These days, there are plenty of ceremonies and traditions that we simply take for granted; subconsciously thinking that they’ve always been the way they are today. However, once you give it a second thought – you’ll realize that this simply isn’t the case. So, how has the institution of marriage and wedding changed throughout history? We’ll explore this question in detail below!
Definition of Marriage
The first thing you need to understand about marriage is the fact that just like any other institution and tradition; it’s actually the subject of constant change. At the end of the day, this is a fad just like any other – changing more slowly compared to hairstyles, perhaps, but changing nonetheless.
But where did all of this begin? The history of marriage predates written history itself; going all the way back to the Stone Age. During that time, tribesmen formed the first rudimentary marital communities to organize all of the sexual relations in a single tribe; providing for better structured child-bearing, as well as the performance of other tasks we’d classify as “family life” today. Of course, you shouldn’t mistake this with the modern monogamous marriage; for a long time, polygamy was pretty normal – a practice that still exists throughout the Muslim world to this day.
Tribal relations aside, the formalization of marriage as something of a social contract began in the first agricultural societies of Mesopotamia, some 4 millennia ago. During this era, marriage was an extremely powerful social tool, preserving power between members of influential families. A marriage between two children from powerful bloodlines meant a life-long alliance between these two families.
Unfortunately, women from lower-class families had almost as equally little say over the choice of their life partners. For them, marriage was the matter of producing the next generation of heirs for their families as well.
As you might assume, the perception of what marriage means changed over the centuries. For instance, Ancient Rome treated the institution of marriage as a civil matter; one that was defined by the law of the country. But once this mighty empire disappeared in the Early Middle Ages, the role of governing marital affairs passed onto the church. That’s the first point in European history where marriage began to be viewed as a holy union of man and wife.
And over the course of the Middle Ages, the power of the church rapidly grew; along with its influence on private marital affairs. At the beginning of the 13th century, the Catholic church proclaimed marriage to be one of the seven holy sacraments of the church, placing it alongside the most important rites such as penance and baptism in the canon of the church. Interestingly enough, though, public wedding ceremonies officiated by members of the clergy appeared relatively late, during the 16th century.
Love And Marriage
It may seem weird that we haven’t mentioned the notion of love up until now, in an article describing the historical evolution of marriage. But that’s actually one of the most intriguing parts of the development of modern marriage; contrary to popular opinion, love started playing a role quite recently.
For a majority of human history, marriage was viewed as an incredibly important thing, one far too critical to base on mere emotions. Sure enough, it was more favorable when love grew out of an arranged marriage; but purely marrying for love was not only a rare case but actually frowned upon by the general public.
In fact, there are multiple accounts of people who showed affection for their wives in public being shunned and mocked by their peers. Men buying diamond rings for the love of their life is a very recent addition to the list of marriage traditions.
The Appearance Of Romance
So, what’s the point at which romance steps onto the stage? As we’ve mentioned above, this happened pretty late in the history of marriage. The concept of romance in general traces its roots to 17th century Enlightenment thinking, which first entertained a single notion – that life is mostly about seeking happiness. With that, marriage became something you could do in the quest for love and enjoyment, rather than status or wealth.
Contrary to popular opinion, the idea of a romantic marriage owes more to the Industrial Revolution than to any literary fiction of philosophy. The rise of industrial manufacturing gave way to the rise of a middle class; finally enabling younger men to do more than inherit their fathers’ trade and business.
Thus, they could obtain the financial independence needed to seek and choose their own spouses, without necessarily having the approval of their parents. That also made divorce a far more common sight, as people who were in unhappy marriages felt the freedom to put an end to them.
Twentieth Century Marriage
During the previous century, marriage would go through a dramatic change with the slow but certain rise of feminist emancipation. For all of the previous millennia of human history, marriage was almost universally understood as the dominion of the husband over the wife.
But as women slowly started gaining more and more financial independence themselves, the notion of women’s choice began to be more and more important. As they began seeking a general increase in their rights across the board, the question of being the equals of men became more important, rather than being their mere property.
By the time the seventies rolled around, western society had reached something of a legal consensus on the gender neutrality of marriage; both men and women would have equal rights. Simultaneously, marriage was further revolutionized by the appearance of extremely effective methods of contraception. Before that, it went without saying that children were one of the fundamental reasons for marriage in the first place. But good contraception, in cahoots with the notion of romance, made marriage all about the married couple itself.
This did a lot to bring marriage back into the private sphere of life, and away from prying eyes. Slowly, the married couple emancipated itself from their wider families, becoming a completely separate unit unto themselves.
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