Betrothed Through the Centuries: A Timeline of Marriage

Today, weddings are seen as a ceremony celebrating love. But that wasn't always the case. See more pictures of kisses.
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In 1955, Frank Sinatra recorded the song "Love and Marriage," in which he informed us that the two titular subjects go together like a horse and carriage. By Frank's era, that was true -- humans were on the search for soul mates that would serve as lovers, co-parents and best friends. But for most of human history, marriage wasn’t a very romantic institution. It was more akin to a business deal between men, and the bride in question had very few rights or other options. Love has never been out of the question for our ancestors; they just didn't always believe that such a thing could be found within marital bonds. So how did marriage become associated with love? Let's trace the development of this institution.

The B.C. Years

The marriage prospects of Queen Dido of Carthage were determined by politics.
The marriage prospects of Queen Dido of Carthage were determined by politics.
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In the centuries prior to the first millennium A.D., marriage was a good way to ensure your family's safety. By marrying a daughter off to a fellow from a nearby tribe, you expanded the circle of people who you could rely upon in times of famine or violence. Marriage came to be respected as an institution, so much so that people who didn't marry were penalized outcasts. But marriage wasn't so respected that you couldn't escape its bounds once in awhile; in fact, it was expected that men would have romantic dalliances with mistresses (or even young boys) while maintaining a marriage for purposes of child-rearing. Women were married very young, whereas men tended to be a little older, and almost all marriages were arranged.

6th Century through 17th Century

Engagement rings, once symbols of a successful business negotiation, are considered signs of love today.
Engagement rings, once symbols of a successful business negotiation, are considered signs of love today.
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No Valentines or romantic weekends shared between spouses to be found in this chunk of time. Marriages continued to be arranged affairs, particularly useful for solidifying status, wealth and power. Men of one family would present a potential bride to another family, and then they'd negotiate a dowry, or bride price. When the deal was struck, the men presented the bride-to-be with a ring to celebrate the successful transaction; of course, giving rings to celebrate betrothal has become much more romantic (and expensive) in recent times.

During this time, Christian churches began to take a more active role in the marriage process, a development we'll explore in the next element of our timeline.

12th Century to 13th Century

Today, priests officiate at many weddings, even some in which the bride and groom aren't religious, but a minister wasn't an essential feature until the 13th century.
Today, priests officiate at many weddings, even some in which the bride and groom aren't religious, but a minister wasn't an essential feature until the 13th century.

The union between a man and a woman is described in the sacred texts of most religions. For many centuries, though, the Christian church took a decidedly hands-off approach to marriage. During the 12th and the 13th centuries, however, the church became more involved in performing ceremonies and dictating who could get married. Churches prohibited marriage between in-laws, blood relations and families who were linked by the bond of godparent and godchild. The church would often undertake investigations to assure that these conditions were met. It wasn't until the 12th century that a priest would participate in a marriage ceremony, and it would take another hundred years before the ceremony was actually performed by a priest.

16th Century

Martin Luther helped pave the way for people slightly related to each other to get married, as he rejected the Catholic Church's restrictions on marriage.
Martin Luther helped pave the way for people slightly related to each other to get married, as he rejected the Catholic Church's restrictions on marriage.
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During the Protestant Reformation, men tried to loosen the church's grip on marriage and put the institution in the hands of the government. Protestants also changed the rules about marrying someone with the same blood or marrying someone in your spouse's family. In response, the church dug in its heels and claimed that true marriages required a priest and two witnesses. No matter the religion, however, women were still treated as a piece of property possessed by their husbands; any money in their purse or land their family held was considered to belong to the man.

18th Century and 19th Century

"What's mine is yours" is a common expression between man and wife, but centuries ago, the expression only worked one way, as women gave all of their property to men.
"What's mine is yours" is a common expression between man and wife, but centuries ago, the expression only worked one way, as women gave all of their property to men.
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Slowly but surely, the idea of being in love with the person you married was beginning to take hold, particularly in England and in France. Though marriage still required women to cede their property and their income, they had a greater chance of giving it to a man they actually cared for; it wasn't until 1870 and 1882 that England passed the Married Women's Property Acts, which allowed women to keep money they earned and inherit property. Marriages were still often arranged, but they began to be proceeded by extensive courtships.

1920s to 1950s

In the 1950s, there was a lurking sense that being a housewife wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
In the 1950s, there was a lurking sense that being a housewife wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
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With the rise of the automobile, dating became enormously popular. Cars allowed men and women to consider a wider range of marriage prospects, rather than settling for someone nearby. During the 1950s, married women became particularly obsessed with having the perfect home, a phenomenon referred to as "the cult of domesticity." Television programs of the era showed wives and mothers baking pies, vacuuming the home and putting dinner on the table promptly at 6 p.m. -- all while wearing pearls and high heels.

1960s through Today

The right of same-sex couples to marry is hotly contested.
The right of same-sex couples to marry is hotly contested.
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The rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s brought an end to the cult of domesticity; more women began to work outside the home and the idea that married women were expected to be subservient to their husbands was considered preposterous. For the first time, women didn't feel that they had to get married, and since then, people have been marrying later, if at all. In the United States, the government began to loosen some restrictions about who could get married; the 1967 Supreme Court Case of Loving v. Virginia, for example, eliminated laws prohibiting interracial marriage. However, some restrictions remain: same-sex marriage. Today, many countries are grappling over whether to allow same-sex couples to marry. In some states and countries, civil unions between gay couples are permissible, while some states and countries are allowing these couples to legally marry.

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Sources

  • Coontz, Stephanie. "Marriage: A History." Viking 2005.
  • Lambda Archives. "History of Marriage Timeline." (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.lambdaarchives.us/timelines/marriage/index.htm
  • Magnus Hirschfield Archive for Sexoloy. "History of Marriage in Western Civilization." (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/ATLAS_EN/html/history_of_marriage_in_western.html
  • Offen, Karen. "A Brief History of Marriage: Marriage Laws and Women's Financial Independence." International Museum of Women. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.imow.org/economica/stories/viewStory?storyId=3650
  • U.S. Constitution Online. "Constitutional Topic: Marriage." (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.usconstitution.net/consttop_marr.html