July 25, 2012

What Marriage Is For

I've been working off and on on an essay on the question of "companionate marriage" which some (mostly those who oppose same-sex marriage) assert is a modern invention; i.e., that marriage was always about property and inheritance until the 19th century sometime, or even later. I hope to post the whole thing at some point, but want to flag the topic here because it came up in the comment strand of the previous post.

This false impression that marriage was all about property and money arises in part from recourse to legal history. Naturally legal history focuses on such things as property and inheritance --- but people are people, and have been for millennia; and there is ample evidence that people felt the same sorts of emotional bonds in earlier times, and married for those reasons, apart from whatever legal forms were at issue. The focus of history on the dynastic woes of people such as Henry VIII notwithstanding, even the dynasts had their affections and preferences, even if they were not the most successful in maintaining faithful marriages. I guess we can at least credit Henry with the "one-man six-women" model, in addition to the liaisons that gave rise to a number of Fitzroys.

However, to get back to love as a basis for marriage, in addition to the contrast that Genesis 1 presents with Genesis 2 (the first chapter about progeny, the second about a suitable companion for the whole of life) another touching example of this is the story of Elkanah, who declares that he loves his wife Hannah in spite of her apparent infertility. (1 Samuel 1) It is true he takes a second wife in order to have children (thus compliant with the law’s demand to be fruitful and multiply) — but his love is testimony to that human quality that no law can completely govern or define: the mystery of human love, one for another, not for what can come out of the relationship — whether property, children, or security — but for what goes into it. A good marriage is not a means to extrinsic ends, but a union of two persons who have come to see their end in each other.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Murdoch Matthew said...

Of course, the parties to a relationship have feelings for (or against) one another. Arrangements may have been legal, but the persons still have to live together. You seem to be sliding from the legal part ("civil marriage") to the personal part, which has never depended on a contract.

I understand that the great romances of the middle ages involved adultery -- it was considered declasse to love your legal spouse. Common people got together on the basis of need and feeling; marriage was shaped for the needs of people with property whatever the feelings of the participants. We've always had "unions of two persons who have come to see their end in each other" (neat definition, by the way), they haven't always been called marriage. Even the centurion in Matthew 8 and Luke 7 loved his slave boy. When same-sex people began pairing publicly, it was discovered that celebrities like Noel Coward and Gore Vidal had long-term partnerships. Current developments mean less of a gap between legal and personal -- but the fight is for legal recognition -- and protections.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Murdoch. You may have missed my point, or I may not have expressed it clearly. I'm talking about the people who claim "what's love got to do with it" and that marriage for love is a novel, and late, invention. For example, the claim that romantic marriage is a a 19th century invention (e.g., The Erosion of Marriage: A Pyrrhic Victory? Seana Sugrue Ave Maria University) "By the late 19th Century, public educational systems, administered by a new breed of experts, had already become the norm, which further added to women’s leisure and their need for a new identity. From this era, the “companionate” view of marriage took root. At the heart of this view of marriage is the notion that marriage should serve to fulfill the emotional needs of adults; procreation and children are optional, may be undesirable, and the rearing of children need not belong to parents alone." p. 11; see also her article "Canadian Marriage Policy: A Tragedy for Children" Report No. 1
Published by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada May 31, 2006

This is the kind of assertion that does not bear up terribly well against a careful reading of the historical record.

There is no question that legal aspects of marriage did evolve to deal with such things as property and inheritance rights. My point is that these dynastic concerns coexist with the reality of human affection in many cases. There have always been marriages of convenience, or loveless marriages for money or property. But I do not believe for a moment that these were the norm at any time in the past, any more than I think it to be so now.

Allen said...

In regard to the historical record, I am struck by the fact that the record tells us only about extraordinary folk. Sirach reminds us that "Some there be which have no memorial," but in truth it's mosst, not some. And as you rightly point out, human nature, from the evidence available, hasn't changed much over the millennia.
A second point is that just as medical record tells us more about sick people than healthy people, the legal record tells us about legal problems but nothing at all about things that were not considered problems.
There's also a lot of literary (or dramatic) evidence for the idea that the driving force behind marriage is not property. I think of Fenton and Ann PAge (though Page thinks it is about property,) Figaro and Susanna, and in Meistersinger, David and Lena, and that's just a start. Classic literary references to same sex pairs are generally ambiguous so I'll pass over them -- but they are there.

NB: The preview doesn't look right, but I'll go ahead anyway.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Allen. Excellent points, and just what I was getting at. While there is no doubt that many cultures have marriage customs geared largely towards control of property and so on -- including arranged marriages -- even with those cultures the stories of true love persist. In addition to your list I'd add the Bard's Romeo & Juliet as perhaps the prime example of an anti-dynastic match based on love -- though in the end it brings peace to the warring clans.

At the same time I think a caveat regarding fiction is in order. The courtly love tradition that Murdoch raised may be a literary device or trope rather than a reflection of reality. Part of what makes for the drama of the narrative -- indeed all of it -- in e.g. Tristan and Isolde is the conflict between an arranged marriage and a love affair; but without that there would simply be no story to tell.

IT said...

I think Stephanie Coontz would disagree with you.

I wonder how much of the "marriage for love" you propose was for the lower social orders who didn't have property to worry about. But did they actually marry? I mean in civil terms.

Incidentally, I took the W/V off of my blogs a few months ago. I have only had one piece of spam posted since I did so, which probably came from a real human. So I think the spam fiters are working really well.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Hi IT, I know there is disagreement on this, but the evidence I've seen doesn't match the theory, at least as far as Western Europe goes. It also doesn't match the testimony of the biblical record.

Parish records of marriages go well back into the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and it isn't only the landlords and gentry who show up in them -- though they certainly do!

I'm also sure that there was plenty of cohabitation without benefit of clergy -- but my point is that the couple would have considered themselves married, and under what eventually came to be understood as "common law" were so.

The other thing that is crucial is to look at the texts of the marriage liturgies themselves. Yes, there is reference to "worldly goods" but there is also "love and cherish." (Cranmer's introduction, apparently...)

In short, I think much of the study on this matter is skewed by what sort of evidence is examined. CS Lewis famously made the claim that marriage for love is a novel modern idea; Dom Leclerq wrote a book in response citing the rich tradition of monastic meditation on conjugal love. One might well obsevee that an English bachelor and French monks are not the best witnesses on either side... but I think Dom LeC. makes a good case for there being something in the air, as opposed to in the heir. ;-)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

ps... I'll take your advice about the WV. I've come to hate it elsewhere!

Jon said...

So what makes Christian marriage Christian? I can see a clear and plausible argument for marriage being a complex cultural institution, but is there anything more to marriage in church than serving as a sort of chaplain to our society?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Jon, that's a good question. The traditional answer is that what makes a marriage Christian is the couple; that is, if they are Christians the marriage is a "Christian marriage." It has an ecclesiastical character because the participants are members of the ecclesia; and a particular holiness because it is blessed by and as part of the church. This is a somewhat late development in Christian thinking, though the seeds of the difference between the marriage of Christians and a mixed or pagan marriage are there in 1 Cor 7:12-16. There was no particular "church marriage" for the first several centuries, and it only became a requirement (in the West) in the high middle ages. In one sense, the church is precisely serving as a kind of chaplain to society, and to the couple -- for it is the couple who are the ministers of the rite.

Brother David said...

I think that Christian marriage is as you state Father T, a marriage between two Christians. Accompanied by the fact that is is celebrated often within a Christian community, often in a church building, other times elsewhere. What we might also remember though is that in a handful of nations of the world, the requirements of a civil marriage are also met within the context of a religious marriage ceremony and that the state in those countries accepts the designated minister(s) of those religious ceremonies as also fulfilling the requirements of the officiant of a civil marriage. But sometimes you lot forget (or never realized) that for a majority of humans on the planet, that isn't the case.

All marriage is civil marriage. Period. All marriage is defined by the civil authorities of the state, whether a large and modern nation state or the most basic of clans or tribes living on the land in small, extended family groups. In some countries, civil marriage may legally occur within a religious context. In other countries it may not and any religious significance to the concept of marriage is added to what already exists, after the fact.

Because all marriage is civil marriage, it does great damage to others when religious zealots of whichever brand, wish to impose their personal faith based beliefs about what marriage is for upon the rest of us, as if their's is the only concept of marriage that really counts.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks you Bro David. The civil nature of marriage does need attention -- the fact that marriage is a phenomenon in many pre- and non-=Christian cultures and situations, some religious, is testimony to the fact that imposing a particular religious spin may be appropriate for the adherents of that religion, but not for society as a whole.

Jon said...

Yeah, I don't really like the traditional answer. It sounds like something that made sense in Christendom, but only because Christendom identifies the culture with the faith. As a result the traditional answer seems to suggest that the church has nothing substantive to add to the discussion about marriage, especially when it's not possible to tell the difference between a Christian couple and a "none" couple. Not that there's anything wrong with Christians participating in cultural institutions, it just changes what sort of conversation faces the church.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Jon, to some extent I agree. I've long found the "traditional" teaching that only Christian marriage (i.e., the marriage of two Christians) is a "real" marriage, and indissoluble -- so that a person married to a non-Christian is free to divorce -- to be slightly creepy, as well as not totally consistent with the teaching of Jesus himself. Was he only talking about Christians? Not likely, as the question was asked by the scribes and Pharisees and the answer he gave was to and in a Jewish context and with a Jewish reference that fixed indissolubility as preeminent over the Law of Moses!

So I'm inclined to think that there is no real distinctive reality to "Christian" marriage -- other than its relation to the church, and that the couple are Christians -- but not in a way that denigrates other marriages. If, as the church teaches, marriage is based solely on the consent of the couple, and subsists in them and their relationship, that should be enough. The church is there to witness, bless, and support -- but it does not "make" the marriage.

I think the church has something to add to the discussion when it focuses on the moral virtues of fidelity, constancy, monogamy, and so on -- and it can address these concerns to the Saeculum as well as to itself; just as I think the church has things to say about racism, injustice, and so on -- as a participant in moral discourse.

Deacon Charlie Perrin said...


I think it all boils down to this: People do not like change; and what has changed is the way things have been _since one has been born_; and one usually equates the norm at the time of their birth with what has been the norm since time immemorial.

Hence: any change to the concept of marriage (as it existed when I wass born) becomes a change to what marriage has always been.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Deacon Charlie, you are no doubt correct. And longer life-spans coupled with shorter memories do not help!

Jon said...

I'd still like to see a clearer/stronger connection drawn between marriage and the spiritual life. It seems like it shouldn't even be hard to draw that sort of connection using monastic life as a sort of lens.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Jon, I think the problem is lodged in the reality of marriage as a social / civic / secular institution. For the vast bulk of marriages the "spiritual" element is lacking, or may come as a fortunate after-effect.

For Christians, however, I think the look to the monastic, though it may seem paradoxical at first, is precisely the right way to go. The "liberal" theologians who wrote in defense of SSM in the study asked for by the House of Bishops, published in ATR Winter 2011, took that course, writing of the "ascesis" of marriage -- that is, marriage as a spiritual discipline. I don't know if you've seen those articles, by Good, Jenkins, Kittredge and Rogers. I don't know if they are available on-line.

Erika Baker said...

Can I ask - is every marriage a sacrament or is only Christian marriage? And if it is Christian marriage, what makes it a sacrament that other marriages do not have?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Strictly speaking, Anglican "official" position is not to consider marriage a "sacrament" -- at least not in the same sense as Baptism and Eucharist, as marriage lacks several crucial elements of the definition of a sacrament. Marriage was not given by Christ, nor is there an outward sign committed by him, nor is it entirely clear what grace is conferred. The XXXIX Articles refer to marriage as "an estate allowed" in Scripture. As the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church puts it, "The reluctance of the BCP to entitle it aq Sacrament... arises from the same hesitation of theologians to recognize as such a rite which did not to appear to be manifestly productive of grace.."

For those, such as the RCC, who do regard it as a sacrament, I think it is only such when it takes place between two Christians, since they are the ministers of the rite. As I noted above, the chief point of this is that it renders the marriage indissoluble --- a marriage of a Christian with a non-Christian can be dissolved on the basis of the Pauline privilege, as it is called.

Personally I think this is all quibbling. But I hope it answered your question. ;-)

Erika Baker said...

Thanks Tobias, it does answer the question!