Scholars believe that in the earliest forms of “marriage” people lived and worked in groups, not pairs. “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”—Genesis 2:24
The wedding ring as we know it may have stemmed from the ancient German practice of offering a ring to a bride on the tip of a sword—a pledge of union. More than 2000 years later, in 1938, the DeBeers diamond company launches a campaign to make the diamond engagement ring as essential as the wedding band.
5TH CENTURY BC
“By all means marry; if you get a good wife, you’ll become happy, if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.”—Socrates
Plato writes: “If there were . . . an army . . . made up of lovers and their loves . . . . Who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest at such a time; Love would inspire him.” Greek men have long been celebrating homosexuality, ideally man-boy love. Marriage, however, is a business deal; men marry women to run their household, rarely for love.
The Egyptian wife has plenty of power over her husband: He must pay a fine to his first wife, for example, if he wishes to marry a second one.
1ST CENTURY AD
With the emergence of Christianity, Roman marriage changes from a procreative duty into a choice. Marriage requires female consent, and the role of “wife” takes on as much dignity as that of “friend.” But “love” isn’t necessary for marriage. Greek essayist Plutarch calls love a “frenzy” and believes that “those who are in love must be forgiven as though ill.” Meanwhile, virginity is glorified, sexual connection deemed foul, and homosexuality is punishable by death.
c. 270St. Valentine is martyred on Feb. 14. The association of this chaste, holy man with the ancient pagan fertility festival of the Lupercalia, an ancestor of Valentine’s Day, is believed to be pure accident.
2ND-3RD CENTS.In an era abounding in luxuries and pleasures, Christians stress morality and encourage husband and wife to unite chastely under God. Intercourse is to be passionless and, as Clement of Alexandria stresses, should occur only after supper. Daylight hours should be devoted to studies or prayer. “He who too ardently loves his own wife is an adulterer.”
Brahmin priest Vatsyayana, believed to be a lifelong celibate and ascetic, writes one of India’s most erotic works, the Kama Sutra. Meanwhile, Jovian, a maverick monk, is excommunicated in 385 on the grounds of heresy and blasphemy for calling marriage superior to celibacy. Eleven years later, however, St. Augustine, who dares to deem pleasure a normal part of procreation, is chosen Bishop of Hippo.
Religion governs marriage. Almost all weddings in the Roman Empire now include an ecclesiastical benediction and marriage is considered a sacrament. In the next century, Emperor Justinian makes adultery a capital offense and divorce nearly impossible.
Buddhists and Hindus in India begin to practice Tantrism in an attempt to transform the human body into a mystical one. Through maithuna (ceremonial sex), human union becomes a sacred act. In England, marriage between blood relatives is outlawed.
In one of the first known attempts to suppress the ancient Japanese practice of phallic worship, a large phallic image, which had been displayed and worshipped in Kyoto, is moved to a less prominent place.
Ibn Hazm, Spanish Muslim author, is born in Cordova. In The Dove’s Necklace, he describes the many symptoms of love, such as “drinking the remainder of what the beloved has left in his cup, seeking out the very spot against which his lips were pressed.”
EARLY 11th CENT.
One of the earliest and greatest romance novels, The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, describes the refined and libidinous court life of Japan.
Chinese philosophers begin to interpret the ancient Yin and Yang symbols as not opposed but interdependent—like man and woman. The undivided circle becomes known as t’ai chi t’u: “the supreme ultimate.” A few gentlemen in southern France jokingly concoct a little game of flattery they call “cortezia, courtesie.” In the next century, their pastime will blossom into courtly love—an entire social philosophy.
Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine holds mock trials judging “proper” love behavior at her Court of Love at Poitiers. In Persia, the untimely death of poet Nizami’s young beloved, Afaq, inspires him to write Leyla and Majnun, a sensual/spiritual romance about the tragic death of a lover.
Sufi teacher Rumi meets Shams of Tabriz and abandons himself to divine and earthly love. “There’s no studying, no scholarly thinking having to do with love, but there is a great deal of plotting, and secret touching, and nights you can’t remember at all.” 752 years later, Rumi is the best-selling poet in America.
Margery Brews of England writes the earliest known valentine to her “Right Worshipful and well-beloved Valentine.” She hopes he’ll make her “the merriest maiden on the ground” and marry her despite a meager dowry.
Some 400 years before America’s “The Joy of Sex” comes India’s “Ananga Ranga” which shows husband and wife how to keep a marriage lively with 32 sexual positions. Meanwhile, in Germany, early Puritans praise sex within marriage, and religious reformer Martin Luther, believing that sexual impulse is natural and irrepressible, persuades a group of nuns to leave the convent and helps them find husbands. When one of them, Katharina von Bora, remains unwed, Luther marries her. Six years later he writes, “My wife is more precious to me than the Kingdom of France and all the treasures of Venice.”
Ko-uta, short lyric songs of the geisha world, are compiled into a collection called the Kanginshu. When the government objects to their erotic content, composers make them more refined and indirect.
John Calvin, head of Geneva’s religious government, creates a code of morals that limits engagements to six weeks and prohibits revelry, minstrelsy, dancing, and tambourines at weddings. If the bride or groom arrive late, the wedding is canceled.
Don Juan comes to life in Tirso de Molina’s play The Joker of Seville, perhaps the first artistic depiction of the legend of Don Juan.
While Puritan author William Gouge is advising wives to address their mates only as “Husband” and never as “sweet, sweeting, heart, sweetheart, love, joy, dear, duck, chick, or pigsnie,”—Thomas Morton sows wild oats on New England soil. The Englishman establishes “Merry Mount,” a plantation where whites and Native Americans openly engage in sexual relations. Puritan Pilgrims, who believe only in marital sexuality, deport him three years later for reviving the erotic pagan May Day festival. Thirteen years later, Massachusetts demands that every town “dispose of all single persons,” and Connecticut taxes bachelors 20 shillings a week.
In Virginia, whites who marry or have sex with a “Negro, mulatto or Indian,” are banished from the colony. By 1705 the ante has been upped to 6 months’ imprisonment and a 10-pound fine.
Giacomo Casanova, lover of life, is born in Venice. In his memoirs he writes of hundreds of mistresses—116 by name.
As out-of-wedlock pregnancies increase, some New England towns attempt to prohibit “bundling”—a practice wherein courting couples are allowed to sleep together so long as they remained fully dressed and/or with a “bundling board” between them. Later in the century, feminist Mary Wollstonecraft makes the first full-on attack against restrictive marriage in her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman.”
MID-1800sThe Victorian era enshrines middle-class prudery. In advertisements, ladies undergarments are folded—to keep the crotch a secret—and wives are expected to be passive during lovemaking. Even feeling desire is forbidden. But sexuality slowly seeps into the public sphere in the form of erotic literature like William Haynes’ cheap, explicit novels.
One hundred years before the much-discussed divorce boom of the Disco years, the women’s rights movement is already influencing women to choose self-sufficiency over unhappy marriages. The divorce rate grows sixfold between 1870 and 1900.
1895, April 30
Oscar Wilde, on trial for “indecent acts,” says:
“The Love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect.
John Rice gives May Irwin the first movie kiss—a pretty passionless one. But the press harrumphs that the “unbridled kissing, magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated thrice, is absolutely loathsome.”
Cyrano and Roxane look beyond the physical in Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac.
Japanese poet Akiko Yosano publishes Tangled Hair, a book of poetry that replaces the traditional Japanese poetic approach to love—all emotions, no body contact—with a frank sensuality that is immediately popular among young lovers in the rapidly Westernizing nation.
Hallmark is established in Kansas City, Missouri.
Tongues are loosened and voices are raised in support of women’s sexual freedom. Margaret Sanger publishes birth control information in a New York newspaper called Women Rebel, arguing that love and happiness are hindered by the fear of unwanted pregnancy. Four years later, Marie Stopes of England salutes the female orgasm in her startling book Married Love. The 1920s see a flowering of sexual liberation. With jaunty jazz babies, flappers, and vamps frequenting speakeasies and petting parties, the twenties roar.
1931, Dec. 5
Anais Nin meets Henry Miller and soon brings him and his wife June into her erotic worlds, both real and fictional. Nin’s repeated challenges to the concept of monogamy dismay her husband.
The Rev. Canon Bill Cook and his fiancee Helen exchange 6,000 love letters while separated for four and a half years. This love act makes the Guinness Book of World Records for Longest and Most Letters.
Playboy hits the stands, encouraging men to “enjoy the pleasures the female has to offer without becoming emotionally involved.”
Scenes from a sexual revolution: On May 9, 1960, the FDA approves the first birth control pill. Matchmaking hits prime-time with The Dating Game in 1965. The U.S. Supreme Court voids all laws against miscegenation in 1967. In the fall following the Summer of Love in 1968, feminists crash the Miss America pageant, proclaiming “women’s liberation” and urging women to throw fake eye-lashes, dishcloths, Playboys, Vogues, and even their bras into “freedom trashcans.”
Unable to find any law prohibiting same-sex marriage, Clela Rorex, a county clerk in Boulder Colorado, marries Dave Zamora and Ave McCord. Five more same-sex couples come to Rorex to be wed. When an angry cowboy walks in with his fiancee, an 8-year-old mare, Rorex refuses to grant the marriage—noting that the horse is underage.
Punk rockers don’t care. Sid Vicious says, “I've only been in love with a beer bottle and a mirror.”
Sex gets scary when a few doctors begin noticing rare forms of pneumonia and cancer killing young gay men. Homophobia rises to new heights. Soon it becomes clear that this infectious disease, AIDS, is not exclusive to homosexual males. Within 5 years, there are 40,000 patients. Condom Nation emerges.
In a world increasingly fearful of promiscuity, Milan Kundera writes about the difference between lust and love in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).”
Marriage is hip, but the ground’s still shaky. Town & Country magazine launches a Web site dedicated to The Big Day. In an arranged Muslim marriage, Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets weds 18-year-old Dalia Asafi. The artist formerly known as Prince marries dancer Mayte Garcia on Valentine’s Day. Another prince, however, breaks it off with his princess—Charles and Di divorce in a manner only a bit more civil than the royal beheadings of centuries past.