Marriage, A History

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

In her thorough and lucidly written book, Stephanie Coontz examines the institution of marriage across the globe and throughout history. Marriage, a History is not only a major piece of scholarship but also a work that provides a crucial understanding of the central institution in modern culture.

Coontz begins by demonstrating that the idea of marrying for love is a construct peculiar to the last two centuries. She argues that for most of human history, the idea that anyone should choose a marital partner based on something as irrational as love was inconceivable. For example, in ancient China, as elsewhere, strong love between husband and wife was considered a threat to the established social order. Some Greek and Roman philosophers believed that a man who loved his wife with excessive ardor was an adulterer. Even today, in places such as Kenya marriage is considered too important to be entered into because of love.

Moreover, sexual fidelity was not always held in high regard. Coontz cites an anthropological study of 109 past societies in which only 48 forbade extramarital sex to both husbands and wives. Love was a rare element in the history of marriage, and even today the definition and function of marriage are not entirely fixed. One legally accepted, though challenged, definition describes marriage as an arrangement in which a man and a woman live together, engage in sexual activity, and cooperate economically. Coontz lists other arrangements, such as those in Africa and Indonesia where husbands and wives live in separate houses, and in other societies where married couples do not even eat together.

Some anthropologists have reasoned that marriage has historically involved a set of legal rules governing goods, social status, and titles, especially the issue of legitimate heirs. There are, however, important exceptions to this concept. The Japanese language, for example, until 1868 contained no equivalent to the English word “bastard.” Polygamy, considered deviant in the Western world, is not uncommon worldwide. In some areas of India a woman might be married to several men at once. In China women are sometimes married to ghosts or dead people.

For Coontz, apparently the single most important function of marriage throughout history has been the establishment of a tie between families and larger groups, what she calls the necessity of acquiring the right set of in-laws. In other words, marriages were arranged by the parents or guardians of the young couple so that one or more families could gain advantage by uniting their land holdings or wealth: A kingdom might be enlarged, a business funded, or a set of specialized skills acquired.

The author demonstrates this practice by examining stories of such famous relationships as that of Marc Antony and Cleopatra VII, presenting evidence that the marriage of those two rulers had more to do with controlling the Roman Empire than with passion. Even the suicides of this husband and wife came about because Antony had lost Rome to Octavian’s army. Like the marriage of Antony and Cleopatra, most unions in the classical world could be made or broken depending on the need to strengthen or loosen ties with in-laws. It was not only the nobility who arranged marriages. All classes of parents tried to find gain for themselves by arranging marriages that consolidated the right set of in-laws.

The emergence of Christianity in Rome had little initial impact on marriage, for early Christians did not hold the marital union in very high esteem compared to the spiritual union in celibacy with Christ. As the Catholic Church became the single most important institution in medieval Europe, it turned its attention to matrimony. In an effort to reduce bloodshed when marriages were broken or misused by various rulers seeking new lands to control, the Church supported monogamy and sharply limited divorce and remarriage. It would be some time, however, before these new restrictions saw widespread adherence.

Among well-known attempts to circumvent Church law were those of King Lothar II of Lorraine. Lothar had a son by his consort Waldreda, but he put her aside to marry Theutberga, whose brother controlled important lands immediately south of Lorraine. When Theutberga had no children and her brother proved less than friendly, Lothar divorced her and married Waldreda, justifying the split by claiming that Theutberga had engaged in incestuous relations with her brother. There was much argument in various Church courts, but ultimately the pope ordered Lothar to return to his first wife, establishing clearly the Church’s support of monogamous marriage.

As Coontz stresses, monogamous marriage did not limit the husband’s practice of extramarital sex, and illegitimate sons often became a man’s chief supporters. Lothar...

(The entire section is 1980 words.)