Monday, June 22, 2009

Three major myths about marriage.

Due to a request I received I was doing some historical reading on the topic of the evolution of marriage. It is surprising, at least to me, how many modern myths about marriage exist. Primarily this is due to the fact that the so-called defenders of traditional marriage are not defending traditional marriage at all—they are defending their own unique religious version of marriage.

Their version tends to go along the lines that marriage is a “God-ordained” institution that is between one man and one woman and has been so for all of history. They often make more ridiculous claims as well. By “God-ordained” what they mean is the Christian deity in particular. The alleged gods of other faiths don’t matter to them.

So let us look at some of these myths, and a few others, about marriage.

Myth #1

Marriage has not always been about one man and one woman. History is filled with accounts of polygamy. Some of the most fanatical defenders of “traditional marriage,” the Mormons, are themselves frequently descendants of polygamists. Mormonism taught polygamy and condemned the “one man, one woman” concept of marriage.

The Bible, for what it is worth, claims that polygamy was quite common with the leading prophets and characters of Scripture. Esau had two wives; Abraham was married to Sarah and Hagar. We are told that King David had multiple wives and concubines both, as did Solomon. The Ethnographic Atlas discusses some 1231 societies in history. Of those only 186 practiced monogamy. Four allowed multiple husbands and the rest, 1041 of them, practiced polygamy to one degree or another. Polygamy is still practiced around the world and some Mormon fundamentalists still practice their own unique form of polygamy.

There has never been a time when marriage was exclusive limited to “one man and one woman.”

Myth #2

It is claimed that marriage has always been between individuals of the opposite sex. Christians, in particular, are known to make this pronouncement with utter assurance. Yet this simply is not true.

Consider that the Christian emperor of Rome, Theodosius II, created a code of Christian law for the Roman Empire. In that code he specifically banned same-sex marriage. Why? Why ban something that was never practiced? In fact it was practiced and it was well known.

One historian writes:
Marriages between males or between females were legal and familiar among the upper classes. Even under the Republic, as has been noted, Cicero regard the younger Curio’s relationship with another man as a marriage, and by the time of the early Empire references to gay marriages are commonplace. The biographer of Elagabalus maintains that after the emperor’s marriage to an athlete from Smyrna, any male who wished to advance at the imperial court either had to have a husband or pretend that he did. Martial and Juvenal both mention public ceremonies involving the families, dowries and legal niceties.
In the case involving the great Roman statesman, Cicero, he was approached by Curio the Elder asking for advice. Curio’s son was in a marriage relationship with another male. Cicero’s own description of the two men was that they were “united in a stable and permanent marriage, just as if he [Curio the Younger] had given him [his partner] a matron’s stola.” The stola was an item that married women wore to indicate they were off the marriage market.

A related myth, I might add, is the nonsense spouted by Conservatives that the collapse of Rome came about because it tolerated homosexuality. As already noted, Rome under Christian rule, became more intolerant of homosexuality long before it collapsed. The banning of same-sex marriage was the first step of a series of anti-gay laws. In addition to becoming more socially intolerant Rome became more and more authoritarian during the last days of the Empire. For instance, Theodosius also had 65 edicts against so-called heretics. In essence Rome became less economically free, less socially tolerant and more war-like and this fatal combination destroyed Rome. (For an economic history of the Roman welfare state see The New Deal in Old Rome.) Rome was tolerant of gays when during its height and least tolerant before its collapse. Christians, however, did become tolerated and they ruled Rome during the fall of the empire.

Myth #3

Many on the religious right claim that marriage was a “divine institution” all along and that the state took control of marriage from the church.

This is utterly false. Marriage was neither connected to the church or to the state for much of human history. A marriage basically amounted to two individuals announcing their marriage to friends and family and setting up house. There may have been a “wedding feast” as depicted in the New Testament but there was no church ceremony. Early Christian churches had nothing to do with marriage. They did not perform marriages.

The first attempt by the Christian sect to take control of marriage was in 1545 when the Council of Trent announced that marriages would no longer be recognized as valid unless a priest performed them with two witnesses present. Prior to that a marriage was considered valid if two individuals merely pledged themselves to one another, regardless if anyone else knew about the matter. Martin Luther went further than Calvin and said marriage was “of the earthly kingdom” and “subject to the prince, not to the Pope.”

It was the misnamed “Reformations” who brought in state control of marriage. Protestant leaders invited the state to take control of marriage. John Calvin’s “Marriage Ordinance of Geneva” required a state permit and church consecration before a marriage was recognized. This was in 1545 as well.

The state did not take over marriage. First, marriage was entirely private without interference of either church or state. Catholicism started to exert control over marriage in 1545 and then the Protestant Reformations demanded that the state take ultimate control over marriage. Of course, they assumed the state would be under their control at the time. Certainly when Calvin pushed his detailed regulations of marriage onto the law books in Geneva he was, for all intents and purposes, the ruler of that poor city.

Illustration: As an illustration for this posting I include a copy of William Hogarth's 1743 painting, The Marriage Settlement. It is clear that marriage at that time was often seen as primarily a business relationship and not much more. The bride is being courted, not by her future husband (to her left) who is ignoring her and may be portrayed as gay, but by an attorney. Her father is wealthy, the grooms father is broke but holds a title as Earl. The bride's father wants to merge his family into that of royalty while the Earl is anxious to get money from the wealthy father of the bride. You can see the pile of money in front of the Earl.

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