Misunderstandings of the Institution of Marriage Throughout History

Image courtesy of fox10phoenix.com (Disclosure: I’ve met the couple, and they’re awesome.)

With Friday’s overturning of Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriage by U.S. District Judge John Sedwick, reactions were mixed. Progressives hoping to celebrate love between those of the same gender embraced their right to marry their partners; others, not so much.

The Arizona Catholic Bishops fall into the latter camp. Along with grim reaper Governor Jan Brewer, they expressed their disappointment through hate-based rhetoric:

“A recent court ruling has overturned Arizona’s law defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Today’s action overturns the will of Arizona voters and reflects a misunderstanding of the institution of marriage.”

This got me to thinking: what IS the misunderstanding of the institution of marriage? What IS the institution of marriage? Let’s take a trip through history!

According to The Week, some of the first instances of marriage “began in the Stone Age as a way of organizing and controlling sexual conduct and providing a stable structure for child-rearing and the tasks of daily life.” Sounds similar to current marriage–control of sexual conduct included (AMIRITE LADIES SHAMED INTO UNCOMFORTABLE STUFF?). The Mesopotamians 4,000 years ago practiced marriage as a way to “primarily as a means of preserving power, with kings and other members of the ruling class marrying off daughters to forge alliances, acquire land, and produce legitimate heirs.” How romantic!

So women had little power over their romantic destinies even back then, treated as property to be bartered in exchange for land and family power. And I bet feminist critics were subjected to the their modern equivalent of #gamergate.

Other cultures found ways to put their spin on the sacred act. “The ancient Hebrews, for instance, engaged in polygamy — according to the Bible, King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines — and men have taken multiple wives in cultures throughout the world, including China, Africa, and among American Mormons in the 19th century. Polygamy is still common across much of the Muslim world.”

And then the church got involved to fun things up! The Week notes that Roman “church courts took over and elevated marriage to a holy union. As the church’s power grew through the Middle Ages, so did its influence over marriage. In 1215, marriage was declared one of the church’s seven sacraments, alongside rites like baptism and penance.” So there’s that marriage guilt sorted.

BUT! Same-sex unions were happening while the church was all “it’s holy, dammit!” Again, from The Week:

Same-sex unions aren’t a recent invention. Until the 13th century, male-bonding ceremonies were common in churches across the Mediterranean. Apart from the couples’ gender, these events were almost indistinguishable from other marriages of the era. Twelfth-century liturgies for same-sex unions — also known as “spiritual brotherhoods” — included the recital of marriage prayers, the joining of hands at the altar, and a ceremonial kiss. Some historians believe these unions were merely a way to seal alliances and business deals. But Eric Berkowitz, author of Sex and Punishment, says it is “difficult to believe that these rituals did not contemplate erotic contact. In fact, it was the sex between the men involved that later caused same-sex unions to be banned.” That happened in 1306, when the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II declared such ceremonies, along with sorcery and incest, to be unchristian.

The idea of monogamy is a recent one, and love and romance even more recent. And the combination of religion, love and romance were likely to keep the kibosh on same-sex marriage until the 20th century. Once again, from The Week:

For thousands of years, law and custom enforced the subordination of wives to husbands. But as the women’s-rights movement gained strength in the late 19th and 20th centuries, wives slowly began to insist on being regarded as their husbands’ equals, rather than their property. “By 1970,” said Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Wife, “marriage law had become gender-neutral in Western democracy.” At the same time, the rise of effective contraception fundamentally transformed marriage: Couples could choose how many children to have, and even to have no children at all. If they were unhappy with each other, they could divorce — and nearly half of all couples did. Marriage had become primarily a personal contract between two equals seeking love, stability, and happiness. This new definition opened the door to gays and lesbians claiming a right to be married, too. “We now fit under the Western philosophy of marriage,” said E.J. Graff, a lesbian and the author of What Is Marriage For? In one very real sense, (author Stephanie) Coontz says, opponents of gay marriage are correct when they say traditional marriage has been undermined. “But, for better and for worse, traditional marriage has already been destroyed,” she says, “and the process began long before anyone even dreamed of legalizing same-sex marriage.”

So marriage, an ever-changing institution that was shaped to fit the whims of those in power, is now considered misunderstood because of the ban of a 1996 state law and 2008 voter-approved constitutional amendment. Makes sense if you enjoy being on the wrong side of history. For all the hand-wringing from those that long for traditional values regarding marriage, their desire is like rolling back things to the days where they would likely hate being subjected to the same things they’re currently longing for. Sounds like they’re misunderstanding the concept of marriage as well. And I think its evolving form is just fine, as it now (slowly) including those of the same gender.


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