A Brief History of Marriage

Somehow, matrimony survived its sordid past

| May-June 1999

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.