It is sobering to realize that if you were born 1200 years ago you might have had a guy like Charles the Bald deciding whom you would marry. He, after all, married off his own daughter to her stepson in the 9th Century. So, right there, you have to question his judgment – no offense to bald men everywhere.
Such were the wacky marital maneuverings of our ancestors.
Last week, I wrote about local gay marriage advocates and cheered advances made by them and their compatriots around the country. In response, one reader wrote what many others believe: that marriage is between a man and a woman, “always was, always will be.”
Not so fast. Take traditional marriage in biblical times. It wasn’t one man and one woman so much as one man and several women. Or – and here’s the ewww part -- one man and young girls. In some parts of the world, it still is.
A commenter on South Whitehall Patch called “Basingstoke” pointed out that key biblical figures had wives coming out of their ears. “King David had seven wives; Abraham had a wife and a concubine; Jacob had two wives and two concubines; Solomon had 300 wives and 600 concubines,” Basingstoke wrote.
Actually, my copy of the New King James Version of the Bible, 1 Kings 11:1-3, says Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines, but when you get into numbers that high a husband could easily lose track.
Even after monogamy in marriage became the norm in most places, sexual monogamy wasn’t expected. Until relatively recently, it was assumed that men would take mistresses after they wed.
Which brings me back to Charles the Bald. In her book “Marriage: a History: from Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage,” historian Stephanie Coontz uses the dirty dealings of Charles the Bald and the King Lothar II to show how marriage has changed over the centuries.
I’d tell you their story, but trying to detail all the marriages, divorces, concubines, children born out of wedlock and land grabs in that 9th Century saga might cause the server to crash. “The Young and the Restless” looks tame by comparison.
“Propertied families consolidated wealth, merged resources, forged political alliances and concluded peace treaties by strategically marrying off their sons and daughters,” Coontz writes.
More famously, Henry VIII plowed through six wives desperately trying to secure a male heir. Coontz writes: “A mental aid helps British schoolchildren keep track of the fate of Henry’s successive wives: Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”
The marriages of commoners contained less intrigue but they too were arranged primarily to join property and families.
“Certainly, people fell in love during those thousands of years, sometimes even with their own spouses,” Coontz says. “But marriage was not fundamentally about love. It was too vital an economic and political institution to be entered into solely on the basis of something as irrational as love.”
The idea of marrying for love began to take root in the 1700s but the power in marriages was still very lopsided. As late as the 1800s in this country, a married woman couldn’t own or inherit property separate from her husband or even sign a contract.
So marriage has evolved over the centuries. And although many people bemoan the current divorce rate, I’d argue that the vast majority of changes to the institution have been for the better. Legions of 12-year-old girls would agree with me.
My question remains: If marriage is generally good for society – and statistics would argue that it is – why on Earth would we want to stop two committed adults from attempting it?