I saw this BBC article, written primarily from an English perspective (maybe for the same audience) about ten critical moments in the history of marriage. There are moments that aren’t addressed, but it’s an interesting summary for the most part. I wonder what you might add.
1. Strategic alliances
For the Anglo-Saxons and Britain’s early tribal groups, marriage was all about relationships – just not in the modern sense. The Anglo-Saxons saw marriage as a strategic tool to establish diplomatic and trade ties, says Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. “You established peaceful relationships, trading relationships, mutual obligations with others by marrying them,” Coontz says.
This all changed with the differentiation of wealth. Parents were no longer content to marry their children off to just “anyone in a neighbouring group”. They wanted to marry them to somebody as least as wealthy and powerful as themselves, Coontz says. “That’s the period when marriage shifts and becomes a centre for intrigue and betrayal.”
During the 11th Century, marriage was about securing an economic or political advantage. The wishes of the married couple – much less their consent – were of little importance. The bride, particularly, was assumed to bow to her father’s wishes and the marriage arrangements made on her behalf.
However, for the Benedictine monk Gratian the consent of the couple mattered more than their family’s approval. Gratian brought consent into the fold of formalised marriage in 1140 with his canon law textbook, Decretum Gratiani.
The Decretum required couples to give their verbal consent and consummate the marriage to forge a marital bond. No longer was a bride or groom’s presence at a ceremony enough to signify their assent.
The book formed the foundation for the Church’s marriage policies in the 12th Century and “set out the rules for marriage and sexuality in a changing social environment”, says historian Joanne Bailey of Oxford Brookes University.
3. The sacrament of marriage
As early as the 12th Century, Roman Catholic theologians and writers referred to marriage as a sacrament, a sacred ceremony tied to experiencing God’s presence. However, it wasn’t until the Council of Trent in 1563 that marriage was officially deemed one of the seven sacraments, says Elizabeth Davies, of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
Following the development of Protestant theology, which did not recognise marriage as a sacrament, the Council felt a need to “clarify” marriage’s place. “There was an underlying assumption that marriage was a sacrament, but it was clearly defined in 1563 because of the need to challenge teaching that suggested it wasn’t,” Davies says.
4. Wedding vows
Marriage vows, as couples recite them today, date back to Thomas Cranmer, the architect of English Protestantism. Cranmer laid out the purpose for marriage and scripted modern wedding vows nearly 500 years ago in his Book of Common Prayer, says the Reverend Duncan Dormor of St John’s College at the University of Cambridge.
Although the book was revised in 1552 and 1662, “the guts of the marriage service are there in 1549,” he says. “All the things that you think of, ‘to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer’, all of that stuff comes from that point.” The marriage service has had “remarkable continuity” compared with most other services, he says.
But much of it was “pilfered from Catholic medieval rites”, such as the Sarum marriage liturgy, which was all in Latin except the actual vows. “What makes the 1549 service significant is that it is the introduction of a Protestant service in English, and it’s basically the words that we all know with a couple of small tweaks,” Dormor says.
Before 1858, divorce was rare. In 1670, Parliament passed an act allowing John Manners, Lord Roos, to divorce his wife, Lady Anne Pierpon. This created a precedent for parliamentary divorces on the grounds of the wife’s adultery, according to the National Archives.
This marked “the start of modern ‘divorce’,” says Rebecca Probert of the University of Warwick School of Law.
It also set the precedent for more than 300 cases between the late 17th and mid-19th Centuries – each requiring an act of Parliament. It was only in 1858 that divorce could be carried out via legal process. Even then divorce was too expensive for most people, and there was the added challenge for wives of proving “aggravated” adultery – that their husbands had been guilty of cruelty, desertion, bigamy, incest, sodomy or bestiality, Probert says.
The gates for divorce opened with the Divorce Reform Act of 1969. Instead of pointing the finger, couples could cite marital breakdown as the reason for the split.
“Prior to 1969, the script was that marriage was for life” says Bren Neale, a University of Leeds sociologist. “The divorce law meant that people trapped in bad marriages need not stay in them forever.” The emphasis on marriage shifted from a long-term commitment at all costs to a personal relationship where individual fulfilment is important, she says.
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