16 February 2011

Why Marriage?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in
possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Though Jane was looking sideways at the mores of the Regency, the quotation is unusually prescient. Ask why the man has a fortune and why he wants a wife. (Yes, I’m only thinking of heteronormative values here, biased towards the UK.)
The idea of ‘fortune’ goes back to the start of settled agriculture in the fertile crescent, to the area around Babylon. Before this, people lived in groups, moving from place to place as a small community, sharing food and partners, and parents. If you don’t have a fortune, in a wandering community, you don’t need what we would think of as a legitimate heir, and you don’t need marriage. Nor do you necessarily need monogamy: group responsibility for the rearing of children (and even their origination) seems to have been ubiquitous. The development of early forms of wheat meant that you had to stay in the same place permanently, to tend the crop. Settlement meant land, fields, farmers and specialisation, merchants and craftsmen from any of which occupations the man (and it was generally the man) obtained his ‘fortune’. And having made this fortune, he didn’t want it to disappear on his death; he needed not only an heir, but a legitimate (male) heir, one against whom there could be no argument. He needed a form of legality for this, to recognise his marriage, his heir and his will or testament. If you think I'm too male-centric, the wife got a provider for the children whom the husband wanted to think were his.
As an aside, think of King Henry VIII and his need for a legitimate male heir; his first two wives did not perform their ‘duty’. Henry needed an heir — or even, in today’s argot, ‘an heir and a spare’. Henry, unaware that the Wars of the Roses had ended, went to great lengths to get his heir: one annulment, one execution and a break with the Church of Rome. (Henry did have a natural male child, the Duke of Richmond, at this time; ‘natural’ is a curious description for a bastard.) The idea of a Queen regnant was an anathema then; how could a mere, semi-schooled female be expected to wield power, to play secular and religious powers off against one another? Semi-schooled, because a woman was expected to be an adornment, to provide the heirs, to know her place; so why waste time and expense on an education for her?
It’s reasonable to assume that the development of law and religion were coeval and inter-dependent. Marriage in the western world draws on ancient greek and roman roots, as modified by christianity — a syncretism. The Christian form of marriage includes obligations and prohibitions; and significant sexual modifiers. Not all of these have been relaxed: the Roman Catholic Church still officially regards sexual intercourse as being only for procreation or reproduction. The idea of sex for recreation or relationship building and maintaining doesn’t exist in the Church’s view. (The ‘primitive’ concept that lots of different sperm add goodness to fertilisation doesn’t exist either.) You could argue therefore that, following the menopause, women should not have intercourse.
Beside the need for an heir, there are other reasons for marriage; romantic love, pregnancy, a large dowry, to gain the right of residence for the partner and to gain allegiances, for example. The right of residence reason is fairly recent, and there have been cases before the Courts concerning this. A chum of my daughter’s is getting married shortly for this precise reason. There might be other reasons, of course.
The fairly recent stigma of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy has all but disappeared today. It’s not all that long ago that it was only when the woman was pregnant that the marriage could be officially confirmed; and if she wasn’t pregnant after a year, it was as if the ‘marriage’ had not happened.
I’m going to ignore dowries and military allegiances, and concentrate on ‘romantic love’. The rituals of romantic love are often called ‘courtship’, the word deriving, like courteous and many others, from ‘Court’, the Court of the sovereign, and the behaviour expected there. There are echos of ‘the chase’ as well, it being accepted that the man had to chase the woman, who had to put up some form of resistance; the woman on a pedestal, as a Madonna. Yet it also seems that the woman was just as likely to be a ‘whore’ with normal carnal desires, or lust. At a given stage in the relationship, be it the first kiss or an ‘engagement’ the woman signalled her readiness for sexual intercourse. Fornication was unremarkable, healthy, though adultery — or as the lawyers would have said then ‘criminal conversation’ — could be perilous.
The dead hand of reformed religion didn’t like fornication any more that the Church of Rome did; Rabbie Burns was harangued from the pulpit, for instance, and an expressed view that marriage was for sex, and sex was for marriage developed. Expressed as in the sense of do as I say, not what I do. This paradigm existed up to the mid twentieth-century, almost unchallenged. Of course, there was still plenty of fornication and adultery, but while this was pretty common knowledge, it wasn’t proper to speak it out loud, a culture of silence and hypocrisy. This was combined with a (deliberate?) lack of education and information, other than to promote the fear of syphilis.
It’s really a cliché now to talk of the ‘pill’ and the sexual revolution, and the emergence of female carnal desire. Lust was always there, even if people didn’t like the word, but it had been mercilessly repressed; so many just didn’t know they had it — it may have needed an ‘awakening’.
Marriage is an artificial construct — something made by the hand of man. In the set of marriage today in the western world there are concepts of ‘soulmate’ and ‘commitment’ and ‘monogamy’. The idea of monogamy, or in it’s most recent revival as ‘serial monogamy’ is, in evolutionary terms, quite nebulous. Humans are not programmed for monogamy, serial or otherwise. It’s the social norms and expectations that keep it so. The commitment is towards financial stability and the rearing of children. Soulmates are partners with whom we can easily relate, communicate. If it’s lust (Eros) that initially attracts people, this tends to fade after a couple of years; enter, if you are lucky, Philia and Agape, roughly friendship, benevolence, selflessness to restore it.
Marriage is still popular, though the divorce rates suggest that many ‘fail’; perhaps because it’s much easier to divorce now than it once was — honesty over the pretence and hypocrisy that once prevailed. Marriages fail, people change and leave, rather than remaining in a false, sterile limbo.
I wonder, what is there going for marriage today?

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