A friend asked me if the idea of same-sex marriage was the biggest redefinition of marriage in Western history. With a nod to her and others who seem attached to this trope, here are my top 7 historical redefinitions of marriage, all of which I consider far more significant than the gender of the couple.
1) From Polygyny (multiple wife marriage) to Monogamy
This debate has been going on for millennia. Polygamy is common in the Old Testament and is still legal in one out of four countries, mostly Muslim. It was only outlawed in the US in the late 19th century. Some Christian Churches in Africa still allow and recognize polygynous marriages.
2) From Civil to Religious Marriage (and back)
In Christian marriage, God plays an important role. However you view the history of the institution – whether it’s a sacrament, who makes it happen, whether it’s permanent – if you’re a Christian, you recognize the relationship happens by the grace of God. Anyone who claims that same-sex marriage is the biggest redefinition of marriage in history either assumes that God is fully present in non-Christian marriages or that heterosexuality is more important than the presence of God.
Roman civil authorities handed off marriage registration to the Roman Church in late Antiquity. Protestant Reformers handed marriage back to the civil magistrate, declaring they could only bless marriages, not make them. Civil and Christian marriage are still not separate in the United Kingdom.
3) From Imposed to Consensual
Only in the early Middle Ages did the church start asserting the necessity of consent from both parties. The custom of abducting a bride remained into the early Renaissance and de facto, if not de jure, arranged marriages still occur without the bride’s consent in first world countries. In practical terms, we can look at “age of consent” laws in the US, which affect ability to marry as well as consent to sex.
In England, the age was 10 in 1576. It rose to 13 in Western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only in the 20th century has it risen to familiar ages of 16-21.
4) From Legal to Romantic
Love within marriage was considered an impossibly rare blessing until the Western European Renaissance. “Courtly Love” appeared as early as the 12th century, but was mostly a literary ideal, applied to non-marriage relationships. During the Romantic Era (early 19th century) it gets conflated with ideals of marriage. For the vast majority of Christian history and for many non-Christian countries today, marriage is considered a duty. You may grow to love your spouse, but you do not expect to love them beforehand.
5) From Dissoluble to Indissoluble (and back and forth)
The question of getting un-married has been a political hot potato for millennia. Some Roman marriages could be ended by the wife’s family. Others could not. Christians have generally held marriage forms a permanent bond. Such permanence was enforced by law regularly. Standards continue to change about who can dissolve the marriage and under what circumstances. In the UK in 1857 a wife could sue for divorce (arguably for the first time), but only in cases of incest, cruelty, bigamy, or desertion. No fault divorce – suing for divorce without cause – is a late 20th century development of the US.
In the Roman Church, divorce is still not allowed (though annulment is). Even in the Anglican Churches, religious divorces were not recognized until the 20th century.
6) From Women as Chattel (Property) to Women as Dependents
For most of Western history, wives were owned by their husbands. The 10th commandment is quite clear: you shall not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, or oxen, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. The scribes had no doubt about what they were writing, nor did readers of scripture fail to interpret this as a property relationship (I Cor 7:4). Rape within marriage only became unambiguously illegal in the US and UK in the 1980s and 1990s.
7) From Women as Dependents to Women as Equals
Only recently have women acquired property rights within their own marriages. In 1981 the US Supreme Court overruled the last “head-and-master” statutes, giving husbands unilateral and unquestioned property rights over all “communal property” acquired during the marriage. Courts have gone back and forth, but custody of children was only possible for divorced women in the UK after 1839.
So, if you think same-sex marriage is the biggest redefinition of marriage in history, even in Christian history, you either don’t know your history or you think gender and orientation are more important than number of parties, God, consent, love, permanence, slavery, and equality.