The History of “I Do’s”


There is a much quoted line in Latin poetry: Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube, which roughly translates to “Let others make war; you, fortunate Austria, marry”. This is the motto of one of Europe’s greatest dynasties: The House of Habsburg. [1]

Through a series of strategic marriage arrangements, the Habsburgs brought Burgundy, Spain, Bohemia, Hungary, and other territories into their inheritance. That’s most of Europe and all they had to say was “I do”.

[Just as a fun fact, the Habsburgs also gave rise to the Order of the Golden Fleece, see Brooks Brothers logo.]

Through most of Western civilization, marriage has been more a matter of money, power and survival than of delicate sentiments. Love was considered an absurdly flimsy reason for a match. [2]

For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage.

When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order.

In some cultures and times, true love was actually thought to be incompatible with marriage.

In ancient India, falling in love before marriage was seen as a disruptive, almost antisocial act. In some Chinese dialects, a term for love didn’t traditionally apply to feelings between husband and wife: it was used to describe an illicit, socially disapproved relationship. Both the ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans thought lovesickness was a type of insanity, a view that it was almost indecent to love a spouse too ardently.

The Greek philosopher Plato believed love was a wonderful emotion that led men to behave honorably. But the Greek philosopher was referring not to the love of women, “such as the meaner men feel,” but to the love of one man for another, which was the Greek ideal for the purest form of love. [3]

Once the Greeks became Christians, they got far less tolerant of same-sex relationships. But for the first thousand years of Christianity, the church didn’t like heterosexual love much better then it liked homosexual love. “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion”, said Paul. [4]

Right up until the 16th century, the Christian church taught that married love was only one step above unmarried fornication: The Virgin Mary was the most admired woman; the widow the next. The wife occupied the lowest rung of respectable womanhood.

The hierarchy of good things was different for the aristocracy, but for them, too, the pleasures of marriage were way down on the totem pole. The courtly love poems and songs that have so influenced our own sense of what romance is all about were originally based on the notion that adultery was the purest form of love. In 12th-century France, the author of the first treatise on courtly love, Andreas Capellanus, chaplain to Countess Marie of Troyes, wrote that “marriage is no excuse for not loving”. By this he meant that marriage was no excuse for not loving outside the marriage! [5]

In most cultures of the past, it was inconceivable that young people would choose their spouse on the basis of an unpredictable feeling of love. Marriage wasn’t about happiness of two individuals – it was a political and economic arrangement between two families. For the propertied classes, marriage was a way of consolidating wealth, merging resources, forging political alliances, and even concluding peace treaties.

Marriage was also an economic and political transaction in the lower classes. Farms or businesses could rarely be run by a single person, so prospective partners’ skills, resources, tools, and useful in-laws were more important than their attractiveness. For a farmer or artisan, getting married was like picking your most crucial employee, and it was a foolish man indeed who would choose her for her looks, or fire her because he didn’t love her anymore.

Even in societies that esteemed married love, couples were expected to keep it under strict control. In many cultures, public displays of love between husband and wife were considered unseemly. A Roman was expelled from the Senate because he had kissed his wife in front of his daughter. Plutarch conceded that the punishment was somewhat extreme but pointed out that everyone knew that it was “disgraceful” to kiss one’s wife in front of others. [6]

Some Greek and Roman philosophers even said that a man who loved his wife with “excessive” ardor was “an adulterer.” Many centuries later Catholic and Protestant theologians argued that husbands and wives who loved each other too much were committing the sin of idolatry. Theologians chided wives who used endearing nicknames for their husbands, because such familiarity on a wife’s part undermined the husband’s authority and the awe that his wife should feel for him. Although medieval Muslim thinkers were more approving of sexual passion between husband and wife than were Christian theologians, they also insisted that too much intimacy between husband and wife weakened a believer’s devotion to God. And, like their European counterparts, secular writers in the Islamic world believed that love thrived best outside marriage.

Other societies considered it good if love developed after marriage or thought love should be factored in along with the more serious considerations involved in choosing a mate. But even when past societies did welcome or encourage married love, they kept it on a short leash. Couples were not to put their feelings for each other above more important commitments, such as their ties to parents, siblings, cousins, neighbors, or God.

Many cultures still frown on placing love at the center of marriage. In Africa, the Fulbe people of northern Cameroon do not see love as a legitimate emotion, especially within marriage. One observer reports that in conversations with their neighbors, Fulbe women “vehemently deny emotional attachment to a husband.” In many peasant and working-class communities, too much love between husband and wife is seen as disruptive because it encourages the couple to withdraw from the wider web of dependence that makes the society work.

The Hindu tradition celebrates love and sexuality in marriage, but love and sexual attraction are not considered valid reasons for marriage. Even today, arranging a marriage in India is far too serious a business for the young and inexperienced. Instead, the parents make decisions on the basis of the families’ social position, reputation, and ability to get along. [7]

A woman in ancient China might bring one or more of her sisters to her husband’s home as backup wives. Eskimo couples often had cospousal arrangements, in which each partner had sexual relations with the other’s spouse. In Tibet and parts of India, Kashmir, and Nepal, a woman may be married to two or more brothers, all of whom share sexual access to her. [8]

Married love began to get a better reputation with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Protestants argued that the clergy should be allowed, even encouraged, to marry, and that Roman Catholics were wrong to call marriage a necessary evil or a second-best existence to celibacy. Rather, said Luther, marriage was “a glorious estate.”

But Protestants were just as suspicious of ardent love between husband and wife as were Roman Catholics, and they were even more hostile toward young people’s right to freely choose their own mate. Protestants insisted that a marriage wasn’t valid unless the parents agreed to it. Luther argued that parents didn’t have the right to force a child into a loveless match, but they were totally justified in forbidding a match, no matter how much the couple loved each other, or in annulling a match for which they hadn’t given permission.

It wasn’t until that a decisive change began to occur in popular attitudes toward love and marriage, spurred by two seismic social revolutions. First, the spread of wage labor made young people less dependent on their parents to get a start in life. A man didn’t have to delay marriage until he inherited land or took over a business from his father. A woman could earn her own dowry. This made it harder for parents to control their children’s courting.

Second, the freedoms afforded by the market economy had their parallel in new philosophical ideas. During the 18th-century Enlightenment and the age of revolution, influential thinkers across Europe began to champion individual rights and insist that the pursuit of happiness was a legitimate goal. They advocated marrying for love, rather than for wealth or status.

By the end of the 1700s, personal choice of partners had replaced arranged marriage as a social ideal, and individuals were encouraged to make that choice on the bases of love. For the first time in 5,000 years, marriage came to be seen as a private relationship between two individuals, rather than one link in a larger system of political and economic alliances. [9]

The white wedding dress makes its debut in 1840 England when Queen Victoria starts a trend by wearing virginal white, instead of the traditional multicolored wedding gowns of the past and a new “tradition” was instantly invented. The color white had nothing to do with “purity”, instead it was chosen because the Queen thought that wearing white would make her beautiful jewels more prominent. (The traditional color for purity is actually blue).

With the rise of the new empire, love and marriage start to take a more modern feel:

1920s U.S.: How Saturday night began—Dating is the new craze—in restaurants and cars, away from the oversight of family. Popular culture embraces sex, but critics fear that marriage is on the rocks.

1950s U.S.: Marriage is mandatory—Marriage becomes almost universal, and the nuclear family is triumphant: Four out of five people surveyed in 1957 believe that preferring to remain single is “sick,” “neurotic” or “immoral.”

1970s U.S.: All you need is love?—Self-sufficient women and changing social rules mean marriage is no longer obligatory. Quarreling couples split up rather than make do, and the divorce rate skyrockets.

Today: Marriage is the ultimate expression of love, leading gays and lesbians to seek the right to marry, but also encouraging couples to cohabit until they’re sure about their “soul mate.” Marriage rates fall—but the fantasy of the perfect wedding is ubiquitous.

As you can see, marriage has provided a variety of means for living throughout history. Overtime, it has evolved to serve different purposes for different generations.

There have been many attempts to define what marriage is and what it should be. The “Defense of Marriage Act of 1996” is only but one example in our very recent history. It defines marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife”. [10]

One would be wise to note that such definitions have varied from culture to culture and rarely stand the test of time. Not only has the function and origin of the union between individuals varied over time, but the relationship between the two individuals has also taken on many different forms.

Next time you see a nation, organization, group, or just plain-o-someone trying to define marriage, please make sure you give them little lesson in history first. A little education goes a long way.

Thanks for reading,

Much of the information on this article was gathered from research by Stephanie Coontz and her work on bringing the history of marriage to the mainstream public. I strongly recommend picking up one of her books.

  1. History of Austria:
  2. “Marriage, a History”, Psychology Today, May 01, 2005:
  3. Plato’s Symposium:
  4. I Corinthians 7:8-9, New International Version
  5. Medieval Sourcebook – Andreas Capellanus: The Art of Courtly Love, (btw. 1174-1186):
  6. Yalom, Marilyn; “A History of the Wife”, Harper Collins, 2001. Pg. 33.
  7. Arranging a Marriage in India, Serena Nanda, Phillip DeVita, ed., from “Stumbling Toward Truth: Anthropologists at Work”, Waveland Press, 2000.
  8. When Brothers Share a Wife, Melvyn C. Goldstein, Natural History, March 1987.
  9. Stephanie Coontz, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” from Psychotherapy Networker, May/June 2005, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 56-61, 74. Based on her book Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Viking Press.
  10. Defense of Marriage Act”. United States Government Printing Office. 1996-09-21

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