Marriage has been regarded as important – and regulated – across cultures and since earliest times. The Code of Hammurabi, which is nearly 4,000 years old, includes a number of provisions – that a marriage doesn’t exist without a contract, various provisions regarding adultery, others for divorce and the support of children in the event of divorce.
This doesn’t mean weddings were necessarily highly structured events. In pre-agrarian cultures, particularly in less elevated social circles, it was often as simple as one person moving into the household of another, or two people setting up their own household. But social and legal codes managed who could move in with whom, and what happened if they separated again.
Raiding for brides seems to have been a common feature of many cultures, when you look at the myths and legends that have come down to us. Helen of Troy is a famous example. Absconding with Paris was her proclamation of decree nisi. Or consider the Sabine women, who were given no choice about their divorce and remarriage. I once read a poem written in the early years of the Irish church. It was a lament written by a woman who had been raped by a Viking raider, and had killed him with his own dagger while he raped her. She wrote that he made her a wife and she made herself a widow.
A bewildering diversity
Marriage has taken many forms in different times and different places; monogamy is the most common form – and the ideal celebrated in story and song, with polygyny (one man with two or more wives) the second most common, polyandry (one women with two or more husbands) less often found, and plural marriage (with two or more men and two or more women all married to one another) and same sex marriage very rare, but not unknown.
Many cultures have had a ‘lifelong’ requirement; in others, divorce has been as simple as rolling up your bed and leaving the house.
Exclusivity requirements also vary, with some cultures allowing experimentation prior to marriage but exclusivity after, some insisting on chastity before marriage, and exclusivity only until the first child, some requiring evidence that a first child was on the way before a marriage could be considered to exist, many requiring exclusivity for women but not for men (technically impossible to achieve unless all the men are gay), and so on through dozens of variations.
With my body I thee worship
In the cultural history of western Europe and Great Britain, concubinage was a socially sanctioned form of marriage for a long, long time – even into the Christian era when multiple wives were illegal. Before the Christian era, concubines were lesser wives, without the right to take another husband unless they were dismissed, but also without the right to permanence, exclusivity, or a future for their children. After Europe became Christian, all that changed was that they were no longer called wives. The old Sarum rite marriage vows “with my body I thee worship” come from that time; a man choosing a woman to be his legal, recognised wife, would use this form of words, stating before witnesses that he put her on a different level to the other women in his household. “Worship” in early modern English meant “find worthy”. He was saying that he found this woman, out of all others, worthy to be the mother of his heirs.
Setting the standard
For the first 1500 years of its existence, the Catholic Church was not involved in weddings, except as a witness to the marriage vows of the rich and powerful. It was, however, involved in marriages. At first its role was to set standards including some that are being challenged today – that marriage cannot be coerced, that women have a choice about whether or not to marry, that a marriage is between one man and one woman, that a spouse has the right to exclusivity and having sex with someone other than your spouse is a theft and a betrayal, that marriage is for life. But on the whole, they were not involved in weddings. To be married, all that was required was for the couple to each say the words: I take you as my wife; or I take you as my husband. (Not ‘I will take you…’ – that would be a betrothal, not a marriage.) While people often did this as part of a community celebration (with all kinds of ceremonies), and also often sought a priest’s blessing on the new union, a couple could exchange vows in private, and many did.
Lies, damned lies, and marriage
After Europe was Christianised, the Church also heard legal cases regarding marriage; the Church set the standards, and it had the people who could read and write. They heard cases regarding adultery, bigamy, breach of promise – and they heard cases where one party to an apparent marriage disputed that it had ever taken place.
In the course of researching an academic paper a few years ago (on the role of legitimacy and male primogeniture in the development of Western culture, if anyone cares), I read summaries of a number of cases from those early records. Over several hundred years, a steady stream of cases about whether or not a marriage existed came before the Church courts. She found out that he stunk as a provider, and she had a better offer, so claimed that they’d never been married in the first place. He – desperate to keep either her and the children or the field and cow that went with them – said of course they’d been married, and all the neighbours knew them as married. She said, of course they pretended, for propriety’s sake, but there never was a marriage vow – and on and on. Or – more commonly – he seduced the innocent maid with a vow given in secret, then denied it after he’d had his wicked way. Or was she a trollop who slept with him and tried to trap him after? Who but the couple knew the truth.
Keeping people honest
So, the Church began to register marriages at the time the vows were made, and insisted that the vows be made in front of two witnesses. By the 16th Century, in some places (given how willing some friends and family members were to perjure themselves), the local bishops had added the local priest to the list of required witnesses, and at the Council of Trent, this was made a requirement for the whole Church.
The Church was into the weddings game.