Marriage, a History
Long ago, love was a silly reason for a match. How marriage has changed over history.
By May 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
Through most of Western civilization, marriage has been more a matter of money, power and survival than of delicate sentiments. In medieval Europe, everyone from the lord of the manor to the village locals had a say in deciding who should wed. Love was considered an absurdly flimsy reason for a match. Even during the Enlightenment and Victorian eras, adultery and friendship were often more passionate than marriage. These days, we marry for love—and are rewarded with a blistering divorce rate.
What's love got to do with it? In early history, politics and money trumped emotions.
- Ancient Greece: Love is a many-splendored (manly) thing. Love is honored—especially between men. In marriage, inheritance is more important than feelings: A woman whose father dies without male heirs can be forced to marry her nearest male relative—even if she has to divorce her husband first.
- Rome: Wife-swapping as a career move—Statesman Marcus Porcius Cato divorces his wife and marries her off to his ally Hortensius in order to strengthen family bonds; after Hortensius dies, Cato remarries her.
- 6th-century Europe: Political polygamy—The Germanic warlord Clothar, despite being a baptized Christian, eventually acquires four wives for strategic reasons, including his dead brother's wife, her sister and the daughter of a captured foreign king.
- 12th-century Europe: Marriage is good for loving...someone else—Upper-class marriages are often arranged before the couple has met. Aristocrats believe love is incompatible with marriage and can flourish only in adultery.
- 14th-century Europe: It takes a village—Ordinary people can't choose whom to marry either. The lord of one Black Forest manor decrees in 1344 that all his unmarried tenants—including widows and widowers—marry spouses of his choosing. Elsewhere, peasants wishing to pick a partner must pay a fee.
- 16th-century Europe: Love's a bore—Any man in love with his wife must be so dull that no one else could love him, writes the French essayist Montaigne.
It's a family affair: Married love gains currency, but for intimacy and passion, people still turn to family, lovers and friends.
- 1690s U.S.: Virginia wasn't always for lovers—Passionate love between husband and wife is considered unseemly: One Virginia colonist describes a woman he knows as "more fond of her husband perhaps than the politeness of the day allows." Protestant ministers warn spouses against loving each other too much, or using endearing nicknames that will undermine husbandly authority.
- 18th-century Europe: Love gains ground—In England and in the salons of Enlightenment thinkers, married love is gaining credibility. Ladies' debating societies declare that while loveless marriages are regrettable, women must consider money when choosing a partner.
- 1840, England: Virgin lace—Queen Victoria starts a trend by wearing virginal white, instead of the traditional jeweled wedding gown. Historically thought of as the lustier sex, women are now considered chaste and pure. As a result, many men find it easier to have sex with prostitutes than with their virtuous wives.
- Mid 19th-century U.S.: Honeymoon suite for three—Honeymoons replace the older custom of "bridal tours," in which the newly married couple travel after the wedding to visit family who could not attend the ceremony. Even so, many brides bring girlfriends with them on their honeymoons.
We worship the couple. Intimacy shrinks to encompass just two, and love becomes the only reason for marriage.
- 1920s U.S.: How Saturday night began—Dating is the new craze—in restaurants and cars, away from the oversight of family. Popular culture embraces sex, but critics fear that marriage is on the rocks.
- 1950s U.S.: Marriage is mandatory—Marriage becomes almost universal, and the nuclear family is triumphant: Four out of five people surveyed in 1957 believe that preferring to remain single is "sick," "neurotic" or "immoral."
- 1970s U.S.: All you need is love?—Self-sufficient women and changing social rules mean marriage is no longer obligatory. Quarreling couples split up rather than make do, and the divorce rate skyrockets.
- Today: Bride pride—Marriage is the ultimate expression of love, leading gays and lesbians to seek the right to marry, but also encouraging couples to cohabit until they're sure about their "soul mate." Marriage rates fall—but the fantasy of the perfect wedding is ubiquitous.
Based on research from Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz.