Is There a Single “Definition” of Marriage?

One of the major arguments against gay marriage legislation is that we cannot “redefine” an institution that has existed in the same form, always and everywhere, for thousands of years. This argument against “redefining” rests on an assumption that there is in fact a single definition of marriage that is now, for the first time anywhere, under threat of redefinition.  There may be such a single definition in the minds of some bishops and social conservatives, but in the real world, no such single, universally applicable definition exists – and most certainly not the one so eagerly promoted by the opponents of marriage equality, as uniquely approved by God,

In previous posts, I have shown how the definition of marriage has constantly changed over the centuries. Now I want to begin  considering the geographic variations, across cultures. Social anthropologists have struggled for years to develop a single definition of marriage which is not specific to a particular time and place. To begin my exploration of marriage as it really is, beyond the narrow understanding of twentieth century Europe and North America, I offer the summary of these definitions at Wikipedia:

South African President Jacob Zuma, with three wives

Anthropologists have proposed several competing definitions of marriage so as to encompass the wide variety of marital practices observed across cultures.[1] In his book The History of Human Marriage (1921), Edvard Westermarck defined marriage as “a more or less durable connection between male and female lasting beyond the mere act of propagation till after the birth of the offspring.”[2] In The Future of Marriage in Western Civilization (1936), he rejected his earlier definition, instead provisionally defining marriage as “a relation of one or more men to one or more women that is recognized by custom or law”.[3]

The anthropological handbook Notes and Queries (1951) defined marriage as “a union between a man and a woman such that children born to the woman are the recognized legitimate offspring of both partners.”[4] In recognition of a practice by the Nuer of Sudan allowing women to act as a husband in certain circumstances,Kathleen Gough suggested modifying this to “a woman and one or more other persons.”[5]

Edmund Leach criticized Gough’s definition for being too restrictive in terms of recognized legitimate offspring and suggested that marriage be viewed in terms of the different types of rights it serves to establish. Leach expanded the definition and proposed that “Marriage is a relationship established between a woman and one or more other persons, which provides that a child born to the woman under circumstances not prohibited by the rules of the relationship, is accorded full birth-status rights common to normal members of his society or social stratum”[6] Leach argued that no one definition of marriage applied to all cultures. He offered a list of ten rights associated with marriage, including sexual monopoly and rights with respect to children, with specific rights differing across cultures.[7]

Duran Bell also criticized the legitimacy-based definition on the basis that some societies do not require marriage for legitimacy, arguing that in societies where illegitimacy means only that the mother is unmarried and has no other legal implications, a legitimacy-based definition of marriage is circular. He proposed defining marriage in terms of sexual access rights.[1]

Wikipedia, on “Definitions (i,e., of “marriage”)

  1. ab Bell, Duran (1997). “Defining Marriage and Legitimacy”.Current Anthropology38 (2): 237–254. Bell describes marriage as “a relationship between one or more men (male or female) in severalty to one or more women that provides those men with a demand-right of sexual access within a domestic group and identifies women who bear the obligation of yielding to the demands of those specific men.”
  2. ^ Westermarck, Edvard, (1921) The History of Human Marriage Volume 1, p. 71. ISBN 0-7661-4618-9.
  3. ^ Westermarck, Edvard, (1936) The Future of Marriage in Western Civilization, p. 3.
  4. ^Notes and Queries on Anthropology. Royal Anthropological Institute. 1951. pp. , p. 110.
  5. ^ Gough, E. Kathleen (1959). “The Nayars and the Definition of Marriage”. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland: 89:23–34. Nuer female-female marriage is done to keep property within a family that has no sons. It is not a form of lesbianism.
  6. ^ Gudeman, Stephen, (1976) Relationships, residence and the individual, p. 131.
  7. ^ Leach, Edmund (1955). “Polyandry, Inheritance and the Definition of Marriage”. Man.

So: early definitions began with the Western understanding that there are always two biological sexes, often including the need for legitimacy (not procreation) of children. With increasing recognition of the limitations of these early attempts, later definitions expanded to exclude any specification of gender, and emphasising rights to sexual access, not children (not procreation, and not legitimacy).

Some of the forms of marriage that have been recognized by anthropologists are polygyny (one man, several wives), polyandry (one woman, several husbands), and group marriage (several men, several women), and yes- same – sex marriage.

 There is a long history of recorded same-sex unions around the world.[74] It is believed that same-sex unions were celebrated in Ancient Greece and Rome,[74] some regions of China, such as Fujian, and at certain times in ancient European history.[1] A law in the Theodosian Code (C. Th. 9.7.3) issued in 342 CE imposed severe penalties or death on same-sex marriage in ancient Rome[2] but the exact intent of the law and its relation to social practice is unclear, as only a few examples of same-sex marriage in that culture exist.[3]

-Wikipedia, Same – sex marriage

  1. ^ Hinsch, Bret (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in ChinaReed Business Information, Inc.ISBN 0-520-07869-1.
  2. ^ ubi scelus est id, quod non proficit scire, ubi venus mutatur in alteram formam, ubi amor quaeritur nec videtur, iubemus insurgere leges, armari iura gladio ultore, ut exquisitis poenis subdantur infames, qui sunt vel qui futuri sunt rei.Ancientrome.ru “where that crime is found, which is unfit even to know, we command the law to arise armed with an avenging sword that the infamous men who are, or shall in future be guilty of it, may undergo the most severe punishments.” translation by Lord Blackstone,Commentaries on the Laws of England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1769, Vol. IV, pp. 215–216.
  3. ^ Kuefler, Mathew (2007). “The Marriage Revelution in Late Antiquity: The Theodosian Code and Later Roman Marriage Law”Journal of Family History 32 (4): 343–370.DOI:10.1177/0363199007304424.

We could add to that list the Maya of pre-colonial America, who believed that the custom of same – sex marriage had been introduced to them by the god Chin, a patron of homoerotic love; Mesopotamia, and (possibly) ancient Egypt. In more recent history, it was not only the Nuer of Sudan (referred to above), but numerous groups in all parts of Africa where women who were wealthy enough to afford the bride price, could marry wives and themselves take on the role of husbands. Elsewhere in Africa, some kings were accustomed to taking boy-wives. We should also note that notwithstanding the Theodosian prohibition on same – sex marriage, we know that these did in fact occur, and were recognized (why else would he need to prohibit them?). At least two Roman emperors married men, Nero (twice), and Elagabulus (or Heliogabulus)

It is not only the variety of forms that challenges the possibility of a single definition of marriage: another is the whole concept of marriage as a relationship formally recognized by church or state, or both. In earlier times, and in many societies, formal recognition is not required, it is enough that the relationship is recognized as marriage by the couple, and by their friends, family and community. This is sometimes known as common- law marriage – but then blurring begins, merging with cohabitation. If long – term cohabiting opposite – sex couples are often thought of as in common- law marriage, should not the same consideration apply to their same – sex counterparts?

In referring to “long – term” cohabitation, I found it necessary to introduce the qualifier, as so much of the common defence of marriage discourse also refers to “life long union” alongside the insistence on one man and one woman. But this too does not stand up to scrutiny. Quite apart from the obvious ubiquity of divorce, some cultures, ffor example in Shia Islam specifically provide for temporary marriages, which are automatically dissolved on completion of their contractual term.

In contrast to the existence of relationships recognized as marriage without formal status conferred by church or state, there are other important relationships that were recognized and solemnized by the church, but not described as marriage. These were the liturgical rites of church blessing for same – sex couples, known in the Eastern Orthodox Church as adelphopoesis, or “rite of making brothers”, and in the Western Church as making sworn brothers. As demonstrated by their blessing in church, these were much more significant than modern male friendships, and created formal, socially recognized kinship bonds between their families, just as marriage does.  Because they created these bonds of kinship, they were known as “weddings” – a word which was originally of broader significance than merely the modern solemnization of opposite – sex marriage. So same – sex marriage is a new introduction to English custom, but same – sex weddings are not.

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