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Here Comes the Bride—A Brief History of Marriage

Here Comes the Bride—A Brief History of Marriage

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Marriage or pair bonding is as old as humanity. However, the institution of marriage has evolved across different eras, cultures, and social classes. In modern times, marriage is the ultimate romantic expression of a couple’s love and commitment as they share a vow based on mutual love, with or without family consent. In many societies, it’s become common to see interracial, inter-faith, and even same-sex marriages. This was not always the case.

During the pre-historic era, men and women bonded for physiological reasons. Marriage or bonding was essential for survival, reproduction, raising kids, and sharing social values. The concept of bonding for love via Cupid’s arrow did not exist. In this age – devoid of grocery stores – humankind were hunter-gatherers. Living in the pre-agriculture age and unable to grow food, families were nomadic: constantly migrating in their nest meal. Men and women were co-workers in this daily struggle for survival. The gender roles were well-defined but not 100% fixed: traditionally, men hunted animals and gathered fruits and vegetables. Women performed domestic chores – child rearing, making primitive clothing, and maintaining the shelter. It was common in pre-historic society for men to mate with more than one woman.


Neolithic Marriage

Ten thousand years ago, the Neolithic Revolution, or the first Agricultural Revolution, dramatically reshaped human culture, significantly changing the institution of marriage. During this era, man mastered growing crops and breeding livestock. As a result, the nomadic lifestyle was no longer necessary for survival, making larger groups and more permanent settlements possible. Marriage became a practice to secure land and property and produce heirs to receive this inheritance. Living in more permanent settlements – no longer burdened with nomadically transporting childrenwomen could reproduce more frequently, paving the way for larger families.

By 2100 BCE, as societies progressed, culture became more complex and stratified. Cultural and religious traditions emerged and served a more prominent role in life. Marriage was no exception to these new trends, developing into an official institution governed by religious and civil entities. The Ancient Mesopotamians wrote the Ur-Nammu, believed to be the first written rules or laws of conduct. They were inscribed on clay tablets in the Sumerian language and found in modern-day Iraq. Sumerian was one of the earliest languages written in cuneiform. Tellingly they wrote several sections dedicated to the regulations on marriage. From the examples below, it’s clear that women were regarded as property, although perhaps not to the same extent as enslaved people.

  • If a slan enslaved personries a slave, and that slave is set free, he does not leave the household.
  • If a slave marries a native (i.e., free) person, he/she is to hand the firstborn son over to his owner.
  • If a man violates the right of another and deflowers the virgin wife of a young man, they shall kill that male.
  • If the wife of a man followed after another man and he slept with her, they shall slay that woman, but that male shall be set free.
  • If a man proceeded by force, and deflowered the virgin female slave of another man, that man must pay five shekels of silver.
  • If a man divorces his first-time wife, he shall pay (her) one mina of silver.
  • If it is a (former) widow whom he divorces, he shall pay (her) half a mina of silver.


The Ancient Greeks and Child Brides

In the 1500-year civilization of Ancient Greece, which lasted until 600 CE, brides were often half the age of their husbands. The bride typically had no say in a choice of spouse and usually would only meet their intended on the wedding day itself. The ceremony took place on the second day of a three-day celebration marking the bride’s transition from virgin to wife and soon-to-be mother.

At this point in history, families arranged marriages according to practical considerations. In many cultures, families matched young couples to form alliances with neighboring tribes, villages, communities, or nations. It was a contractual arrangement between families to display and strengthen their joint status.


Marriage in the Middle Ages

By the Middle Ages, marriage was an established social and religious institution in Europe, at least for the well-to-do. Reflecting this, marriage settlements between families became more complicated. The need for accurate documentation and records increased as society accumulated more wealth. The average bride was still considerably younger than her husband but would probably have met him a few times before tying the knot.

Kings and rulers used dynastic marriages as an extension of diplomacy and to broaden their influence. Anglo-French alliances included Eleanor of Aquitaine, who would annul her marriage to Louis VII to marry Henry II of England. Almost unheard of, Eleanor was eleven years older than the groom. The marriage of twelve-year-old Isabella of France to twenty-four-year-old Edward II of England was more typical. Thus, the great powers played the game of dynastic marriage.

In contrast to the realities of medieval marriage, the concept of courtly love arrived together with the emerging literature of chivalric romance. This genre introduced its readers to the first notions of romance as a desirable state of being. Encompassing bold knights and damsels in distress, stories such as Troilus and Cressida and Le Morte D’Arthur explored the antithesis of arranged marriage—the notion of falling in love. It was an idea that would catch on, if only among the educated elites.


Industrialization and Individualism

Marriage incrementally evolved for centuries until the next seismic cultural shift: the Industrial Revolution and Urbanization of the 18th and 19th centuries. Technological advancements of the age reshaped and refashioned civilization. Innovations improved manufacturing production, which created more jobs and new economic opportunities in sprawling urban areas. Mass production was reliant on factories rather than family units. As more people left the countryside for the cities, a new middle class was born. People no longer needed large extended families to contribute to their collective collectively. A new spirit of individualism emerged, fueled by more widely available education and a more literate public. The affordable serializations of popular novels by authors like Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo introduced readers to a world of characters making things happen and determining their lives.

This industrial era cemented the concept of love as a precursor to marriage. This shift led to the mass production of Valentine’s cards dating from the middle of the 19th century. The tune ‘Here Comes the Bride’ was composed by Wagner in 1850 as part of his opera Lohengrin, as romance went mainstream. Now that basic survival needs were met, couples could afford to marry for love—but it wasn’t all wine and roses. The husbands still worked long hours in factories, and the wives stayed home as unpaid homemakers. Certain rigid societal customs – legal and unwritten – were strictly followed. People were generally married within their social and economic class, race, religion, and ethnic group. And, of course, marriage meant a man and his wife. Straying from these customs was a severe social and legal taboo. The catalyst for expanding the narrow boundaries of culturally accepted marriages did not occur until the late 20th and early 21st centuries.


The Civil Rights Era

The Industrial Revolution’s freedoms were reserved primarily for white men. Ironically, as the husband earned more money laboring outside the household, the value of the wife’s contribution decreased in worth. She was no longer his co-equal working partner, tasked with producing goods and services for the household. The husband’s wages brought the family sustenance, while the wife’s unpaid labor managing the home was widely taken for granted. As the cliche goes: the man brings home the bacon, and the woman cooks it.

More change was on the horizon: the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s opened the way for marginalized peoples – blacks, Indigenous, Latinos, Asians, women, and LGBTQ+ folks — to demand full citizen’s rights. The advocacy of this era greatly impacted the institution of marriage. Laws banning interracial marriage were struck down by the Supreme Court (1967 Loving v Virginia). Interfaith marriage became more common and culturally acceptable. Women collectively rejected their assigned barefoot, pregnant, and in-the-kitchen status. They demanded equality in the home and the right to pursue professional careers.


You May Now Kiss the Groom

One of the most significant expansions of the definition of marriage happened because of the June 26, 2015, Supreme Court decision striking down state laws banning same-sex marriage. President Joe Biden signed The Respect for Marriage Act into law on December 13, 2022. The historic law will “guarantee the federal rights, benefits, and obligations of marriages in the federal code for same-sex couples.” This federal law resulted from decades of advocacy by the gay rights movement. The United States Census reported over one million same-sex households in 2021.

Modern Marriage

Today marriage is an institution and an industry that enjoyed worldwide annual revenues of $57.9 billion in 2022. As the purpose, roles, and definition of marriage evolve, the expectations of marriage have also shifted. Many modern couples united by love and romance expect life partners, best friends, confidantes, and emotional supporters. These shifting roles and expectations challenge married couples and their families. Studies have shown that couples who build mutual respect and a solid commitment to verbal communication are vastly more successful in an ever-evolving institution.

A quote from the entrepreneur and author Fawn Weaver expresses the ingredients for a successful modern marriage. “The difference between an ordinary marriage and an extraordinary marriage is in giving just a little extra every day, as often as possible, for as long as we both shall live.”


Edited by Michael Moss

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