A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 23

Same-sex love and ‘marriage’ in pre-capitalist class society

In Part 12 of this series we dealt with manifestations of same-sex marriage in pre-class societies. We limited that survey to societies where foraging and hunting still prevailed as the dominant mode for providing sustenance at the time that same-sex pairings were observed by outsiders. Wanting to project backward in time to the distant millennia when hominins were just becoming human, our reasoning was that life patterns in societies still untouched by the agricultural revolution provided firmer ground for inferences about that distant past.

A less strict criterion would have opened the door to many more reports — by explorers, missionaries, soldiers, entrepreneurs, colonizers and anthropologists — that include data on nontransient homosexual and transgender pairings among members of transitional societies and early agricultural societies in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Australia and the Americas. Unfortunately, once we reached the early class-stratified states, the material on same-sex marriage focuses mostly on the lives of the wealthy and powerful.

Ascendancy of ruling-class attitudes
on sexual behavior

Bruce Trigger (1937-2006) was a renowned Canadian archeologist, anthropologist and ethnohistorian. He is the author of “Understanding Early Civilizations,” a comparative study of seven early class societies: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Shang China, the Aztecs, the Mayas, the Incas and the Yoruba (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003). In several pages of his book devoted to a discussion of homosexuality, we find a largely negative assessment of sexual behavior among these peoples: “In general, people in early civilizations considered reproduction the primary goal of sexual activity.” (p. 190) Yet his evidence for this assertion is a mishmash of contradictory practices and attitudes, most probably reflecting differing class attitudes.

What can be gleaned from his analysis is that the ruling classes of these early states gave the reproduction of their subject populations a high priority, both as sources of labor and tribute, through taxation and otherwise, and as cannon fodder for their military campaigns. The atomized character of patriarchal families suited them just fine: “People depended on their children to take care of them in their old age, and the domestic division of labour provided a strong incentive for both men and women to marry.” (p. 190) The communal safety and security guaranteed by the clan was long gone. Each family was on its own. The patriarchal family had become the basic economic unit of society.

In such a milieu, most social/sexual patterns outside of male-dominated, state-sanctioned marriage were viewed unfavorably — a notable exception being the institution of concubinage that served rich men. But Trigger also makes reference, as have other investigators, to the inclusion in early state religious practices of ritual sexuality, which included homosexual and transgender couplings. Prominent among leading religious figures associated with the ruling stratum were homosexual and gender-variant priests and priestesses. He also mentions homosexuals and gender-variant people among the servants and entertainers in royal courts. Did these people’s personal lives include life partners? Did they produce and raise children?

Same-sex marriage in some
pre-capitalist societies

An unusually rich source of historical information about same-sex marriage is James Neill’s “The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies” (Jefferson, N.C., and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009). Neill’s discussion of same-sex relations in ancient Greece includes the following observations: “A character in Plato’s ‘Symposium’ alludes to the variations in attitudes to homosexual love among the other Greek states when he contrasts the situation in Athens, which he characterizes as ‘complicated’ due to the restraints imposed upon the partners, with the customs in Elis and Boeotia (also spelled Beotia), where he says homosexual love is unfettered by the sort of moral considerations present in Athens. Xenophon, in fact, wrote that in Boeotia and other Greek states homosexuality was so unrestrained that men and boys ‘were living together like married couples.’” (p. 170)

About love among women in early Greece, Neill writes: “Most of what is known about love between women in ancient Greece comes … from the great poetess, Sappho. … For most of her life she was the head of a ‘thiasoi,’ an association of young women, found not only on Lesbos, but in other areas of Greece. … [The thiasoi] were communities in which adolescent girls learned dance, music and singing. … They were groups with their own divinities and rituals where girls went through a transforming experience of life that was somewhat analogous to that experienced by males in initiation rituals. … In the seventh and sixth centuries [B.C.E.] love relations between women were not only an accepted feature of life in the thiasoi, but they were formalized in an initiation-type ritual that brought two girls together in a sexual union similar to a marriage.” (p. 161)

And in classical Rome: “Sexual relationships between women, while not as common [as among men], also appear in literature of the period. … Though sparse, there are enough references to female homosexuality in the literature produced in the first several centuries of the Empire to suggest that, like male homosexuality, it was a common occurrence, and not an exceptional situation.” (p. 207)

Neill summarizes the plots of several literary pieces of the period that deal with lesbian marriages and then comments: “As the references to the marriages between women mentioned in these stories suggest, formal marriages between same-sex couples were not uncommon among Romans during the Empire. … Rather than the unrestrained sexual promiscuity that many today associate with the Roman Empire, the popular literature of the period reveals the same interest in romantic love and committed relationships among Roman writers and their audiences as among people in our own time. The only difference between the two societies in this regard is that to the Romans such a committed and emotionally fulfilling sexual relationship could be had just as easily with a member of the same sex as the opposite sex.” (pp. 207-08)

Neill writes that the Ming dynasty in China (1368-1644) witnessed a weakening of imperial court influence on the government and its replacement by a professional bureaucracy. “Instead of the lives of the court aristocracy which had been the principal focus of the literature of earlier periods, stories and novels of the Ming deal with the lives and loves of ordinary Chinese — shopkeepers, soldiers, poets and minor officials — and provide us with a view of a society in which homosexual loves existed side by side with the social obligations of heterosexual marriage.” (p. 257)

“Ming literature … detailed the ways in which women could find sexual satisfaction with each other. … Marriage relationships between women were not uncommon in some regions. In a typical relationship, two women, one designated the ‘husband’ and the other the ‘wife,’ would formalize their union in a ceremony in which they would exchange gifts, as was the practice in normal heterosexual marriage ceremonies. At the conclusion of the ritual the female friends of the couple who witnessed the ceremony would join them in a feast. The two married women sometimes adopted female children, who were then entitled to inherit property from the parents of the couple.

“Evidence from Ming literature, then, shows that homosexuality among women was very likely just as frequent among women as among men during the period. Given the lack of prohibitions against homosexuality from the earliest dynasties, it seems probable that same-sex love would have been common among women as it had been among men down through the course of Chinese history, even though the orientation of the literature around the lives of men caused it to be rarely mentioned before the time of the Ming.” (p. 262)

Our focus in this installment has been limited to a number of references to the persistence of same-sex marriage in several pre-capitalist societies. That homosexual behavior was widespread in all societies based on slavery and serfdom has been documented by many scholars. That such behavior and gender-variant behavior came under increasing proscription in many of these societies has also been documented. In the next installment, we’ll examine the operation of some of these regressive and repressive forces.