Friday, August 30, 2019

How the Definition of Marriage Has Changed Over Time

The concept of what marriage is and what it means to people has definitely changed over time and from culture to culture. This brief overview traces how the concept of marriage has changed over the years and varied across cultures.
The concept of marriage varied from culture to culture in ancient times. In the Egyptian culture, marriage was viewed as a special relationship between two people. There were laws protecting the establishment. Although some laws existed protecting the marriage, the same culture allowed for people to marry their brother or sister. The intermarriage of family members allowed for wealth to remain concentrated within a few families. Those few families maintained positions of prominence within ancient Egypt by using this practice.
In the Hebrew culture, laws existed that specified who could not be married with regards to closeness of relationships. Laws forbidding the marriage of close familial relations were established. With the marriage laws were also laws regarding divorce. The institution of marriage was viewed as a covenant based relationship. When people were married, it was supposed to be a life-long blood covenant, rather than a legal formality. Since it was a covenant, the two families were joined as well as the two persons getting married. Given the structure of the laws and culture, monogamy was prevalent. The structure of the marriage laws was such that marriage was encouraged to be limited to those of one's own tribe. Allowances were made and the laws over time were watered down in terms of enforcement of the marriage within one's own tribe. Since the law was written down, it provided for stability for the culture over time, whether or not the people abided by it.
In his book Sex God, the author Rob Bell claims that in ancient Hebrew culture, that to have sexual relations with a person was to be married to them. This idea has been a controversial one passionate debate on both sides of the issue.
In Babylonia, marriage was an arrangement agreed to by legal contract. The prospective bride was put up for bidding. When someone purchased her, a legal contract was written regarding the relationship. When the marriage contract was violated, the husband was expected to pay an early from of alimony as a result of failing to fulfill his contractual obligations.
In Greek culture, there were laws set up for marriage. Much of the power behind such laws was decided by the parents. The parents made decisions regarding who was to marry who. The wife became part of her husband's family. The marriage relationship was a serious matter, given that Greek culture allowed for justifiable homicide of adulterous lovers. So if a wife had a lover, the husband could and was often expected to publicly kill the lover.
In northern Europe (Germany, Celts, Scandinavians, and Scots) marriage took place either by purchase or by capture. The men in those cultures captured their perspective brides or bought them from people who lived nearby. Within such a culture, polygamy often occurred, when man managed capturing several wives for their collections.
The idea of marriage by capture was also utilized in the early days of Rome. The famous episode known as the capture and rape of the women from the neighboring Sabine tribe by the first generation of Roman men served as the founding event for the city of Rome. The event has been the subject of many works of art. Ironically, the families produced by that episode were viewed as the leading families of nobles in the Roman republic.
By the time that Charlemagne became king, marriage was viewed as a special relationship that required a public ceremony performed by a member of the church. Many people cohabited at that time. It was only the children of the spouse that you married that were considered one's legitimate heirs, with legal claims to the family estate. Children born of other relationships were not given any legal recognition or claims. Charlemagne himself adopted the idea of church approved marriage relationships. He expected those holding prominent positions in his empire to follow the practice.
Over the centuries, there was a legal shift as couples began shying away from church based law in favor of court based law. This shift took the power over divorce from the hands of church courts and transferred it to the government courts. With the shift in which agency handled the divorce, also came a shift in who had the legal authority to condone marriage.
The influence of Charlemagne remained strong in terms of custom and the church functioning as having the 'stamp of approval' for legitimate marriage continued over the centuries. Even in the early days of the North American frontier, the phrase "I'll make you an honest woman" carried with it the idea of the need for a marriage sanctioned by the church.
One of the changes made by Protestant reformers in Germany in the 15th and 16th centuries was the redefinition of marriage in new terms. They not only wanted to allow pastors to marry, they wanted marriage to be removed from the exclusive control of the church. They wanted what had been a religious sacrament changed into a social contract, where religious leaders would participate rather than control. With such changes also came changes in the laws for what constituted marriage and what constituted annulment and divorce. The new grounds for divorce included adultery, impotence, severe incompatibility, polygamy, deception (hiding of previous marriage), or extended desertion. Prior to these changes, there had only been the 'separation from bed and table' rather than the use of divorce.
There were times when the civil government used marriage to accomplish its purposes. Marriage was merely another way governments controlled the citizenry. In 18th century Scotland, for instance, a perspective groom had to obtain permission from a government agent prior to being allowed to marry. Such practices were instituted as part of the 'highland clearances' as part of the government's policy to limit the size of the population. In this instance the government permission to marry was used as a way for the government to control the population.
Although the idea of the need for marriages to be sanctioned by the church persisted through the ages, the idea of limitations of who one could marry was often ignored. It is common to see first and second cousins intermarry through the 19th century.
Another change in the definition of marriage occurred in the 19th century. Some of the early thinkers in the women's rights movement began viewing marriage as 'domestic bondage'. The idea of wives as property had been used as their foundation. This was also the time of abolitionists as well. The two groups often worked together in their efforts at attacking the issue of bondage in the form of slavery and marriage.
The argument of the abolitionist and women's rights was a strong one in terms of how the courts often treated women when it came to marriage. When marriage was taken out of the church based context of a covenant relationship, it became corrupted into a form of domestic servitude that bordered on bondage. In some cultures, marriage continues being forced, or used as a type of sexual or debt related bondage.
In the 19th century, there was a growing trend of people to avoid the church sanctioned marriage in preference to being married by a non-church government authority. There were many changes going on in society along with a lack of ministers in some communities. With such changes, marriage evolved into more of a legally defined relationship rather than a church approved relationship.
In some parts of the country, couples would go to the local authority and 'apply' for a marriage license. This was a common practice for couples whose spouses were of different races or who were not living lives approved of by the local church. Part of the application process required a 'contract' of marriage. The purpose of such contracts was to 'legitimize' their offspring so that the children would have all the rights associated with the estate. When the parents died, the children had the right to 'inherit' going back to them being declared legally legitimate. This was often done with common law marriages so that estates and property would go down to their children who were now the legitimate heirs.
The modern definition of marriage is the product of centuries of change in custom and law. The idea of what is marriage and who can is eligible to marry have changed over time. They also vary with culture and religion as well. The definition of marriage has been shaped by religious and governmental laws. Such laws often serve to protect the parties, their offspring and property acquired during the time of marriage. Although the consideration of property laws and divorce laws seem harsh, they have been major factors in defining what marriage is. Although the modern definition of marriage has one definition in the court room, there is still a wide range of opinions among couples.

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