|Babylonian Bridal Auction|
Sunday, December 6, 2015
History of the Wedding Contracts
While stories of star-struck lovers getting married make for good tales, historically marriage had little to do with love. In ancient times, marriage was more like a business deal. According to Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, "It was a way of getting in-laws, of making alliances and expanding the family labor force."
Marriage is an ancient institution with the first recorded evidence of marriage contracts and ceremonies dating back 4,000 years in Mesopotamia. It was an institution that primarily regulated property rights and political privileges and contracts reflected that. In that ancient world marriage primarily served to preserve power.
Kings and others of the ruling class married off daughters to build alliances, acquire land, and produce legitimate heirs. These deals were basically business mergers, the forging of military coalitions, or the finalizing of peace treaties. It was seen as a way to build strategic alliances between families. Those getting married often had no say "no" in the matter even in marriages between the lower class. In those cases, the purpose of marriage was to choose a marriage partner with a good work ethic, strength, skills and robust health – and to produce heirs. If they had adjoining plots of land that was a real bonus.
For most of history love played no part in marriage because it was considered too serious a matter to be based on such a frail emotion. In ancient Mesopotamia arranged marriages were the standard. Often the bride and groom had never even met. In some cases bridal auctions were held and women were sold to the highest bidder. Economically, marriage filled the role that banks and markets do today. It organized and transferred property and gave individuals access to new workers for the family business.
This is also where the dowry came into play. Until the late eighteenth century, the marriage dowry was the largest amount of cash or movable goods a man would acquire in his lifetime. As a result, men were often more interested in the dowry than the bride.
The "widow's third" was a part of the marriage contract that guaranteed European women that upon their husband's death she would be provided for.
I'm not saying love was never part of marriage in ancient times, it just wasn't the norm and was definitely not necessary. Until the late 18th century, parents had the right to arrange their children's marriages and could dissolve a marriage if it happened without their permission.