Three Weddings and a Funeral

Three Weddings and a Funeral by • February 26, 2010 • Printer-friendly

For several decades “conservatives” have debated ways of strengthening marriage in the United States.  The standard line has been to call for the repeal of no-fault divorce laws or to put sharper legal teeth into the marriage contract arranged by the state.  As with every other major issue confronting us today, a lack of understanding about reality—in this case, the institution of marriage—makes it impossible to consider the most useful political options.  In the interest of  clarity and simplicity, I am going to be extremely brief, boiling down three chapters in a book I cannot seem to finish.

There may be a nearly infinite variety in marriage types that have developed in human history, but in essence they boil down to either the predominant type—a monogamous union of one man with one woman (which does not preclude a husband’s dalliances)—and polygeny, that is one husband with several wives.  Polyandry is a freakish custom that is the sign of a dying social order.  It is a symptom of disease (like lesions on the mouth and face) and not an institution.  One other distinction should be noted and that is between societies in which property is passed through the father’s  line (patrilineal) and those in which sons inherit from their mother’s male relatives—her brothers, especially—(known as matrilineal).

There may also be, for all I know, an infinite variety in the way in which marriage is regarded, but in our own traditions, there are three major approaches: The ancient pagan and Jewish view, the Christian view, and the post-Christian modern view.  To keep this quite simple, I am going to summarize very briefly.  Anyone who wants details or facts simply has to ask for them, at the risk of being bored by the answers.


For Greeks and Romans and Jews in historical times, marriage was in essence an arrangement between two sets of kinfolks for the preservation of one or another or both bloodlines and for the transmission of property from one generation to the next.  Consent of the bride and groom may be important in some cultures at some times, but it is not  the essence of marriage, which is, after all, a merging of two collectivities.  The couple is just a link in a chain, and their feelings and opinions, while of some importance to the success of the marriage, are not the first consideration, though young men have usually had considerable say in the selection of brides, even when it is not a legal “right.”

Pagan marriages were neither religious (though at Rome, where  there were rites connected to every phase of life, including scrubbing the kitchen floor, there were religious customs associated with marriage, some of which we have inherited) nor affairs of state.  In Athens, for example, the only role of the polis (the commonwealth whose center was the city and its acropolis or high city) was to provide a legal arena in which disgruntled relatives could sue for property from heirs whom they accused of not being legitimate, either because the marriage was not properly conducted or because of other impediments (e.g., after Pericles’ law both parents were supposed to be citizens).  Custom regulated everything, including the custom which said that when a family failed to produce a male heir, the daughter—if there was one—had to be given to the next possible male relative on the father’s side, to preserve both the family line and its property.  This rule shows very clearly their conception of marriage, as a means of passing property to the family’s next generation.  The Athenians were, however, a practical people, and a married Athenian woman in such a situation  could simply buy her freedom by paying off the uncle or cousin in question with some of the estate.

Although there were no known legal impediments to divorce in classical Athens, the best analysis suggests it was virtually non-existent.  This was not for any spiritual reason but because of the dangers a divorce presented to family unity and to legal actions that might damage either party.  A wife’s chastity was closely guarded, though a husband was free to do what he liked–so long as he did not waste family resources on flute girls or come to the attention of a wife who knew how to make his life miserable.  Remember the premise of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata: that wives could force their husbands to make peace by withholding sexual favors. What would be the joke if the average husband were a bisexual philanderer?

The details of Roman marriage rules vary, but the overall pattern is the same:  a merger of bloodlines for the transmission of  the family’s identity and property.  By the later republic, divorce in the upper classes became not uncommon, but the question almost always turned on the disposition of the wife’s dowery and other property arrangements.  In early times, a wife passed from her father’s control to her husband’s though later she remained to some extent her father’s daughter.  The evidence of wills, poems, philosophers and inscriptions indicates that a Roman man expected to love his wife and be loved in return.  This understanding, was, if anything strengthened in the age of Augustus (not himself a perfect husband) and in the reigns of successors like Vespasian and the Antonines.

In classical Athens and republican Rome, a husband who caught his wife and her lover could kill them—at Rome he had to kill both, but this was to prevent entrapment and blackmail.  At Rome, f the woman were in her father’s control and the adultery took place in his house, he might exercise the same power. Augustus severely restricted this right but it gradually crept back into Roman law in the later empire as the mitigating circumstance known as iustus dolor.

To save time, I will not cite the Germanic parallels of Visigoths, Franks, Lombards, and Anglo-Saxons, except to say that they more or less restored the early Greco-Roman understanding of marriage.  Property arrangements are the aspect of marriage  most discussed in Germanic legal codes, as well as penalties for violation of  status, e.g. a free woman marrying an unfree man.  The Germans, even when Christianized, permitted women little or no say, and some girls were wedded at the age of five.


Little needs to be said about Christian marriage, which ought to be familiar to our readers from earlier discussions.  Marriage was  not only a monogamous union of two consenting persons but produced a merging of persons described repeatedly by the metaphor of “one flesh.”  Divorce was either not permitted or permitted only on grounds of incest or adultery or desertion, and there was a serious question, even in these cases, about remarriage.  By the Christian Age, there were exceptions, especially in the case of royalty and nobility, but the Christian ideal was gradually enforced even against such notorious sinners as King Robert of France, who was accused of putting away his wife in order to solemnize an incestuous union with a well-connected mistress.  Robert’s second marriage was approved by his bishops but not by the Pope.  It was an age of reform.

The pagan understanding of marriage did not disappear, far from it.  The old concerns for the survival of the family and the transmission of property were always at or near the center of marital arrangements.  One was not supposed to coerce a daughter into marriage—though that was done.  Marriage by abduction came to be condemned, but it was tolerated and even encouraged by Merovingian kings.  The abductor in some codes has to pay a fine as well as paying for the purchase of her mundium, that is, the control over his daughter a father surrenders at marriage.  The problem was not such Christian but the fact that an abducted girl was married against her parents’ wishes.

Consent came to be increasingly important, at least in principle, thought forced marriages persist.  But even in the absence of total coercion, she  could be humiliated, put on bread and water, locked in her room, or sent to a convent.  I am stating the extreme, since we know that in reality decent parents are generally interested in their children’s happiness and while they might deride romantic love as the basis of marriage, they will not necessarily override their children’s wishes–though this seems to become more common during the Renaissance, hence the lowering of the age of marriage for girls.

Christian marriage was not originally a church ceremony.  It was merely a pre-Christian marriage arrangement with a Christian understanding.  As time went on, the couple was supposed to be married at the church door or later to have banns declared—to prevent clandestine marriages, for example—but these customs varied.  In Tuscany, most weddings took place at home, though in the presence of witnesses, until the Council of Trent laid down universal rules.

One serious point of conflict between the Christian and pre-Christian points of view lay in the notion of consent and the way in which a clandestine marriage was treated.  There was debate, naturally, within the Church, but generally speaking the Church tended to uphold runaway marriages, even while permitting fines to be imposed on the husband.  This was partly because consent plus consummation constituted a marriage but also because cynical young men sometimes tricked girls into running away only to say, after the fun is over, “I’m sorry, my father refuses his permission.”

The Church, generally speaking, was the ultimate arbiter in disputes over marriage and divorce, and this remained the case in England down to—I think I have the date right—1847. Martin Luther, however,  took the position that this weakened paternal authority and the family, which is why Lutherans and most other Protestants transferred the power of regulating marriage from church to state.  As bad an idea as this seems with the benefit of hindsight, one has to remember his intention was to strengthen the family and also that the “state” was a small-scale duchy or city-state, and not Leviathan.


This is the marriage we have now.  They have taken the idea of consent of persons and turned it into an abstract theory of human rights.  Except in the case of minors, the respective parents may grumble all they like but cannot prevent a marriage.   Marriage is a contract between individuals issued by the state, with an opt-out clause on virtually any grounds.  Family, property, the welfare of the children—none of this matters, if one or another spoiled brat decides he or she has had enough.  It is like the old Jewish system in which a man could repudiate his wife and take another simply because he did not like his wife’s cooking or because he found another woman more attractive.

Conservatives think the divorce revolution has taken place since the 1960’s.  They are extremely naive.  At the end of the 19th century, Lord Bryce was lamenting the proliferation of American divorce since 1867 (the triumphant secularist North forced its own divorce revolution on the South through Reconstruction) and the absurdity of the grounds.  Some women did not like their husbands’ jobs; others—and this is frequent—complained that they were tired of hearing Scriptures quoted on the obedience of women.  Divorce was granted on such cases on the grounds of mental cruelty.  No-fault divorce is only an extension of the common American practice of the 1870’s.

But, in fact, it was the American Revolution that cut the USA off from England’s very strict divorce laws and introduced an increasingly casual approach to wedding and divorce, both in New England and on the frontier.  The famous contre-temps in Jackson’s first administration over Peggy Eaton was really about the President’s beloved Rachel who had not initially taken the trouble to divorce her first husband.  Calhoun’s wife, who led the opposition to Mrs. Eaton, came from the state with the toughest divorce law.  It was overturned by the Reconstruction government, reinstated by the redeemers, and only modified after WWII, though it was still the strictest law left in the US.

So, liberal rational individualism has replaced both pagan and Christian marriage with a contract of mutual convenience without any regard for either children, who are manifestly harmed by divorce, or the wider society which is stuck with the burden of taking care of abandoned wives and kids and more seriously with the consequences to the children:  high rates of alcoholism and drug use, depression and suicide, births out of wedlock, and criminality.

I’ll postpone conclusions until we have been able to discuss these three models at greater length, but I do wish to point out that liberalsim/libertarianism cannot offer any solution to a problem it has caused, and what is true of marriage is true of every other good human institution now in decay.  Liberalism is a trap  both for conservatives trying to find solutions and for the entire society.  It is the flip-side of the Marxist coin.  Human beings, whether pre-Christian or Christian, do not live as free rational individualists, but as members of families, kindreds, and communities.  As Hume said so well, “Man born into a family is compelled to sustain society.”

In accepting one aspect of Christian marriage–consent–and then kicking out God and His laws–liberals/libertarians revolutionized and destroyed marriage, as they have destroyed social life in general.  The inevitable response came from Marxists who want to nationalize and socialize family responsibilities.  In looking for ways to liberate family and marriage from the socialist state, however, the last thing we need to be doing is to invoke liberal ideas. Liberalism dug the grave of Christian marriage, but it is high time conservatives arrange a funeral for liberalism in all its forms.

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