A Brief History of Marriage

Somehow, matrimony survived its sordid past

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First comes love, then comes marriage: That grade school rhyme sums up the West's 20th-century philosophy of matrimony. But while modern folk take for granted that marriage is about love, it's really a historically peculiar—even radical—idea. In traditional marriage, people talked first about finances, trusting that once the key money matters were arranged, the couple could work out such things as companionship and sex and maybe even love. That changed with the rise of capitalism, as your family's finances were no longer decided by your wedding vows. And once you were able to make your own living, you were also able to make your own bed.

So who, in the history of marriage, got to say "I do?" You might smile at the question itself. But take the Romans. Their weddings included pledges exchanged by—are you sitting down?—the groom and his father-in-law. In the standard upper-class ceremony, the groom said, "Do you promise to give your daughter to me to be my wedded wife?" The bride's father answered, "The gods bring you luck! I betroth her." She said not a word. Because legal marriage was a dynastic arrangement, a way of arranging alliances and inheritances, the marriage had of course been arranged among the families—so much so that even the son's consent could be quite superficial.

According to the Roman Digest, "If a son marries a woman on the order of his father, that marriage is valid, although one cannot be forced to marry against one's wishes: However, it will be presumed that he chose to accept." That doesn't sound much like our active courtships, does it? But at least the groom had to open his mouth. The bride—well, "a daughter who does not openly resist her father's wishes is assumed to have consented." After all, who would have dared to stand up for her own choice, given that her family or clan was the all-powerful civil authority, the law under which she lived?

A thousand years after the birth of Christ, one pope insisted that the rules be changed. When one powerful noble, Jourdain, married off his daughter against her vehement objections, the pope annulled the marriage—a shocking and urgent decision. The pope won. Within two centuries, the church had turned the standard wedding ceremony topsy-turvy. Now the girl, and not her father, had to say—out loud—"I do." He might still walk her down the aisle, but he no longer literally placed her hand in her husband's; she did that herself. As one theologian explained, "Where there is to be union of bodies there ought to be union of spirits." After reading about centuries in which men traded off their daughters' wombs like cattle—and often for cattle—you want to give three big cheers for the Church.

In practice, among the late medieval and early pre-modern upper classes, the children's consent was still assumed: It would have taken extraordinary willfulness for a 12-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy to stand up against their parents (without, remember, school pals or MTV to cheer on the rebellion). One 13th-century English archbishop outlawed adolescent marriages, but since local bishops gave dispensations freely—or rather, for a reasonable price—who cared?

When the 16th-century Protestants sided with the parents, outlawing secret marriages and requiring parental consent, it was because they refused the idea that marriage was a private affair. Everyone's interests had to be consulted: Parents and "friends" (siblings, uncles, godparents, interested others) proposed, and marriageable adults thought seriously about the suggestions of those who cared about their welfare.

Oh, the Protestants did believe that, at a certain age—between, say, 22 and 25—you were old enough to marry without your parents' consent. But until then it was common sense that your parents knew better than you did, that marriage based on "such ephemeral factors as sexual attraction or romantic love was, if anything, less likely to produce lasting happiness than one arranged by more prudent and mature heads."

And yet, despite themselves, the Protestants started using a stealth weapon that, combined with the Catholic insistence on consent, eventually exploded into today's emphasis on marital love. The secret weapon was "holy matrimony"—that dramatic new phrase that the Protestants used endlessly in their campaign against Catholic celibacy, trotting it out in innumerable permutations, preaching it from the pulpit.

The startling concept of holy matrimony exploited a contradiction in Catholic theology: If consent and individual will were spiritually important, wasn't the marriage bond itself—its inner life—holy as well? Of course, some of the preaching about "holy matrimony" was done by now-married priests who had to justify to their consciences and congregations their own fall from celibacy. But things also worked the other way around: As the preacher-men married, they started to see that marriage could also be a spiritual act that pleased God.

Following the law of unintended consequences, the meaning of "holy matrimony" grew larger and more explosive as time went on. At first, it encompassed the idea that obedient sons and daughters, in fulfilling their duty by marrying, were doing a holy thing. But over the centuries "holy matrimony" expanded to mean that marriage's inner life was actually more important than its forms—that the souls must meet before marriage, that the inner life must guide you to your spouse. Where once you had only veto power—your parents would nominate, and you would say yes or no—your feelings now had the power to run the entire spousal-election process.

Exactly when things switched from consent to choice is impossible to pinpoint, since the history of the inner life is notoriously hard to trace. But diaries, letters, and literature suggest to historians and literary scholars that an earthquake in marriage attitudes sent tremors across the 18th century. By then even the propertied classes, the ones who traditionally gave their children the least control, began to think that the children should have a say in who they married. By the late 19th century, young people began and managed their own courting, only afterwards allowing their parents a veto—a process that speeded up dramatically in the 1920s, as courtship moved from front porch to backseat.

In other words, for the past 400 years, young people have steadily moved out from under their parents' thumbs, until today we would be a bit shocked if adults did not select spouses for themselves. And since the middle ages, girls and women have steadily been moving forward on the question of my body, my right to choose: to choose to marry someone her father proposed; to choose a suitor; to choose whether or not to expose herself to pregnancy every time she had sex; to choose even whether to love a woman or a man.

Or to quote again that 12th-century church theologian: "Where there is to be union of bodies there ought to be union of spirits." That union of spirits, that insistence on active consent, now rules our marriage ideology—and my home life. Which brings me, finally, to offer a glimpse of my own story.

One day in 1991, almost against my will, I knew we were going to stand up in front of the people we love and commit ourselves to each other. Of course, it's ridiculous to say that it was against my will. I decided. Madeline, being distinctly private, wanted just to exchange rings. But an insular suburban life had strangled my childhood and my parents' marriage, and so I recoiled at the notion of privacy: Something inside me insisted on a ritual moment in full community view. It took time to write a ceremony that meant enough, but not too much. In our dearest friends' living room, we would say a few Jewish prayers, recite four favorite poems, exchange rings, speak our declarations, and, of course, kiss.

All of which we did, semicircles of family's and friends' eyes on us like lamps.

How can I describe what came next? It was nearly a delirium: By accident we'd spilled into something sacred. In that backyard in (yes) June, we kissed madly, actually forgetting we were lesbians, forgetting that the neighbors might be shocked. Madeline forgot to eat or drink. My dryly sarcastic brother cried so hard while making his toast that he could barely complete his sentences. My stepfather, who once squirmed at hearing I was queer, announced his pride in me and my friends. My mother led the blessings, cut the challah, and charmed all my friends. To poke fun at the ceremony's earnestness, we brought out a cake topped with two brides. To our utter surprise, the ceremony brought us closer, pulling an invisible cloak around us that has warmed us during difficult times. We'd thought ourselves as committed as any couple could be: How else could we have exposed ourselves to the world's ridicule? But now even the most unnoticeable traces of doubt dissolve instantly, chased away by the memory of that day when we made our declarations so publicly, placing our love in the hands of God and everyone we knew.

Today, after nearly a dozen years together, each morning when I wake up and find Madeline beside me, I still feel surprised by joy. I am one of those former lit majors who has whispered the "westron wind" quatrain to my love over the phone when I'm far away. In front of that roomful of family and friends, before vowing to care for her lifelong, I spoke to her that most famous Shakespearean sonnet, that determined lifetime promise: "Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds." And I've repeated it to her, alone at home, when one or another of us is disconsolate, as age slowly creeps up on us, to remind her that "Love's not Time's fool / though rosy lips and cheeks / within his bending sickle's compass come; / Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks / but bears it out even to the edge of doom."

Our marriage, in other words, has been bought and paid for with our society's common cultural currency: love. I adore her. I want to stand by as her perfect skin mottles and browns, as her black hair grays, as her sweet eyelids sag. I want to calm her panic when she's ill, cry in her arms when my life goes wrong, and argue over our different driving styles until we're in the grave. I cry at others' weddings because I was so happy at my own.

If our society believes in letting two people choose their life's partner from a sea of particular and unique individuals—if each of us is free to choose a spouse based on our own hopes for companionship, affection, friendship, and love—then how dare anyone tell me I have chosen wrong? If marriage is for, as Archbishop Cranmer wrote in 1547, "mutual society, help and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and in adversity," Madeline and I belong.

E.J. Graff is an affiliated scholar at Radcliffe College’s Schlesinger Library. Her work has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Ms., The Nation, Out, and The Village Voice. Excerpted from What Is Marriage For?: The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution .  Published by Beacon Press, June 1999.