Sunday, May 30, 2010

Grasping the past (6): Marriage

This extends a comment I made here.

If one is familiar with the history of marriage, contemporary debates over marriage can be a bit odd. The Church got into marriage law because there was pressure (particularly from landholders) to regularise marriage rights and law to help smooth transfer of property. There is a transaction costs argument in favour of a standard contract that I suspect would recur rapidly if marriage was "disestablished" (i.e., the state withdrew from regulating marriage: which it only got into in Latin Christendom during the Reformation).

The notion that marriage "has to be" sacralised is also deeply odd. In Latin Christendom, marriage did not become a sacrament until the C11th. The Catholic Church did not require the presence of a priest until the Council of Trent in the C16th. But contractual marriage is, in fact, older in Western traditions (in Judaism, Roman, Celtic and Germanic law).

The notion that the Church has "intellectual property (IP)" in marriage is simply stupid, showing a crass ignorance about the history of marriage. But it is consistent with the pattern of social movements vis-à-vis the family: they start off being against it as distraction from the Great Purpose, make some sort of accord with it when social reality proves too strong and end up claiming that they were always in favour of it really.

The only thing anthropologists have been able to find that is common and distinctive about marriage—it creates in-laws. There has been at least one society (in Southern China) that did not have marriage at all (a woman’s brothers helped raised her children) and many societies (notably Amerindian societies, but African, Asian and Middle Eastern ones as well) have had same-sex marriages of various types.

As for its origins, that is not remotely tied to any particular religion. Indeed, religions typically seek authority from supporting and ritualising marriage, rather than marriage requiring religious authority. Marriage itself has origins in human needs and conveniences. In Stephanie Coontz's —words:
... having a flexible, gender-based division of labor within a mated pair was an important tool of human survival.
Children, property and companionship sustain marriage as an institution: so much so that any two of them seem to be enough to keep it going.

ADDENDA: The Israeli state has no role in marriage except registering the marriage, which has it own problems given marriage is treated as an entirely religious institution. (The Israeli state does enforce some residency restrictions however.)


  1. Interesting post and link. I got married in the mid 1950s. Full on church visits the vicar before etc.
    Neither of us were believers, but that was what you did. A ritual nothing more.
    “Children, property and companionship sustain marriage as an institution: so much so that any two of them seem to be enough to keep it going.”
    We never had children, never bought a house for the first 20 years, so perhaps only companionship is needed.
    For almost thirty years I was an engineer in the merchant navy with my wife as a passenger or ‘company guest’. Main trading was Australia, far east and pacific. We often had trainees from all over. I still remember conversations with a young man from what was then the New Hebrides. I was trying to explain that we weren’t together because she was my wife but because she was my friend. He could not understand at all, thought I was saying we weren’t actually married – that she wasn’t my property. ? .
    Since retiring I have been reading a lot of anthropology, in one of the pacific island groups it is/was common for the female partner to take a lover. Not unusual anywhere, but, if she did not get presents from her lover to give to her husband she was considered “immoral”.
    Sorry about the use of ‘my wife’, can’t think of any other expression even though I have spent 40 or more years trying to find one. She was never mine, I was never hers, if you need to say anything we were each others.

  2. Your comment is a lovely memoir and meditation on marriage, thank you.