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How Marriage Has Changed Over the Centuries

Throughout history, marriage has been in a constant state of evolution. Back in the Stone Age, coupling was a way to organize and control sexual behavior, as well as a way to provide structure to child-rearing and the tasks of everyday life. The first recorded evidence of marriage contracts and ceremonies dates to 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. In these ancient times, women had virtually no say in who they married, and marriage was primarily a means of preserving power, forging alliances, acquiring land and producing heirs.

Polygamy dates back to around 930 B.C., when King Solomon is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines. In the 19th century, polygamy was practiced in China, Africa, and in America by Mormons. Even today, polygamy is still common across much of the Muslim world. Harvard historian Nancy Cott says, "Until two centuries ago, monogamous households were a tiny, tiny portion" of the world population, found in "just Western Europe and little settlements in North America."

For most of human history, love played no role in the sacrament of marriage. After all, love was too fragile of an emotion to base a serious decision like marriage on. So the idea of marriage as an institution, a monogamous and romantic union between one man and one woman, is a relatively recent development in history. In the 17th and 18th century, Enlightenment thinkers started advocating marrying for love instead of to gain wealth or status. They pioneered the idea that life was all about the pursuit of happiness.

The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century enabled dramatic growth of the middle class, allowing young men the ability to choose their own spouse and pay for their own weddings, regardless of what their parents thought. Around this time, people also started demanding the right to end unhappy marriages, and as such divorce became much more commonplace.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the women's rights movement changed the face of marriage again. Women started wanting to be seen as their husband's equal, rather than their property. In addition, the availability of effective contraception is seen as a huge transformation for marriages: couples could now choose how many children to have, or choose to have none at all. Marriage had become primarily a personal contract between two equals seeking love, stability, and happiness. This new Western philosophy of marriage opened the door for gays and lesbians to claim the right to be married as well.

Interestingly enough, same-sex unions are not a recent invention. Up until the 13th century, male bonding ceremonies were common across the Mediterranean. These rituals involved the reciting of marriage prayers, the joining of hands at the altar and a ceremonial kiss. Some historians believe these ceremonies were strictly a way to seal alliances and business deals, while others believe there was more meaning behind them.

Well, there you have it — your quick trip through history on the subject of marriage. What changes do you think marriage will undergo in the coming century?


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