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History of Marriage (Jan 2009) Lorraine M. Dorfman, Ph.D.

            Not every relationship can withstand marriage.  The marriage and the relationship are two separate entities not to be confused.  To help us understand marriage, let us follow the historical course of marriage.

            Between the time images were left on cave walls and the invention of the printing press, before monks in monasteries labored to record doctrine by hand, history was passed on by storytelling.  We have little record of this oral history.  Much is presumed.  We know that people paired off.  We believe the reasons people paired off were not so very different from the reasons they pair off today, although the milieu was very different.  Sexual attraction and companionship certainly were two primary reasons people paired.  Invaders and marauders made safety another reason.

            Some unions produced offspring.  Women knew how to follow their menstrual cycles, keeping track on animal bones, stones, or sticks in the earliest times, and how to avoid conception during ovulation.  Some women knew what herbs had an abortive effect.  Since women living together often follow the same menstrual cycle, communal life would have produced women ovulating at the same time.  Birth control would have kept the number of births at any one time at a manageable rate relative to the food supply. 

Offspring were the linkage in the life cycle from Maiden to Mother to Crone.  No one questioned that the community of women would feed and care for children until they were old enough to take their places within the labor force.  The younger, stronger women went to gather edible berries and roots and small game for food.  The older women tended the children and the cooking caldrons. 

Maybe the women grew weary of having to wander further and further away from home to find food.  Maybe it happened in a clan in which most of the young women were pregnant at the same time so that it took longer to gather food.  It could have been a lone individual that was concerned with being the only one left at the time of birthing to gather food.  Someone tried sticking a plant from further away in the soil closer to home.  However it happened, women are credited with first developing farming. 

The spirituality of the people was based in custom rather than belief.  It was expressed in the deification of the elements of their lives.  This included hunting and gathering, the elements that helped or hindered growth, and the giving and taking of life.  There was an intricate link among women, farming, and the deities.  For instance, it was believed that fertilizing the crops with menstrual blood (which acted as a pesticide) during the waxing moon of the Goddess would help the crops to grow.

Since the Goddess and women, as representations of the Goddess, were responsible for procreation, they were revered.  By extension, femaleness, what we call the feminine principle, was revered.  Both men and women could embrace the feminine principle through sexuality.  Therefore, sexuality was revered.  Sex was a holy sacrament.  It was the reenactment of the union of the God and Goddess.  This is why couples called upon the Goddess Aphrodite-Mari to bless their union.  There had to be a word for invoking the blessing of the Goddess Aphrodite-Mari for the sake of the union and this word was maritace.  Maritace is the Latin root of marriage.

Marriage was a very informal affair.  A couple became unmarried by parting.  This "divorce" from the man might be signaled to the community by the woman shutting him out of her home for three consecutive nights, as in the case of early Latin tribes, or by turning her tent to face the west for three consecutive nights, as in the case of Arabian tribes.

Clans were matriarchal co-ops, matrilineal and egalitarian.  The mother and child bond was considered primary.   The woman's mother or even her mother’s mother ran the woman’s house.  When her grandmother died, the job of overseeing the household fell to the eldest daughter.  The eldest daughter may have been the woman's mother or her aunt.  The woman usually remained in her mother's clan until her death and, in some cultures, may have been buried at home.  In other cultures, males and females were buried in mounds of earth, symbolizing the return to the mother's womb, like vegetation returned to the earth.

In some matriarchal cultures, the man who married went to live in the woman's house.  Depending upon the culture, he may have been married to one woman, or it may have been a group marriage.  In other cultures, the man remained in his own mother's house.  In Japan, for instance, the word for marriage meant to "slip into the house by night."  In Greece, a husband was a sojourner in the woman's house.            

Land "belonged" to the women who farmed the land.  Men worked along side the women.  A man worked on the farm of the woman he married.  This historical concept of a husband working the woman's land is inherent in the Anglo-Saxon word "husband" which meant exactly that.  The word "bridegroom" literally translated means "the bride's servant" and meant the man provided work while he was provided with food and shelter, and presumably the "sacraments" (sex) in the woman's house. 

Matrimony meant the inheritance of property from the maternal line.  Under the matrilineal clan system, the personal effects of a man who remained in his mother's home went to his sister or his sister's children upon his death.  Matrimony came to be synonymous with marriage through the pairing of the two, since marriage was a way for men to gain control of property.

The word "heir" comes from the Greek word "here" for female landowner, which came from Hera, the Mother of God.  A parcel of land was called "temenos," which meant the land belonging to the Goddess of the moon and surrounding her temple.  Every hearth was considered to be a temple of the Goddess.  In Attica, a parcel of land was "demos," belonging to the Goddess De-Mother or Demeter.   In Latium, the land of the Goddess Lat, "latifundia" referred to land belonging to each matriarchy.  So it is that in Greek legend as well as in fairy tales, the men left home to marry an heiress in a far off land.[1]

The invading tribes who came to conquer as much territory as possible had their own religions.  Still, the Gods and Goddesses of the pagany, persons who live in the country, survived in tact for 25,000 years.  In many cases they existed side-by-side with the invading religions.  In all cases, pagany concepts and ceremonies were either adopted wholesale or incorporated piecemeal into the religions of the invaders.

It would be wrong to say that patrifocal religion turned the tide of power from women to men.  The women never wielded power.  They had what we would call power in the sense that a lake of water is powerful.  The patriarchal invaders seized power by attempting to drain the lake, if you will. 

The old ways provided a threat to the authority and sovereignty of the hierarchical patriarchy.  With the attempt to demolish the pagany religions, patriarchal religions usurped practices from the Goddess religions, but propagandized the Goddess as evil with more or less success.  This, then, also changed marriage. 

In the wake of takeover, Hellenes rewrote the stories of the deities.  Rhea had been the Mother of God and her followers believed monogamy was a sin.  Zeus had been the "god of strangers" invoked by husbands who lived as sojourners in the women's homes in marriage.  In the new religion, Zeus became more powerful than Rhea.  Hera, who was actually another form of Rhea, was forced into a monogamous union with Zeus.  However, Zeus was continuously adulterous.  Incensed, Hera informed the other gods of Zeus’ deeds and they rose up against him.  As punishment, Zeus hung Hera from the sky with anvils attached to her ankles.  As the story illustrates, the conquering influence believed group marriage to be barbaric, and that women should be forced to be obedient and faithful.  Contempt for women grew.  Eventually, women in Greece became housemaids while husbands sought true love relationships with young boys in what became a homosexual cult.  Likewise, Brahmanism established monogamy and Islamic patriarchy subjugated women.  It is interesting to note that property taken from women financed some of the takeovers.

According to papal decrees between 1031 and 1051, which became Canon Law, clergy were to get rid of their wives and to sell their children as slaves, turning over their property and their money to the church.  Clergy were thereby forbidden to make marriages and celibacy was strictly enforced. 

Although the Christian church was against marriage, in the Decretum of 1140, physical abuse of wives was ordained by the church as charity to the souls of women.  The rationale for this practice seems to have been to insure that wives did not attempt to maintain their property rights, executing patriarchy by brute force.  A woman who retained her property rights was a “virgin.”  It became desirable, then, for a man to marry a virgin. 

In 1215, the fourth Lateran council granted marriage legal status, clearly in violation of Canon Law.  This seems to have been a case of "if you can't beat 'em...” since the pagany continued the tradition of maritace.  Marriage was granted outside of the church, however, so that "the pollution of lust" would be kept out of God's house. 3 In the same year, the Magna Carta made an heir either male or female.  Later church laws made heirs exclusively male.

It was primarily the women who kept the old ways.  They continued to think in the ways of the Goddess, even when Aphrodite-Mari became Mary.  Therefore, attempts at conversion were by force and coercion. 

By the Renaissance, capitalism was in bloom.  The Rules of Marriage, written by Friar Cherubino in the fifteenth century, mirrored the Decretum of 1140 by recommending beating wives to correct their souls.  Women were advised to renounce marriage, enter the cloister and give their property to the church to avoid being beaten by husbands.  The nineteenth ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, summoned by Pope Paul III at Trent, north Italy between 1545 and 1563 in response to the reformation, formally redefined the church's doctrines and banned many abuses:  Marriage resulted in excommunication. 

By the early Middle Ages, the Christian church had acquired from women one-third of the property on the continent.  Between 1350 and 1750 six generations and nine million women were systematically seized, tortured, and put to death.  Entire villages were wiped out.  The expression "the third degree" came from the practice of three successive levels of torture, each more heinous than the previous, the third often resulting in death.  There was an elaborate bookkeeping system of the cost of charges for seizing a woman, locking her up, guarding her, feeding her, torturing her, etcetera.  The annihilation of women and seizing of property was big business.

In 1753, Lord Harwicke's Act in England addressed the problem of marriage by totally annexing it to the church.  Thus, a marriage only was recognized as legal if it had the blessing of the clergy.  The pagany were undaunted.  They eloped to Scotland where handfasting, the pagany custom of joining the couple's hands in the presence of witnesses, constituted a legal marriage up until the year 1939.

It is not known when the term wife originally was coined.  Clearly, however, a woman did not become a wife until she handed over her property to a man.  The legal marriage, then, was between a man and his wife.  By the end of the nineteenth century, a husband's consent was necessary for a woman to dispense wealth.

With the Industrial Revolution and the "Cult of True Womanhood" in the 1700s, the role of the female shrank in proportion to the expansion of the male role.  The domain of the wife was defined as inside the home while the domain of the husband was outside of the home.  The relative positions of husband and wife within the family were separate but not equal.   The husband oversaw major decisions, even those affecting the home and the family, especially those of major purchases.  The wife was expected to defer to the judgment of her husband.

Commentaries, written by Sir William Blackstone in the eighteenth century, was the standard reference for law in Britain and America through the nineteenth century.  According to Blackstone's Rule of Thumb, a husband could beat his wife with a whip or rod no thicker than his thumb.  Husbands held custody of both their wives and children.  According to the doctrine of immunity, the law would not interfere with the sanctity of the home, and a husband and father was immune to prosecution for his deeds inside the home.  In 1962, the court ruled that the doctrine of immunity was legally unsound.

Marriage that existed at the beginning of the twentieth century then was an amalgamation of its history.  A marriage was not recognized unless it was sanctioned by the state.  The state only recognized the union of males and females.  The legacy of the Middle Ages put property in the hands of husbands alone.  The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution divided labor between men outside the home and women inside the household. 

In the United States of America, the state-imposed marriage contract upheld the four provisions of the English common law doctrine, coverature.  Simply stated, the legal obligations of husbands and wives as set forth by the four essential provisions of the traditional marriage contract[2] are those which (1) recognize the husband as the head of the household, (2) hold the husband responsible for support, (3) hold the wife responsible for domestic service, and (4) hold the wife alone responsible for child care. 

The first provision of coverature gives the husband total authority.  The husband is king of his castle.  His wife and his children are his chattel.  Furthermore, he may use any means of coercion to have his wife and children do his bidding. 

Since the man is responsible for support, he has control of the finances to distribute as he sees fit.  He may earn an upper class salary, but keep his family living at a subsistence level if he so chooses. 

Domestic service includes household duties and "personal favors."  Here sexuality is institutionalized and made a duty to be performed at the will of the husband since he is the head of the household.  Since household chores are the responsibility of the wife, it is not necessary for her to receive help or an allowance for their completion.

Throughout history women have been responsible for offspring as they are the ones who give birth.  This last provision extinguishes the role of the father in the upbringing of the children.

            The courts likewise have recognized meretricious relationships, two persons of different genders living together but intentionally unmarried, as the equivalent to marriage and have imposed the same four provisions of coverature upon these relationships.  In the landmark legal case of Michelle Triola Marvin who sued her actor lover/roommate of six years, Lee Marvin, for a share of his property in the amount of 1.8 million dollars, the California Supreme Court allowed the suit on the grounds that oral or written agreements between unmarried partners to divide property or provide support are enforceable and that in the absence of such an agreement, the court could infer an implied contract based upon the couple's conduct.  On Wednesday, April 18, 1979, Michelle Triola Marvin was awarded $104,000 in her cases against Lee Marvin.  The sum awarded had been reduced considerably as the contract existing between the pair was in question.  The court designated the sum as "rehabilitation money" to be used toward education and training for a career, a new slant on alimony payments by a non-husband.  As might well be expected, many people questioned the difference between the marriage contract and the "unmarriage contract."

Although private practices within marriage may not always conform to the traditional marriage contract, statutory and case law continues to enforce the common law obligations of husbands and wives.  Postnuptial and prenuptial agreements between husbands and wives, though widely accepted in law, have been severely restricted because the courts will not enforce contracts or private agreements which alter the essential four elements of the marital relationship.

By the 1980s, most states adopted into law some form of no-fault divorce.  This was a variation of the concept of summary divorce as it existed in pagany custom.  By spending a certain amount of time apart, different in each state, the plaintiff in the divorce suit could reasonably argue that the marriage was irretrievable. 

The status of the marriage is only the first part of three considerations in the dissolution of the marriage.  The other two considerations are division of property and child custody.  One would be wrong in assuming no-fault divorce overturned the doctrine of coverature. 

No fault divorce declared the division of property be fair and equitable.  However, what constitutes fair and equitable differs according to one's prejudices and loyalties.  Since husbands are the head of the household and responsible for support, they are entitled to larger salaries than are wives.  Men continue to earn 1.25 percent more than women earn for the same work.  With the “fair and equitable” distribution of property, the wife’s home automatically is diminished upon divorce.  The inequity is even greater if the wife has remained at home to care for the children. 

Child custody includes support.  Since the 1980s, the trend has been for fathers to petition for custody rights and it generally has been assumed that joint custody between the parents is preferable to awarding sole custody to the mother.  This has worked to provide men with the ability to continue to have authority over the household while the courts continue to place children with the mother in her home.  Both parents are held responsible for child support according to some variation of the method devised in Wisconsin.  Two-thirds of mothers of young children and two out of every five working women are the sole breadwinners, regardless of whether they are married or divorced.  Less than fifty percent of fathers actually pay the child support they are ordered to pay.   However, the most recent enforcement of the inequitable provisions of coverature was to deny mothers with dependent children and no means of support supplemental income without providing access to child care facilities at no or low cost while they work in the labor force.

            The psychological tyranny of the coverature model is that it restricts individual freedom of choice in the degree of commitment or the type of involvement in a relationship.  Rather, it reflects the extent to which society regards heterosexual relationships, marriage, parenting, and the family as inherent in sex roles and the position that traditional family ideology and family structure are functional in society.  Family ideology emphasizes the exclusivity of marriage as a way of satisfying one's emotional needs, especially those of companionship and affiliation, and the family as a means of personal fulfillment.  Family ideology, as promulgated by Freud, assumed that the bearing of children is especially significant for the female as a way of minimizing neurosis and her penis envy.

Family structure is organized around the division of labor, which defines the male's role as instrumental and outside the home while the female's role is expressive and inside the home.  The sociological paradigm of Structure Functionalism hinges upon the position that traditional family ideology and family structure by virtue of their existence are functional in society.  This is in spite of the fact that family ideology presupposes the feasibility of the notions of romantic love and that family structure, by dichotomizing sex roles, is diametrically opposed to family ideology.  Insofar as prescribed roles are dictated, the traditional marriage contract is coercive and diversity of autonomously structured relationships is legally thwarted. 

It precludes the growing trend towards experimentation and innovation in personal relationships by assuming a single form of mate relations, which cannot fulfill the needs of all individuals.  It forecloses a tolerance for individuals who want to live together without a permanent commitment and those who want commitment at specific times, though not necessarily at all times.  It stigmatizes the childless couple.  It mitigates against the homosexual couple, comprising ten percent of the population.  By placing power and dominance in the male, it precludes an egalitarian relationship.  It merges husband and wife into a single identity, that of the husband.

Traditionally, marriage always has been a protective institution for sex involving responsibility and personal commitment.  The monogamous union originated under the same patrifocal church law that made property owners and heirs exclusively male as a means of producing children of undisputed paternity by restricting female sexual activity.  According to the exchange theory of social relations in a traditional context, the female exchanged her independence for support, the price the male has paid for the services and loyalty of the female.       

Yet, no one ever gets to read the marriage contract.  When you applied for a marriage license, did you realize it is a business license?  Did you know the terms of the legally binding partnership agreement that goes into effect with your marriage license?  You may not understand the terms of the marriage contract throughout the entire history of your marriage.  However, you will begin to get some notion of the terms of the contract if you sue or your partner sues for divorce.  The dissolution of the marriage will come down to the debts and credits of the business of the marriage in dollars and cents on the page.  If there are children, the terms of coverture will extend beyond the termination of the relationship between spouses.


Note:  On June 26, 2013, The United States Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to deny federal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples if the union is recognized by the state.  Nineteen states have ratified same-sex marriages laws. Twenty-eight states restrict marriage to one man and one woman.



[1]Barbara G. Walker, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (New York, 1983), pp. 620-621.




[2]Lenore J. Weitzman, "To Love, Honor and Obey?," Family in Transition, Second Edition ed. Arlene S. Skolnick and Jerome H. Skolnick (Boston, 1977), pp. 288 - 312.

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