A Brief History of Marriage
The union of a man and a woman, recognised by authority or ceremony, is as old as civilization itself and marriage of some kind is found in virtually every society. But throughout the centuries marriage has taken many different forms.
Early marriage was borne of ancient societies' need to secure a safe environment in which to breed, handle the granting of property rights, and protect bloodlines. Ancient Hebrew law required a man to become the husband of a deceased brother's widow.
But even in these early times, marriage was much about love and desire as it was social and economic stability. In its roundness, the engagement ring, a custom dating back to the Ancient Rome, is believed to represent eternity and everlasting union. It was once believed a vein or nerve ran directly from the 'ring' finger of the left hand to the heart.
Many other modern day marriage traditions have their origins in these ancient times. Newly-weds are said to have aided fertility by drinking a brew made from honey during certain lunar phases and it is this tradition from which we derive the origins of the word 'honeymoon'.
One wife or two?
Understanding of marriage contrasted greatly from culture to culture. Some cultures viewed the institution as endogamous (men were required to marry within their own social group, family, clan, or tribe), exogamous (marrying outside the geographical region or social group) or polygamous (allowing men to take more than one bride).
Polygamy was formally banned towards the end of the Roman Empire with laws against adultery, fornication and other relationships outside a monogamous lifelong covenant. The seeds of modern marriage were sowed here and they extended into the modern Western world.
In holy matrimony
In European nations, marriage was traditionally considered a civil institution. Around 5AD great Christian theologians such as Augustine wrote about marriage and the Christian Church started taking an interest in the ceremony.
It was at this point that Christians began to have their marriages conducted by ministers in Christian gatherings, but it was in the 12th century that the Roman Catholic Church formally defined marriage as a sacrament, sanctioned by God.
In Catholicism, it is still believed that the Sacrament of Matrimony is between God, the man and the woman, while the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century CE re-valued marriage as a merely life-long and monogamous covenant between a man and a woman.
During the Victorian era romantic love became viewed as the primary requirement for marriage and the rituals of courting became even more formal. An interested gentleman could not simply walk up to a young lady and begin a conversation. He had to be formally introduced and only after some time was considered appropriate for a man to speak to a lady or for a couple to be seen together.
Once formally introduced, if a gentleman wished to escort a lady home from a social function he would present his card to her and at the end of the evening the lady would review her options and chose who would be her escort! She would then notify the lucky gentleman by giving him her own card requesting that he escort her home.
Almost all courting took place in the girl's home, always under the eye of watchful parents. If the courting progressed, the couple might advance to the front porch. It was also rare for couples to see each other without the presence of a chaperone, and marriage proposals were frequently written.
The end of the affair
Divorce has existed for about as long as marriage so although we've had a lot of practice at monogamy, we're still not very good at it!
The ancient Greeks liberally allowed divorce, but even then the person requesting divorce had to submit the request to a magistrate, who would determine whether or not the reasons given were sufficient. In contrast divorce was rare in early Roman culture. However, as the empire grew in power and authority, civil law embraced the idea that either usband or wife could renounce the marriage at will.
Throughout the last thousand years, divorce was generally frowned upon and from the earliest years of the Christian age the only 'proper' way to dissolve a marriage was by annulment - a status that was granted only by the Church. Of course, one British king changed all that during the Sixteenth Century by having arguably the most famous divorce in British history.
In 1533 Henry VIII famously broke England's ties with the Catholic Church and changed the face of our nation forever purely because he wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.
# In many parts of 16th and 17th century Europe and America, the concept of 'bundling' was widely used. This process allowed courting couples to share a bed, fully clothed with a 'bundling board' to separate them. This allowed a pair to talk and get to know each other in the safe confines of the girl's house.
# In some parts of 18th Century Europe a biscuit or small loaf of bread was broken over the head of the bride as she came out from the church. Unmarried guests scrambled for the pieces, and they would place them under their pillows to aid their own fortunes in marriage. It is believed that the tradition of having a wedding cake stems from this strange custom.