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The History Of The Idea Of "Marriage"

May 29, 2008

[Revised: 5/3/2008]

I feel I have a solid grasp of the history of marriage in Western culture, particularly within Christianity. As a Catholic, I have been taught the “rules” of marriage and the history of that institution in the context of Jewish and Christian traditions. As a heterosexual, those rules have sometimes been difficult to follow, but they are not extremely taxing: it does not consistently require heroic virtue for heterosexuals to get married. The rules are made for people like me. That makes the institution feel natural—to me.

But not all people are like me. That principle sounds pretty simple, but it is exceedingly difficult—for some—to think outside of their contexts: Christianity, family tradition, regional norms, U.S. legal codes, U.S. culture, Western civilization, etc. In this post I want to look at marriage as an academic problem to be explored.

Although the post’s title might cause one to think otherwise, I will not pretend to know the universal history of the idea of marriage. I only want to pose a serious of questions that seem, to me, to have some bearing on the norms of that institution, with an eye toward the current controversy about gay marriage. [Please note: I’m attempting to ask these questions from a broad, societal perspective. My own feelings on the history of marriage and attendant issues do ~not~ correspond to the wording of each question below.] Here goes:

– In the context of the world (not the English-speaking peoples), when did the linguistic term “marriage” come into being?
– How is marriage a “natural” institution?
– In every culture and corner of the world, has marriage always meant the union of a man and woman?
– What other non-Western, historical cultures have allowed for homosexual unions? What others, for that matter, follow closely Western marital norms?
– What does anthropology have to say about the question of heterosexual marriage as “normal”?
– If other kinds of marriages have existed, what were their natures?
– If same-sex marriages or unions existed in other cultures, were they considered normal in those cultures—or at least not frowned upon?
– If other kinds of marriages existed, what were the norms of those unions?
– Is gay marriage a uniquely modern problem? Has it dated only from the twentieth century? Is it a question that has arisen only because of multiculturalism?
– Is the issue of gay marriage a problem because of industrial state? Is it a controversy that has arisen because of work stresses and the question of benefits? Is it an issue only because the current tax structure hurts non-heterosexuals?

What say you? Is there an antropologist in the crowd? Is there a cultural or intellectual historian out there who has explored the idea of marriage in the context of the world? – TL

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3 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink

    >> – Is the problem of gay marriage a uniquely modern problem? Has it dated only from the twentieth century? Is it a question that has arisen only because of multiculturalism?
    >> – Is the issue of gay marriage a problem because of industrial state? Is it a controversy that has arisen because of work stresses and the question of benefits? Is it an issue only because the current tax structure hurts non-heterosexuals?

    What?

    First, did you intentionally mean to classify gay marriage as a “problem?” Is that what gays are – a “problem” for wanting the same benefits and legal recognition afforded to hetro couples?

    Second, what exactly are you asking with these questions? Why gays want to be married, or the reasons why those who are opposed to it are so?

    Are you asking if multiculturalism, work stresses and the question of benefits, and the current tax structure are the only reasons gays want to be married? Why? Are those the reasons why hetero couples get married? Or are you asking if those concerns are the reasons why some are opposed to it?

    I may be misreading these questions, but perhaps they could be clarified a bit.

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  2. Dear Anon,

    Thanks for coming by. I was wondering if anyone would comment on this post.

    I apologize if my tone was offensive. That was the ~exact opposite~ of my intention. Let me explain.

    I intentionally classified gay marriage as a problem because I was trying to take on the largest sense of the issue in our society. In American culture, gay marriage is clearly a “problem” generally because many people (Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, homophobes, those fearful of change, etc.) have an issue with it.

    My goal with this post was to raise questions about the history of the institution to try and understand not only why it is a problem, broadly speaking, but also to see (potentially) if an historical understanding of marriage, across the world and in all cultures, would make gay marriage ~less~ of a problem for the category of folks delineated above. So, to your second question, the latter—I want to understand in the longest, deepest sense why people are opposed.

    I decidedly did ~not~ say that multiculturalism, benefits, and the tax structure are the ~only~ reasons gays want to be married. I asked those questions in the context of Western culture. It's not twentieth-century news that gays and gay couples exist, but it is twentieth-century news that the same have agitated for marriage.

    All of this is to explain my original intent of the post: to try and understand gay marriage as an intellectual and academic problem. I wanted to remove emotion from the question as much as I could. That's why I asked for the input of anthropologists and historians (especially those who specialize in gay history).

    I hope this helps? – TL

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  3. Tim: I cannot claim expertise anthropologically or historically. My sense from the histories is that heterosexual marriage as we know it today is a relatively recent thing. That is, companionate, love-based marriage was not the norm before the early 20th century, and is not necessarily the norm across all cultures today.

    The emergence of gay marriage as an issue suggests, at least to me, an unlikely victory for conservatives. They've been attacking the decline of marriage for decades, and now they've got thousands–maybe millions–of people knocking on the chapel and temple doors.

    I don't really have a stake in various religions refusing to conduct same-sex marriages. I just don't think they should be able to extend their definition over secular society (and over other religious groups who do recognize this form of marriage).

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