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A Historic Review of How Marriage has Changed

Updated on July 1, 2013
Under Charlemagne's reign, marriage was a way to 'legitimize' your relationship so that your heirs  were considered legitmate.
Under Charlemagne's reign, marriage was a way to 'legitimize' your relationship so that your heirs were considered legitmate. | Source

How Marriage Has Changed Over Time

Ever since the Garden of Eden, rather than accept God’s definition of marriage as a one man, one woman relationship, man has attempted redefining what marriage through their laws and customs. This redefinition of marriage has changed from culture to culture and across time.

In ancient Egypt marriage was viewed as a special relationship between two people, one being male and the other female. Their relationship was viewed as a legal establishment. There wrote laws protecting this special relationship. Although the laws protected the marriage relationship, those laws were very broad regarding who could be married. The laws allowed people to marry their own brother or sister. It was not just siblings, but one could marry their uncle, aunt, mother or father. In allowing marriage between family members, wealth remained concentrated within a few families.

In nearby Babylon, marriage was a relationship set up through a contract. Prospective brides were put up for bidding. When the bride was purchased by the highest bidder, the marriage contract was written. The marriage contract was viewed as binding, and had obligations that each party were expected to fulfill. When one of the marriage parties violated the contract, the consequences kicked in. The violating party was expected to pay a type of alimony when they violated the marriage contract.

The Hebrew culture by contrast established a different type of marriage laws. Their laws specified who could and could not be married. They did not allow the marriage of close familial relations. Their laws and customs originally limited marriages to within their own tribe. Some found the laws too restrictive and strayed from the limits they imposed. Many in the Hebrew culture viewed marriage in terms of a life-long covenant sealed in blood. Although many viewed marriage as a covenant based relationship, there were some that looked for loop holes. They wanted multiple wives along with loose divorce laws so that they could be like the neighboring nations whose traditions included having harems.

Those looking for loop holes often viewed marriage as more of a conditional legal contract rather than a lifelong covenant. When marriage is viewed as a conditional legal contract, when the legal requirements were not met, a person could legally divorce their spouse. Over time, some of the authorities changed their interpretation of marriage and divorce laws to accommodate the demand for multiple wives and loose divorce laws.

Given the way the Hebrew culture was established, monogamy was more prevalent than other relationships in most cases. Despite the prevalence of monogamy, there were some individuals who believed that they were exceptions to the custom and insisted on having multiple spouses. These were often the community leaders and kings. The laws concerning marriage were applied to the multiple marriage relationships. Although multiple spouses was not intended, the kings, and nobles often believed that they did not have to abide by ‘old traditions’. They viewed themselves as more 'progressive' in such matters.

The Greeks also had laws regarding marriage. In that culture the parents decided who you were to marry. Upon marrying, the wife, who was treated as property, became part of her husband’s family. At that point, the wife belonged to that family. Marriage was a serious matter for the Greeks. Their laws allowed for justifiable homicide anyone caught in adultery with the wife. In cases where the husband caught his wife’s lover, he could and was often expected to publicly kill the lover. The public execution of the lover was one of the ways that society disapproved of adultery in the marriage. Such laws may explain why references to divorce in ancient Greek culture are rare.

The northern cultures of Europe (Germanic tribes, Celts, Vikings, Scandinavians, and Scots) took a different approach to marriage. For these tribes and cultures, marriage occurred when you either by purchased or captured your spouse. Men in those cultures often captured perspective brides or purchased them from neighboring tribes. These customs made raids and ‘viking’ a lucrative venture and part of becoming an adult. Such adventures were not just about gaining wealth, it was also their way of finding wives. Given the nature of how marriage occurred, polygamy was prevalent, especially when a man managed capturing several wives for their private collection or harem.

The Celtic ideas of marriage by capture can also been seen in the formation of Roman culture. This practice was glorified in the foundation of their culture. The famous incident where the founders of Rome captured and raped the women from the neighboring Sabine tribe became the start of many noble Roman families. The violent event with the Sabine women has been the subject of many works of art. Despite the violent beginnings of their culture, Roman society had many laws respecting the relationship of marriage and protecting the property involved.

The idea of marriage continued evolving. Not only was the definition of marriage evolving, the role of the church became greater. When Charlemagne became king, about 800 AD, marriage required a public ceremony performed by a member of the church. During this time, many people cohabited. In order for that relationship to be recognized by the legal authorities, the couple had to be married. When an official marriage took place, many legal problems were settled. The main legal problem concerned who were your legitimate heirs. Since only legitimate heirs had legal rights to the property, in order to make sure that the right children received what the parents wished, marriage became the way to protect your wishes. Children from other lovers or relationships had no legal recourse or claims. They were not recognized as having any legal standing to their parents’ estate. Since Charlemagne wanted to present himself as a godly king, he abided by this practice. After he married the woman he cohabitated with expected those nobles holding high positions within his kingdom to follow his example.

Prior to this time, marriages were often between the couple and God. With the intervention of the church, now the ceremony required their participation. The church leaders functioned as a stand-in for God in validating the marriage relationship.

Since marriages and divorces are often intertwined, the church initially played a role in deciding divorce and estate matters. In Europe, the legal definition of marriage slowly began being taken over by the courts and government. The government often wanted some involvement in the distribution of property and estates. When the estates were large, the governments and courts often believed they were better suited to handle mattes than the church courts.

The influence of the church continued shaping culture long after Charlemagne was gone. The practice of having the church give its stamp of approval for marriage continued for centuries. When the church approved the relationship, it was viewed as being legitimate or ‘legal’ in the eyes of the courts. This is part of the reason that early settlers in North American referred to making someone ‘an honest woman’. To be considered an ‘honest woman’ meant that the relationship was condoned by the church.

When wars and conflicts occurred between the major religions, one of the issues impacted was that of marriage. Since the church had a long tradition of being involved in the marriage controversy, changes in how the church was set up brought a re-evaluation of marriage as well. The Protestant reformers in the German States, Swiss States and Bohemia of the 15th and 16th changed the definition of marriage. These reformers wanted pastors allowed to marry, which for centuries had officially been denied. They also sought ending the monopoly the church had on marriage. In proposing an end to the monopoly, they wanted reduced church control. Rather than having the church control who married who by means of its approvals, they wanted church leaders to guide the couple. This shift from controlling to guiding had ramifications for the church and marriage.

The reformers also wanted the religious ceremony redefined, along with the rules about annulment or divorce. With the changes, the ending of a marriage was no longer a church sanctioned annulment, but rather a divorce. In order to obtain a divorce laws were established identifying what would be grounds for a divorce. These new grounds for divorce included impotence, extreme incompatibility, polygamy, adultery, and desertion. Prior to these changes, the idea of ‘separation from bed and table’ was used in addressing the separation of the couple. The separation from bed and table was a concept from early laws of Ireland and Scotland.

Although some reformers wanted the church to be more involved, there were others, such as Martin Luther who insisted that marriage was merely a secular contract that had no more concern with the gospel of the Church than any other civic partnership. His sentiments were the source of many conflicts and gave rise to the popularity of viewing marriage as more of a civic contract.

Power, even the power to approve or disapprove marriages could be abused. Over time, with the shift from church control to the control of civil government, abuses occurred. In 18th century Scotland, perspective grooms were required to ask the government for permission to marry. The government agents’ approval was established by law. Policies like this were used by the English government to limit the size of the population of Scotland as part of the plan to clear out and reduce the population of Scotland. These population control policies were part of what was known as the ‘Highland Clearance’. Since most of these government agents were more loyal to the English government (crown) than to the local Scots, approvals were not easy to come by. When such abuses occurred, the local population often conducted secretive marriages to avoid the eyes of government agents.

The weakening of the authority of the church in controlling marriages led to a loosening in enforcement of marriage laws concerning who you could marry. With the loosening of the laws, many first and second cousins intermarried. At times, the intermarriages took place as a way to preserve the wealth of the families. There were also health reasons for marrying people whose background you were familiar with.

The 19th century also brought some other changes to the practice of marriage. Many of the early leaders in the women’s rights movement viewed marriage as 'domestic bondage'. Since these ideas were generated during the time of abolition, the whole association with slavery or bondage carried with it emotional appeal.The association of marriage with 'domestic bondage' was stronger in New England than other sections of the United States. during that time, many women changed the marriage vows in order to remove the obligation of wives to obey their husbands. This change began transforming marriage into a copartnership. The difficulty with copartnerships is that they generally tend to be temporary.

These leaders of women's rights claimed that marriage merely viewed women as property of their husbands. The arguments presented by these early leaders were strengthened by how women were treated in the courts. Such changes led to a massive loosening in divorce laws. Divorces were granted for a wider array of reasons, along with a loosening of the requirements for divorce. Prior to such changes, the wives were often handled as if they were property rather than a person with rights and their own voice. The arguments of these early leaders of women’s rights were strong and they won many supporters among the wives who believed they had been exploited.

When the special relationship of marriage was taken out of the context of a covenant relationship, it changed what marriage meant. When the relationship is no longer considered a covenant, it changed into a contract or a type of domestic servitude. There were some spouses who treated their spouses as a type of servitude bordering on bondage. Although the bondage issue was a pressing one in the 19th century, it continues on into the 21st century. In many cultures marriage continues being arranged by others and forced onto its participants. In such cases, marriages are not about love, but rather about creating alliances, paying off debts or sexual favors. Brides as young as nine or ten years old are forced into marriages against their will. Western societies would consider such behavior child sexual abuse, yet in some cultures, it is condoned and sanctioned by the government.

A further change during the 19th century, was the trend of people avoiding the church sanctioned marriage altogether. In order to circumvent the church practice of disapproving of miscegenation, or those living lifestyles disapproved of by the church, couples went to the civil authorities for marriage. By going to the civil authorities, they were making their children ‘legitimate’. With a civil ceremony, and obtaining the marriage license, the children born of their union would have all the rights to their estate in the courts. Being married, the courts recognized that children had the right to inherit estate from their parents. Prior to this time, there was often confusion in the courts as to who the legitimate heirs of such unions were.

There were also many communities that did not have ministers to conduct marriages. In those communities, people cohabitated until the minister came through the area and performed the sanctioning ceremony for them.

The definition of marriage continues being changed. With the shifting of the authority of marriage more over to civil authorities than church, come ramifications. One of the ramifications is that marriage is now viewed as a civil procedure rather than a church ceremony. With it being a civil procedure or contract, also comes changes in how divorce is handled and defined. In previous centuries, you needed clear grounds for a divorce. With the increasing use of contract models for marriage along with changes in law, society now has ‘no-fault’ divorce laws. Under such laws, the parties decide to end their relationship without the guilt, blame and shame that previous existed.

Governments continue shaping and changing the definition of marriage. Although the radical abuses seen in the Highland Clearances are no longer with us, the modern policies shaping marriage are often tax and estate laws, which increase or decrease the tax burden depending on the marriage status that the government approves of. Modern definitions attempt limiting marriage to having a committed relationship with another person, leaving out the whole issue of having children. Marriage takes more than commitment to another person. If the definition of marriage is limited to 'commitment', then there is little difference between marriage and co-habitation or 'shacking up'. With removing child-bearing from the equation, the whole definition changes. To other moderns, marriage is an antiquated idea associated with romantic notions. Each of these contemporary definitions, whether as the cohabitation commitment or that marriage is 'nothing special' has disastrous consequences. Each of these approaches demeans and undermines the institution of marriage. With the weakening of marriage, in contemporary society it is often treated as a relationship where when you are dissatisfied or unhappy, you are entitled to end the relationship. No longer is marriage a life long commitment, but has instead turned into a conditional relationship that ends when one party is no longer happy with the arrangement.

The definition of marriage has also turned into a hot legal debate in the area of health care. Since family members are the only ones who have a legal voice in health care decisions, the significant others who are not married are often shut out. The shutting out often brings hard feelings and resentments. Health care decisions were once limited to spouses and family. In contemporary society such choices are now being made by whoever the lover of the week is rather than someone who has made a life long commitment to the patient under care.

Although the government and church have changed their definition of marriage for many reasons, I have not. My own definition is that marriage is a life-long covenant relationship between one man and one woman with the potential of having offspring. The relationship is one where the man and woman enter it voluntarily. That special relationship is a sacred institution that involves promises to each other and to God. Being a covenant relationship, there are responsibilities that each of them have toward one another and toward their children.

The introduction of non-traditional definitions of marriage as in the United States, has complicated families and relationships. It has also taken the definition of marriage from the church and placed it in the hands of the government. Although historically, the institution of marriage predates government, in contemporary society, governmental entities often attempt restructuring society by making adjustments to the definition of marriage. With the government deciding on what defines marriage, the whole process becomes fiat. Much like the government decides arbitrarily what the value of its money is, when it takes on marriage, the new definition will also be by fiat. Marriage becomes what the government officials say it is and may change depending on what group is in power.

No longer is marriage a life-time covenant, it becomes a business contract between two parties based on what their immediate desires are and what the government decides to allow. The non-traditional marriages have effectively watered down the definition of what marriage is. The unique and special relationship degenerates into a purely business/sex agreement with little consideration of the future.


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    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      Brad Masters 

      3 years ago from Orange County California BSIT BSL JD

      If they found Pluto for the first time today, and made it a planet, it would be the same thing as adding same sex couple to marriage. In both cases, they fail to fill the attributes required of the class.

      Two apples, or two bananas are not the same thing as one apple with one banana.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      Brad Masters 

      3 years ago from Orange County California BSIT BSL JD

      Marriage is not really anymore meaningful for lgbt than is civil union, neither one of them is any kind of solution.

      There isn't even a common denominator in the lgbt group. They are four separate and distinct people, so why are they a group. How does marriage help those couples of any kind that don't want to get married, but still have a relationship that has the federal benefits of marriage?

    • Admiral Murrah profile imageAUTHOR

      Admiral Murrah 

      6 years ago from Texas


      Thank you for your comment. It took me a little bit of time to put things together, otherwise I would have answered your question sooner.

    • Carlon Michelle profile image

      Carlon Michelle 

      6 years ago from USA

      Wow, You really know how to answer a question. Thank you! This was a great deal of helpful information. I finished and turned in my assignment before I got to read this terrific article you wrote. Smile!

    • Admiral Murrah profile imageAUTHOR

      Admiral Murrah 

      6 years ago from Texas


      I am glad that you found it interesting. I found putting the material together intriguing as to how man has changed the definition over the years.

    • pringoooals profile image


      6 years ago from Edinburgh

      Really interesting article and nice summary in your last comment - developing marriage rules to accommodate various man apetites..

    • Admiral Murrah profile imageAUTHOR

      Admiral Murrah 

      6 years ago from Texas


      Much has changed since Eden. Solomon definitely bent the rules to accommodate his voracious sexual appetites. Man has continued twisting marriage to his own definitions whether as individuals or as Governments. Governments have used marriage to shape and mold social policies to fit their whims as well. I have considered doing a hub on how governments have used marriage to accomplish their goals, but I need to do a lot more research before I tackle that one.

      Thank you for your comments.

    • dashingscorpio profile image


      6 years ago

      Very interesting hub. It appears the definition of marriage has changed many times over the years. I still remember reading about King Solomon having 700 wives and 300 concubines in the bible (First Kings 11:1-3) as well as the polygamy rule; (Exodus 21:10) "If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish." Apparently a lot changed after the Garden of Eden days.

      Needless to say each nation creates it's own definition of marriage and we are all entitled to have our own opinions. People will find a way to marry whomever they want to marry.


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