A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 22

Patriarchal heterosexual marriage under slavery & feudalism

In her well-researched book, “Marriage, a History,” Stephanie Coontz suggests that one of the objectives of patriarchal political domination was to stamp out the vestiges of matrilineal kinship solidarity that still manifested themselves in the form of competing family coalitions and dynasties. “Ultimately,” she says, “none of [the patriarchal ruling-class] efforts succeeded in displacing the marriage alliance system from its central role in politics and economics.

“But three attempts to curtail aristocratic family power eventually had particular significance for the development of marriage in Western Europe. The first was the establishment of democracy [for slave- and property-owning men] in Athens in the fifth century B.C. The second was the imposition of universal law and the development of a professional army in the Roman Republic and early empire. A third came in the later days of the Roman Empire, when Christianity emerged as an institution that combined a universal ideal of brotherhood with many trappings of state power.” (New York: Penguin Books, 2006, p. 70)

The state takes control

As one example of this effort in “democratic” Athens, Coontz notes: “Inheritance claims based solely on blood descent were no longer sufficient; a state-sanctioned marriage of the parents was now required.” (p. 72) What was the underlying objective of this and other legal stipulations? “Athenian leaders were anxious to convert marriage into an association of two individuals rather than two kin groups.” (p. 75)

Coontz reports a striking reversal from traditional marriage practice during the period of Republican Rome: “As early as 230 B.C., dowries given to husbands had replaced bridewealth paid to the bride’s family as the prevailing financial arrangement in Roman weddings. For the life of the marriage the husband controlled the dowry, but he had to return it in the event of divorce, unless the woman had been blatantly promiscuous.” (pp. 81-82) As is so generally characteristic of patriarchal society, evidently no importance was attached to “blatant promiscuity” on the part of the husband.

Coontz also makes the point that Rome’s imperial preoccupations required a professional army and a civilian bureaucracy of colonial administrators, effectively curtailing the political power of landowning families and family ­alliances.

Patriarchal religion as a repressive force

With the evolution of early Christianity from the set of beliefs held by a rebellious Semitic sect into a powerful state religion in late Imperial Rome, we encounter the full blossoming of the poisonous weed of patriarchal sexual hypocrisy and repression. Coontz cites a couple of the most well-known precepts of the Church Fathers: “’It is better,’ [the Apostle] Paul grudgingly conceded, ‘to marry than to burn’ (Corinthians 7:9). Pope Gregory the Great [c. 540-604 C.E.] explained early in the sixth century that although marriage was not sinful, ‘conjugal union cannot take place without carnal pleasure, and such pleasure cannot under any circumstances be without blame.’” (p. 86)

How much personal emotional torment over the centuries resulted from these absurd pontifications cannot be measured, but they were very much on the mark as ideological accompaniments to patriarchal political rule. The Catholic Church is or at least should be infamous for its zealous and at times murderous efforts to impose strict sexual abstinence on its flock, excepting only heterosexual, penile-vaginal intercourse between partners married by the church and motivated solely by the need to produce a new generation of faithful parishioners.

Of course, the Vatican, as sordid as its long history is, has not stood alone. All of the influential and still existing religious institutions that arose as reflections of patriarchal rule sought to curtail the social and sexual rights of women.

We’re going to skip over Coontz’s detailed account of the Church’s manipulation of its marriage tenets as an important weapon in its maneuverings with the feudal nobility of medieval Europe. The Church itself, as the continent’s chief landowner, was a major player in the interminable power struggles of that epoch.

Coontz also, however, deals at length with what she terms “the other 95 percent”: “For the first eight centuries of its existence, the church itself showed little concern about what made for a valid marriage or divorce among the lower classes of society. Gradually, however, all social classes came to live by the rules for forming and dissolving marriages that had emerged out of the conflicts and compromises among monarchs, nobles, and various factions of the church during the early medieval period.” (p. 104)

Coontz notes that among Europe’s peasants, “The Church was dealing with a population whose traditions considered mutual intent or the blessing of a parent sufficient to solemnize a marriage.” (p. 106) But the Church’s Fourth Lateran Council declared, “We absolutely prohibit clandestine marriages.” Coontz elaborates, “For a marriage to be valid, the council stated, three things were necessary: The bride had to have a dowry, which effectively undercut the independence of a young woman from her parents; banns [the marriage announcement] had to be published beforehand; and the wedding had to take place in a church.” (pp. 106-07)

Although a less strict doctrine eventually prevailed, “When the Gregorian reformers really began to flex their muscles on the question of no marriage for the clergy and no divorce for the laity, Church law no longer made any provision for divorce at all.” (p. 108)

Preoccupation with inheritance, other economic concerns

The feudal barons exercised their own secular authority over the social/sexual relations of their serfs: “In some regions the lord of an estate (or the abbot if a peasant worked on church lands) could prevent his serf from marrying a woman from another manor. In other regions, lords even had the right to choose husbands for their tenants’ daughters.” ­
(p. 110)

Coontz explains the economic motive behind these harsh interventions: “Landowners had a stake in their serfs’ marriages because the division of labor between husband and wife lay at the heart of rural economies. No individual, male or female, could run a farm single-handedly.” (p. 110)

And at the level of the individual family: “By law, husbands controlled all household resources, including any earnings wives brought in, and could ‘discipline’ their wives by force if necessary. … Marriage in urban areas followed many of the same patterns.” (p. 114)

Unfortunately, Coontz’s information about the conditions of marriage in peasant-based societies in other parts of the world is rather limited. She writes, “In the areas of classic patriarchy, such as the Middle East, North Africa, India and China, where girls are married at very young ages and placed in households headed by their husbands’ fathers, a woman can gain leverage in the family only by producing male heirs.” (p. 131) “In India,” she reports, “early law codes provided that a widow with no sons had to marry her husband’s brother in order to produce a male child to carry on his lineage.” (p. 46)

Regarding attitudes toward marriage in feudal China: “In Confucian philosophy, the two strongest relationships in family life are between father and son and between elder brother and younger brother, not between husband and wife. In thirteenth century China the bond between father and son was so much stronger than the bond between husband and wife that legal commentators insisted a couple do nothing if the patriarch of the household raped his son’s wife.” (p. 21) Coontz pulls from a “women’s issues” report that appeared in several U.S. newspapers in 2004 the fact that “for 1,700 years women in one Chinese province guarded a secret language that they used to communicate with each other about the griefs of marriage.” (p. 22)

The next installment in this series will deal with manifestations of same-sex love and “marriage” in pre-capitalist class societies.

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