A knot tied in many ways

Times Staff Writer

Throughout most of human history, a man married a woman out of desire -- for her father’s goats, perhaps.

Marriage was a business arrangement. The bride was a commodity, her dowry a deal sweetener. And the groom was likely to be an unwitting pawn in an economic alliance between two families.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 09, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Polygamy -- An article in the March 31 Calendar section about the history of marriage said polygamy is still practiced illegally in Israel by some ultra-Orthodox Jews. While there are a very small number of Yemenite polygamists in Israel, they are not part of the tradition in the broader ultra-Orthodox community.

A church may or may not have been involved. Government was out of the loop. There was no paperwork, no possibility of divorce, and -- more often than not -- no romance. But there was work to be done: procreation, the rearing of children and the enforcement of a contract that allowed for the orderly transfer of wealth and the cycle of arranged matrimony to continue.

In the debate over same-sex marriage, each side offers competing ideals that they claim hark back to the historical essence of matrimony.


In calling for a constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriage, President Bush has described contemporary heterosexual marriage as “the most fundamental institution of civilization,” forged during “millennia of human experience.” Thousands of gays and lesbians who have married in defiance of state law in San Francisco and elsewhere maintain they possess what has always mattered most in a relationship: Love.

But marriage, it turns out, has never been that simple. For much of its history, matrimony has been a matter of cold economic calculation, a condition to be endured rather than celebrated. Notions of marriage taken for granted today -- its voluntary nature, the legal equality of partners, even the pursuit of happiness -- required centuries to evolve.

“We live in such a chaotic world, the idea of a relationship that is constant -- not only in our own lives but historically -- is something we want to invest in,” said Hendrik Hartog, a Princeton University history professor who wrote a book on the legal evolution of marriage. “It’s natural to romanticize the history of marriage, and advocates of gay marriage are as invested in this as conservatives are.”

A ‘malleable’ institution

Marriage as Americans know it today didn’t exist 2,000 years ago, or even 200 years ago. Rather than an unbending pillar of society, marriage has been an extraordinarily elastic institution, constantly adapting to religious, political and economic shifts and pliable in the face of sexual revolutions, civil rights movements and changing cultural norms.

“It’s extremely malleable,” said Thomas Laqueur, a history professor at UC Berkeley who has studied marriage and sexuality. “Historically, anthropologically, the word ‘marriage’ needs to be placed in quotation marks.” One reason that marriage seems so unchanging is that it has evolved glacially, inching forward on many paths at once.

In Greek mythology, Zeus created Pandora, the first woman. Then he made her the first bride and gave her as a gift to the Titan Epimetheus. The union ended poorly when Pandora opened the wedding gift she came with, unleashing from the box all of the evils of mankind.

And some newlyweds today complain when they get a toaster.


Like Zeus, Greek fathers considered their daughters property and essentially bartered them for the purpose of cementing an economic or political alliance.

The Romans codified marriage, introducing the idea of consent and setting the minimum age of grooms at 14, brides at 12. There were three types of union, and which one you got depended on your social class. The rich got a confarreatio, which included a big celebration, a special cake, maybe an animal sacrifice. The masses simply shacked up, and after a time they were considered married. A woman in a coemptio was essentially sold to her husband and had the same status as a child.

Arranged marriages remained common in Western societies into the 19th century. It is still the rule in parts of central Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It’s a practice replete with abuse, from female infanticide by parents fearful of having to pay for a marriage someday to “bride burnings” of women whose families provide an insufficient dowry.

The Romans promoted monogamy at a time when polygamy was common throughout the pre-Christian world. The ancient Chinese had their concubines, and from David to Abraham, the Hebrew scriptures read like Utah in the mid-19th century, full of men who had dozens, even hundreds, of wives.


“Now King Solomon loved many foreign women: the daughter of Pharaoh, and Moabite, Ammonite, E’domite, Sido’nian, and Hittite women ... ,” reads 1 Kings 11:1, in the revised standard version of the Bible. “He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart.” Add a pickup, and it’s a country song.

Polygamy more common

In fact, polygamy has been more common than monogamy over the full sweep of human history. The Roman Catholic Church would take up the push for monogamy, and through the centuries it overtook polygamy as the standard worldwide.

But polygamy is stubborn. Though the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed it in 1879, polygamy survives in the shadows of the Mormon West. And, while waning, it is still practiced in the Muslim world and illegally in Israel by some ultra-orthodox Jews, among other places. Polyandry, marriages involving one woman and more than one man, have cropped up among Eskimos and, even today, in Tibet.


Even where there have been clear rules about marriage, there have been more loopholes than there are in the U.S. Tax Code.

King Henry VIII famously broke from Catholicism and started his own church largely so he could divorce and marry again -- and again. European commoners who couldn’t legally divorce sold their wives.

The Muslim tradition of a temporary “pleasure” union, which dates to the days of Muhammad, is still used to legalize sex under Islamic law.

Its Western counterpart: the Vegas quickie wedding, sometimes sanctified at a drive-through chapel or presided over by an Elvis impersonator. Impassioned couples began to flock to Nevada in the 1920s, after California imposed a three-day waiting period in an attempt to keep drunken lovers from the altar.


What constitutes a marriage is so fluid that many anthropologists sidestep the word altogether, preferring “unions” or “alliances,” said Roger Lancaster, a professor of anthropology and cultural studies at George Mason University in Virginia. Other scholars refer to same-sex unions throughout history -- in cultures as varied as ancient Greece, tribal Africa and native North America -- as marriages.

No single, timeless thing

“The strong conclusion that anthropologists have arrived at is that marriage isn’t a single, timeless, unchanging thing,” Lancaster said. “People are inventive and creative about the ways they’ve forged ties to one another.”

If there is a constant in the fluid history of marriage it is that economics has shaped the institution.


Some historians believe marriage evolved during the shift from nomadic cultures to settled agrarian societies. When you’re roaming the desert with your possessions on a camel’s back, property and inheritance rights aren’t as complicated as when land and buildings are involved.

With increasing urbanization, children once seen as economic assets, as a source of labor, became an expense. Women were no longer property.

The social upheavals spawned by industrialization -- transient populations, mass education, the women’s rights movement and the creation of leisure time -- redefined marriage just as the plow once did.

“Inventions like the bicycle, the telephone and the car all played a role,” said Bernard Murstein, a professor emeritus of psychology at Connecticut College who wrote a book on the history of marriage. “These things gave kids a chance to get together on their own.” Shakespeare was, of course, way ahead of the curve when he had Juliet dismiss her parents’ plan for an arranged patriarchal marriage and hook up with a young hottie instead.


I pray you, tell my lord and father, madam,

I will not marry yet; and, when I do, I swear,

It shall be Romeo ...

In the 1500s, this was forward-thinking stuff. But by 1905, the idea that love should be the paramount reason for marriage was mainstream enough for the Ladies’ Home Journal.


“No high-minded girl and no girl with refined feeling,” a woman writer noted, “ever admits the advisability of marriage without love.” Ever so slowly, marriage had become about compatibility, not how many goats the prospective in-laws had. Some believe that the modern institution of marriage didn’t emerge until the early 19th century.

“It’s a 200-year-old story: the slow, haphazard but ultimately triumphal ascension of individual human happiness as the primary reason for marriage,” Hartog said. “It’s a huge change, and unprecedented. Love has always existed. But the idea that love should exist in marriage is a historic novelty.”

Latest debate about gays

Today, in the debate over same-sex marriage, both sides claim history is on their side. Advocates for gay marriage say it’s the natural evolution of an institution that’s no longer tied exclusively to procreation.


“Is there some reason a heterosexual couple without children should have the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage but a lesbian couple with biological children from both mothers should not?” writer Andrew Sullivan, who is gay, said in a 2000 essay.

Opponents say legalizing same-sex marriage would undo all of the progress that has perfected marriage as we know it today: a union between one man and one woman. In their view, placing gay marriage on the same legal and cultural footing as heterosexual marriage would further undermine the nuclear family and would be tantamount to endorsing homosexuality.

“This is a political knife fight,” said Robert A. Destro, a law professor at the Catholic University of America. “Either you keep marriage the same or in the future it won’t be recognizable at all. It will look like a horse that’s been designed by a committee.” Destro and other critics see gay matrimony as the modern incarnation of Pandora’s box, raising the question: What’s next? The re-emergence of polygamy? Three men who want to be declared married to one another?

Supporters of gay unions, however, say the story of marriage isn’t confined to dusty history books. The transformation of matrimony is a contemporary tale as well. Interracial couples, they point out, couldn’t marry in some states until 1967. Also as recently as a few decades ago, couples who couldn’t reproduce might struggle with feelings of pity and shame. Today, it’s not uncommon for couples to regard children as a lifestyle choice rather than an imperative.


Gay couples want all the legal protections enjoyed by heterosexual couples, and nothing short of marriage can do that. Benefits in state laws allowing civil unions, such as California’s, aren’t recognized in other states. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act recognizes only male-female unions for the purpose of all federal laws, including Social Security and the Tax Code. Rules that allow a widow to avoid inheritance tax on her deceased husband’s 401(k) plan, for instance, don’t apply to the surviving partner of a gay union.

In the battle over same-sex marriage, the lessons that history might provide are like everything else: a point of disagreement.

“It’s hard to predict where marriage will go in the future,” said Marilyn Yalom, a senior scholar at Stanford University’s Institute for Research on Women & Gender. “The only thing that I can predict is that there will always be something in us that calls for another to complement ourselves, someone to be a soul-mate and to witness our lives.”