A brief history of marriage

The history of marriage is as old as human civilization, and just as complicated. Marriage as we know and debate it today is vastly different from marriages throughout history, involving different agreements and different purposes.

1. Tribal alliances

Early tribal communities in northern Europe and elsewhere had fewer power imbalances among their members than later societies. While there were leaders, warriors, priests, and other distinctions, the tribes were relatively egalitarian–that is, before land ownership and agriculture allowed some members to accumulate more wealth than others. In those days, marriages were either by choice within the tribe, or between tribes as a way of affirming friendly alliances, says Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. “You established peaceful relationships, trading relationships, mutual obligations with others by marrying them,” she writes.

But this all changed with the differentiation of wealth. Now families were more interested in marrying their children to families at least as, if not more, powerful than themselves. No longer focused on the good of the community, these alliances ushered in intrigue and betrayal as families fought for wealth and power. The consent of the betrothed was rarely a consideration.

Medieval wedding
A medieval bride and groom from the history of marriage.

2. Consent

It wasn’t until the 12th century that consent made a comeback in marriage arrangements. The Benedictine monk Gratian wrote an important cannon law text book in 1140, Decretum Gratiani, which claimed that the agreement of the betrothed was more important than their family’s wishes.

Before the Decretum, simply the physical presence of bride and groom at the ceremony was enough to signify consent. Gratiani condemned this practice and decreed that couples should give their verbal consent and consummate the marriage to make it official. These laws formed the foundation for the Church’s marriage policies going forward.

3. A sacrament

Roman Catholic leaders refer to marriage as a sacrament as early as the 12th Century, although it didn’t become official church policy until 1563. Marriage, they argued, was an important life step that fulfilled God’s commandment to have children and allowed man and women to experience God more directly in their lives. In the mid-1500s, Martin Luther’s Protestantism challenged this idea, prompting the Church to finally formalize their position.

Today, many Christian couples cherish the role of God in their union and find it strengthens love, life and faith. There is also a movement to embrace and nurture sexual fulfillment inside marriage as an important part of God’s intention for marriage.

4. Wedding vows

The 1500s were a turbulent and important time in the history of marriage. In addition to the sacrament clause, it brought about the invention of our modern marriage vows. While the Catholic Church was formalizing their position on marriage, new protestant thinkers were also writing down their interpretation of religious laws. The Protestant Book of Common Prayer, written in 1549, recycled lines from medieval Catholic rights and translated the whole service from Latin to English. The new vows read:

Groom: I,____, take thee,_____, to be my lawful wedded Wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.
Bride: I,_____, take thee,_____, to be my lawful wedded Husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.

The marriage service has remained largely unchanged since then.

5. Divorce

By 1670, when Parliament passed an act allowing the first divorce in the history of marriage in England, the first American divorce had already been sanctioned. In 1643, Massachusetts Bay Colony resident Anne Clarke was granted a divorce from her “absent and adulterous husband”.

Divorces rates continued to rise through the colonial years and early America, mostly on the grounds of abandonment, bigamy, adultery, or inability to provide for the wife. By the 1880s America already had the highest divorce rate in the world. While the standard of living continued to rise, women gained more independence and legal rights and the restriction on divorce loosened. With marriage no longer a strictly lifetime commitment, individuals began to value fulfillment and happiness more in their marriage choices. California adopts the nations’ first “no fault” divorce law in 1969, allowing separation by nothing more than mutual consent.

5. Equal rights

Racism and sexism have long played a part in the history of marriage. For centuries, mixed-race marriages were banned in America. It took until 1948 for the California Supreme Court to become the first state high court to declare this ban unconstitutional. In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all state bans on interracial marriage, declaring that the “freedom to marry” belongs to all Americans.

Women, too, have only recently made significant advances in their rights in marriage. In 1769, American colonies law stated that, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law. The very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection she performs everything.” Sixty years later Mississippi granted women the right to hold property in their own name–with their husbands’ permission. By 1900 all states had legislation granting women some control over their property and earnings. But it wasn’t until 1981 that the courts finally overturned state laws designating a husband “head and master” with unilateral control of property owned jointly with his wife.

The last push for marriage rights is being fought for same-sex marriages. Homosexuality was illegal  until quite recently, and was even a reason for deporting or rejecting immigrants or visitors. 1993 marks the first law suite asking for a same-sex couple’s right to marry (in Hawaii). Currently several states have legalized gay marriage, with voter amendments and constitutional bans rushing to counter the rulings.

How does your union play into the history of marriage? Comment below.



“A selective history of marriage in the United States.” Jill Shenker. Against the Current; 112, September-October 2004. http://solidarity-us.org/node/370

“Ten key moments in the history of marriage.” Lauren Everitt. BBC News Magazine, March 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17351133

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