What is Marriage?

by JoHarrington

We all think that we know what marriage is, but that's rooted in the norms of our own society. The reality may be somewhat surprising.

In reality, a marriage is whatever we deem it to be. For some, that may be decades of fond companionship. For others, it's a violent, living Hell. But that's the actuality of marriage, not its origin.

This article is mostly concerned with the latter. Where did marriage come from? What does that word really mean? And who then can properly be said to be married?

And if we're being strict about it, then no-one can be said to be married into old age. That's not in the nature of the institution.

A History of the Wife

The Etymology of Marriage

The French gave us the notion of such a commitment. But they'd borrowed it from the Romans who once occupied Gaul.

Marriage is not really that old.  As a word applied to a specific union, it's only been around since about 1250 BCE.  In terms of the whole of human history, that's practically a blink of the eye. 

In keeping with the reputation of the French for love and romance, it's quite fitting that the English word came from the Old French marier.   This in turn came from the Latin term marītāre

These words are usually translated as 'to marry', which is quite circular thinking, once you ponder it. 

That's like saying that I was called Joanne Marie because my auntie is Joan Mary.  And she was called Joan Mary, because I was called Joanne Marie.   No.  I wasn't even born then.  She's nearly twenty years older than me.

Marriage, in the Medieval sense, meant the union of one man and one woman in a church.  Anyone who was not Christian could not get married.  At a stroke, it wiped out all of the unions outside of Christendom.  But even those whose unions counted didn't marry necessarily for love.  This was all still a strictly legal concept.

We still talk of the 'marriage contract' and we still refer to it as 'matrimony'.  These two words should give us a clue as to what was going on here.

Books on the History of Marriage

This whole 'marrying for love' malarkey is not only very recent, but would have been met with shock and ridicule by our ancestors.

Marito and Matrimony

That pesky word 'marītāre' keeps getting in the way of all the love and romance!

When a baby is born, we all know who the mother is.  She was the one previously heavily pregnant and recently screaming in child labor.  All good.

But what about the father?   With modern testing, that can be established too.  It just takes a swab of DNA placed into a test tube and all is matched up.  Unfortunately, they didn't have that in Medieval France.  They had to rely upon the conduct and word of the mother.

"Your father's your father because your mother says so," says the old wry observation. 

The etymology of marriage ultimately lies in that Latin word marītāre.  As a verb, it would be marito, which means 'to impregnate'.  It also means 'to graft on', but usually only when we're talking about plants.

Meanwhile matrimony comes from the same root as matriarchal. Both come from the word matrem, or mother, but matrimony has that suffix monium.  That denotes some kind of action, like Pandemonium - running around as wild and chaotic as the God Pan.  Matremonium, or matrimony, therefore means the state of being a mother, or giving birth.

The very foundations of marriage lie in that child bed.  It's stating that he is the one who impregnated her; and she is the one giving birth.  They are married. 

But how can we be absolutely certain of this?   After all, there's no actual proof that he impregnated his wife.  It could have been the milkman.

This is where the legalities come into it.  The marriage contract was all about exclusivity in sex.  The wife agreed to only create babies with her husband.  Legally, and in a Church, in the eyes of the Almighty and all of her family and friends, she stated that she would sleep with no other man.

Thus her husband could count on the children being his own.  He performed 'marito' which led to her 'matrimony'.  It fulfilled the marriage contract and rendered the children 'legitimate', i.e. within the legal bounds of said contract.

Signing the Marriage Contract or Register

Signing the Register
In this article, fellow Wizzley author Wisefool described how Jewish wedding traditions even have 'alone time' for the bride and groom straight after the ceremony!
All wedding ceremonies are steeped in tradition, but those traditions differ from one culture to the next.

Bride Price: How Much Did You Pay for your Wife?

If you are going to engage the services, then you have to be prepared to enter fiscally into the marriage contract.

Sexual exclusivity was regarded as a commodity.  As such, it commanded a price, which could be haggled over in the marriage negotiations.

Today, there is still a tradition in Western society for the groom to ask his prospective bride's father for her hand in marriage.  During the wedding ceremony, the father 'gives the bride away'. 

Gold is symbolically exchanged in the form of wedding rings.  There is an expectation that the bride's father will also pay for the costs of the service and reception.

These norms contain the remnants of what was once a firmly financial transaction.  The two men meet, not to bless a marriage in words, but to discuss hard cash.

For sale!   One daughter with her virginity intact!  This will be proved on the night of the wedding, when sex causes the bride's hymen to break for the first time.  A few spots of blood will be the visible result.

The bride's father will ensure that his daughter is at the altar, ready to swear an oath before God (a situation of great power in Medieval times).  Those vows maintain sexual exclusivity during the marriage itself. 

All of this is why marriages aren't seen to be legal until they've been consummated.  The words in the church are pretty much a promise to enter into this contract.  The sexual act itself was the contract.  That was the moment when the groom committed 'marito', thus taking possession of what he'd paid for.

And the payment?  That's largely out of fashion these days in the West.  It was the bride price.  As a wife, she would owe her loyalty and allegiance to her husband, not to her father.  In many ways, and at its most crude, the bride price was compensation for the loss of her labor and loyalty within her birth family unit.

It was also the groom displaying his own wealth to the father. He was called the suitor.  That comes from Old French again.  It meant 'follower or attendant', but within a very specific sense.  We'd think of it more as someone who looks after a baggage train now.  Suitors provided suits.  Think three piece suite - furniture; suit - clothing; penthouse suite - posh living quarters; or en suite - adjoining rooms.

The prospective groom would 'press his suit'.  Today, as back then this means to ask for a marriage.  But back then, he really did need to have a lovely suitcase full of goodies.  This was the bride price that he was going to give away to her father.

If he could afford that much to marry her, then he could keep her and her children comfortably too.  If the bride price wasn't big enough, then the father was within his rights to turn the man down in favor of a wealthier one.

Bride price may have largely gone away in the West, but the traces remain.  There's still a vague expectation, fading now in post-Feminist society, that the husband will be the bread-winner.  He has to pay maintenance after a divorce and for his children. 

There's also the high cost of an engagement ring.  It's usually the woman who wears it.  It's traditionally the most expensive item of jewelry she will ever possess.  It's the modern day equivalent of the bride price being paid.

Upon receipt, she has entered into a betrothal - a pledge to enter the contract.  In short, her services have been engaged and payment made.

Exodus 22:16-17

If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.

Deuteronomy 22:28–29

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl's father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.

An-Nisa, Verse 4

Just for completion sake! NB In Islam, it was the bride who received the bride price, not her father.

And give to the brides their Mahr [bride price] with a good heart; but if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it and enjoy it without fear of any harm (as Allah has made it lawful).

Dowry: Father Pays to Protect his Daughter

Endowing your daughter would offer some protection in this marriage; and if her husband died, then she could live as a dowager.

So far it's all been so very mercenary.  It's been a far cry from the romantic ideal usually associated with modern day marriages. 

But the daughter was still flesh and blood.  Her father acknowledged that with his dowry.

Not all marriage unions are full of love-hearts, devotion and a sweet ride through life.  Setting up a home is expensive.  Adding children even more so. 

Many marriages begin in a state of financial difficulty; particularly if the groom has just given away most of his wealth in a bride price.  The bride's father tacitly acknowledged this, when he bestowed a dowry upon his daughter, at the time of marriage.

Today this is echoed in the vague assumption that the bride's family will pay for the wedding and reception.  Again this is fading out of vogue.

Back in Medieval times, when the whole concept of marriage was fixed in such a legal framework, the dowry was quite substantial.  At the very least, it matched the bride price, so that the new family unit would not suffer from the loss of those assets.

But it came with strings.  In practical terms, those strings were a father's last legal protection of his daughter.  All that she owned or earned during the marriage technically belonged to her husband, except the dowry.  That was ring-fenced.

If he died, then his eldest son would inherit all, except the dowry.  The widowed bride would become a dowager, or someone living on her dowry.  It had been endowed to her by her father and so had nothing to do with her husband and children.  It belonged to her.

In some marriage contracts, the endowment went even further.  It stated that if the bride died shortly after the wedding, then the dowry had to return to her family.  It was a layer of protection against her new family ill-treating her to the point of death.

It stopped unscrupulous suitors marrying wealthy heiresses for their dowry, only to kill them afterwards.  It was the best that a father could do to save his daughter, because all other rights transferred to her husband.  She was no longer a daughter but a wife, once the marriage had been consummated.

Books about Bride Price and Dowries

This was just as common in Western society until recent modern times. It still exists elsewhere in the world.

So What is a Marriage?

It's a legal contract wherein children are rendered legitimate. It's the state of legally having children.

Marriage in the Medieval sense is all about having children.  It's the state in which a woman may legally give birth.

It invoked the laws of the land, in the exchange of bride price and dowries, as well as a betrothal.  That engagement was viewed as legally binding in a court of law.  Compensation could be paid for breaking it.

It also invoked Church law.  The vows were spoken before God, therefore they became spiritually binding too.  It was only after these protections were put in place, that the groom dared take all that he'd paid for. 

He took his marital rights, or conjugal rights, as they are still referred to.   His right because she had entered into that marriage contract to do so.   The groom had paid for exclusivity in sex and children that were his own blood heirs.  The bride had been contracted to enter into matrimony for him.

It's all quite creepy, when viewed with modern eyes, isn't it?

Who Can't be Married?

Let's take this right down to the letter of the law. It's everyone who can't impregnate or give birth.
  • Prepubescent children.
  • Women during or after the menopause.
  • Men who can't impregnate women.
  • Barren women.
  • Gay couples.
  • The elderly.

If a couple remains childless, then they cannot be said to be married.  If a couple have grown children, but have stopped having more babies, they cannot be said to be married.  Marriage is solely and only related to the legal boundaries wherein child labor is occurring.

Of course, that doesn't take into account social norms.  That's a whole different ball-game and much more modern than all that we've discussed so far.   That changes with the age, side-steps childbirth and religion, and reflects all that's acceptable (or not) within society at the time.

It's social norms which allow people to remain married into old age; which doesn't demand that childless couples divorce; and which allows gay marriage.  And we're all happier for it.

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Updated: 03/22/2013, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 03/30/2013

I hope that you enjoy it.

Guest on 03/30/2013

Marriage is a gift. Thanks for such interesting article. I have not much time to see it. May be some other time.

JoHarrington on 03/10/2013

Thank you for reading it. Begating is what it's all about!

kate on 03/10/2013

thanks i love this article. It gives me insight into the bible without the tiresome task of having to plough through it. I read Genesis, the gospels and Revelations once and that was quite enough 'begating' for me

JoHarrington on 03/08/2013

Thank you very much.

MonisMas on 03/07/2013

Great idea for article, and so well written. Fantastic info.

JoHarrington on 03/07/2013

Yes, the prologue is about him drinking in an Irish pub in Bucharest on St Patrick's Day. He ends it with the fact that he's going to spend the next in Ireland. Then the travel book begins.

It's an hilarious book. I really do recommend it. I just wish I knew the name of the pub!

Edit: Oh no! I've found the opening pages on-line. It was Budapest, not Bucharest. :( I'm so sorry!

Mira on 03/07/2013

We have many Irish pubs in Bucharest now but none called McCarthy's or Pete's Bar. I googled it and there's a McCarthy's Irish Pub in Toronto, though. But I see the book is a travel book about Ireland. Are you sure it starts in Bucharest? :)

JoHarrington on 03/07/2013

I know precisely the pub! The book McCarthy's Bar begins in Bucharest! http://www.amazon.co.uk/McCarthys-Bar... He spends St Patrick's Day in it. It'll be called McCarthy Bar or Pete's Bar or something of that ilk.

Unfortunately I don't still have the book to check for you. It was so good! I sent it to my friend in Meath though. :(

Mira on 03/07/2013

Thanks, Jo! I think you have inspired and are inspiring lots of people! Case in point: I'm going to an Irish pub for St. Patrick's Day :D. Went to Irish pubs here in Bucharest in the past but never for St. Patrick's. You wrote one seriously inspiring article on the topic so now I'm looking to buy a seriously green shirt and scarf :>

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