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A History of Marriage
Written by Councillor Ruth Illingworth
The institution of marriage has existed across the world for at least ten millennia.
The main purpose of marriage, for much of recorded history, has been to regulate the procreation of children and to provide economic and social bonds between families.
Most marriages in recorded history have been arranged. Romance and love have played little role in marriage until recent times. Outside the Western world arranged marriages are still commonplace-as they were in Ireland until the mid-twentieth century.
Marriage has usually been a contract between one man and one woman. This, however, has not been the only form of marriage.
Same sex marriage has existed in some form or other throughout history. Men contracted a form of marriage with other men in Ancient Rome and in Greece. At least two Roman Emperors had such marriages. There may also have been such same sex marriages in Egypt. It should be noted that the Emperors who married also married women. This was for the purpose of fulfilling what they would have seen as their duty to procreate. It is also possible that Roman plebeians may have formed same sex unions. Roman law allowed three different types of marriage, one of which was a quite informal arrangement which could be entered into without much formality.
Historians are still in disagreement over whether the early Christian Church permitted and blessed certain same sex marriages. It is not clear whether these ceremonies were designed to unite spouses or to bless some form of spiritual brotherhood or even a form of fostering or adoption. It is not beyond possibility that such marriages were receiving a blessing. However the marriage may have been more about a close emotional and spiritual bonding than a sexual one. It must be remembered that the early Christian Church regarded marriage as greatly inferior to celibacy. Homosexuality was condemned because sex was only for procreation.
Same sex marriages also existed in many Native American societies. The term "Two Spirit" was used to describe those we would now probably define as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transsexual. In some Native American societies, a man was allowed to marry another man, or a woman to marry a woman. In some cases, a Two Spirit man, who had a wife, could also have a husband.(this also seems to have happened in Ancient Greece).
Same sex marriages also occurred in China and in parts of Eastern and Southern Africa. Marriages between women were happening in parts of Lesotho and Uganda into the 20th century. It should be noted, however that these women did not identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual.
There were a large number of cases in Europe and North America where men or women "passed " as the other gender in order to marry someone of their own sex. Most of these cases involved women passing as men, but men also passed as women.
There were also cases where gay and lesbian people got married using false certificates. In 1920s Harlem, New York, women married each other using marriage licenses which were either applied for by a gay man, using his name, or by masculinising the name of one of the women involved. Copies of these marriage licenses can still be seen in the New York Public Records Office.
Same sex marriage has been legal in various countries since the beginning of this century. Denmark and The Netherlands were the first societies in the modern era to legalise same sex marriage.
The Christian, Jewish and Islamic Faiths traditionally see marriage as being for the purpose of procreation. That is why they regard homosexual marriage as completely unacceptable. However, it is worth noting that the Christian Churches have, in recent years, placed greater emphasis on the importance of compatibility and companionship as being important in a marriage as well. The 1983 edition of Roman Catholic Canon Law does not list procreation as the primary function of a marriage. Other churches and faiths have also come to place greater emphasis on love and equal partnership as vital components to a marriage.
The legal arguments for same sex marriage revolve round the question of equality. The Supreme Courts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Virginia, as well as the Constitutional and Supreme Courts in Canada and Spain all ruled in favour of same sex marriage rights on the grounds that the constitutions of these nations and states did not permit one set of laws for one section of society and different laws for another. The Canadian Constitutional Court also rejected the proposition that marriage was solely for the purpose of procreation.
What is at least as significant in considering the history of same sex marriage is to remember that societies also had laws forbidding certain people to marry. Where same sex couples stand now is where many others stood before us. These are a few of the cases of forbidden marriage unions.
Until 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in more than 40 American States. Judges and politicians defended the ban on Biblical grounds. Similar bans existed in South Africa during the apartheid era and, again, the Bible was cited to justify the law.
In Eighteenth century Ireland, marriage between Protestants and Roman Catholics was banned under the Penal Laws. At the same time the marriage ceremonies performed by Presbyterian Ministers were not recognised by the State because only clergy who had been ordained by bishops were regarded as being validly ordained.
In Switzerland in 1907, the marriage law declared that people deemed to be mentally handicapped or ill could not marry. Similar laws existed throughout the 20th century in many American states and in countries such as Sweden, China and Germany. The Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany forbade marriages between Jews and non-Jews.
In conclusion, it may be noted that the institution of marriage has never been just a union of one man and one woman. Same sex marriages have existed historically in many different cultures. Marriage has often been a business arrangement more than a love match and has often involved cousins rather than strangers.
Over time marriage has been forbidden across racial or religious lines. It has been forbidden to those deemed mentally unfit. It has been barred across social class lines. The institution of marriage has existed across millennia and in countless cultures. It exists because it is useful. But it is also flexible and has changed as society has changed. Divorce was once illegal or obtainable only by the very rich and powerful. Times have changed. Once, marriage was seen in this country as primarily a business arrangement. Times have changed. The churches no longer see marriage as solely being about and for procreation. Even religions change their thinking.
Marriage has always been a flexible institution. History shows that institutions and societies can and do change and adopt. So they will with same sex marriage.