One Last Word: On the History of Marriage
Marriage was not exactly about love, in the past. As researcher Stephanie Coontz writes, “it was a way of getting in-laws, of making alliances and expanding the family labor force.” Marriage, beyond the little people, thus served as a means for preserving power by joining families that had social clout. Adultery was often a side effect of arranged marriages, especially among the aristocracy. The church did not approve of this side effect, as you can imagine.
The troubadour movement of the high medieval period added courtly love into the mix. In the early modern era, the shift from a feudal – monarchial society into mercantilism made love an even more attractive aspect of marriage. Prior to this, love was something to be desired after marriage, but not the leading reason to get married.
Monogamy, as an aside, was until recently the minority practice if we look at the world’s population across the course of history. Polygamy was practiced in ancient Israel, of course, and there have been societies in which polyandry was practiced.
Ancient Rome required marriage licenses. Marriage ceremonies in early Judaism and Christianity joined a man and a woman with the blessing of God and the symbols of the Faith. In the western world marriage was not declared a sacrament until the IV Lateran Council of 1215, which by the way also decreed clerical celibacy as the norm. Early modern states licensed marriage and the church’s role was to add a blessing to what was recognized in the civil realm. Hold that thought.
Formulae for marriage from the time of the Reformation do not require anything in terms of public recognition or witnesses but were conducted in the narthex of the church solely as a blessing on the couple. In the so-called new world, Massachusetts was the first colony to require civil licenses in 1639.
Marriage was not promoted solely for the purpose of procreation. The church (when there was but one church throughout the world) recognized that people could be happily married without children although procreation was the normal expectation. The church allowed divorce if your spouse refused to have children, but not because of infertility.
Divorce laws have varied. The Orthodox Church permitted remarriage after divorce with no ecclesiastical penalty throughout our history, in contrast to Roman Catholic tradition. Protestants are on a spectrum of tolerance. Most churches (and Roman society) set limits to consanguinity. I cannot marry my first cousin or, for that matter, my goddaughter, a relationship deemed equal to blood.
However, and this is the big however, despite changing views, there was no question until recently that marriage is between a man and a woman. When Jesus (Matthew 19:1-6) speaks of marriage, he refers to the Book of Genesis, and thus accepts marriage between man and woman as part of the order of creation. It is built into the fabric of the universe. No one in his world would question that, nor would the notion of same-sex marriage have arisen. It would have been, quite literally, unthinkable.
I believe that a marriage may only be contracted between a man and a woman and that the church can only bless such unions. I won’t hide behind my church’s position as if I were forced to accept it against my will.
This, to many of us, is a separate issue from whether or not same-sex couples deserve to receive the benefits the state and private insurance companies provide to couples. Civil unions may certainly be recognized; that is the state’s prerogative. For many of us the definition of marriage will remain the same: one man, one woman. We will have to live with our disagreement.