The ancient institution of marriage is proving to be a major issue of contention at the moment, with various accusations that it is under threat, that ancient traditions may be overturned and that the skies will bleed blood (maybe).

However, if you are to overturn an ancient tradition, it helps to know just how ancient the tradition is.

It certainly seems that marriage between man and woman would seem to have roots reaching far back into antiquity, but in fact, marriage as we know it today is a comparatively modern idea.

For the ancient Greeks, marriage didn’t even have any formal structure and for the Romans, there were several forms of marriage, all defined by the woman’s financial situation.

As Christianity grew, marriage retained most of its Greek heritage and the Church didn’t interfere in it at all. It wasn’t really until the 12th century that the Church started to regulate marriage, but more as a legal process than as a religious one.

It was in fact not until the 15th Century that the Church laid down formal rules about how a marriage was to be consummated in legal form – and curiously it was still not a religious ceremony. When a couple married, by mutual declaration in front of witnesses, they didn’t need a priest, or even to have to take place in a church.

A century later, the Council of Trent finally decided to extend its authority over marriage and in 1563 declared that the wedding declaration would need to be carried out in front of a priest.

However, this was taking place in the confusions of the Reformation, and the attempts by the Catholic Church to extend its reach at a time when its authority was under threat should be looked at in that light. Their motives seem less to do with religion than in cementing political power.

In fact, the Reformation’s leading proponent, Martin Luther was strongly of the opinion that marriage was a secular issue and religion had nothing to do with it. He famously declared it a “worldly thing”. And we are after all, officially a Protestant nation.

So it would seem that in the UK at least, marriage is by heritage, a secular issue which happened to make use of the Church for processing the paperwork, probably due to the lack of secular authorities at the time. The main authority that people could have turned to would have been the tax collector – but would you want to get married there? Put simply, the Church was rather good at administration, and marriage was an administrative matter.

It was not until the Marriage Act of 1753 was passed that secular law formally required an Anglican priest to officiate at a marriage, and that law was passed to curtail the so-called Fleet Marriages, which were unofficial marriages and were causing a bit of a scandal.

Again, it was the use of the Church as administration that drove the law, not religion.

Lastly, it was in 1836 that marriages could once again be enacted outside of a Church – in order to expand the franchise to those who could or would not get married in an Anglican chapel.

It is worth noting that throughout this process of history, the use of the Church to administrate marriage was never because of religion, but because of administration. Marriage as processed by the Church can really be said to be only around 500 years old, and of that period, it was only mandatory to be carried out in a church for less than 90 years.

Understandably, marriages carried out by priests or within Churches then adopted religious ceremonial aspects, but that was more of a by-product of the secular law using churches to process the paperwork.

So, we come to the contentious issue of modern day politics – gay marriage.

Would changing marriage cause a fundamental shift in an ancient tradition? As we have seen, marriage is actually not an ancient tradition, and even since modern marriage started developing some 500 years ago, it has been under constant change and flux as both Church and State adapted to changing circumstances.

Unquestioningly, throughout that period of time, marriage has been between man and woman – but that is probably more due to ongoing prescriptions against homosexuality in general, not an explicitly requirement affecting to marriage.

After all, if being a sodomite in the 18th century could lead to the death sentence, why would you need to need to explicitly ban them getting married?

Indeed, the notion that marriage has to be defined by the gender of who gets married is a very recent idea and itself just one of the many changes that have regularly affected the institution.

So the question is – would altering secular laws covering marriage really be so tumultuous a change, when put into context of the many changes that have taken place since the marriage emerged as an institution?

It would seem, at least from a historic perspective that such a change would be a fairly small modification in how secular law dealt with formalizing relationships between people. At least marriage today is supposed to be about two people loving each other – even that is a fairly recent development.

Then again, maybe gay marriage is a very ancient institution.


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  1. Al Shaw says:

    As someone who is strongly opposed to the government’s proposed changes to the defining of marriage in the UK, I cannot help but agree with much of your historical overview.

    With one notable exception: marriage, however, administered, has always been a heterosexual institution.

    This seems to be the elephant in the room that your article appears to have missed.

    • IanVisits says:

      “With one notable exception: marriage, however, administered, has always been a heterosexual institution.”

      I addressed that issue when I pointed out that it was heterosexual by default than design, simply because the alternative — homosexuality — often resulted in a death sentence.

      That homosexuality no longer results in a noose around the neck, it seems reasonable for the secular law to be equalised.

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