Tuesday, 12 June 2012

History of Marriage

Recently I've been researching marriage through history, mostly because I was trying to find what it would have meant in our era to see if there was anything we could borrow, but the more I've got into it the more interesting it's got and the more I've realised I didn't know. We think we know what a wedding is, but did you know that it's only about 5-600 years ago that what we think of now as a wedding started?

Someone pointed out to me awhile ago that The Bible doesn't actually state what makes a wedding. The link below explains what it was at that time. The contract was between the parents, they threw a big party and then the marriage was consummated.


This one by the same author is real food for thought. Should Christians be making vows? The Bible actually says not to vow so I always wondered how that works with making wedding vows.


By Medieval times marriage was either done in church or privately between the couple or anything in between, there was no set marriage ceremony and all were legal. Couples were encouraged though to marry in church as unscrupulous men would deny they had a private ceremony (this makes me think of the song Paradise by the Dashboard Light) and there'd be no evidence to support their new wife.


My uncle sent me an email, not knowing that I'd been having discussions with some friends about what is a wedding. I had thought about emailing him for his opinion so I think he may have taken up telepathy ;)  so I thought I'd share his answer.

I've done some study on Marriage and how the various regulations developed over the ages. It seems that before the eleventh century when England was born, marriage was simply an arrangement between two families (usually) for various reasons, and occasionally the opinions of the bride and groom were taken into consideration. This is even true in the Scriptures in many cases. Certainly neither the church nor the state had any say in marriage. I guess if you go back to the beginning with Adam and Eve this was also true - because there was no church or state back then. Also in the case of Abram and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob and Rachel; Samson and Delilah; Boaz and Ruth; Moses and Zipporah; Tobias and Sarah and a number of others the selection of the couple had nothing to do with church (or ecclesiastical leaders) or state, it was the couple and their families. In the twelfth century Benedictine monk Gratian who published his fold of formalised marriage in 1140 with a Canon law textbook called 'Decretum Gratiani'. In this he held that consent of bride and groom were important enough to be considered part of the contract of marriage, and their mere presence at the event was not enough to take it that they consented.

In 1563 the Council of Trent decided that Roman Catholics were to accept that marriage is a 'sacrament' showing that this had to be a 'church issue' not just the issue of the couple involved before God and their families. The Church of England under Arch Bishop Thomas Cranmer produced the Protestant 'wedding vows' in 1549, and this is the basis of the marriage ceremony today as described in the Book of Common Prayer. Of course, now that the church controlled marriage, they also controlled divorce as well, but the church tended to take a back seat to this requiring parliament to rule on divorces.

The state got into the business of controlling marriage in 1753 with the act of 'Clandestine Marriage'. This required couples to get married in a church or chapel by a minister, otherwise the union was void according to law. Of course marriages were not considered 'legal' or 'illegal' just a few centuries earlier, since the state had not taken control of the marriage contract those centuries earlier. It also established the reading of banns of marriage before the event. Most couples preparing for marriage already did this, but the act formalised the requirement for this. The state increased it's control in marriage, so control went from the couples themselves, to the families, to the church, to the state.

Eventually the state realised that this was 'much too important' to leave to the church, so the government established the Marriage Act of 1836 allowing for non-religious civil marriages to be held in register offices. This was followed by a central registry of Births Marriages and Deaths throughout England and Wales, which is why the GRO (General Registry Office) of England and Wales has records going back to when this was established in the spring of 1837, and all prior records are held by individual parishes. This meant that non-conformists (non-Protestants who were not Roman Catholics) and Roman Catholics could now marry without having to do so in places overseen by the Church of England, as long as a person registered by the government, the 'Registrar', was present to ensure it was done 'correctly' and everything was in order.

So we see that the marriage event, if history is to be considered, consists of some combination of a) the consent between the couple involved, often given as a promise before God b) the celebration with friends and family, c) the blessings and overseeing of the church and d) the registration with government authorities. It's come a long way since the original idea of it being simply the consent of a couple before God and their celebration with friends and family.

Most couples complete a) at 'engagement', b) at the reception, c) at the consecrated wedding ceremony and d) when signing the official register with the last three usually all on the same day. Many Christians see the church wedding is seen as a mystical event, the making of promises before God in a sacred setting, endowing the relationship with a special "blessed" quality. However, we see that the promises before God need to be made well before the walk to the altar in the church, for if the consent is not already given before God there's really no point walking into the church thinking "Now shall I marry him or not?" or "Shall I really make this decision to spend the rest of my life with her?" That's far too late to be considering these thoughts. It is essential that this is done before the public event in church, and the church event should be a consecration and a public statement of vows that have already been agreed to. Effectively, the promises should have already been made before God before even booking the venue, they are simply repeated at the wedding consecration ceremony.

Anyway, Ann and I have completed a) the engagement last year, d) the legal ceremony in March of this year, and at some point in the future at a date to be announced we will be completing c) the consecration ceremony of our wedding and b) the celebration reception when all friends and family will be welcome.

It's interesting to note that until the Victorian times 'love' and 'companionship' were not a factor in marriage. With more social mobility, there was a growing "distaste" among the middle classes for thinking of marriage as "a family-arranged event for exchanging a daughter into a family for gain". This is according to Jennifer Phegley, author of Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England. Of course they had the fine example of the Love Story of Victoria and Albert, and that was intense, obvious and public. According to Victoria's letters and diaries she was very much in love with her heart throb, Albert.

It's a fascinating topic, I could have posted lots more but I think the links cover most of it. Please come and chat with me about it.

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