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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Marriage – A Potted History

Marriage is undeniably an institution. Marriage is the best way we know of to maintain social cohesion through tightly bonded family units. But marriage is not immovable.

The Old Ball and Chain by Flickr User Graela, used here under a Creative Commons licence.

The Old Ball and Chain by Flickr User Graela, used here under a Creative Commons licence.

Clerical marriage is still a taboo subject for the Catholic church, although it existed for over half the Church’s lifetime; it was abolished less than 1000 years ago

Many people, religious congregations in particular, will have you believe that marriage is a sacred rite, a contract signed in ceremony. They will have you believe it has been so since time immemorial. They will have you believe so in an attempt to discredit gay marriage proponents, ambush leftwing pinkos, defend against perceived attacks on the sanctity of marriage and the family. But it is rubbish. Marriage has always adapted to reflect society.

Some will even have you believe it is, and consequently always has been, an unbreakable bond. Not so. Pre-christian Ireland, as one example, had legal provision for divorce. Catholic Ireland did not reintroduce it until 1995.

The Catholics

The Catholic church still wants to have a look over a potential spouse, to check for flaws. Never mind warnings of caveat emptor – choose a mate in confidence now with the support of the mighty, and infallible, Pope, his assembled hierarchy and advisors from the legions of saints and angels in heaven. It is a small mercy that the ius primae noctis (droit de seigneur) is no longer practiced.

The Church has a history of being unclear on marriage. Clerical marriage is still a taboo subject for the Catholic church, even though it existed for over half the Church’s lifetime and eventually was abolished less than 1000 years ago (Dr Elva Johnston of UCD, puts this date in the 11th century, as part of the Gregorian reforms). They maintain the sacrament, one of seven big ones the church’s adherents celebrate, can be traced back to a time before Christ through Biblical stories. Aside from the fallacy of relying on the Bible as a true factual historical record, this is a seemingly willful misreading of of marriage within the texts, as discussed on NY Review of Books by Gary Wills.

The Peasant Wedding (1568) by Pieter Bruegel

The Peasant Wedding (1568) by Pieter Bruegel

Where Stephanie Coontz recounts in the New York Times the legal / religious divide on marriage, Michael Fragaso ripostes describing a more complex soup of competing factions and beliefs trying to monopolise the unions. Both agree, laws and sacraments were brought in to clarify the marital situation and the associated legal questions such as inheritance.

In fact, the sacrament was unscripted until the thirteenth century, a mere blink before the reformation. Before then Thomas Aquinas’ postulation that consenting cohabitation was proof enough of a contract between partners was the general rule of thumb (a phrase which has itself been latterly misinterpreted in the context of marriage). In other words, if you both said you were married, then accordingly you were.

Ultimately religious congregations warmed to marriage as a secular contract. It was adopted as a means to deal with issues surrounding inheritance, family allegiance and social stability. Legitimacy and bastardy therefore became key issues in relation to productive marriages. It was also a means of control. In being sanctified, family allegiances were also sanctioned by the Churches.

The Seattle Times parallels the solidification of the marital covenant with the strengthening of the Church’s hierarchy. As Rome settled, so did its sacraments.

Faithful marriage between a man and a woman has been promoted to the predominant form. This was not always the case.

The Seattle Times also carried a quote from Nancy Cott, professor of history at Harvard University, “If you’re talking about the history of the world and not just the last two centuries, the proportion of the world populated by monogamous households were a tiny, tiny portion‚ just Western Europe and little settlements in North America.”

The Soul and the Bridegroom by Eric Gill

The Soul and the Bridegroom by Eric Gill

Is There a Place for Romance?

The idea of marrying after, and as a result of, falling in love is, according to some commentators, relatively recent. Before some time roughly around the Enlightenment, and its reassessment of received wisdoms, love was the hoped for side-effect of marriage. The Inquisition utterly refutes this ill-considered standpoint. The weight of millennia of literature featuring young, star-crossed lovers would suggest that romantic bonds have long been formed by prospective partners’ desires, lusts and loins.

Now as we settle into a new multicultural, global future our ideas about marriage, its validity, availability and uses are going to be challenged too.

Finally – Some Advice to Prospective Spouses

Start your marriage right. Kidnapping a potential mate is not recommended it is not a good foundation for a solid relationship.

End it correctly too, if you must. Early in the courtship, make sure to properly assess your choice. Factor in depreciation on the secondhand spousal market. There was a time wen the wife-selling marketplace was vibrant, full of potential. Perhaps the best example is the German response to the praticalities of being subdued by conquering Romans, they “considered the wife as negotiable property” and if funds were needed they “sold them to the conquering Romans.” The market has collapsed since. Prices have fallen so much wife-buying is considered a buyers’ market these days, as shown by Raab on Jackass. Poor woman.

Jokes aside, these practices of the premarital transfer of money, or even of kidnapping still occur and are anachronistic and inhumane.

The Irish Courts Service details Brehon Law (pre-christian celtic legal system in Ireland)
The practice of wife-selling
The practice of bride-buying
Pre-marriage checks
Podcast by Dr Elva Johnston of UCD on St Patrick
The Guardian on the history of marriage
Michael Fragoso’s response to Stephanie Coontz
Stephanie Coontz in New York Times
Stephanie Coontz in New York Times (again)
Seattle Times’ notes on the history of marriage

This article was posted by on Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012 at 15:21.
It is archived in Culture and tagged , , , , .

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