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The emergence of modern marriage

July 6, 2015

[First in a projected series. Disclaimer: this post is highly speculative and should not be taken too seriously.]

Last month’s Supreme Court decision indisputably changed marriage, or recognized a change that had already taken place. Traditionalists often tell a story in which the change began with the “sexual revolution,” particularly the legalization of contraception, abortion, and no-fault divorce, and the de-legalization of marital rape. But there are other, more plausible stories we can tell—stories in which marriage has been changing for a long time.

A particularly interesting such story, from the Christian point of view (and of course most marriage traditionalists are Christian, though they claim that their arguments are based in natural reason), involves the emergence of modern marriage in Western Europe over the last millenium. According to this story, modern marriage is a product of Christianity, not a revolt against it, and its emergence is a gradual process of liberation from the slavery of traditional social structures.

(Note: I’m not a historian. This story is an amalgamation of a number of such stories I’ve seen made by people I consider pretty bright, including philosophers, historians, and literary theorists. Still it probably counts as Bad History (TM).)


We begin in the Middle Ages; say, 1000 AD. Marriages between nobility are public and formal, but other marriages are not necessary so. There may be a ceremony, but there are no official records kept, and in some ways the marriages looks more like what we call cohabitation; there are few formal mechanisms to prevent a couple from splitting up and each member getting together with someone new, though public opinion, and the economic difficulty of uprooting one’s life in this way, does discourage this. The law takes some interest in marriage, but the way it takes an interest in debt: it enforces the terms of the arrangement, but doesn’t take any notice of the arrangement unless a complaint is made. But marriage now differs from cohabitation in this way: the couple live together, not because they “love each other,” but because it makes sense, especially since at this time children are a net economic gain. The household is economic in nature: this is in a sense a tautology, since economic < oikonomia < oikos + nemein, household + management. Economic marriage is not a particularly nice institution; an academic might call it a perpetuator of Patriarchy. The real problem, however, is that it’s distinctly impersonal. One has a wife the way one has a business partner, and one wants to avoid leaving her the way one wants to avoid bankrupcy.

By 1300 AD, things have begun to change. For the last few hundred years, the Catholic Church has engaged in a sustained campaign to codify the sacramental nature of marriage. In other words, it has sought to give a transcendent significance to what had been merely a useful social practice. Of particular importance was the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 AD, which mandated the formal proclamation of marriage banns, on pain of bastardy: “If any persons presume to enter into clandestine marriages of this kind, or forbidden marriages within a prohibited degree, even if done in ignorance, the offspring of the union shall be deemed illegitimate.” Clandestine marriages—in fact, any marriage not publicly overseen by the church—was still possible, but it ceased to be normal. Marriage is now a formal public act, and is the same for nobility and for commoners. But noble marriage had been a public concern for a practical reason: the private lives of nobility had political repercussions. If marriage among commoners is also a public concern, the reason must be different; not practical, but transcendent. What might it be?

It takes a while, but by, say, 1600 AD, an answer has emerged. Marriage fundamentally changes who you are, and who your children are, in a way that needs to be public knowledge. It forms a bond between you and your spouse fundamentally different from any other social connection. Marriage is not just building a household, it tells you something about who you are: namely, that you are someone married to this other someone. This deep personal relationship ends up being characterized much like had been the romantic love of the medieval troubadours, except that, for the troubadours, romance was always between unmarried lovers. This makes all the difference. Unconsummated love-at-a-distance idealizes the beloved, and might last five minutes or fifty years. Intimate marital love has no room for idealization, because it is intrinsically temporal: it requires changing oneself in response to the changes one sees in one’s beloved. It is, one might say, an ongoing conversation. Children arise from this conversation, and their lives are colored by it, but they do not themselves participate in what is fundamentally a relationship between husband and wife.

By 1900 AD, this idea has had unexpected consequences. Before Christianity made it a sacrament, people almost never thought of marriage as indissoluble: its dissolution was merely extremely difficult, and would only take place in extraordinary circumstances—only if life in the household the marriage created was intolerable. In the Catholic world, marriage remains in theory indissoluble, but this leads to rank hypocrisy (e.g. the normalization of extramarital affairs). In most Protestant countries, something more interesting has happened. The law has made room for the dissolution of marriages in extraordinary circumstances, and, in so doing, admitted that no marriage is indissoluble. But the circumstances under which marital dissolution make sense have changed. It now seems reasonable to dissolve a marriage, not only if the household it has built has collapsed, but also if your conversation with your spouse has turned into silence; and, while houses are difficult to pull down, conversations are difficult to keep up. Even a good marriage can no longer be taken for granted: it must be sustained through continual effort. This shift—the outer sign of which is the liberalization of divorce laws—has the consequence of making the begetting of children appear less central to marriage than it  once was; marriage comes to seem essentially an erotic friendship.

Which, by 2015 AD, makes gay marriage the logical next step.


In brief: marriage used to be a social phenomenon; it is now a public act. It used to be the construction of a household; it is now a form of conversation. It used to be indissoluble under normal circumstances; now the dissolution is always a possibility. So, yes, marriage now is different from traditional marriage—but we shouldn’t want to go back. A millenium ago, to enter into a marriage was to enslave oneself to economic necessity. Marriage has now become a space within which to build free personal relationships. These changes were brought about by Christianity: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”


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