the “State”. In many ways, the church WAS the state, and the Church also saw the institution of marriage as yet another means of controlling its minions and keeping them in line. In fact, by the eighth century, marriage was widely accepted in the Catholic Church as a sacrament, or a ceremony to bestow God’s grace. At the Council of Trent in 1563, the sacramental nature of marriage was written into canon law.
And, the Church’s blessing did improve the lot of wives. Men were taught to show greater respect for their wives, and were forbidden from divorcing them. Christian doctrine declared that “the twain shall be one flesh,” giving husband and wife exclusive access to each other’s body. This put new pressure on men to remain sexually faithful.
But the church still held that men were the head of families, with their wives deferring to their wishes. And, of course, the Church’s (a.k.a. the” State’s”) rigid laws relating to the procreative nature of the relationship also insured there would be a continuing supply of little Catholics to perpetuate the Church…. whether the couple loved each other or not.
In fact, throughout much of human history, couples were brought together for practical reasons, not because they fell in love. In time, of course, many marriage partners came to feel deep mutual love and devotion. But the idea of romantic love, as a motivating force for marriage only goes as far back as the Middle Ages. Naturally, many scholars believe the concept was “invented” by the French. Its model was the knight who felt intense love for someone else’s wife, as in the case of Sir Lancelot and King Arthur’s wife, Queen Guinevere. Twelfth-century advice literature told men to woo the object of their desire by praising her eyes, hair, and lips. In the 13th century, Richard de Fournival, physician to the king of France, wrote “Advice on Love,” in which he suggested that a woman cast her love flirtatious glances—“anything but a frank and open entreaty.”
So, did the concept of “being in love” change marriage? It sure did! Marilyn Yalom, a Stanford historian and author of A History of the Wife, credits the concept of romantic love with giving women greater leverage in what had been a largely pragmatic transaction. Wives no longer existed solely to serve men. The romantic prince, in fact, sought to serve the woman he loved. Still, the notion that the husband “owned” the wife continued to hold sway (and was fully sanctioned by the Church) for centuries.
When colonists first came to America—at a time when polygamy was still accepted in most parts of the world—the husband’s dominance was officially recognized under a legal doctrine called “coverture,” under which the new bride’s identity was absorbed into his. The bride gave up her name to symbolize the surrendering of her identity, and the husband suddenly became more important, as the official public representative of two people, not one. The rules were so strict that any American woman who married a foreigner immediately lost her citizenship.
How’s THAT for marital rights?
Fortunately, this archaic tradition started coming unglued when women won the right to vote. When that happened, in 1920, the institution of marriage began a dramatic transformation. Suddenly, each union consisted of two full citizens, although tradition dictated that the husband still ruled the home. By the late 1960s, state laws forbidding interracial marriage had been thrown out, and the last states had dropped laws against the use of birth control. Of course, it was the Church and its continued influence over the affairs of State that was largely responsible for putting such laws regarding birth control into effect in the first place.
By the 1970s, the law finally recognized the concept of marital rape, which up to that point was inconceivable, as the husband “owned” his wife’s sexuality. “The idea that marriage is a private relationship for the fulfillment of two individuals is really very new,” said historian Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. “Within the past 40 years, marriage has changed more than in the last 5,000.”
The concept of gay marriage is rare in history—but not unknown. The Roman emperor Nero, who ruled from A.D. 54 to 68, twice married men in formal wedding ceremonies, and forced the Imperial Court to treat them as his wives. In second and third-century Rome, homosexual weddings became common enough that it worried the social commentator Juvenal, says Marilyn Yalom in A History of the Wife. “Look—a man of family and fortune—being wed to a man!” Juvenal wrote. “Such things, before we’re very much older, will be done in public.” He mocked such unions, saying that male “brides” would never be able to “hold their husbands by having a baby.”
The Romans outlawed formal homosexual unions in the year 342 (remember, the Church and the State were synonymous back then). But Yale history professor John Boswell says he’s found scattered evidence of homosexual unions even after that time, including some that were recognized by Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. In one 13th-century Greek Orthodox ceremony, the “Order for Solemnisation of Same Sex Union,” the celebrant asked God to grant the participants “grace to love one another and to abide unhated and not a cause of scandal all the days of their lives, with the help of the Holy Mother of God and all thy saints.”
So, why now all religious fervor against legally recognizing Gay marriage? By now, it should be obvious that it was the Church, not the State that co-opted what was, up to that time, largely a civil institution for its own benefit and selfish preservation.
In fact, in North America, despite the repeated protestations of the Church, the institution of marriage has remained largely State-sponsored. After all, even when a “person of the cloth” performs a marriage ceremony, don’t’ they still conclude the proceedings by saying, “…by the power vested in me by the State of…….”?
And, as expected, the latest public furor against legalizing marriages between consenting homosexual adults has once again been orchestrated by a well-organized (but historically ignorant) combination of Roman Catholic and fundamentalist, evangelical “Christian” RELIGIOUS institutions who still seem hell-bent on turning their narrow religious beliefs about marriage into public policy.
These fundamentalist zealots apparently don’t realize (nor do they apparently care) it was RELIGION that, for thousands of years has tried repeatedly to co-opt what originally was (and largely remains) a STATE-sponsored institution and not the other way around.
Thankfully, once again, this latest effort by the religious wing-nuts to continue controlling people’s personal lives and fortunes are now failing…miserably. Just like the statues outlawing interracial unions and the use of birth control were struck down, more and more countries (like Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Spain) and a growing list of US States (most recently, New Hampshire) are now striking down laws aimed at denying homosexuals their God-given rights and are adopting some form of homosexual marriage.
The bottom line here is that it’s none of the Church’s damn business…and it never SHOULD HAVE BEEN its business….if two consenting adults (homosexual or otherwise) now choose to marry and have that union officially called a “marriage” in the eyes of the State.