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A History of Marriage

From: The Catholic Encyclopedia, abridged and edited for inclusion here.

Definition of Marriage
Primitive Promiscuity
Polyandry / Polygamy
Deviations from Marriage
Ceremony or Contract
Religious Rite
Matrimonial Covenant



Definition of Marriage

The word marriage denotes the contract by which a conjugal union of man and woman is formed, or the union itself as an enduring condition. Here for the most part we consider marriage as a condition, and with its moral and social aspects. It is usually defined as a lawful, formal union between husband and wife.

"Lawful" indicates the sanction and support of some kind of law, while the terms, "husband" and "wife", imply mutual rights of sexual intercourse, life in common, and a binding union. Marriage is distinguished from concubinage and fornication. Its definition, however, is broad enough to include polygamous and polyandrous unions when they are permitted by civil law; for such relationships cater for as many marriages as there are individuals of the numerically larger sex.

It is doubtful if promiscuity, whereby all the men of a group have intercourse indiscriminately with all the women, can be called marriage. In a promiscuous relationship, cohabitation and domestic life are devoid of the exclusiveness which is normally part of the idea of conjugal union.

The Theory of Primitive Promiscuity

All authorities agree that during historically documented times promiscuity has been either non-existent or confined to a few small groups. Did it prevail to any extent during the prehistoric period of the race? Some anthropologists have held that this was the original relationship between the sexes; and so rapidly did this theory spread that it is treated by many as a demonstrated truth. It appeals to the notion of organic evolution and assumes that the social customs of primitive humans, including sex relations, differed little from the usages among the brutes.

Indirect evidence for primitive promiscuity would be inferences from such customs as tracing kinship through the mother, religious prostitution, unrestrained sexual intercourse previous to marriage among some savage peoples, and primitive community of goods. None of these can be proved to have been universal at any stage of human development, and every one of them can be explained more easily and more naturally on other grounds than on the assumption of promiscuity. We may say that the arguments in favour of primitive promiscuity seem insufficient to give it any degree of probability...


Polyandry and Polygamy

One deviation from the typical form of secular union which, however, is also called marriage, is polyandry, the union of several husbands with one wife. It has been practised at various times by a considerable number of people or tribes. It existed among the ancient Britons, the primitive Arabs, the inhabitants of the Canary Islands, the Aborigines of America, the Hottentots, the inhabitants of India, Ceylon, Tibet, Malabar, and New Zealand. In the majority of places polyandry was the exceptional form and monogamy and even polygamy were much more prevalent.

Most polyandrous unions seem to have been of the kind called fraternal; that is the husbands in each conjugal group were all brothers. Frequently the first husband enjoyed conjugal and domestic rights superior to the others, and was, in fact, the chief husband. The others were husbands only in a secondary and limited sense. Even in the comparatively few cases in which polyandry existed it tended in the direction of monogamy; for the wife belonged not to several entirely independent men, but to a group united by the closest ties of blood; she was married to one family rather than to one person. And the fact that one of her consorts possessed superior marital privileges shows that she had only one husband in the full sense of the term.

Some have held that the ancient Levirate custom (which compelled the brother of a deceased husband to marry his widow) had its origin in polyandry. But the Levirate custom can be explained without any such hypothesis. It indicated rather that the wife, as the property of her husband, was inherited by his nearest heir, i.e. his brother; in other instances, as among the ancient Hebrews, it was evidently a means of continuing the name, family, and individuality of the deceased husband.

The principal causes of polyandry were the scarcity of women, due to female infanticide and the appropriation of many women by polygamous chiefs in a tribe, and to the scarcity of the food supply, which made it impossible for every male member of a family to support a wife alone.

Polygamy (many spouses) or more precisely polygyny (many wives) is much more common than polyandry. It existed among most of the ancient peoples, and occurs at present in some civilized nations as in the majority of savage tribes. Among the peoples of ancient times that showed little or no traces of it were the Greeks and the Romans. Nevertheless, concubinage was for many centuries recognized by the customs and even by the legislation of these two nations. The main peoples among whom the practice still exists are those under the sway of Islam.

Even where polygamy is sanctioned by custom or law, the majority of the population have been monogamous. The reasons are obvious: there are not sufficient women to provide every man with several wives, nor are the majority of men able to support more than one. Hence polygamous marriages are found for the most part among the kings and rich men of the community; and its prevailing form seems to have been bigamy. Polygamous unions are, as a rule, modified in the direction of monogamy, inasmuch as one of the wives, usually the first to marry, has a higher place in the household than the others, or one of them is the favourite, and has exceptional privileges of intercourse with the common husband.

Among the causes of polygamy are: the relative scarcity of males, arising from destructive wars or from an excess of female births; the unwillingness of the husband to remain continent when intercourse with one wife is impeded; and unrestrained lustful cravings. In simpler societies polygamy is almost unknown, because hunting or fishing are the chief means of livelihood, and female labour has not the value that attaches to it when a man's wives can be employed in tending flocks, cultivating fields, or exercising useful handicrafts.

Before the pastoral stage of industry was reached scarcely anyone could afford to support several women. After some accumulation of wealth has taken place, polygamy becomes possible for the more wealthy and for those who can utilize the productive labour of their wives. Hence the practice has been more frequent among the higher savages and barbarians than among the simplest races. At a still higher stage it tends to give way to monogamy.

Promiscuity was never a general norm

The experience of the human race in the progress of its civilization, has favoured monogamy for the simple reason that monogamy agrees with some essential elements of human nature. For several reasons, monogamy is the most natural form of marriage. While promiscuity responds to certain passions and temporarily satisfies certain desires, it clashes with parental bonding, the welfare of children and of the race, and with the forces of jealousy and individual preference in both men and women. While polyandry satisfied in some measure the exceptional wants arising from scarcity of food or scarcity of women, it finds a barrier in male jealousy and proprietorship; it is opposed to the welfare of the wife, and fatal to the fecundity of the race. While polygamy has prevailed among many peoples over so long a period of history as to suggest that it is in some sense natural, and while it seems to furnish a means of satisfying the recurring desires of the male, it conflicts with the numerical equality of the sexes, with the jealousy, sense of proprietorship, equality, dignity and general welfare of the wife, and with the best interests of the offspring.

In all those regions in which polygamy has existed or still exists, the status of woman is extremely low; she is treated as man's property, not as his companion; her life is invariably one of great hardship, while her moral, spiritual, and intellectual qualities are almost utterly neglected. Even the male human being is in the highest sense of the phrase naturally monogamous. His moral, spiritual, and aesthetic faculties can obtain normal development only when his sexual relations are confined to one woman in the common life and enduring association provided by monogamy. The welfare of the children, and therefore, of the race, obviously demands that the offspring of each pair shall have the undivided attention and care of both their parents. When we speak of the naturalness of any social institution, we necessarily take as our standard, not nature in a superficial or one-sided sense, or in its savage state, or as exemplified in a few individuals or in a single generation, but nature adequately considered, in all its needs and powers, in all the member of the present and of future generations, and as it appears in those tendencies which lead toward its highest development. The verdict of experience and the voice of nature reinforce, consequently, the Christian teaching on the unity of marriage. Moreover, the progress of the race toward monogamy, as well as toward a purer monogamy, during the last two thousand years, owes more to the influence of Christianity than to all other forces combined. Christianity has not only abolished or diminished polyandry and polygamy among the savage and barbarous peoples which it has converted, but it has preserved Europe from the polygamous civilization of Mohammedanism, has kept before the eyes of the more enlightened peoples the ideal of an unadulterated monogamy, and has given to the world its highest conception of the equality that should exist between the two parties in the marriage relation. And its influence on behalf of monogamy has extended, and continues to extend, far beyond the confines of those countries that call themselves Christian.

Deviations from Marriage

Our discussion of the various forms of marriage would be incomplete without some reference to those practices that have been more or less prevalent, and yet that are a transgression of every form of marriage. Sexual license amounting almost to promiscuity seems to have prevailed among a few peoples or tribes. Among some ancient peoples the women, especially the unmarried, practised prostitution as an act of religion. Some tribes, both ancient and relatively modern, have maintained the custom of yielding the newly married bride to the relatives and guests of the bridegroom. Unlimited sexual intercourse before marriage has been sanctioned by the customs of some uncivilized peoples. Among some savage tribes the husband permits his guests to have intercourse with his wife, or loans her for hire. Certain uncivilized peoples are known to have practised trial marriages, marriages that were binding only until the birth of a child, and marriages that bound the parties only for certain days of the week. Although any general exercise of the so-called jus primae noctis has no historical basis, and is now admitted to be an invention of the encyclopedists, at times serf women were required to submit to their overlords before assuming marital relations with their husbands (Schmidt, Karl,"Jus Primae Noctis, a historical examination"). Japanese maidens of the poorer classes frequently spend a portion of their youth as prostitutes, with the consent of their parents and the sanction of public opinion.

Concubinage, the practice of forming a somewhat enduring union with some other woman than the wife, or such union between two unmarried persons, has prevailed to some extent among most peoples, even among some that had attained a high degree of civilization, as the Greeks and Romans (for detailed proof of the foregoing statements, see Westermarck, op, cit., passim). In a word, fornication and adultery have been sufficiently common at all stages of the world's history and among almost all peoples, to arouse the anxiety of the moralist, the statesman, and the sociologist. Owing to the growth of cities, the changed relations between the sexes in social and industrial life, the decay of religion, and the relaxation of parental control, these evils have increased very greatly within the last one hundred years. The extent to which prostitution and venereal disease are sapping the mental, moral, and physical health of the nations, is of itself abundant proof that the strict and lofty standards of purity set up by the Catholic Church, both within and without the marriage relation, constitute the only adequate safeguard of society.

The Practice of Divorce

This is a modification that allows the parties to sever the marriage, but it is essentially a violation of monogamy, of the enduring union of husband and wife. It has obtained among practically all peoples, savage and civilized. Among the majority of uncivilized peoples, marital unions that endured until the death of one of the parties seem to have been in the minority, for the majority of savage races allowe the husband to divorce his wife wherever he felt so inclined. A majority of even the more advanced peoples who remained outside of Christianity restrict the right of divorce to the husband, although the reason for which he could put away his wife are not so numerous as among the uncivilized. Before the tenth century Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage had been embodied in the civil legislation of every Catholic country.

The frequent appeal to the divorce courts by women in the United States is probably due more to emotion and a hasty use of freedom, than to calm and adequate study of the experiences of other divorced women. If the present facility of divorce should continue many years longer, the hardship to women and children from the practice will probably have become so evident the number of them taking advantage of it will smaller than today.

The social problems of easy divorce are so obvious that many are in favour of a stricter policy. One of the most far-reaching effects is to foster lower ideals of conjugal fidelity; for if one regards the taking of a new spouse as entirely lawful for various more or less superficial reasons, one's sense of obligation toward one's partner cannot be very strong or deep. Easy divorce also gives an impetus to illicit relations between the unmarried, as it tends to destroy the link in the popular mind between sexual intercourse and the lifelong union of one man with one woman. Another effect is the facility of hasty marriages among persons who look to divorce as an easy remedy for a mistaken marriage. Inasmuch as the children of a divorced couple are deprived of their normal heritage of education and care by both father and mother in the same household, they almost always suffer grave disadvantages. Finally there is some injury done to the moral character of a people, generally. Indissoluble marriage is a proven means of developing self-control and mutual self-sacrifice. Many inconveniences are endured because they cannot be avoided, and many imperfections of character are corrected because the husband and wife realize that only thus is conjugal happiness possible. On the other hand, when divorce is easy there is insufficient motive to undergo those inconveniences which can lead to to self-discipline, self-development, and the practice of altruism.

In a lasting marriage the obligation of self-control, and of subordinating the animal in human nature to the reason and the spirit, as well as the possibility of fulfilling this obligation, are taught in a most striking and practical manner. In the matter of the indissolubility, as well as in that of the unity of marriage, Christian teaching is in harmony with nature at her best, and with the deepest needs of civilization. One could affirm that marriage has become more durable in proportion as the human race has risen to higher degrees of civilization, and that a certain amount of civilization is an essential condition of the formation of lifelong union.

Celibacy: Abstaining from Marriage

Most peoples outside of the Catholic religion have looked with disdain upon celibacy. Savage races marry earlier, and have a smaller proportion of celibates than civilized nations. From the viewpoint of social morality and social welfare, unwanted celibacy is a significant evil. On the other hand, the religious celibacy taught and encourage by the Church can be socially beneficial, since it shows that continence is practicable, and since religious celibates can exemplify a higher degree of altruism than most other sections of society. The notion that celibacy tends to make the married state seem less worthy is contradicted by the public opinion and practice of every country in which celibacy is held in honour.

Marriage as a Ceremony or Contract

The act, formality, or ceremony by which the marriage union is created, has differed widely at different times and among different peoples. One of the earliest and most frequent customs associated with the entrance into marriage was the capture of the woman by her intended husband, usually from another tribe than that to which he himself belonged. Among most primitive peoples this act seems to have been regarded rather as a means of getting a wife, than as the formation of the marriage union itself. The latter subsequent to the capture, and was generally devoid of any formality whatever, beyond mere cohabitation. But the symbolic seizure of wives continued in many places long after the reality had ceased. It still exits among some of the lower races, and until quite recently was not unknown in some parts of Eastern Europe. After the practice has become simulated instead of actual, it was frequently looked upon as either the whole of the marriage ceremony or an essential accompaniment of the marriage. Symbolic capture has largely given way to wife purchase, which seems to prevail among most uncivilized peoples today. It has assumed various forms. Sometimes the man desiring a wife gave one of his kinswomen in exchange; sometimes he served for a period his intended bride's father, which was a frequent custom among the ancient Hebrews; but most often the bride was paid for in money or some form of property. Like capture, purchase became after a time among many peoples a symbol to signify the taking of a wife and the formation of the marriage union. Sometimes, however, it was merely an accompanying ceremony. Various other ceremonial forms have accompanied or constituted the entrance upon the marriage relation, the most common of which was some kind of feast; yet among many uncivilized peoples marriage has taken place, and still takes place, without any formal ceremony whatever.

Marriage as a Religious Rite

By many uncivilized races, and by most civilized ones, the marriage ceremony is regarded as a religious rite or includes religious features, although the religious element is not always regarded as necessary to the validity of the union. Under the Christian dispensation marriage is a religious act of the very highest kind, namely, one of the seven sacraments. Although Luther declared that marriage was not a sacrament but a "worldly thing", all the Protestant sects have continued to regard it as religious in the sense that it ought normally to be contracted in the presence of a clergyman. Owing to the influence of the Lutheran view and of the French Revolution, civil marriage has been instituted in almost all the countries of Europe and North America, as well as in some of the states of South America. In some countries it is essential to the validity of the union before the civil law, while in others, e.g., in the United States, it is merely one of the ways in which marriage may be contracted. Civil marriage, is not, however a post-Reformation institution, for it existed among the ancient Peruvians, and among the Aborigines of North America.

The Catholic Matrimonial Covenant

Whether as a state or as a contract whether from the viewpoint of religion and morals or from that of the social welfare, marriage appears in its highest form in the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church. The fact that the contract is a sacrament impresses the popular mind with the importance and sacredness of the relation thus begun. The fact that this union is indissoluble and monogamous promotes in the highest degree the welfare of parents and children, and stimulates in the whole community the practice of those qualities of self-restraint and altruism which are essential to social well-being, physical, mental, and moral.