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The Institution of Marriage throughout History

Family is one of the fundamental institutions of the society that gives stability and an ability to replenish population in each generation. At the same time, it acts as a small group and the most cohesive and stable social unit. A person is a part of many different groups throughout his/her life, such as a group of peers, friends, school class, work team, sports team and so on. However, family remains the only group that he/she never leaves. Therefore, family is one of the most important social institutions.

In turn, the institution of family includes a number of more specific institutions, namely the institution of marriage, kinship, maternity, paternity, property, child protection and many others. However, the institution of marriage represents the greatest interest in the context of studying history. Marriage is the only acceptable and socially approved form of sexual relationship fixed by law. The form and content of family relations have been evolving over the cultural and historical development of the humanity. Historical analysis of family relationships in different cultural eras shows that the institution of marriage has undergone major sociocultural changes. The institution of marriage has evolved from a forced and obligatory relationship into a voluntary union.

Ancient History

One of the criteria of marriage typology is the inequality of spouses. Unequal marriage implies that the spouses differ in any significant signs, such as social status, age or income. Unequal marriages were forbidden in caste and class society as they were considered to threaten the stability of the social hierarchy.

Another criterion for classification is the payment for marriage. The phenomenon of payment in the institute of marriage arose at the dawn of history within group marriage, when a woman was involved in the exchange process as a commodity. Thus, two groups exchanged gifts, which could be women. Relatives of a woman gave the relatives of a man his future wife in return for equivalent services and assistance.

The practice of payment for marriage led to such customs as bride kidnapping, which is often purely symbolic. In South America, a kidnapped bride was wrapped in a carpet or a bag, emphasizing her opposition to marrying. Different nations practiced different customs of bride kidnapping. For example, the Bataks from Sumatra left signs in the house of the stolen woman, namely the clothing or weapons (Tucker, 2014). Otherwise, the marriage was considered illegal.

A special kind of payment for marriage was a sacred marriage. The custom to marry girls to the gods was widespread among many ancient peoples. For example, the Indians of Peru married a 14-year-old girl to a stone shaped like a human and revered as a god (Tucker, 2014). The whole tribe participated in the wedding ceremony, which lasted three days. Another tribe – the Kikuyu – worshiped snakes, so they married off a young girl with a snake-god (Tucker, 2014).

With the emergence of urban civilization, the wedding ceremony became much more complex and formalized. Oral agreements of young people or their parents were not enough. Marriage acquired institutional features in the era of tribal groupings headed by a leader and developed in the period of the early states. The authority structures started to perform acts constituting the procedure of marriage. For example, they made a decision about the necessity or desirability of marriage. The choice of a marriage partner, the conclusion of a marriage contract, the performance of a marriage ceremony and a ritual meal also became the concern of authorities (Tucker, 2014).

One of the types of marriages, namely the marriage of convenience, arose at the dawn of humanity when people got married to ensure alliances between tribes or for other useful purposes. In the future, the rulers of ancient nations married their daughters to the rulers of other countries to get political or diplomatic benefits, strengthen inter-state alliance, improve their status, etc. Over time, the motives of marriage have changed, but its essence remained the same.

The emergence of urban civilization and the development of skills of reading and writing resulted in the first written laws of marriage, which appeared in ancient Babylon (Naranjo, n.d.). Marriage in those days was a kind of economic transaction. A future husband had to buy out the girl from her father. Marriage-transaction and marriage-agreement were common in all ancient cultures. In ancient Egypt, economic and political reasons for marriage prevailed. For example, brothers and sisters often got married to avoid the division of ancestral lands or government posts inherited by the family (Tucker, 2014).

As mentioned above, the first historical form of monogamy was a patriarchal family that was managed by a father and included his sons, their wives and children as well as domestic slaves. However, history has witnessed an era of matriarchy as well. A woman held the dominant position for a particular period of ancient society. Clan as a new form of family union was formed when the incest was declared a taboo (Thompson, 2010). The basis for a clan was the principle of kinship on the maternal side. Since husbands and wives were common, it was virtually impossible to trace the paternal line. Therefore, the truly blood relatives were only the mother and her children who stayed with her and made up her maternal clan (Thompson, 2010).

During the matriarchy, inheritance always was passed through the female line. In marital agreements, the groom’s property often became the possession of the bride. In this regard, pharaohs married their sisters and daughters since it helped to keep the throne, legacy and dynasty. For example, Cleopatra was initially the wife of her elder brother, but she became the wife of the younger brother after the death of the elder one. Such marriages gave males the right to rule Egypt (Thompson, 2010). However, the matriarchal period did not last long.

The first Roman laws are attributed to Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome (Tucker, 2014). In accordance with these laws, a woman connected with a man in a holy matrimony became a part of his property and subject to all the rights of the husband. The law required wives to adapt fully to the nature of their husbands, and husbands had to control their wives as a necessary property. The laws of Rome stated that marriage exists solely for the purpose of procreation and keeping family property undivided. Many centuries later, Roman laws formed the basis for the English law, which continued to assign a greater amount of rights to husbands (Tucker, 2014).

According to historians, a woman could share the bed with her husband, but not a meal. In ancient Greece, a beautiful woman was worth a few head of cattle (Thompson, 2010). Also, the history of ancient Greece witnessed four types of women during the period of slavery. The first type is the priestesses, the ministers of various cults. The second type is the matrons, which can be described as the respectable married women and mothers of children. They could pay with their lives or be sold into slavery for adultery (Tucker, 2014). The third type is female slaves that were concubines of the plebeians. The last type is the hetaerae – educated and talented women-courtesans (Tucker, 2014).

The morals in ancient Sparta, a city-state in ancient Greece, can be illustrated by the following example. A Spartan man could allow any man who asked him about it to have a sexual intercourse with his wife. In this case, a woman remained in the house of her husband, and the child born from another man remained in the family if it was a strong and healthy boy (Tucker, 2014). This is understandable from the point of view of the sole purpose of Spartans’ marriage, namely the birth of children.

The whole period of ancient history can be described by the words of the German philosopher Friedrich Engels:

The overthrow of mother right was the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. (Tucker, 2014)

A woman could not dispose of personal property without her husband’s permission in the ancient period of human history. In case of the husband’s death, the authority in the house passed to his son. Thus, a woman became a powerless domestic worker with numerous household duties with the emergence of private property.

The Bible Times

Researchers of the ancient Hebrew families found the elements of fratriarchy (when the head of the family is the elder brother) and matriarchy, but, in general, a typical ancient Hebrew family was patriarchal. The husband was the owner of his wife: he slept with her and had an absolute power over posterity, whereas the wife gave birth to his children. The family was not enclosed. It included all blood relatives as well as servants, slaves, widows and orphans related to the family. All of them were under the protection of the family. If the damage caused to the family was so serious that it required revenge, it became the prerogative of the redeemer. Revenge could have the form of vendetta or blood revenge.

Family members and their official representatives accomplished a marriage arrangement. The groom paid the bride’s family a mohar (ransom or compensation). In part, it was done to compensate somehow for the loss of the daughter, but mostly it was done because all the children she would give birth to in the future will be the members of the husband’s family. In most cases, the groom could not see the bride before the marriage was concluded. In addition, there was an exchange of gifts at the wedding.

Both men and women got married young. Although mixed marriages took place, they were not encouraged. The purpose of marriage was to strengthen the family, preferably consisting of males. Extramarital affairs were banned. The adultery or fornication was punished as well.

Thus, there was a clear distinction between the importance of men and women. Men had more freedom and value in the eyes of the society. The women’s purpose was to bear and give birth to children and help their husbands in all their affairs. They were supposed to make them happy, satisfy their sexual needs and follow their orders in spite of everything. Women had almost no social status, and men made all the decisions. However, the situation has changed in the Middle Ages.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

During the 4th and 5th centuries, the northern tribes of barbarians, who brought their ideas about marriage and marriage ceremonies, constantly invaded Europe (Coontz, 2006). For example, in accordance with the traditions of the Germanic tribes, marriage was a monogamous union, and adultery by both husband and wife was severely punished by law and morality. On the contrary, the French tribes approved of polygamy and allowed the sale of brides (Coontz, 2006). Moreover, almost all of the barbarian tribes believed that marriage exists for the sake of family and sexual and economic convenience (Coontz, 2006). The feudal chiefs gradually lost their absolute power, including the right to decide on the marriage of their vassals and serfs, with transition from the tribal to the national community and the strengthening of royal power.

The Middle Ages were covered with the aura of chivalry. However, the situation in the marital area was as follows: the knights had to marry women of their circle. In fact, marriage was a socio-economic deal. On the one hand, a woman “sold” her virginity and chastity. On the other hand, a man had committed himself to take care and make good living for a woman and their future children. Marriage was a political act and the best way to increase the influence and power of the aristocracy. The same attitude toward marriage existed among the merchants and the guild masters of medieval towns (Coontz, 2006).

Marriage based on a voluntary union became possible in the Renaissance and Reformation period. At the same time, new spiritual and sexual trends began to spread. Renaissance was essentially a revolutionary epoch. The ideals of this period were fertility along with the image of physical beauty as its consequence. In other words, the passion between both sexes was considered the highest virtue. Having many children was commonplace, but the lack of children was relatively rare and considered as a punishment for some sin (Coontz, 2006). Thus, the Middle Ages and Renaissance became an exceptional period of ardent sensuality marked with a more liberal view on marriage.

Modern Times

The modern society is characterized by a consanguineous marriage (Coontz, 2006). A consanguineous marriage is based on the marital relationship but not kinship. Relatives of the wife and husband are considered a part of the family. They are recognized as equally important and are included in the organization of the family only as wife or husband’s relatives and nothing more (Coontz, 2006). Children belong to not the relatives of the wife or husband but a married couple. Consanguineous marriage allows greater freedom in the performance of family roles.

The modern wedding ceremony is mostly identical in all the developed countries. A man asks his beloved to marry him. This event if followed by engagement. A couple officially becomes a bride and a groom only after they are engaged. The time between the engagement and wedding usually takes from six months to two years. The wedding ceremony usually takes place in a church.

The current predominance of monogamy in marriage has evolved under the influence of socio-economic changes. Also, the family in the modern society performs economic, household and social-status functions in addition to the reproduction of the population. Thus, the institution of marriage in the modern society is one of the main channels of social mobility.


The institution of marriage reflected socio-cultural changes that occurred in the human society throughout history. Marriage was largely seen as a form of economic transaction or agreement. Everything related to marriage was predetermined, so even the representatives of the upper strata of the society could not evade the existing practices.

Matriarchy dominated in a society in the time when a woman performed important economic functions. Later, men have taken a leading position in the society and marriage transformed into other forms of economic management. Women became powerless objects of purchase and sale. Since the Middle Ages marriage has become an important channel of social mobility.

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