It is often not well appreciated how much the evolution of the institution of marriage has owed to the changing nature of socioeconomic conditions. From the first recorded marriage roughly 4,370 years ago, in ancient Mesopotamia  (Mesopotamia today would be located in Iraq), marriage globally, has served as means to perpetuate the human species, supply rules for the granting/transfer of property rights , establish diplomatic and trade ties between potentially warring nations, villages and tribes, and expanding the family labourforce , as work throughout much of history tended to be done in multigenerational households, particularly on the family farm, before the emergence of capitalism brought with it the concept of the labour market and thus the separation of work and home .
It may or may not surprise modern day couples that throughout much of history, love had very little to do with marriage, with the two often thought to be incompatible . The couples themselves had very little input in the decision to get married, as marriage was done essentially to further family/group/community interests and not to satisfy the couples’ longing for companionship.
Around the 13th/14th century AD, a new model of marriage began to emerge in the area known as the North Sea region. The North Sea lies between Great Britain, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and France. This new model was particularly pronounced in Britain, Netherlands and Belgium. This model, known as European Marriage Pattern (EMP), placed a premium on consent and love in marriage. The EMP evolved as a response to the emergence of individual property rights particularly in land and the emergence of capitalism, which individual property rights helped to spur in 13th century England . Prior to the emergence of capitalism and individual property rights, what obtained was feudalism, a socioeconomic system where all land belonged to the king, which he parceled out to nobles, who had peasants who worked the land in exchange for sustenance. These twin developments created a demand for workers outside the home, a labour market so to speak (this was the beginning of what we would today properly call jobs), giving the young people who took advantage of these opportunities, the means to assert their independence from parental authority. With that independence came the wherewithal to choose one’s marriage partner. This trend was exacerbated in the middle of the 14th century (1346-1352 AD) by the most fatal pandemic in human history known as the Black Death. The Black Death is estimated to have killed between 75-200 million people in Europe . This led to acute labourshortages, creating an employment boom for young people particularly women, thus cementing the culture of marriage based on consent and love that had emerged. The emergence of the EMP led to other changes. The age of first marriage for couples tended to be older, sometimes as much as 10 years older  than the norm that obtained under arranged marriages, as couples asserting their choice of marriage partner typically had to start from scratch economically since they were starting independent households. In the rest of the world and parts of Europe that still adhered to arranged marriages, couples could afford to be younger as they were to be part of multigenerational households headed by their parents in which significant economic resources existed relatively speaking. The EMP also led to a significant increase in the percentage of the population that never got married. This happened as increasing urbanization tended to break-up close-knit community bonds and also because a person may meet only a few members of the opposite sex that one may consent to marrying. This is contrast to arranged marriages where the issue of consent doesn’t arise and finding a partner is a group activity thus significantly increasing the pool of suitable partners .
While the transition to marriage based on love and consent largely happened because of the emergence of the market economy, there were also religious precursors to it. Around 1140 AD, the Benedictine monk Gratian insisted that the consent of the couple mattered more than their family’s approval. Gratian brought consent into the fold of marriage in with his canon law textbook, called the Decretum Gratiani . Canon law is the internal law made by church leadership for the governance of a Christian organization and its members. The Decretum required couples to give their verbal consent and consummate the marriage to forge a marital bond. It is important to note that while there was now a religious basis for marriage based on consent, it needed the emergence of the market economy to give young couples the means to actually practice it. For instance, in parts of Europe where there was actually a stronger Catholic presence but the market economy had not emerged like Spain, families often lived in open defiance of the Decretum .
The church and eventually the state, would further influence the evolution of marriage in ways that would intertwine with the EMP that had been brought about by the emergence of the market economy. The church’s and state’s contribution essentially boils down to five models of marriage that have often been in conflict with one another. These five models are Marriage as Sacrament in the Roman Catholic Tradition, Marriage as Social Estate in the Lutheran Reformation, Marriage as Covenant in the Reformed (and Methodist) Traditions, Marriage as Commonwealth in the Anglican Tradition, and Marriage as Contract in the Enlightenment Tradition. We shall take each one in turn.
When the Catholic Church teaches that marriage between two baptized persons is a sacrament, it is saying that the couple’s relationship expresses in a unique way the unbreakable bond of love between Christ and the church . Now while a sacrament and a sound way of Christian living, however, marriage was not considered to be particularly spiritually edifying. The Catholic church regarded marriage more as a remedy for sin than a recipe for righteousness. Marital life was considered less commendable than celibate life, propagation less virtuous than contemplation. Clerics, monastics, and other servants of the church were thus to forgo marriage as a condition for ecclesiastical service. Those who could not forgo marriage were not worthy of the church’s holy orders and offices. Celibacy was something of a litmus test of spiritual discipline and social superiority .
It is now well understood that the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation was a watershed in the history of Western theology and the law of marriage—a moment and movement that gathered several streams of classical and Catholic legal ideas and institutions, re-mixed them and revised them in accordance with the new Protestant norms and forms of the day, and then redirected them in the governance and service of the Christian West. The Reformation produced three significant models of marriage: the social model of Lutheranism, the covenant model of Calvinism, and the commonwealth model of Anglicanism. In Lutheranism, marriage was a social estate of the earthly kingdom of creation, not a sacred estate of the heavenly kingdom of redemption. Protestants in general rejected the subordination of marriage to celibacy and the celebration of marriage as a sacrament . Marriage was instead an independent social institution ordained by God and equal in dignity and social responsibility with the church, state, and other social estates . Furthermore, Lutherans consigned legal authority for marriage mostly to the state as opposed to Catholicism assigning it to the church.
Calvinist Protestants emphasized that marriage was not a sacramental institution of the Church, but a covenantal association of the entire community. A variety of parties played a part in the formation of the marriage covenant . The marital couple themselves swore their betrothals and espousals before each other and God—rendering all marriages triparty agreements with God as party, witness, and judge. The couple’s parents, as God’s bishops for children, gave their consent to the union. Two individuals, as God’s priests to their peers, served as witnesses to the marriage. The minister, holding the spiritual power of the Word, blessed the couple and admonished them in their spiritual duties. The magistrate, holding the temporal power of the sword, registered the parties and their properties and ensured the legality of their union . This involvement of parents, peers, ministers, and magistrates in the formation of a marriage was not an idle or dispensable ceremony. These four parties represented different dimensions of God’s involvement in the marriage covenant, and were thus essential to the legitimacy of the marriage itself. To omit any of these parties was, in effect, to omit God from the marriage covenant. Protestant covenant theology thus helped to integrate what became universal requirements of valid marriage in the West after the mid-sixteenth century—mutual consent of the couple, parental consent, two witnesses, civil registration, and church consecration . This stood in stark contrast with Catholic model, which at the time only stressed the consent of the couple. In response to the increasing encroachment by Protestantism, the Catholic church was forced to adopt many of the requirements of the Protestant covenant model . During the period known as the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic church issued a decree requiring the presence of witnesses and a parish priest for a marriage to be considered valid. From the late 16th century onwards, Protestants as well as Catholics strengthened clerical, paternal, and state control of marriage . A milestone of the state’s involvement in marriage came in 1753 with the passing of the Clandestine Marriage Act in England and Wales, which was popularly known as the Lord Hardwicke’s Act . The act instituted certain requirements for marriage, including the performance of a religious ceremony observed by witnesses.
The Anglican commonwealth model as its name suggests had its origin in England. It embraced the Catholic sacramental model, the Lutheran (of German origins), and the Calvinist (of what today will be Swiss origin) covenant model but also went beyond them. Its essential feature was that the family was to symbolize the common good of the couple, the children, the church, and the state, all at once . The family was a commonwealth that was to take a subordinate position to the greater commonwealth of England. It is probably worth noting that under the Anglican church marriage by consent and cohabitation was valid until the passage of Lord Hardwicke’s Act.
I shall treat the Enlightenment Contractual model and take a critical look at Polygamy in the concluding part of this essay.
1. The Week staff Jan 2015 ‘The Origins of Marriage’ theweek.com https://theweek.com/articles/528746/origins-marriage
2. The Week Staff Jan 10, 2015 ‘How marriage has changed over centuries’ theweek.comhttps://theweek.com/articles/475141/how-marriage-changed-over-centuries
4. Wilson James Q. May 1999 ‘Marriage, Evolution and Enlightenment’ aei.org https://www.aei.org/research-products/speech/marriage-evolution-and-the-enlightenment/
5. The Week Staff Jan 10, 2015 ‘How marriage has changed over centuries’ theweek.comhttps://theweek.com/articles/475141/how-marriage-changed-over-centuries
6. Wilson James Q. May 1999 ‘Marriage, Evolution and Enlightenment’ aei.org https://www.aei.org/research-products/speech/marriage-evolution-and-the-enlightenment/
7. Wikipedia article on the Black Deathhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death
8. Wilson James Q. May 1999 ‘Marriage, Evolution and Enlightenment’ aei.org https://www.aei.org/research-products/speech/marriage-evolution-and-the-enlightenment/
9. Luiten Van Zanden, Jan. 2009 The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution: The European Economy in a Global Perspective, 1000–1800. Leiden: Brill
10. Lauren Everitt March 2012 ‘Ten key moments in the history of marriage’ bbc.comhttps://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17351133
11. Luiten Van Zanden, Jan. 2009 The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution: The European Economy in a Global Perspective, 1000-1800. Leiden: Brill
12. Blake, Jenny H. Sep 1999. ‘The History and Evolution of Marriage (Review of From Sacrament to Contract by John Witte Jr.)’ BYU Law Review Volume 1999 | Issue 3 Article 5
14. John Witte, Jr Winter 2003 ‘Church, State and Marriage: The Three Reformation Models’ Word and World Volume 23, Number 1
16. John Witte Jr. Oct 2002 ‘The Meanings of Marriage’ firstthings.comhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/10/the-meanings-of-marriage
19. Luiten Van Zanden, Jan. 2009 The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution: The European Economy in a Global Perspective, 1000-1800. Leiden Brill
21. Lauren Everitt March 2012 ‘Ten key moments in the history of marriage’ bbc.comhttps://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17351133
22. John Witte, Jr Winter 2003 ‘Church, State and Marriage: The Three Reformation Models’ Word and World Volume 23, Number 1